Nicol David Feature

Racket Sports writer Richard Eaton compares the status of the four main racket sports and has new statistics at his disposal.

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Tennis, Squash, Badminton, Table Tennis

How do the four racket sports compare?




Squash and The Survey

Sports Participation Table

Links to the Survey

Sport by Sport Fact Sheet

Click image to go to Sport England Website

ho would have imagined that squash, with the social prestige it created for itself, and its success with changing attitudes to health and fitness, was born, according to some versions of its history, in a debtors’ prison?

True or not, squash is certainly the child of a game – rackets - which originated from Fleet, an infamous London jail in which inmates were often subjected to very cruel treatment.

But since then the sport-in-a-room with the dubious antecedents has achieved much, especially in Britain, whose players have delivered success no other racket sport can match.

That is just one of the facts which dispel the many myths surrounding the family of four – squash, tennis, badminton and table tennis. Some of these derive from tennis having been the wealthiest, sexiest, best dressed and most publicized of them all, over-shadowing the successes of its sister sports.

For this reason the illusions of the money-and-media age need revealing as much now as when a comparison of this quartet of relatives was last attempted almost ten years ago.  

Despite its wonderful qualities, tennis is not the most widely played racket sport internationally (table tennis is), neither does it have the longest and ancestry (badminton has), nor does it possess British world beaters (but squash does).

True, Wimbledon is by far the most famous racket sport event of all, but when a world table tennis championship was held in Manchester, fully 110 countries took part, which made it the most cosmopolitan ever held in this country.

Although lawn tennis was dragged into existence from its Middle Ages parent, real tennis, by a hotch-potch of nineteenth century midwife versions, which included five-foot nets, hour-glassed shaped courts, and two-inch balls, it is badminton which is the most venerable, versions of it having which been depicted on pottery 3,000 years old.

And although Andy Murray attracts more attention than any other British racket-wielder, he has not yet achieved as much as the two quartets of squash players – Peter Nicol, James Willstrop, Lee Beachill, and Nick Matthew, plus Tania Bailey, Vicky Botwright, Jenny Duncalf, and Alison Waters – who have made England simultaneous holders of both world team titles for the first time.

These achievements have displayed the three indoor racket sports as among the most physically demanding sports of all; yet from the hush which greeted these achievements you would think that they were the most sedentary.

       Which makes it worth comparing the four of them in a little more detail………..



The cracker box type origins of tennis belied its staggeringly rapid big time success. Within one year of Major Walter Wingfield patenting and packaging the game as Sphairistike, it had become less arcane, being adopted by the popular All-England crocquet club. Within three years, the first Wimbledon championships were held, in 1877. Within five, Wimbledon had 2,000 spectators.

Tennis captured the imagination, not just of the wealthy but – crucially for its progress - of the emerging middle classes too, and, conspicuously, of women. Its environs and clientele gave it a glamour which few other sports or pastimes could match, making it interesting to many who did not play.

bledon was already being televised before world War Two and three decades later it began to accept professionals, a piece of pioneering which became a model for badminton and squash.

No-one knows how many people now play tennis world wide now but it may be in excess of 100 million. It is certainly increasing, because a significant proportion of Olympic money is used by the International Tennis Federation, with 144 member nations, to develop the sport in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

But post World War Two brought complacency in Britain, which had a club culture more strongly attached to leisure, health and sociability than competition and high level excellence.

Opinion within the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) was divided about the need to improve elite performance, but gradually criticism from the media and the public, particularly of how the annual millions from Wimbledon profits were spent, had an effect.

Now the LTA has made a commitment to elite performance like never before.  Huge sums have been spent on high profile coaches, amidst a calculated gamble to achieve the sort of shop window success which will cause tennis to be viewed as cool.

Tennis’ situation had already been improving in recent years, according to Sport England’s research. Its statistic that 860,000 people had played at least once during the previous month makes tennis the second most played racket sport, close to overtaking badminton in popularity.

