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Bubbles, Quarantine and Tests – Squash During the Pandemic

Global sport has faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changing the way that governing bodies operate their events.

Spectators have largely been removed from the equation and reduced to cheering on their favourite teams and athletes from afar, while the athletes themselves have had the way they live their lives changed beyond all recognition due to various COVID-19 protocols in place at many of the world’s top sporting events.

These changes have been felt across the PSA World Tour, with the pandemic bringing professional squash to a standstill for six months between March – September of this year, leaving many to question just when it would be viable for the tour to return.

However, despite a range of logistical challenges and health and safety issues to navigate, the PSA World Tour made a triumphant return at the Manchester Open on September 16. Since then, over 100 players from all four corners of the globe have competed at the CIB PSA World Tour Finals, CIB Egyptian Open and Qatar Classic in the past two months, with not one player testing positive for COVID-19 during a tournament.

That first tournament in Manchester was the culmination of months of planning, featuring input from executives at the PSA, National Federations, sponsors, venue staff and more to ensure that the sport could return in a way that would give everyone involved a safe space in which to operate.

“I’m incredibly proud, when we embarked on this vision of starting the tour again back in August and trying to fulfil an events calendar from September to Christmas, there were a few people, probably quite rightly, who questioned whether it could be performed safely,” said PSA Chief Operating Officer Lee Beachill.

“I’m incredibly proud to say that we’re at a stage where we’re very confident we can operate a professional squash event in a safe environment.

“Much of that credit goes to the players because without them buying into the protocols and keeping themselves safe between event, this just wouldn’t happen. I’m incredibly proud that we get the chance to work with people who have fulfilled the criteria we’ve put in place and they’re managing to play and earn again, which is incredibly important.”

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic meant that the decision to go ahead with a tour restart in Manchester in September was only made in early August, meaning the planning stages of the tournament were restricted to a matter of weeks rather than months like a regular PSA World Tour event.

Poster at the Manchester Open with COVID-19 rules

Despite the truncated nature of planning for the event, PSA Event Director Tim Garner says that the opportunity to learn from what other sports were doing to cater for this new COVID-era was useful in determining PSA’s COVID-19 protocols.

“I think they’ve [the events] gone really well,” said the former World No.26.

“To start with, we weren’t sure whether we would be able to do them. We started off with Manchester pretty quickly and pulled together some rough guidelines as we saw what was happening in other sports over the summer, but we weren’t sure when we were actually going to be able to do something, so it was great when we got the ok for the event in Manchester.

“The players have been fantastic in terms of following the guidelines and the rules that have been put in place. We’ve seen from other sports how some of their players haven’t really understood the severity of the protocols and how important they are and they have jeopardised several events by breaking them, but we’ve had 100 per cent commitment from the players.

“Generally, it’s been fantastic, the players understand what we’re trying to achieve and ultimately the primary concern is their safety along with the staff and everyone involved in the event. Secondly, is the integrity of the event so we don’t have an outbreak of COVID which would decimate the draw and put the event in danger of not being able to finish.

“There has obviously been some pushback on a few little things that we’ve done, but once you explain why you’ve done it, they’re very good at taking it on board.”

Life at a tournament now is very different to what it was like pre-COVID, as World No.1 and PSA Men’s President Ali Farag explains.

“You pretty much stay for 22 hours in your room except for the one and a half or two hours you go to practice, and that’s only by yourself or with the player that you’re playing your next match with,” Farag said.

“Each country is a bit different, in Qatar we had to be there four days earlier and quarantine, which was very boring, but we really appreciate that PSA and the federations hosting tournaments are taking care of our wellbeing.

“In Manchester, I hadn’t travelled in six months and that’s probably the longest period I haven’t travelled for in around 10 years or so. Airports are totally different now, they’re a lot emptier than usual and you have to travel five or six hours with the mask on, which is not always easy.

Ali Farag warms up at the Manchester Open

“You then have to get your PCR test and fill in an ‘opt in’ form where you have to agree to abide by rules such as not shaking hands with everyone and not leaving your room except for your match.”

