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Squash: My sport deserves place at top table, says Geoff Hunt

Scotland's Alan Clyne may have failed in his qualifying bid at the first of this year's events, but ahead of the PSA World Series which gets under way today, a legend of the sport has outlined why the incentive for modern squash players has never been greater.

The professional tour begins with the Tournament of Champions in New York but Geoff Hunt, the former world No.1 who was among the founders of the professional circuit, was in Edinburgh last week coaching Qatar's team at the Scottish Junior Championships and took time to explain to Herald Sport why he believes his sport is set to move to a new level.

The Australian has essentially been an interested spectator as, initially under Jahangir Khan who replaced Hunt as the world's best player in the eighties, the campaign for squash's involvement in the Olympic Games has built momentum in recent years, but he believes the case is compelling.

"I haven't been actively involved," said the four-time World Open and eight time British Open champion. "Jahangir was heavily involved for many years and now they've got more current professionals driving it. I think it's a must for squash. We certainly deserve to be there. It's one of the best sports in the world for many, many reasons. I call squash a pure sport. It's a contest, the referee has very little influence. It's about how you play and what you do and as a consequence it's about having the physical skill and mental capacity to play, so it's an ideal sport. It saddens me to think they haven't been successful to date.

"Everyone gets in on their own merit and they have different attributes. One of the things that has held squash back, perhaps, is the number of people who go to see the game and the publicity that's generated. I think there are a lot of anomalies in what goes on but I think a pure sport like squash thoroughly deserves its place."

While British squash has been in steady decline until recently, Hunt, who has worked closely down the years with Roger Flynn, the Australian who is head of performance at Scottish Squash, sees parallels between what they stand to gain if a place in the Olympics is awarded.

"Scotland would be the same as in Qatar, it will make a huge difference," he observed. "Should squash become an Olympic sport then the Olympic Council in Qatar would provide a lot more funds and help develop the teams and the incentive for the players to continue playing."

The wiry, silver-haired Hunt cut a relatively low-key figure at Heriot-Watt University last week considering the part he played in transforming the sport along with Jonah Barrington, his great rival of the sixties and seventies.

"I won my first British Open in 1969, the first time I played in it. When we came over with the Australian team the focus used to be on the amateur events before that. Professionals were considered second-class citizens. It's quite funny that," Hunt mused.

"Jonah changed the tradition. He was non-conformist in every respect. We were such strong rivals that the relationship on the squash court to say the least was pretty cool but ultimately we became good friends because you can't be competitors like that and not form a solid relationship. We both admired each other's ability and what we could do."

Together they were trailblazers for the professional sport but Hunt admits to delight at the way interest in squash has grown since their days.

"At the top level it's pretty competitive and the difference from when I was playing is that, then, the standard dropped off pretty quickly. You had a group of players who were reasonably professional and then the rest," he recalled. "There was an era after that in which it got elevated. When Jonah and I started there were only eight professionals. Over the years it developed and developed and the game is now very healthy in terms of the number of tournaments, the number of players trying to get in. There's a women's circuit now and the depth is there."

Clyne's defeat in straight games, 11-8, 11-5, 11-9, to England's Joe Lee when he had gone into the qualifying competition in New York as top seed, only reinforces that point.

However, with the rewards for doing so already substantial, if Hunt is right and the time has come for their sport, then Clyne has all the reason he could possibly need to shake off his disappointment quickly and redouble his efforts to make the breakthrough into an elite group that has Olympian heights within its reach.

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