‘As I dropped off TV presenter Sally Jones at a real tennis dinner where Prince Edward was guest of honour, an officer from the royal protection squad jumped into my car and drove off down The Strand’
By ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
As we salute Her Majesty The Queen’s 70-year reign, Squash Mad joins the mood of celebration by examining the Royal Family’s links with our favourite sport.
The Commonwealth Games is a good place to start. A Commonwealth Realm is a country which has The Queen as its Monarch. There are 14 Commonwealth Realms in addition to the UK.
Perhaps when Australia’s new squash-playing Prime Minister Anthony Albanese reads this he might not be in such a rush to reduce that number to an unlucky 13.
If Australia ceases to be part of the Commonwealth then I assume their athletes will no longer be invited to take part, which would be an enormous shame.
I hope Sarah Fitzgerald, David Palmer, Cam Pilley, Geoff Hunt and Heather McKay will have a few words in the right ears.
They ought to call in Peta Murphy, a squash-loving MP in the constituency of Dunkley, near Melbourne, who hosted a 2019 World Squash Day event at the Australian Parliament courts in Canberra and got on court for a fun hit with Labour Party leader Albanese.
However, I digress. Our much-loved monarch Queen Elizabeth II visited the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, visiting the swimming while Prince Philip made a beeline for the squash venue. (More of that episode from Andrew Shelley tomorrow).
She had also made the journey to Malaysia in 1998 when squash was introduced to the Games in Kuala Lumpur. Four years later, she made the shorter trek to Manchester.
Stuart Courtney, former chief executive of England Squash, recalls: “I did meet both The Queen and Prince Philip in Manchester but not at the actual Games. They came up prior to the event to look at the facilities.
“I also met her at a function when I was manager of the England team at the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur. Prior to The Games, I sat on a committee and she appeared one day and we were introduced.”
One of the most famous (or infamous) stories linking squash and the royals emerged from the Manchester Games when England captain Chris Walker was reportedly late on duty to be introduced to Her Majesty … because he was on the throne in the changing room toilets!
Walker has always denied this version of events and has been contacted to set the record straight.
The venue for the squash event at the 2002 Games is now the National Squash Centre and I wish the late Prince Philip, who was Patron of England Squash and always knew how to have a good time, had been invited to offer some input into the design of the abysmal social facilities.
Prince Philip was an enthusiastic sportsman and famously chose to play squash on the night that Prince Charles was born instead of waiting at his wife’s bedside.
Stuart Courtney added: “As the Patron of The Jesters Club, Prince Philip came to an anniversary dinner at the RAC and my dear old friend, the late John Easter, decided he would try and get HRH to sign a photograph that he had of the 1973 GB team being presented to him at Wembley.
“As HRH went around the room, John positioned himself accordingly and just as he produced the photograph, security staff steered John away very carefully.
“John was suitably admonished and was told that HRH never signed photographs because they always found their way on to the black market.”
On the day of another Jesters dinner at the RAC, a police officer had been murdered outside the Houses of Parliament and security in London was very tight. Prince Philip was advised not to attend the Jesters function but ignored the warning and friends who were present tell me he was accompanied by a footman who was responsible for mixing his gin and tonics.
Prince Philip also attended the British Open final in 1991 when Jahangir Khan completed an amazing run of 10 consecutive victories.
Jahangir has fond memories of the occasion at Wembley Conference Centre and told me: “Yes, he congratulated me first on getting the 10 in a row and said ‘how absolutely wonderful it was to watch you play in such commanding style’.
“The best thing for me was the fact that my father (Roshan Khan) also received his British Open trophy from him in 1957, so for me to have the honour to meet him in 1991 was something very special for my family. Of course, we still have both pictures on display.”
Prince Philip also enjoyed the opportunity to brush up his skills by playing on the squash court at Buckingham Palace.
My late friend Stuart Sharp, who was very close to Jahangir and his coach Rahmat Khan, had planned to invite Prince Harry to host a World Squash Day event on the Buckingham Palace court, having met him at a charity function.
Stuart supported a charity that helped the homeless in London and we hoped that a World Squash Day event on the Palace court (with Harry playing a star guest like Nick Matthew) would help to raise funds and provide some health and fitness opportunities for disadvantaged young people at London’s squash clubs.
Stuart had planned to broach the subject through his network of contacts but tragically passed away, peacefully in his sleep, before the process could begin.
Prince Harry, meanwhile, was soon to leave Buckingham Palace behind. He’s probably playing a bit of hardball doubles in California these days, so perhaps he and Meghan might fancy teaming up to do a Netflix documentary on squash’s most amazing glass-court venues. I am from Sussex, after all.
My own distant brushes with royalty have both occurred through squash. When I was sports editor of The News, Portsmouth’s evening paper, Prince Andrew, then a dashing helicopter pilot, was invited to open the Mountbatten Sports Centre next door to Portsmouth Squash Club in Alexandra Park.
In those days Andrew was a keen squash player and, after discussions with a friend on the local council, I arranged for a shiny new Dunlop Maxply Fort racket (wooden in those days, of course) to be delivered to serve as the gift to the prince from the local authority.
These days I understand he would be happy with a couple of vouchers to the Pizza Hut in Woking.
My other episode of royal name-dropping came when I met Sophie Rhys-Jones before she married Prince Edward in 1999.
Sophie was working for a public relations agency and invited me to attend a real tennis event in Wiltshire. However, I had to decline because I was working all over that particular weekend in my later job of editing sports pages for national newspapers.
It was at that real tennis bash where Sophie met Prince Edward. The lovely Sally Jones, breakfast TV sports presenter and accomplished real tennis player, was also present at the event.
A few months later Sally was invited to a real tennis dinner at Simpsons In The Strand where Prince Edward was the guest of honour. Sally and I met for a coffee beforehand in the glamorous surroundings of the Express Newspapers in-house bar in our former office next to Blackfriars Bridge.
Sally asked if she could slip into her ballgown in the loo next door to the bar and once she had changed I drove her over the bridge, turned left into Fleet Street and was soon pulling up outside the reception in The Strand.
Ever the gentleman, I left my car outside the Simpsons entrance with the engine running while I carried Sally’s suitcase to the door.
Within a split second, a plain-clothed police officer had jumped into the car and sped off down The Strand.
I wished Sally a splendid evening and jogged off down The Strand in pursuit of my car. I caught up with it 200 yards away and promptly received a severe bollocking from the officer, who was part of the Royal Protection Squad.
And bang went the knighthood.
Tomorrow: Andrew Shelley remembers Prince Philip.
Pictures courtesy of Steve Line (squashpics.com)