World No.7 Amanda Sobhy also gave an insight into what life a tournament is like now for a player, saying: “It’s very much like an athlete’s lockdown, which is difficult when you’re playing a sport like squash to go from zero to a match. If you have a match at noon, then a rest day, and then you play at 6pm the next day, you’re not leaving your hotel room for two days.

“That’s tough, but all of us are in the same boat and we want to minimise the risk of getting COVID as much as possible. It’s not ideal, but none of us are complaining, nor are we going to bend the rules to have a hit.

“I think PSA has done a phenomenal job, they have made the players as safe as possible. The restrictions are tough on us, but I’d rather that then have it be looser and all of a sudden you have positive tests and chinks in the armour.

“This bubble is airtight, it is sealed.”

Nele Gilis (left) and Amanda Sobhy (right) use the towel boxes at the front of the court

Every tournament has an ‘event bubble’ created to keep everyone involved in the tournament away from the outside world, and Beachill opened up on what exactly this process involves.

“The past few months have been very different, every sport has had to adapt to new protocols and different ways of making sport happen throughout a pretty horrendous time for everyone,” he said.

“We’ve had to put things in place from an event perspective that gives everyone the highest measures of safety and puts everyone in a ‘bubble’ environment. Everyone who has turned up at the event has been required to take a PCR test within 72 before they arrive at the event. Once the players, support staff, referees or whoever it is arrives, they are required to take another PCR test.

“Once that is taken on-site, everyone involved in the event then has to self-isolate in their hotel rooms once the results have been put through. Once everyone is within the event environment and they have a negative PCR test, then that is when the event bubble begins. The protocols are very strict in terms of what people can and cannot do.

“The players have been amazing, they’ve bought into every protocol we’ve had to put in place. They’ve been fantastic with PCR tests, wearing masks, staying away from each other and there has been so much compromise for the players to play. We have husbands and wives who are travelling together and they’ve essentially had to live separate lives. Unfortunately, these have been the compromises to get back playing again.”

One such player is Farag who, in normal circumstances, travels the world with wife and World No.3 Nour El Tayeb, but the pair have seldom been able to spend time together while at an event.

“For Nour and I, it’s been a huge difference that we can’t share a room together,” Farag said.

“We’re in the same country but we barely see each other, we can only see each other if we happen to be playing back-to-back at the venue, or in Egypt we could see each other in outdoor spaces.

“In Manchester, there was no outdoor space at all, so I could only see her at the venue, which was frustrating. We’re only five or six rooms apart but we’re facetiming, which feels really odd. It can be tough on your mental health, but if I was the one putting the rooms together, I would do it the exact same way.”

Sobhy, the United States No.1, says that the lack of a social life at a tournament can be difficult to deal with, while the lack of crowd also throws up unique challenges to deal with.

“It’s a big shift, there’s a lot of time on your own and that affects you mentally,” the 27-year-old said.

“If you’re not ok with being on your own and being isolated then it will be really tough. You can’t go and hang out with your friends or out for dinner, you almost have to mentally prepare for it in the same way you would for a match.

“I didn’t realise how much I fed off outside energy when I’m competing. Even in Egypt where there was a 50 per cent crowd, there wasn’t the same atmosphere that we’re used to competing in. Whether it’s for or against me, it’s something that I thrive off of and you realise it when you’re playing an 11am match on the back courts with nobody watching and it hits you.”

A one way system to follow at the Manchester Open was one of many protocols put in place

These protocols are expected to be in place for the foreseeable future, with 2020 being rounded out by the CIB Black Ball Open, which will stage back-to-back men’s and women’s events between December 7-18.

That will mark the fifth PSA World Tour event to take place since the restart and Beachill says that now the focus is on putting in place a calendar that will increase playing opportunities across the whole PSA Tour.

“We are very fortunate that we’ve got some incredible promoters and sponsors around the world that are backing our sport and players throughout this whole pandemic,” he said.

“We’re working month to month at the moment and we’re not looking any further really than Christmas and trying to get into the new year and seeing what events we can get on in January and February and into the Spring.

“The top end of the game is something that we’ve been able to navigate and keep the ball rolling. The main positive from any type of vaccine and any time of normality that we are praying for is so the entire tour can get back to some kind of calendar which gives all the men and women lower down the rankings the opportunity to play.”