But the numbers of those competing regularly remains disappointingly low (only 1,700), especially for women (only 500). However the number of regularly competing boys is 6,000, and of girls is 2,350, which is an improvement, while the numbers of juniors competing at least once last year is 17,000, which is encouraging.

The adult stats would be much higher, were they to include doubles players. Were they also to include those who play casually, it might rise, according to an LTA guesstimate, to four and a half million. That would likely show a healthier male-female ratio too.

Nevertheless the LTA blueprint for the future, produced in October, is prolonged in its criticism and firm about what needs to be done.

The organization has too many managers and administrators, the blueprint claims, and is unwieldy, hierarchical and not driven by the needs of players, coaches and clubs. A new structure will be put in place.

British players lag behind those in other countries in fitness, there is a poor track record in identifying talent, and no formal competitive structure exists for players under ten. Among 6,000 active coaches, few are capable of taking a 14 year-old into the top 100. 

The stark picture continues. Tennis is described as “expensive,” requiring £250,000 to develop a winning player between the ages of five and 18, making him/her heavily reliant on parents for transport, health care, and guidance. Some parents and players have accused the LTA for a lack of professionalism, and coaches for lack of credibility.


The blueprint also identifies a failure to take the women’s game seriously enough, with inconsistent communication and a lack of support on technical and sports science issues.


It points to a neglect of community tennis, which weakens the chances of additional government funding. Of the 18,000 public courts in the UK, most are under-used and in disrepair.


Remedies to be attempted are the development of better talent identification, a more understandable player development structure, decentralized national training, the placing of men’s and women’s tennis on an equal footing, more transparent funding, and a stronger attempt to attract and retain players of all ages and abilities.


Although there are 2,600 affiliated clubs, only 303 have indoor courts, and only 200 have performance programmes. The focus will therefore shift to fewer clubs offering a full range of performance programmes. A tiered club structure will be created, in three categories, with funding made a priority for these.


A “‘brain box” will be created at Roehampton, with a worldwide centre of excellence for research and development, planning, scheduling, technical innovation and education, and lifestyle guidance. British tennis will have a new, more radical hub. Squash might glean something from the breadth of this vision. 


Table tennis, like squash, is another sport for which doom and gloom has wrongly been forecast. During the onset of affluence in the fifties and sixties, and with the collapse of European communism in the eighties, people thought table tennis might have been damaged permanently. Not so.

True, this cheap and simple and brilliantly entertaining sport has never been able to replicate the tremendous post-war boom in Britain, during which world champions like Johnny Leach, Richard Bergmann, and the Rowe twins, would help fill Wembley Arena with ten thousand people.

And its popularity did decline with more money entering people’s pockets.  Tastes became more diverse, and a proliferation of different kinds of bat rubbers produced complex spins which made it harder for spectators and viewers to comprehend why rallies were won and lost.

Political changes affected table tennis too. Its international founding father, Ivor Montague, was an English aristocrat who was awarded the Order of Lenin for his services to communism, and who saw the affordability and accessibility of the table tennis as an ideal proletarian vehicle for bringing the world together.

Its qualities certainly fitted the ideology of the Chinese ruling group very well, but as the world’s most populous nation took to table tennis, so it ensured that China gained a tight and unhelpful stranglehold on most of its major trophies. 

Later the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the iron curtain, and the globalization of markets opened a more commercial, bourgeois way of life to the developed parts of the world, which was not entirely compatible with Montague’s vision.

Nevertheless the popularity of table tennis continued to increase, particularly among the young, the old and the poor, so that, according to the International Olympic Committee, it is the most popular sport in the world.

“More people play it than soccer because you can play table tennis at any age,” according to the IOC website. This says that not only are there are 40 million competitive players, but “countless millions playing recreationally.”

Here in Britain however it has struggled since the nineties for two main reasons. Fewer people are prepared to spend their leisure time in drab surroundings, and no-one in the last ten years have been able to match the success of Desmond Douglas or Jill Hammersley-Parker, both of whom reached the world’s top ten.

