David, the world number one and reigning world champion from Malaysia, was joined by Australians Rachael Grinham and Sarah Fitz-Gerald, the current world No3 and record five-times world champion, respectively, on the ninth annual promotional expedition organised by the Women's International Squash Players' Association.
The tour to Argentina, Uruguay and Chile is the latest initiative in WISPA’s continuing drive to promote women's squash around the world.
A comprehensive programme, including clinics with youngsters, exhibition matches and press conferences, had been arranged by hosts the Chilean Squash Federation.
A hoard of enthusiasts – mostly children – greeted the WISPA party on arrival at the Go-Fitness & Spa club, an impressive multi-sport facility over seven floors which houses three glass-backed squash courts and four racquetball courts.
Whilst youngsters provided the distinctive flavour of the Santiago visit, other more experienced players were also eager to take advantage of the WISPA stars’ presence – including former tennis player Loreto Barriga, a ten-times Chile women’s national squash champion who also boasts South American titles in both squash and racquetball; reigning women’s national champion Ana Marie Pinto; current world No4 racquetball player Angela Grisar; and Chilean hero Jaime Pinto, a long-time national champion who now coaches both squash and tennis at the club founded by his famous father, Davis Cup tennis player Jaime Pinto (snr).
Such was the interest generated by the WISPA visit that a large group of youngsters from Concepcion – Chile’s second largest city, some 600km south of Santiago – joined the action at Go-Fitness. Aged between 7 and 17, the group braved the six-hour journey to soak up the experience of meeting and learning from the world squash stars.
“We have built the largest junior group in Chile, so we couldn’t resist this incredible experience to come to Santiago and take part in this visit,” said team leader Andrea Salgado, the Profesora Educacion Fisica at the Estadio Espanol in Chiguayante. “The kids have been talking of nothing else for the past few weeks – this is a unique opportunity to meet and learn from world-class players.”
Estadio Espanol is a multi-sport club boasting more than 1,000 members, offering football, basketball, pelota vasca, tennis and squash. “The club really believes in squash – they feel that investing in squash is vital, and have helped fund this trip to Santiago,” explained Salgado.
Now 34, Loreto Barriga is winding down her incredible sporting career while working full-time in sport for the Santiago municipality. But matches against all three of the WISPA stars have rekindled her interest in the sport: “This has inspired me to take up squash again more seriously - I’m going to make a comeback!”
Angela Grisar was unable to resist a squash challenge from Nicol David – then debated the relative merits of the two sports with the two-times world squash champion from Malaysia afterwards. “Squash is a more friendly sport for women than racquetball,” said the top Pan-American racquetball player.
“I play squash because it helps my strategy – you rely too much on power in my sport. And your sport is more endurance-orientated – I would say squash is like the 800 metres, whereas racquetball is more like the 100 metres race!” explained Grisar.
The enthusiasm of the Chilean juniors was something to behold: Courts were never left empty for more than a few seconds before a clutch of youngsters burst through the door eager to hit a few more balls – often led by eight-year-old Oren Brunman.
“I’ve seen this kind of enthusiasm before,” said Sarah Fitz-Gerald. “But never in the short gap between games during a match! Their keenness for squash is quite remarkable.”
The future of Chilean squash seems to be in good hands – particularly if three notable juniors continue to advance. Jonathan Stark, 14, and Carlos Vergara, also 14, are the second and third top juniors in the country – but 15-year-old Rafael Allendes, son of Federation Vice President Rafael Allendes (snr), is ranked one at U17 and U19.
Rachael Grinham was particularly impressed with the left-hander: “He would do well in Egypt, for sure,” said the former world number one from Australia, who is based in Cairo.
Allendes has already competed in junior tournaments around South America and won his first overseas title at the Virginia Junior U17 Open in the USA in January. At the end of this year he plans to take part in the Scottish and British Junior Opens for the first time.
“It’s fantastic to play with people like Sarah, Rachael and Nicol,” said the teenager. “I love squash and would like to play full-time.”
A press conference at Go-Fitness attracted significant interest, with journalists probing the WISPA stars about their lives on the World Tour, and their opinions of the local players they’d seen.
“We’ve all travelled all over the world and seen players – men and women - from numerous different countries,” explained Sarah Fitz-Gerald. “But there aren’t many from South America, so hopefully our visit to this region will inspire more players – especially the girls - to get better and join the international circuit.
