By James Zug
The 2017 Qatar Classic was one of the most special tournament in pro squash history.
This was not by accident. Since 1992, the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex, in the Al Dafna district of Doha, has hosted a major men’s squash tournament. It was called the Qatar International in the 1990s, and after the Qatar squash and tennis federations separated in 2001 it reappeared as the Qatar Classic. The Khalifa has also held the men’s World Championship four times—in 1998 (Jonathon Power won it), 2004 (Thierry Lincou), and 2012 and 2014 (Ramy Ashour)—and the women’s World Championship in 2002 (Sarah Fitz-Gerald).
A year ago, racquet sports administration was reorganized and the Qatar Tennis, Squash & Badminton Federation was born, with Nasser bin Ghanim Al Khelaifi as president. Al Khelaifi is a former Davis Cup tennis player and currently the chair and CEO of Paris St.-Germain FC. For many at the tournament, there was a thrill in shaking the hand that shakes the hand of Neymar.
With the new organization, the Qatar Classic was put under the direction of the same people that run Qatar’s pro tennis tournaments. They actually run two dozen tennis events each year, but the famous ones are the hardcourt Qatar ExxonMobil, the men’s event held in early January and the Qatar Total Open, the women’s event held in mid-February. These are major pro events, with seven-figure prize money and all the trappings of the ATP and WTA tours. The center court stadium at Khalifa, with its trademark light purple court, seats 7,000 and is surrounded by twenty-three lighted courts. (While we were there, Khalifa was hosting an Asian U14 tennis tournament, so the courts were filled in the evening.) Unlike most other major tournaments, there was no food or beverage inside the squash complex for fans; food stalls were outside in the shadows of the tennis stadium.
Nearly everything about the 2017 Qatar Classic reflected the experience of the tennis promotors. It was the most expensively produced squash tournament in history. Hundreds of two-story high billboards, posters, signage and banners went up around the city: avenues of players’ faces writ large.
Every player in the draw got their own hotel room (the only other tournament that doesn’t make two players share a room is the World Series Finals in Dubai); the top four seeds got their own suite. All of this was at the sumptuous Four Seasons Hotel Doha. (The rest of us, including qualifiers, luxuriated at our own five-star hotel, the Shangri-La.) At Khalifa, players had their own gym to train in, courts to hit in and a well-appointed player’s lounge to relax in. Drivers in top-of-the-line BMW sedans ferried the players from the hotel to the Khalifa and back, as well as to complimentary activities in and around Doha. And the Khalifa had a laundry service—twelve hours after drop-off and a player’s socks or shirts were clean and folded.
The tournament flew in the regular announcer for their pro tennis events, Boston’s Andy Taylor. Since 2002 he has also been the voice of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at Flushing Meadows. Taylor had never announced a squash tournament, so he came to the 2017 U.S. Open presented by Macquarie Investment Management in Philadelphia in October to learn about the game and by the time the Qatar Classic began he acted like a seasoned pro. The best part of Taylor’s job was introducing each player as they strolled into a darkened arena along a special, under-lit court-side walkway, with music pumping.
There are eleven squash courts at Khalifa. One was commandeered as the media room. Seven Qatari newspapers had reporters and photographers on site (four Arabic, three English-language); four local television stations and two radio stations were there, as well as BeIN Sports, the Qatari-based international sports channel. Overseas reporters came from a half-dozen countries including Australia, Brazil and Germany. Media attention was so intense that every ordinary person in Doha that I met—baristas, bartenders, cashiers, taxi drivers, even the immigration officers at the airport—were following the tournament.
Another court at Khalifa was used for press conferences. It was a delight to have formal press conferences with the players, a rarity for squash. For the Egyptian players, much of the question and answer sessions were in Arabic. Then one of the English-speaking members of the press would ask a question and the player would more or less have to repeat the same answer in English. With Greg Gaultier, a third interview was done in French. Each of the three programs (one for the event, one for the players and a daily one) were also half in Arabic and half in English.
“We wanted to copy the tennis tournaments in terms of making this event the best it could be,” said Tareq Darwish Zainal, the tournament director. “It is about excellence off court matching the excellence on court.”
The showcourt at Khalifa is a permanent four-wall glass court in a stadium setting. It used to be famously cold there, but this year, the air-conditioning was not nearly as Arctic and sometimes even the SquashTV commentators were wearing shorts. The showcourt seats about five hundred. Ordinary fans were shunted to the side galleries, as seats behind the back wall were reserved for VIPs. Tickets were free until the semis (20 Qatari riyals—about $5) and finals (30 riyals or $8). Thus, while the SquashTV cameras might have shown empty seats in the VIP section in the early rounds, the side galleries were usually jammed.
Many of the fans were kids. Qatar, I was told, was a family-focused society, but I was still shocked to see so many children at a pro tournament. Kids of all ages—infants, toddlers, teenagers—waved foam No. 1 fingers, cheered, held up signs and slapped thunder stix. After most matches, Andy Taylor invited a junior on court to play a couple of points with the winner.
The crowds were full of Qataris and members of the Arab diaspora who cheered loudest for their brethren from Egypt. A particular fan favorite was Tarek Momen, who reached his first World Series final. The crowds liked him because of his long, considerate answers in Arabic on court and at press conferences and because of a unique connection: his younger sister Farah Momen, who has rejoined the PSA tour and ranked world No. 121, is based in nearby Dubai.
At the formal entrance to the squash facility at Khalifa is a giant squash racquet. In 2012 the Guinness Book of World Records certified that it was the largest ever. It weighs 158 pounds. It is twenty-two feet long. It is made of aluminum, metal, styrofoam and fiberglass. It is burgundy and white (the colors of the Qatari flag). It has strings and a grip.
It is a bit like the attitude at the Qatar Classic: go big or go home.