Focused Matsui aims to promote squash

by Kaz Nagatsuka

When the name of the sport is mentioned, most people would probably say they have heard of it. But they probably don’t know how difficult it is to play it in Japan.

News photoChinatsu Matsui plays squash Sunday as a young student looks on at Central Sports Yokohama Kita facility
during a junior charity tournament. Matsui, a professional since 2002, advanced to the Asian Games
quarterfinals.
KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

That’s where Chinatsu Matsui comes in.

Matsui is going to do whatever it takes to promote the sport she loves — squash — in this country. She sees herself as being a representative of the sport and often appears on TV and in other mediums.

“I’d like to make this sport more widespread,” the 29-year-old Matsui said Sunday at a junior squash charity tournament, which is also an exchange event organized by a pro squash player/promotion team, Team Watanabe, at Central Sports Yokohama Kita.

“And likewise, I’d like to advertise my name. I’d like to make the name Chinatsu Matsui synonymous with the sport of squash.”

Japan, however, has few venues for the sport.

Yoshihiro Watanabe, a representative of Team Watanabe, said there are only about 250 places to play squash in the whole nation, or about five per prefecture.

According to the Japan Squash Association, there are about 100,000 registered squash players, 30,000 of which play it for fun.

Watanabe, a seven-time national championship winner, said he was happy to have the enlightening event but for now it is limited to children who have played squash.

He explained the attractions of the sport, adding that he and his team also would like to invite those who don’t know about squash to the event in the near future.

“Squash is often compared with billiards and chess in Europe because you have to use your brain, thinking where the ball rebounds to next,” Watanabe said. “You don’t necessarily win just because you have power and speed.”

But the shortage of courts makes it difficult to expand the popularity of squash in Japan.

And ultimately, it makes it more difficult to produce high-level professional players.

Matsui said only around 10 athletes, including herself, are playing as pure pros, and that doesn’t include teaching pros.

But she doesn’t make a living just from prize money earned for winning tournaments. She also relies on sponsorship money and appearance fees from media outlets.

Matsui became a professional squash player in 2002 and before that she was practicing it, working as a part-time employee at a 100 yen shop.

Thus, Matsui’s task is not just to play on the court and try to win. Her calling is also to be an ambassador of the sport — think of her as a squash “missionary” if you will.

Matsui, the youngest national championship winner at the age of 24 in 2001, started playing squash when she enrolled in Nippon Sport Science University. She was a volleyball setter at the powerhouse Shoin High School in Tokyo.

“I’m not very tall and also was feeling I’d done everything,” said the 157-cm Matsui, who recently returned from Doha, where she made it to the quarterfinals in the Asian Games’ women’s singles competition. “So I felt I could put a punctuation (mark) there and should do something new.”

Matsui, a member of the Refresh team, has been playing the game for just 10 years. Like Watanabe said, squash requires intelligence as well as athletic ability, and it often comes down to experience to determine a winner.

Matsui, who now travels in and out of Japan for tournaments, has gained a broader knowledge of the sport at the international level, especially in countries where squash has a bigger following — and involvement — among the youth.

“Children have better absorbency, sensitivity and flexibility,” Matsui said. “They learn the game naturally because they enjoy it as part of their (activities). Me, I have to cover that with practice, heart and endeavor.”

That said, Matsui enjoyed the charity event with the children despite her fatigue from the Asian Games.

All day, she flashed her signature, dazzling smile.

“These junior players showed smiles and frustration clearly,” Matsui said. “I was pleased to see they were really enjoying this, and as I was watching they were trying hard on every play. I received power from them and felt like I have to push myself more.

“Also, I felt I want to make a path for them to play as professionals.”

Sunday’s events, she concluded, left her with renewed hope about her sport’s future.