A household survey nevertheless suggested in 2005 that as  many as 2.2 million people are playing table tennis recreationally, though how frequently or meaningfully is unclear. Certainly, there remain about 40,000 competitors in 250 leagues in England, and according to Sport England’s active people survey, 160,000 people played table tennis at least once in the previous month.   

What the English Table Tennis Association (ETTA) hopes is that the large household statistic is being confirmed the larger numbers of people who now buy table tennis tables for their homes. Equipment companies report sales rising nicely.

Bu the ETTA membership has been in decline, something which has been generated to some extent by the decline of British manufacturing, which once had hundreds of works teams, and by the decline of youth clubs during the Thatcher years. Now the association is fighting back with successful facilities development and club accreditation programmes which has helpe make the largest category of players the 16-24 age group. To drive this forward the ETTA have appointed a full-time architect, an imaginative, if rare, step to take.

The association has also made a new investment in specialist sports colleges, and is beginning a push to get schools to include table tennis as a curriculum activity, which it traditionally rarely has been.

There is also an attempt to improve the ‘cool’ factor of table tennis – the lack of which has been a handicap amidst increasing affluence, especially among women – by drawing attention to the many celebs who play the sport.

But the ETTA’s most crucial short-term goal is to acquire enough funding to regain the national centre it lost a few years ago after the decline of the national team. This has become particularly important with the emergence of three talented teenaged players, Paul Drinkhall, Darius Knight, and Gavin Evans, who may be good enough to develop into contenders at the London Olympics and who need regular high quality sparring and training.

For the time being funds for the ETTA, even though it has been possible to raise credit through the value of table tennis stock, which currently totals £100 million, and consists of new dedicated facilities, upgrades, and conversions.

Other new ways to raise the revenue still have to be found. But the outlook is a greatly better than it was.

Badminton has been the most under-estimated sport of all. That may be because the huge number of grass roots dabblers at the game is ignored, or because people have not had enough chance to watch the sport in all its aesthetic and athletic glory, or perhaps because some misguided clots spread the idea that it is a wimpish activity.

 A fitting way to deal with such dectractors is to thrust them on court with Fu Haifeng of China, who holds the world speed-hitting record of just over 200 miles an hour, and to make them crouch in the firing line of his towering jump smash. Traumatized silence should follow.

The truth is that badminton has been a success almost from its origins, which were a long time ago. Shuttlecocks, or something like them, have been depicted on Far East pottery a couple of thousands of years old.

It was became popular with English children in medieval times, who played battledore and shuttlecock, something which British army officers enthusiastically adopted in India, where they added a more competitive element, a net.

After some of them had been entertained by the Duke of Beaufort in the 1860’s, their sport became named after his Gloucestershire home, Badminton house. It was here that Lady Henrietta Somerset and a friend were proud to record that they kept the shuttle in the air for 2,117 strokes.  Badminton has always been especially popular with women.

Three decades later the All-England championships were born just in time to welcome in the twentieth century, during which it became such a prestigious international event that, for a while, a little like Wimbledon, its reputation transcended its sport.

This fuelled the international expansion of badminton to the point where there are now 14 million members in the 140 nations affiliated to the international governing body. According to Andrew Ryan, one of its former chief executive, the total number of players is nearer to a hundred million.

The growth was most rapid in China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea.  This agglomeration of top players, big tournaments, and screamingly enthusiastic fans in the Far East caused badminton to become the most viewed sport on television for the first five days of its Olympic debut at the 1992 Barcelona Games, with an estimated worldwide viewing of 1.1 billion.

By then government household surveys in Britain were suggesting badminton was a sleeping giant, with anything from the two to five million people playing at the game. If you included occasional players, badminton was one of the most popular sports of all.  Sport England’s more stringent recent survey of active people actually lists it as the eighth most popular, with 874,000 having played it during the previous month.

This makes it narrowly the most popular participatory racket sport, just slightly ahead of tennis. It also gives badminton the highest ratio of women playing. Sport England’s stats showed that 1.9 percent of women had played in the last month (compared with three percent of men), though impressionistic evidence suggests that the percentage of more casual women players is higher still.

