Bellevue will be on the world stage next week for the Mens World Squash Championships featuring 112 players from 32 countries, the first time the competition has been in the United States.
Last week in Doha, at the Qatar Classic on the Professional Squash Association World Tour, the world’s No. 1 player and crowd favorite, Mohamed Elshorbagy of Egypt, lanced a backhand shot along the edge of the glass court that his opponent, Gregory Gaultier of France, futilely sprawled to reach, clinching the Egyptian’s victory three games to one.
The crowd in the darkened arena leapt to its feet and clapped rhythmically as music pulsed and lights flashed.
“It’s like being in an Egyptian nightclub!” enthused the British announcer on SquashTV.
2015 Mens World Squash Championships
When: Nov. 15-22
Where: Meydenbauer Center, 11100 N.E. Sixth St., Bellevue
Tickets available at:worldsquashchamps2015.com/tickets
Next week, the excitement shifts to Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center, where 112 squash players from 32 countries will compete for a share of $325,000 in prizes. It’s the first time in the event’s 39-year-history that the Mens World Squash Championship has been played in the United States.
“The world championship is the most prestigious title in squash, and to be taking the sport’s pinnacle event to an American audience for the first time is tremendously exciting for everyone involved,” said Alex Gough, CEO of the Professional Squash Association.
That it should be held in the Seattle area, and not New York or Boston where squash is more widely played at both the collegiate and professional levels, is a testament to the growing popularity of the sport locally and the increasingly international makeup of the Eastside, home to many local squash players.
It’s also a testament to the tenacity of the Khan family, three generations of squash champions and club pros who have nurtured players in the region for almost 40 years.
Yusuf Khan, a 10-time Indian champion, came to Seattle in 1968 as a tennis pro. He introduced the international game to the city and built some of the first glass-walled courts.
His son Azam became a pro at PRO Sports Club in Bellevue in 1991, growing that program from 10 players to more than 1,200 today. Yusef’s daughter Latasha is a seven-time U.S. women’s champion. Her sister Shabana was also a U.S. champion and is now organizing the world championship with her brother Murad. Yusef’s grandsons Salim, 16, and Sharif, 18, will play in the competition.
“Make no mistake. It’s their passion for the game that’s brought the international tournament here,” said Dick Knight, president of PRO Sports and a former University of Washington Husky Hall of Fame tennis player. He said the Khans bring to the region their love of the game, their expertise as world-class players and their joy in teaching the sport to others.
“The squash community loves to be around them. They’re second to none on the West Coast in player development,” Knight said.
Although promoters liken the world championship — which runs Nov. 15 to Nov. 22 — to the Super Bowl or World Series, ticket sales have been slow, with about half the seats still available. The prices, $100 to $250 a day for the first three rounds and up to $2,500 for the best seats for the entire event, may seem steep to casual fans or the somewhat curious who are unfamiliar with a sport that’s played by about 20 million people around the world.
“It’s an exciting sport that a lot of people play locally, but it’s still gaining a following,” said Sharon Linton, marketing director for Visit Bellevue, the city’s tourism organization.
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Meydenbauer Center reopened in September after a three-month, $12.5 million renovation that includes new lighting, new theater seats and upgraded technology, all of which will be on display for the championship. The tournament will be the center’s first-ever international sports competition.
“It looks fantastic. It feels like a world-class events space,” Linton said.
A free squash expo will also be at Meydenbauer every day during the weeklong competition, with booths that will include squash vendors, event merchandise and technology vendors. Action from the play inside the arena will be broadcast on monitors throughout the hall, Linton said.
Squash professionals liken the sport to gladiators in a glass cube, two players at the peak of their physical conditioning trying to best each other in technical skill and mental acuity.
“They’re in a box, playing one on one. It’s dark outside, bright inside. The guys have played each other so many times that the difference between them becomes a mental game,” said Richard Wade, director of national teams for US Squash.
He said one of the organization’s major goals is to expand access to the sport. More colleges outside the Ivy League are adding teams. More private clubs are opening courts to the public, Wade said. And in New York City, a nonprofit foundation is building vandalism-resistant glass courts for public parks.
Having the international tournament in the U.S. for the first time “fortifies the direction that squash is going” in the country, he said.
The sport is most widely played in Britain, India, Pakistan and Australia. The bulk of world champions have also come from those countries. The top-ranked American man, Christopher Gordon, is 58th in the world, though American women are doing somewhat better. Amanda Sobhy, 22, of New York is ranked 11th.
Other countries have already shown the way in developing new players and public enthusiasm for the game. John Nimick, an independent tournament organizer and member of the Professional Squash Association board of directors, said Egypt memorably staged a world championship in 1999. The country built an open-air amphitheater and televised the nighttime finals nationally against the backdrop of lighted pyramids.
“Squash just exploded in the country,” Nimick said, noting that today, Egyptian men and women each hold five of the top 10 spots in the world rankings.
The finals in Seattle, where squash is still largely limited to private clubs, could feature a replay of last year’s world championship where Egyptian Ramy Ashour pulled out a dramatic win in the fifth and final game against countryman Elshorbagy. Other favorites include England’s top player, Nick Matthew, a three-time world champion, and Gaultier, who’s made it to the finals four times, but has never won.
“There’s a tremendous amount of excitement that these very talented players are going to be here in the U.S.,” Nimick said. “Professional squash today is the best it’s ever been.”