Nicol David added: “We’ve been very impressed with the standard of the players we’ve seen here. And it’s been a real eye-opener to see the numbers of people that have come along to watch us, especially the kids.”
The result of the conference and general interest in the visit created an avalanche of media coverage, including newspapers El Mercurio, La Hora, La Nacion, Publimetro and La Tercera; El Grafico magazine; W radio; numerous Chilean sports websites; and TV channels 13, 19 and 22.
“This is a real breakthrough for us – squash has never been featured on national TV before,” said Federation President Patricio Lira.
The climax of the Go-Fitness visit was an exhibition match between Nicol David and Jaime Pinto – a clash which attracted a standing-room only crowd.
“It’s hard competing against women – it’s like playing against your ex-girlfriend!” explained Pinto. “It’s a great pity that I only play matches as tough as this about once every two months – so I don’t have the chance to get into a rhythm.
“But it’s so exciting to see so many people here for the squash. It will help us reach our goal – which is to have crowds like this all the time.”
Later, the WISPA party visited the Estadio Israelita Maccabi club in Santiago, featuring two brand new glass-backed courts with extensive galleries – where, again, numerous children joined the capacity crowd to watch the squash action before getting autographs of the WISPA stars.
One of the highlights of the visit was a match between Nicol David and former Chilean international and PSA player Marcelo Kaplun. Now working in the Chilean sports industry, Kaplun was no match for the nimble David – despite his 194cm frame towering over the petite 163cm Malaysian!
The action-packed two-day final leg in Chile brought the 2007 WISPA Promotional Tour to South America to a fitting climax, with all parties agreeing that the legacy would be significant.
“It’s been a real honour to have you here. We have been looking forward to this for many months - we are so glad you came to see us,” said Federation Director Luis Parra. “It’s been a hugely motivational experience for us – and squash in Chile will certainly benefit greatly from the visit.
“The motivation for kids will rocket – and even Loreto, who hasn’t played seriously for two years, has told me ‘I’m coming back’! The impact of your visit is just out of this world.”
Jorge Csaszar, Squash President of the Israelita club, added: “It is this kind of promotion that will help squash grow in Chile.”
Sarah Fitz-Gerald was most motivated by the enthusiasm of the youngsters over the two days: “I really connected with those kids. And even though some didn’t speak much English, and my Spanish is virtually non-existent, squash just broke all the language barriers!”
Nicol David added: “This tour overall was an experience of a life time. I would never imagine being in four different cities in South America and getting such a warm welcome from the people. We made a lot of good friends, ate plenty of their amazing food, enjoyed the sights of the city and played lots of squash with many squash enthusiasts.
“Even though we had such a short time in each of these places, we got a sense of how they can develop to become bigger squash nations in the future. I feel fortunate to have been part of it all – and perhaps played a part in making squash better known in South America. Muchos Gracias!!!”
Rachael Grinham was also enthused by the juniors: “I was really impressed by the numbers of juniors in Chile. With the enthusiasm and obvious potential of these youngsters, I wouldn't be surprised to see a few Chilean players on the professional circuit in the next 5-10 years.
“Overall it was a great experience for me, my first (but hopefully not last) trip to South America. Hopefully our presence can help raise the interest and profile of squash in these countries and in turn bring the WISPA Tour to South America in the near future.”
WISPA Chief Executive Andrew Shelley had the final word: "These have been new experiences for the WISPA group and while Argentina, Uruguay, and now Chile, have all been very different in character, there has been one constant ….. everywhere, the sheer enthusiasm for squash, the vitality of the people, and the eagerness of the people to make the sport grow, has been so rewarding.
"Countries that could not possibly mount an event featuring top players have now had the chance for their squash communities to sample the highest level in the world and, most importantly, to focus a media spotlight on squash.
"Fortunately, WISPA is blessed with stars who will give up their time both free and freely, as well as donations to cover the international costs, and hosts stepping up to the plate when we are with them. It is a great mix that will help develop real long-term partnerships for WISPA with the nations," concluded Shelley.
The WISPA Promotional Tour concept was launched in 1999 with a visit to the Czech Republic. Successive years featured trips to Jamaica, El Salvador, Peru, Kenya, Thailand, Brunei, Sarawak, Russia, China, Nepal, Jordan, Turkey and, last year, to Estonia and Norway.
Picture by Alex Broadway/SWpix.com