By Kristen Carlson
The basics of gardening: You have some seeds. You plant them. You water them and give them the proper amount of sun. You watch them grow. You later enjoy the fruits of your labor.
For the past nine years, the Women’s International Squash Players Association (WISPA) has been planting the seeds of squash all over the world through it’s Promotional Tours. A concept borne from an idea of an anonymous benefactor in the United States, the WISPA Promotional Tour set out to “help develop squash in young squash countries,” as explained by WISPA Chief Executive Andrew Shelley. “The countries we have gone to do have National Squash Associations,” said Shelley. “They are responsible for generating media interest to spark overall interest in the sport. Our benefactor has provided flights for the players, and the local associations take care of bedding and food.”
Sounds simple enough, but the list of countries visited over the years is hardly mainstream. Beginning with the Czech Republic in 1999, the tour has covered Jamaica, El Salvador, Peru, Kenya, Thailand, Brunei, Sarawak, Russia, China, Nepal, Jordan, Turkey, and last year Estonia and Norway (which brought the players to the world’s northernmost court).
This year, WISPA planted a bit more squash in South America. The ninth annual WISPA Promotional Tour made four stops in South America in June: Two in Argentina and one in both Uruguay and Chile. The ambassadors this year were five-time world champ Sarah Fitz-Gerald (her sixth tour), current World Champion Nicol David, and World No. 3 Rachael Grinham.
Their first stop was in Buenos Aires at the Olimpia Cancilleria Club. While there, the women staged a number of interactive clinics with the Argentinean women’s national squad on the eve of the players’ participation in the South American Games.
“Our players not only had the chance to see some of the world’s best players in action,” said South American Squash Federation President Claudio Fontanazzi, “but they also learned from them in other ways too, by talking to them and being on court with them.”
The visit received a good deal of media coverage in Buenos Aires. At a press conference at the Olimpia Club, Argentina Squash Association President Ricardo Roude said, “We feel we owe you something for coming here. It will stimulate our younger players to improve their squash and help them follow the example of your great players. We are a third world country with third world budgets. But we have heart and hope. One day we will show the results of this visit.”
After their stop in Buenos Aires, the women headed to the Argentinean City of Ushuaia (Ooh-shwhy-uh) on Tierra Del Fuego, where they played on the most southerly court in the world—a fitting stop given last year’s visit by Fitz-Gerald and David to the northernmost court in Svalbard, Norway. The court is located in the exclusive Las Hayas hotel.
“The court in Ushuaia is an unusual court, in that the ceiling ranges between half a meter and a meter from the out-of-court line all the way down the court—so lobbing is out of the question,” said Grinham. “But I really enjoyed playing on it, and to have visited the nearest squash court to the South Pole is something special to add to my CV.” Added Fitz-Gerald, “The roof line certainly changes the game a little bit. We were laughing, deliberately hitting high drives that would hit the roof and stop.”
From the southernmost squash court the women continued on their journey to the smallest country in South America, Uruguay, where they visited the capital, Montevideo. Packed crowds at Club Carrasco watched an exhibition between Grinham and Fitz-Gerald, and then David and Jean Paul Bragard, the Uruguayan champion since 2000.
Of playing David, Bragard said, “She’s like a spider, getting to all corners of the court so fast. I had to play as hard as I could. This was one of my best squash experiences ever. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Uruguay’s first squash courts, at the British Schools of Montevideo Old Boys and Old Girls Club, were where the women had the chance to play in front of some of the few female players in the country. The first courts were originally part of the then Old Boys Club, but the two clubs recently merged and opened a new two-court complex in October.
Paula Greco teaches at the school, which has more than 1,000 students. Greco was introduced to squash while teaching history in England. She returned to Uruguay as the country’s only female player.
“Squash is not a very popular sport in Uruguay, and certainly not among women,” Greco said. “To have the opportunity to see the best female squash players in the world play in Montevideo has been absolutely fantastic. Hopefully this tour will encourage more Uruguayan girls to get onto the courts and have a go at such an amazing game. It won’t be easy to break with the tradition of seeing squash as a sport only for men, but I believe the WISPA tour has been the first step towards this direction.”
When asked about Greco, Fitz-Gerald said, “She travels to Buenos Aires to get a game, because she can’t get a game in Montevideo. We played against the top guys to give them the idea that women’s squash isn’t just hit and giggle like it is in some of these countries. It’s sad really. But hopefully we’ve opened their eyes a bit, not only to squash as a sport, but for women’s squash too.”
Chile was the final, and perhaps most enthusiastic, stop on the Tour. At the Go-Fitness and Spa Club in Santiago, youngsters and more experienced players flocked to clinics, exhibition matches and press conferences that had been arranged by the Chilean Squash Federation. A group of children from Concepcion—Chile’s second largest city, about 400 miles south of Santiago—made the six-hour journey to absorb as much as they could from the WISPA stars. The children ranged in age from seven to 17.
“We have built the largest junior group in Chile, so we couldn’t resist this incredible experience to come to Santiago and take part in this visit,” said team leader Andrea Salgado, a professor at the Estadio Espanol. “The kids have been talking of nothing else for the past few weeks. This is a unique opportunity to meet and learn from world-class players.”
The Chilean children never left a court empty. Whenever there was an open court, kids would jump on it, just wanting to play more.
“I’ve seen this kind of enthusiasm before,” said Fitz-Gerald. “But never in the short gap between games during a match. Their keenness for squash is quite remarkable. I really connected with those kids, and even though some didn’t speak much English, and my Spanish is virtually non-existent, squash just broke all the language barriers.”
At the end of the Tour, WISPA’s Andrew Shelley commented, “These have been new experiences for the WISPA group, and while Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have all been very different in character, there has been one constant everywhere—the sheer enthusiasm for squash, the vitality of the people, and the eagerness of the people to make the sport grow, has been so rewarding.”
While the fruits of WISPA’s nine years of labor continue to flourish, Shelley is already looking for a sponsor to carry on the annual tradition as the original benefactor has said this one was his last. “The important thing is squash is a family,” said Shelley. “And the bigger the community the better. So we’ll do what we can to keep the momentum moving forward.”