What a welcome we received the weekend before last for the French League Playoff finals in Le Mans, a city a couple of hours train ride from Paris. Now on the wrong side of 30, I am happily able to say that squash still offers opportunities to seek out new venues and bustling sporting communities in unexpected places.
The league weekends in France are always an exciting part of the year. Last year Chartres proved to be a similarly warm atmosphere. Pros and amateurs come together in one venue, volunteers get involved, kids are inspired, the club sells plenty of beer, and there is some high quality action to entertain spectators. Everyone wins.
I have said it before, but these club events are often the best, reflecting the integrity of the sport; the team emphasis means there is atmosphere, which can be lacking at individual events. Gregory Gaultier is the French men's world number one, and Laura Massaro the women's world champion and they compete in the same space as those in division 4. I always think of this as quite unique to squash and it's something we are all proud the sport can facilitate.
My team Mulhouse won the men's and women's double. The women, with Laura Massaro leading the way at one string, beat the team from Bourges, led by Halifax based Sarah Kippax. The men's title went to the deciding match where team captain Mathieu Castagnet registered an outstanding display to dismiss compatriot Gregoire Marche, playing for Valence. It's a fifth title in a row for the Mulhouse women, and the second consecutive for the men.
Krakow in Poland was the backdrop for the second consecutive edition of team club championship finals in two weekends, after Le Mans. Each winner of their respective nation's finals weekend secures a place in the European Club Championships which this year is held in Nottingham in September.
The finals were played over three days at the Squash4You club north of the city, and then at a spectacular glass court venue in a square beside a shopping mall in the city centre. My team Squash4You lost in the final to Simple Kahuna in the men's event and Malaka squash won the women's.
The Poles seem to want to enjoy themselves and don't have any problems locating the nearest bar. Saturday's men's final was an almost otherworldly experience at times, and the squash matches were almost an addition to the merriment.
The sound system belted out a soundtrack of Euro-pop, dressed-up dancers everywhere filled every conceivable gap in-between matches with their routines. There was an MC who talked endlessly: in between matches, in between games, maybe in between rallies? Everyone in the arena seemed to have hold at one point or another one of the many microphones that were circulating, and speeches and impromptu songs were delivered by players, security, the crowd, everybody, as a matter of routine. Team managers were chanting, press photographers dancing. This was squash as hedonistic as it gets, a surreal early 20th century Coney Island version. So surreal at times I wondered if I'd been on the juice myself. All we needed was clowns on stilts and fairgrounds in the sky to complete the picture.
Sobriety is clearly an afterthought here. They know how to have a good time, or at least how to have what they see as a good time. It made for a happy end to the two weeks. No one could say it was dull, that's for sure.....