Who Rules Squash?
The Squash Player magazine published July/August 2008
In October, at the AGM of the World Squash Federation,
the issue of a change in the scoring system will be decided. Could a change
bring benefits or will it undermine the very nature of the sport?
The Squash Player Editor Ian McKenzie reviews the arguments and urges caution.
A stream of arguments come out in support
of a change in the
scoring system: it is necessary for the Olympics, it is better for
spectators, TV stations like it, it is more exciting, newcomers do not
understand traditional scoring, we need a unified scoring system ... How do
these arguments stand up to scrutiny?
The scoring system used by most of the
sport (except the professionals), ‘standard scoring’ (sometimes called
‘traditional scoring’), has been in place for 82 years. The first Amateur
Championship (the pre-eminent competition for many years), in 1922, used
hand-in, hand-out scoring to 15, best of three, and T. O. Jameson beat J. K.
Tomkinson 17-15, 12-15, 15-0. Four years later the scoring system was
changed to hand-in, hand-out to 9, best of five, and Tomkinson came into his
own, winning his first title by beating the defending champion Cazlet 9-5,
9-7, 7-9, 9-6 in the final.
This remained the game’s scoring system,
outside the USA, until 1989, when the men’s International Squash
Professionals’ Association moved to point-a-rally (PAR) to 15 (sometimes
called American scoring) for its top events.
In 1993 ISPA merged with the US men’s
hardball World Professional Squash Association which had used PAR to 15. The
new body became the PSA.
In 2004 the PSA started the move to PAR to
11. Men’s matches have since been significantly shorter, moving from about
an hour on average to around 45 minutes.
This year the European Squash Federation
has moved to PAR to 11 scoring for events under its jurisdiction for a
one-year trial period; the Women’s International Squash Players’ Association
has moved to PAR to 11 scoring for its events; and England Squash has moved
to PAR to 11 for junior events to co-ordinate playing conditions for juniors
following the European initiative.
The advantage of the move to PAR to
15 was that the score moved along regularly, the disadvantage that play
could become tedious when one player fell behind and there was little
likelihood of a comeback.
With PAR to 11 the men’s game has become
more intense, with more short shots played as the ability of players to
retrieve when out of position is made easier by the shorter match times. It
is new and superficially more appealing, but it is less tactical, players
‘throw’ games regularly and frequently give up before the end – and so do
In England two major events have not been
scheduled since the changes and the British Open was half full, and the US
Open is not scheduled yet this year.
Moreover, issues such as the men’s
professional game’s dependence on the Middle East and the lack of
significant activity in major squash playing countries such as Germany and
Australia remain unresolved. Changing the scoring system, it seems, is no
panacea for the professional game, let alone for the rest of the sport.
The change has been a difficult decision
for WISPA. Women’s matches will be considerably shorter. The decision to
change was explained to The Squash Player as an ‘on balance’ decision and
not one meant to set a precedent for the rest of the sport. WISPA has called
the scoring method ‘pro scoring’, which seems sensible.
MAIN INFLUENCES BEHIND THE
Two main influences can be seen to be
behind the proposed changes: the ‘Squash in the Olympics’ campaign and the
desire for ‘unification’ following the PSA decision to move to PAR to 11
The Olympic Argument
Squash misses out on many things by not
being in the Olympics: publicity and promotion, funding, and the state
support it would receive in many countries. Will changing the sport’s
standard scoring system to PAR help?
There is no evidence that it will. There
is no direct link. Squash authorities have had discussions and meetings with
IOC officials and the anomaly of different scoring systems has been brought
up and discussed. WISPA’s move to PAR removes any anomaly between the men’s
and women’s games at the top (i.e. Olympic) level, so any potential problem
there has now been solved.
The key points are that it is not a
condition of squash joining the Olympic Games that the same scoring system
be used throughout the sport, and that at no time has there been opposition
from the IOC to the ‘complexity’ of traditional scoring.
Those uneasy with this last fact need only
to consider the position of tennis – the highest profile of the racket
sports. Except for the adoption of the tie-breaker in the 1970s, the game’s
scoring system has remained largely unchanged since the 1890s. If you win
the first rally of a game, you are awarded 15 points, the next earns you
another 15 but a third point only ten; if both players have 40 points, there
is a call of ‘deuce’, which means ‘two’, and the next point winner is said
to have the ‘advantage’. There may be any number of ‘advantages’ before a
game is won. There are tie-breaks to seven (except that one player must be
two points ahead) in all sets except the last, where at Wimbledon there is
no tie-break. Women play the best of three sets, whereas the men play best
of five ... Does the public not understand all this? Is there a clamour for
uniformity? Does the scoring system cause a problem at the Olympics? No, on
The Unification Argument
The call for a unified scoring system is
superficially appealing but it presumes that the ‘needs’ of players and
spectators are the same at all levels – from Olympics to club ladder. Where
is the evidence to show that this is the case and that it would be to the
benefit of the rest of the sport to move to PAR to 11?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN OTHER SPORTS?
Volleyball and badminton have been cited
as examples of sports that have moved from hand-in, hand-out scoring to PAR
– in 1989 and 2005 respectively. What has been their experience?
It may be instructive to quote one of the
top coaches on the US collegiate volleyball scene: “I am and will be forever
disappointed in the change to rally scoring [PAR] for the two basic reasons
that comebacks are statistically eliminated and every mistake is penalized.