Encouragingly, not only is badminton more popular in the 16-24 age range than any other but has a better spread across all the ages than the other racket sports, and a better spread across the regions than tennis, which is strikingly popular in London.

That is because, unlike many sports, people find badminton easy to start, simple to understand, relatively inexpensive, and very sociable. They only have to develop moderate skill for it to become excellent exercise as well.

England also had some famous players, with Gillian Gilks winning All-England singles title twice and Nora Perry capturing two world doubles titles. But with the onset of the open era in the early eighties, England’s standard fell behind the leading nations - until lottery funding helped make things more professional.

This facilitated the best purpose built badminton centre in Europe. And that, along with better funding and vastly improved sports science, it helped to develop Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms into world mixed doubles champions.

Now England hopes to make up lost ground still more quickly, especially as last year it was awarded a grant of almost £8,000,000, which made it one of the top ten best funded sports of all.

Since then a hundred-point plan has been created by Badminton England’s new chief executive, Adrian Christy, which aims to make England the most successful nation in Europe by 2010 and the best in the world by 2016, and the governing body financially independent post London 2012.

If this sounds highly ambitious, it is worth noting that it may well have 40 to 60 performance centres within two years – for which an extra £1.6 million has been granted – that two new world class coaches from the Far East have been acquired, and that the BE’s staff has doubled to almost 100 in a matter of a few years.  The future looks the brightest for three decades.

Squash used to be an esoteric game with an elitist atmosphere and small galleries, until the charismatic Jonah Barrington emerged in the sixties and later helped inspire the yuppie-fuelled boom of the seventies and eighties.

Six times British Open champion, raconteur, pioneer, teacher, media personality, promoter, and visionary, Barrington represented Ireland, had a Welsh mother, coached Great Britain, and became president of the (English) squash rackets association.

His commitment to fierce physical challenges, psychological warfare and media monologues did an enormous amount to popularize and to professionalise the sport, and the number of players in Britain swelled to around three million. Later the men’s and women’s tours spread to dozens of countries.

During the eighties squash was commendably inventive. Courts in professional tournaments were transformed from intimate bear-pits into transparent fish-tanks, sometimes surrounded by 4,000 people and making a modicum of television possible. The men’s tour lowered the tin by two inches to 17, which was also very successful, reducing the frequency of attritional rallies.

Squash was also fortunate that synthetic rackets improved  it as a spectacle, helping players to attack, and increasing the tactical variety of the rallies. This was in marked contrast to tennis, where the development of kevlar, boron and titanium made wielding rackets easier for grass roots players, but changed rackets for the worse in the men’s professional game, with rallies becoming more one-dimensional.

One of squash’s most obvious mistakes was in not reacting to the expansion of the Olympic schedule as quickly as the other three rackets sports, causing it to miss out on a lot of high profile publicity and funding.

And in the nineties in Britain it declined. The shop window attracted less attention, and at grass roots the game lost ground to gymnasia, jogging, and aerobics. Its adherents increasingly coming from older age groups. There were even pronouncements that this was a dying sport.

But the decline has bottomed out. Deals from Bermuda, Manchester and the Middle East have ensured that the World Open will continue to increase its prize money each year up to a record $300,000 plus in 2010, while the Women’s International Squash Players Association has expanded to a record 220-plus members.

 Optimism has increased with the latest participation figures England showing increases – with at least 45,000 player members, about 6,000 regular competitors, 2,750 affiliated courts and a thousand affiliated clubs. 

Sport England’s recent active people’s survey is still more encouraging, indicating that half a million adults played squash in the previous four weeks, placing it ahead of netball, hockey, cricket, and rugby union and suggesting that squash’s participation base has not only stabilized but may be gaining critical momentum. The future no longer looks like one of decline.

 This is particularly so since England Squash (ES) got to grips with the worrying problem of the sport’s ageing grass roots.  Mini-squash has been introduced to attract children and new schemes are being operated to increase the links between clubs and schools, colleges, and universities.

