Taking the game to the people

Shoppers at the Plaza Hollywood mall in Diamond Hill got more than they bargained for yesterday - a top-drawer sporting event with plenty of drama and action as the world's top professional men and women battled for a place in today's final of the Cathay Pacific Swiss Privilege Hong Kong Open.

'I came to buy a toy for my son and was surprised to see a squash tournament taking place here,' said Francis Cheung, one of the hundreds of spectators who watched for free the action unfolding in the all-glass court set up inside the mall's atrium.

'This is the first time I have watched a squash match, and it is very exciting. The players must be tired. I can't believe how long a rally lasts. I don't think I will be taking up this sport although I will encourage my son to do so,' added Cheung, a Diamond Hill resident.

The large crowd watched an acrobatic Amr Shabana, the world number one from Egypt, pull off a nail-biting 3-2 win (9-11, 11-8, 9-11, 11-6, 11-9) over England's James Willstrop in the first semi-final in the men's event. Shabana will meet emerging star and compatriot Ramy Ashour in the final. Two-time world junior champion Ashour defeated Australian David Palmer 7-11, 11-8, 11-8, 11-3.

World number one and reigning world champion Nicol David of Malaysia was the crowd favourite in the women's event. And David kept her fans happy as she edged out Australian Rachael Grinham 3-2 (9-2, 6-9, 9-6, 5-9, 9-1) to book her final berth. David will meet England's Tania Bailey, who defeated compatriot Vicky Botwright 9-1, 9-7, 9-7 in the other semi-final.

As if the bevy of world stars were not enough, organisers dished out two local beauties too - the reigning Miss Hong Kong Aimee Chan and second runner-up Janet Chow Ki-wai, in a celebrity line-up aimed at raising the profile of the game.

But sadly the crowd couldn't see them in action. 'I have never played the game. I'm more into aerobics and the sport I most love watching is ice hockey. But this is an interesting concept, taking the court to the public,' said Chan.

It was left to former world champion Peter Nicol - turned commentator now - and Hong Kong's Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, York Chow Yat-ngok, to carry the celebrity flag on court. As expected, Dr York lost to Nicol. What was unexpected was to see him representing the government, and not Mr Sport himself, Patrick Ho Chi-ping, Secretary for Home Affairs.

'The aim of moving the semi-finals and final out of the Hong Kong Squash Centre and to this shopping mall is to bring the game to the people. We have been able to do this because of this new court generously donated to us by the Jockey Club Charities Trust,' said Hong Kong coach Tony Choi Yuk-kwan. In previous years, Hong Kong Squash has taken its flagship tournament outdoors to the piazza outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui. But organisers were always on edge, worried about the weather - something which did not factor yesterday.

'This is just an amazing idea. I loved playing in such an atmosphere with such a big crowd watching. They are knowledgable too, knowing when to cheer,' said Shabana after his 76-minute struggle on court had ended.

His rival, Willstrop, also paid tribute to the local governing body. 'Hong Kong Squash should be proud of what they have done. The atmosphere was brilliant - playing in a shopping mall just lends itself to a great feeling,' said Willstrop.

But the Englishman, built like a rugby forward, was crushed at losing. 'I gave everything I could. It was nip and tuck all the way, but he stuck it out at the end,' said Willstrop, dejected that he won't be in action at Plaza Hollywood today.

Maybe he can go shopping, instead.

Heather Deayton, the former executive director of Hong Kong Squash, has been elected vice-president of the World Squash Federation. 'I'm very proud to be there for Hong Kong. It is a lovely new challenge,' said Deayton, who retired last year after being involved for more than two decades in the local game.