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Money makes the squash & badminton world go round

February 2008
Players who perform well attract sponsors and more participants to a sport. But in order to do well, players need international recognition. South African squash and badminton players are slowly starting to gain that international recognition

Like many smaller sports, the fortunes of squash and badminton in SA is closely linked to the availability of resources. That, in turn, depends on how much investment support the sports can attract.

It is a bit of a Catch 22 situation.

Talented local squash and badminton players will only be able to prove themselves against the rest of the world if they compete internationally. In order to do that, they need funds. But, once they prove themselves internationally, sponsorship investment is likely to follow, that will not only help grow the sport, but also enable more players to compete on the international circuit. Who will attract even more sponsorship, which will enable the sport to send more players overseas...

Therefore, any funds spent on developing players and improving their world rankings can be seen as an investment in the future of the sports.

Dunslaz Distributorship, supplier of Dunlop squash equipment, has made this kind of investment in players in the form of performance bonuses as well as sponsorship and support of the SA Squash Association, who has the responsibility of attracting sufficient sponsors to finance SA players abroad.

By sponsoring Richard Castle, the coach of the SA national team "we yet again emphasise that Dunlop is serious about the game and that we, togerther with Richard, will drive the game as hard as we can and develop players who will , and can, perform internationally," says Steve Gallienne. "We are working closely with the international head office to push top performing SA squash players to international heights."

While European players can stay home and travel relatively short distances to compete in international events, SA squash and badminton players have to relocate if they want to join the circuit. The cost of travelling, accommodation, food, joining fees and international coaching is prohibitively expensive.

Yet, several SA players have made the leap. According to Squash SA "in 2007 there were more SA players on the international squash circuit than during the previous decade".

And this is starting to pay off in terms of improved world rankings.

The undisputed star is Tenille Swartz (see below), but other SA squash players are also starting to come to the fore.

Jesse Engelbrecht, who was the number one South African in the world Team Championships in India, is ranked #75 in the world. Stephen Coppinger is ranked #99 on the men’s circuit, after he jumped from # 185 to #87 at the end of 2007.

Capetonian Clinton Leeuw, who has been playing and coaching squash in Germany since 2004, has also dramatically improved his world rankings. He climbed from #302 in the WISPA rating in August 2006, to #140 in April 2007 and #114 in December 2007.

Leeuw spends half of the year in SA, playing the local circuit, where he is currently ranked #2 in the Western Province and #4 in SA. He makes sure that he meets his local commitments as he wishes to remain eligible to be selected to represent SA.

As players gain experience and confidence by playing in international tournaments, their rankings improve. In 2006 the SA women’s squash team was ranked #12 in the world, but they finished 6th at the Women’s World Team event, having beaten Australia. The SA men’s squash team was ranked 12th and finished 11th.

SA therefore has the potential players, and hopefully with more home tournaments on the horizon, local players will get an opportunity to gain valuable experience — but the costs of hosting a tournament is also high.

Boost for badminton

Interest in badminton is sure to peak during the Olympics as it seems fairly certain that the Dednam brothers, Chris and Roelof, would represent SA in Beijing. Currently #59 in the world for doubles, this ranking would allow the siblings to qualify — and there are still a few tournaments left to improve their rankings before the May 1st Olympic qualifying deadline.

This high ranking is to a large extent thanks to the scholarship that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded him last year, says SA champ, Chris Dednam. This enabled him to gain valuable international experience as a singles player, and with his brother, to gain sufficient doubles international ranking points to qualify.

Badminton is a relatively small sport in SA, and a lack of funds for international participation is therefore always a problem, although they are sponsored by the major badminton supplier, Yonex.

"You need to participate in a minumum of ten international tournaments in order to improve your ranking," says Dednam, whose whole family is concerned with the growth of SA badminton — his father is a Free State and national administrator.

There are currently six SA players on the international circuit. Apart from the Dednam brothers, SASCOC grants enable Michelle Edwards and Chantelle Botts (doubles gold winners at the All African Games), Wiehan Viljoen, and Dorian James to participate internationally.

Previously, SA badminton players would only travel to international tournaments in the year of a major event like the Olympics, but the IOC scholarship made it possible to gain more exposure over a longer period, says Dednam.

Apart from gaining ranking points, this helps them to get to know their international opponents, which helps them to achieve better results.

Growing squash & badminton at grassroots

While the achievements of SA players on the international circuit will help to lift the profile of sports like squash and badminton, sales of rackets and shoes will only grow if the sports could be grown at grassroots.

It is obvious that if more people in smaller communities and at school start playing the sports, more products will be sold. It is less obvious how to attract them to the courts.

The development of sports like badminton in smaller towns is very dependent on the availability of decent facilities and the drive of the organisers, says Andrew Wentzel of W.E.T. Sports, distributors of RoxPro rackets.

"We try to supply decent quality rackets to our retailers so that they are able to attract new players by offering a good racket at an affordable price."

W.E.T. Sports does not sponsor individual players, but believe that by offering a competitive intermediate level product, they are able to help grow the sport. "We believe that the development of facilities would allow more players to enjoy the sport and for talent to be unearthed," says Wentzel.

In SA Dunlop sponsors ten of the top events on the calendar, which is currently governed by Squash SA, "but I am sure that if the organisers could choose a preferred ball for their events, Dunlop would be at the one," says supplier Steve Gallienne.

Squash footwear brand Hi-tec has been sponsoring a mixed team tournament at Parkview squash club for the past five years. The month-long tournament that is played from end October to end November attracts squash players from all over Gauteng. Players receive prizes and playing shirts with the Hi-Tec logo, creating a lot of brand awareness. They also sponsor the SA Schools Squash Association Tournament at the Parkview squash club, in which the six best juniors per province compete against each other.

"Hi-Tec’s involvement at a schools level is very important to us," says marketing manager Lauren Ploos, "as we are reaching out to these youngsters at an early age.

"Hi-Tec also sponsors local squash players, as this gives us the opportunity to get involved with squash at a grassroots level."

Apart from about ten Gauteng league players, Hi-Tec also works closely with former SA national champion Craig Van Der Wath who is still a force to be reckoned as a doubles partner for young Clinton Leeuw and as a Masters player.

International fame and sponsor for Tenielle

Free Stater Tenille Swartz, became the first SA squash player to secure a major international sponsorship with racket brand Prince.

This four times winner of the S.A Championships, is now ranked #30 in the world and was a nominee for the WISPA (women’s international professional squash association) most improved player award. She has made a number of excursions to Hong Kong, Qatar, England, Iceland and Egypt to gain valuable ranking points.

Her improved international standing has earned her the sponsorship from Prince and the opportunity to play with their sought after O3 Tour rackets. She’ll play her first tournament with this racket at the Alexandria Sporting Club Open in Egypt in August.

Swart first came to international attention when she made her debut for SA in the 2004 Women’s World Team Championships in Amsterdam, aged 17. She won three matches and the Player of the Championships award.

She won her first professional title in November 2006 in only her second appearance on the WISPA Tour, namely the Meersquash Open in the Netherlands — which she entered as a qualifier.

In May last year, she claimed her third successive SA national title to confirm her status as one of the brightest prospects the country has produced.

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