By Will Carlin
Here is a secret about referees who climb the officiating ladder: almost all of them got into refereeing because they wanted the best seat in the house. They love watching squash. In many ways, they are the biggest fans of the game that we have.
So when a group of top referees say that something is wrong with the game, we all should sit up and take notice. Recently, I was lucky enough to be included on an email chain among four of the highest rated referees in the US: Hunt Richardson, Maj Madan, Andrew Strasfogel, and Malcolm Jensen.
The instigating factor was the Women’s World Junior Championships that took place recently at Harvard in Massachusetts. Specifically, it was a post by Ted Gross on DailySquashReport.com that said:
“Through the semifinal round of the 2011 Boston World Women’s Junior Individuals, not one match has lasted an hour. In fact, only 4 out of 62 total maindraw matches lasted longer than 45 minutes. And astonishingly, of the four quarterfinal and two semifinal matches, which ostensibly feature the showcase match-ups of the tournament, only one match lasted longer than a half hour!”
This started an intense discussion among the four. Jensen led off by saying that because of the new scoring, there is much less emphasis on fitness: “That may well fit our society’s current ways, but not, I think, our game or its long-term health.”
Since the beginning of squash there were two primary scoring systems, one for American hardball and one for international softball. Hardball was played to 15 points with a point being scored for one of the players at the end of each rally (now known as “Point A Rally” or PAR); in softball, games were played to nine, and if the receiver won the rally, the serve changed hands (“hand out”) but the score remained the same, whereas if the server won the rally, the server both kept the serve (“hand in”) and gained a point. This scoring system became known as HIHO (“Hand-In, Hand-Out”).
In the early 1980s, Jahangir Khan brought to the game supreme racquet skill combined with astounding fitness. Pro matches were long, and the game reached new heights of international popularity.
When Jahangir decided to take on hardball, his success and worldwide popularity introduced the rest of the world to PAR 15 scoring. Over the course of a few years, the PSA tried a number of scoring changes, including PAR 15 and, later, PAR 11.
The top men players liked PAR 11 because it seemed to make the extraordinarily long matches much less frequent, and tournament promoters liked it because they more easily could predict match and session length.
But there was a problem: the women pros and almost all amateurs still were using HIHO 9, and there sometimes was confusion when men and women played in the same event or when amateurs went to watch the pros. Concurrent with this was the (mistaken) belief that the Olympics and television would be more apt to consider squash if it were “easier to understand.”
In 2008, the World Squash Federation decided to act: they made PAR 11 the standard scoring system worldwide. Richardson points out that though this is true, the WSF did not rule out other scoring systems: “PAR 15 and HIHO are still valid systems in WSF and US Squash.”
Valid, perhaps, but with the pros playing PAR 11 and the WSF giving its imprimatur, very few play the other systems, and at virtually every level other than the PSA (and, perhaps, top amateur men) the scoring doesn’t work well. Even the top women pros have crazily short matches more often than not.
“In the US-Egypt world girls team finals, only one match lasted more than 40 minutes. Something is seriously wrong with this picture,” wrote Strasfogel.
In the early 90s, squash had been found to be the toughest cardiovascular sport played with a ball, with water polo and soccer in the second and third positions. The referees think that if that study were done today, the results would be drastically different.
“It’s destroyed the fitness element and, more importantly, the cerebral magic of the…game,” says Madan.
This change concerns many. Fitness has long been part of the squash brand. The famous Forbes Magazine ranking of squash as “the healthiest sport” was done before the change; with cardiovascular and muscular endurance being two of the critical measures, it likely would not win that ranking right now.
“Squash players enjoy playing the game, and prior to the introduction of PAR 11, seemed in no hurry to be rid of the fitness demands,” says Jensen. “PAR 11 for high school matches makes absolutely no sense. I’d be surprised if there isn’t a group of college players who feel PAR 11 is for wimps. Maybe, if that is still true, there will soon be so few college players who desire and maintain real fitness…that there will be none left who know they would prefer HIHO 9.”
So what is there to do?
It is important to realize that as the PSA pros go, others will follow. So, if the PSA were to have one tournament that used either PAR 15 or HIHO 9, it would signal that those scoring systems still have validity. If one of the major tournaments branded itself as the 9-point scoring tournament, it almost certainly would dramatically increase ticket sales, internet traffic and press coverage.
The best option for this would, of course, be the British Open, but the US Open has been looking for an identity for a long time, and this could seal the deal. After that, it will take people shaking things up to bring the appropriate scoring system to the appropriate groups.
One thing is for sure: the referees are in unison that someone should do something, and in squash, the referees’ decision is final. Get to it.