Penned into a glass box, four see-through walls surrounding you and a live audience on three sides. To many people, that would be the stuff of nightmares. But for the world’s best squash players, it’s one of the crown jewels of the year.
Now into its 18th edition, the Canary Wharf Classic has grown from an ambitious idea into an institution of the sport’s calendar.
This year’s event at East Wintergarden features yet another star-studded roster of talent, got underway yesterday and is sold out throughout the week.
Squash Classic roots
“We started out when we were approached by a gym in Canary Wharf,” says event director Tim Garner.
“They were amazed by the number of people who came in and asked where the squash courts were.
“They hadn’t put any courts in, which they realised pretty quickly was an error.
“We were asked whether we could put a glass court into their basketball court but it wasn’t really feasible.
“Through that conversation we talked about putting the court outside of the gym and we were then introduced to the Canary Wharf Arts and Events department.
“They mentioned that there was a new building, the East Wintergarden, under construction.
“We donned the hard hats and boots and it was like ‘wow, what an incredible building’, it’s going to be absolutely perfect for squash.
“We hosted that event in 2004, it started as an exhibition event, and then it was upgraded to a Professional Squash Association (PSA) event a few years later. It’s gradually grown upward from there.”
The event sees the now familiar glass box dropped into the heart of the Docklands financial district.
Like a London bus wrapped in advertising materials, the glass is easy to see through one way but not the other.
“It’s quite weird when you first go into it, because it’s just strange. You can look through and see people,” Garner adds.
“The reality is that once you start playing as a player, you’re so focused on the ball that you don’t really notice people outside it.”
The glass box feels like an innovation of the sport, but the Canary Wharf Classic really has been ahead of the curve.
It was the first to trial three-game matches – the semi-finals and final are best of five – and the first to feature video referral, something that continues today.
That said, Garner believes the sport is ever-changing and can always improve.
“I would try and get away from some of the video reviews,” he said. “I feel that there’s too many stoppages now.
“We need to go to a situation where, like cricket, you get a limited number per match, as opposed to per game.
“I think players would be slightly more careful in terms of a use if they felt they had a finite number across the match.
“We want to get away from that and get back to the nuts and bolts of why they work and why they help our sport.”
This year’s tournament sees the world’s top players and major winners compete for a place in Friday’s final.
Crowds will be hoping for a spectacle that matches 2020, in which Mohamed Elshorbagy edged out fellow Egyptian Ali Farag to win his second Canary Wharf title.
“We were incredibly fortunate to get the 2020 edition completed,” Garner adds. “We were treated to a magic game between the world No1 and No2 in the world. It was almost like boxers going toe to toe, that was a pretty special match.”
This year is expected to be just as high-quality, with seven of the top 10 players in the world competing in the event.
England has produced 10 of the 18 winners, with James Willstrop and then Nick Matthew claiming multiple wins.
But, in recent years, Egypt has dominated.
“I mean, 2021 is a really exciting year. If you look at the top seeds, it’s very, very tough to pick a winner,” said director Garner.
“We’ve got all of the major winners from the last four months: Paul Coll picked up the British Open in the summer, Diego Elias won his first Platinum event last month, Ali Farag is the world No1 and Mostafa Asal won the US Open in October.
“It’s so tough to call in terms of who would win. Ali hasn’t won it and he likes to win everything. He’s the favourite, the No1 seed.
“In terms of a British Winner, Joel Makin from Wales has put in some very strong performances recently.”
The Classic is nearing its two decade anniversary, but Garner has plans for the event to continue into the future.
“Hopefully it will carry on long, long after I’ve gone. We want it to be a long term thing,” he said.
“The PSA World Tour are very supportive of the event and see it as one of the jewels in the crown on the tour.
“I’m hopeful it’ll be around for many, many years, and that people are talking about it.”