Michael Catling talks to two-time champion Peter Nicol MBE on the imminent return of the British Open
Before the summer of 2005, the future appeared relatively bright for squash.
The prestigious British Open Squash Championships had seemingly found some much-needed stability after a catalogue of financial troubles and there was even cautious optimism that squash could finally achieve Olympic status in time for London 2012.
Fast-forward seven years however and the sport seems to have gone round a full circle.
After narrowly missing out on its inclusion into London 2012 and Rio 2016, squash has once again been shortlisted for the Olympic programme of the 2020 summer Games.
The British Open has also suffered similar setbacks in the last couple of years but will thankfully return to the world squash tour this month, for the first time since 2009, after securing a three-year sponsorship agreement with Hull City chairman Dr Assem Allam.
It is a timely homecoming for the oldest event on the circuit; made even more significant with the London Olympic Games now less than 100 days away.
It seems ironic then that the Allam British Open will be held at the O2 arena; one of the Olympic venues for this summer’s Games.
Although Olympic inclusion still remains the top priority, it is hoped that the return of the Allam British Open will herald the beginning of a new chapter in the sport.
Former world number one Peter Nicol won two British Open titles during his 12-year career and after witnessing the tournament struggle financially over the past few years, he is hopeful that it can return to its former glory.
“Initially, when I was younger the British Open was the most important event on the calendar, but in recent years that has changed and it is more likely to be the World Open or the Commonwealth Games,” explains the 39-year-old, who of course won both of those events too.
“Unfortunately, there have been issues with the British Open for the last 15 years regarding sponsorship money and it has lost its lustre.
“Hopefully that will be something that is rectified over the next two to four years so the British Open can become, yet again, the pinnacle event in world squash.”
Such a ringing endorsement is testament to the sentimental and nostalgic values that the event has installed throughout its near 82-year existence.
Heralded as the ‘Wimbledon of Squash’, the tournament is steeped in history with the stars of yesteryear, like Jansher and Jahangir Khan, cementing their legacies at the British Open.
In fact, the Pakistan duo littered the record books with their surname for a 15-year period, from 1982 to 1997. First Jahangir won an unprecedented ten titles in succession, before Jansher added a further six in a row.
It was Nicol who eventually ended their stranglehold on the tournament; beating Jansher 3-0 in the final of 1998.
Nicol, who was awarded an MBE in 1999, then repeated his success at the British Open in 2002; defeating John White to firmly establish his position as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Unsurprisingly, the event holds some fond memories for Nicol, but the four-time Commonwealth gold medallist admits his achievements are somewhat tainted by disappointments earlier in his career.
“The tournament does hold some really good memories but also some bad memories,” recalls the Aberdeenshire-born Nicol.
“For the first five years I lost my first match of the event. That’s what I remember more than winning it twice to be honest.
“But there were some great memories. Obviously winning it for the first time and beating Jansher in the final of 1998 was special because I effectively retired Jansher from the international scene.
“I reinforced my position as world number one at that point as well which was great and then winning it in Manchester was also very important for me.”
Since retiring in 2006, Nicol has remained heavily involved in the sport and is currently juggling “several different ventures.”
Yet despite his current commitments, Nicol will oversee events at the Allam British Open next month after his company – Eventis Sports Marketing Ltd – agreed to partly run the on-site venue at the tournament.
Putting business-matters aside, Nicol is intrigued to see how the tournament will unfold.
“There are certain players in the field who have the quality to beat maybe one of the top players in a match and there are a few players who have the ability to win the whole thing,” admits the former world number one.
“There are a couple of players who need a favourable draw and for things to fall correctly for them to win the tournament.
“However, nobody is safe. From the second round onwards it will get very tight.”
With little separating those at the top of the world rankings, Nicol believes there will be “seven or eight” players in contention. However, he remains coy about predicting a winner.
“The obvious contenders are Nick Matthew, who is very strong in the UK when he plays here and has been world number one for a considerable time.
“You have James Willstrop as well who, having gone to world number one, hasn’t won the British Open yet and would love to do so.
“On top of that you have got Ramy Ashour, Amr Shabana, Mohamed El Shorbagy, Gregory Gaultier and the likes of Peter Barker and Daryl Selby playing at home as well.
“And then there is Thierry Lincou who still has some remaining matches in him. Although I don’t think he is probably able to win the whole thing, he can certainly beat one of the top players and cause those guys problems.
“There is a great depth of quality now within the game which is exciting and you don’t know what the results are going to be.”
Whatever the outcome, there is a genuine sense of relief and anticipation that the Allam British Open is finally back on the calendar. One can only hope that it will be joined by the Olympics in the not too distant future.
Michael is a freelance sports journalist currently studying at Staffordshire University