I accept the change in men’s volleyball because of the overt physicality of
the game (match time and player health). I do not support the change for
women’s volleyball – it has made no discernible positive impact upon the
sport, but rather made us look like a profession willing to desperately grab
for any shiny new hope.” (www.collegevolleyballcoach.com)
In relation to the recent Olympic Games in
Beijing, it should be noted that, ‘exciting’ as volleyball’s scoring system
may have been, the organisers had to bus in spectators to fill the stadia
for the cameras.
Badminton moved from hand-in, hand-out to
15 to PAR to 21. The 2004 Olympic men’s champion Taufik Hidayat predicted
that the changes would make the sport, "monotonous", and much criticism has
since been levelled at the change, especially the poor chance of staging a
comeback when falling behind. The problem for badminton is that the
authorities have not left themselves an option to change the system again.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH SHOW?
The WSF has conducted an opinion poll on
the subject of a change of scoring system and some analysis of the new
The results of the poll showed no
consensus and raised the issue of wording bias. If participants are asked if
they think something ‘will help grow our sport,’ as they were in connection
with the introduction of a uniform scoring system, they might be expected to
respond in the affirmative. If they had been asked: ‘Do you think the rest
of the sport should be compelled to change to the scoring system the
professionals use?’ they may well have said No. Perhaps we should therefore
not read too much into these results.
The WSF’s (limited) analysis showed that
matches were 30% shorter and, predictably, that players were less tired as a
result. What did this reveal about the effects of the scoring change on
tactics or on spectator satisfaction? Nothing. It did not even answer the
important question: ‘Are there more injuries in this more intensive form of
squash?’ The planned measurements of stress levels, exertion levels and
related recovery times was postponed – because the players selected to take
part were injured!
WILL THERE BE MORE DISPUTES?
With shorter, more intense matches, harder
hitting and more balls through the middle, there can be expected to be more
stoppages. Every point being more crucial in PAR to 11 and the implications
of falling behind being so much more severe, there can be expected to be
many more contentious and disputed decisions. Research by The Squash Player
has shown that at Men’s World Open level there is now a stoppage every two
An abiding impression of squash left with
IOC officials following their visit to the 2002 Commonwealth Games in
Manchester was the inappropriately contentious nature of the sport, the
number of disputes and the disrespect shown by players towards officials.
Do we want contentiousness to become an
intrinsic part of our game, at every level?
We have asked many officials their views.
There seems to be a general advocacy of the changes, although hardly any
make reference to the players. A number of the arguments we have mentioned
are put forward – Olympics (though there is confusion over the IOC’s
requirements), TV, ‘excitement’, spectator comprehension – but when pressed
on any of these points, officials tend to move on to another point or
another sport, badminton or volleyball ... And then there is a sort of
confession: “We agree with your points but it is going through anyway.”
One player has written to us to state: “If
I fall way behind I want the chance to use all my competitive instincts, my
sporting intelligence and my fitness to turn that situation around. My fear
is that the custodians of our sport will change the rules to take that
opportunity away from me. It will diminish the sport for me and for those
that think this ingredient is a fundamental part of our great competitive
Not only will the changes bring greater
contentiousness to squash, but they will introduce a new aspect to the game:
the ‘point of no return’, where players will decide not how they will go
about making a comeback but when they will give up. Will this give squash
The key question to be asked on scoring
really should be: what is the best system for players – not for the few
hundred professional players but for the rest of the game’s 15 million
If we go back to first principles we have
in our game of squash a rebound ball sport which requires skill, agility and
tactical acumen – and in which players with different styles, abilities and
fitness levels can compete successfully and enjoyably. It is a sport in
which one of the basic tenets is that ‘play must be continuous’ because it
is a fitness (or endurance) sport. Players compete not only to outhit and
outwit their opponents, but also wear them down physically and mentally and
take advantage of their weaknesses. It is a physical and mental battle in
which the character of the performer is exposed: it requires great
concentration, confidence and the ability to overcome a range of negative
mental factors such as anxiety, frustration and the urge to give up. It is a
game in which you are rewarded for fighting right to the end, in which a
comeback is always on the cards and it is not over until the opponent has
won that final point.
A change in the scoring system risks
undermining the game’s fundamental, long-standing and well balanced
principles and a decision to implement such a change should not be made
lightly or on account of half-baked arguments that could well turn out to be
What may be appropriate at a professional
level (where very high levels of fitness, hard hitting and a very hot ball
that keeps rebounding sometimes produced excessively long matches with
standard scoring) may not necessarily be assumed to be advantageous or even
applicable to the rest of the sport.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
Rightly or wrongly, the professional
associations have moved to a scoring system they believe is in their
interest. Whether the arguments on TV, spectators and excitement are
convincing is largely irrelevant. The deed is done. The professional level
of the game is unified. The WSF should now confirm standard scoring as the
accepted norm and allow PAR to 11 as a variation. (At the moment only PAR to
15 and to 9 are officially sanctioned and, it should be noted, with
‘setting’ not ‘win by two’.) Let players, associations and groups then
decide from their experience what scoring system is best for them and what
they want to use. If PAR to 11 is imposed as standard scoring, there is no
way back, and the experience of it at all competitive levels is meagre.
The European Squash Federation has (in
contravention of the sport’s established procedures) moved to PAR, claiming
it is a 12-month experiment but in the process starting a chain reaction. It
must be required to report detailed results in 12 months’ time.
There is no consensus for a change in the
sport’s scoring system and no general call for the WSF to impose a change on
all players. The arguments for change are confused and unconvincing. The
arguments for a unified scoring system are unsound. What those officials
pushing for change do not realise is that they will not just be changing a
scoring system; they will be changing the way the sport is played, changing
its very nature.
Perhaps in future a consensus will
develop. It does not exist now.