Because it had not previously attempted these things, ES now admits it missed out on attracting at least two generations of schoolchildren. However, in the two years since these initiatives, 12 to 13 thousand new youngsters between the ages of five and 11 have been recruited to play squash or mini-squash on a regular basis.

The stats also show that 16-24 is the second biggest participatory age group in the sport, which is particularly encouraging, and that there a decent spread across the regions.

But ES still has issues with resources. About £250,000 is being invested this year in a new scheme for 2,500 primary schools, which will install one of the mini-squash rebound walls, and teacher training, with potential links to secondary schools and clubs.

What made some people predict the demise of squash was the staggeringly higher turn-over of people in a smaller amount of space which gymnasia were able to attract. But despite this squash often retained a significant role in multi-sports clubs of which it would often become the social heart.

Recently it has acquired movable walls, making for flexible space in a three-court, 200-square-metre scenario, enabling squash to fight back against other, more compact activities.

ES now plans to employ more marketing people. Amongst their tasks will be to make use of squash’s recent progress to bring a change of mind set among those who have been attracted to other, often more mechanical or repetitive methods of keeping fit.  Upon their success will the future depend.


  • Survey Shows Squash to be a Top Participation Sport

    Squash was the twelveth ranked sport by participation in the latest and largest sports survey undertaken in England. The list of sports includes a number of activities more commonly regarded as recreation including, the countries top physical activity, walking, followed by swimming, gym and cycling. Football is the top participant sport.

    The survey shows that half the population of England don’t take part in sport or active recreation. One in four adults, that’s 10.2 million people, belong to a health or sports club, compared with one in six in 2002, and six million people have taken part in competitive sport over the last year.
    Sport England’s Active People Survey, the largest ever held into the sport and recreational habits of people in England, paints a fascinating and diverse picture. Of the 363,724 people questioned in all 354 English Local Authorities:
    * 50.6%  did  not take part in any moderate intensity sport or active recreation (for 30  minutes or more) in the previous four weeks (2).  
    * 28.4%  have  built some moderate intensity sport or exercise into their lives  (2)
    * 21%  are  hitting the recommended target of 30 minutes of moderate intensity sport or  active recreation on at least three days a week, including 6.3% who do  exercise every day (2).


    The Active People Survey
    Active People: FAQs
    Sports by Sport Fact Sheet

  • The survey shows England’s diverse sporting interests. In total we identified over 230 sports that people took part in, ranging from the traditional to the unusual to the extreme.
  • Walking is the most popular recreational activity for people in England. Over 8 million adults aged 16 and over (20%) did a recreational walk for at least 30 minutes in the last 4 weeks[i]  .
  • 5.6 million people (13.8%) swim at least once a month while 4.7 million people (11.6%) go to the gym or use exercise machines (e.g. bikes, rowing machines, spinning).
  • Fitness related activities, often done on an individual basis or in classes, dominate but more traditional sports such as football (2.9 million people), golf (1.4 million), badminton (900,000) and tennis (874,000) feature in the ‘sporting top 10’.
  • 3.1 million adults cycled for at least 30 minutes in the previous 4 weeks at levels of intensity that are beneficial for health[ii] .
  • 5% of the adult population (2 million people) take part in athletics, including informal road running and jogging in addition to ‘track and field’.
  • Sports that feature high on the table tend to have a wide appeal across men and women, and people of different ages. Swimming and badminton are good examples of such sports.
  • Other sports such as cricket, rugby union and netball have a narrower participant base – but still rank in the top 25.
  • The popularity of different sports varies substantially among men and women. For example, more men (13.4%) play football than women (1.2%); similarly more men (6%) play golf than women (0.9%). By contrast, many more women (17.1%) swim than men (10.3%). Going to the gym is however more or less equally popular among men and women.
  • Levels of participation in different sports varies across regions - for example London has the highest proportion playing tennis (3%) with North East the lowest (1.2%); while golf participation is highest in the South East (4.5%) and lowest for London residents (2.4%).

[i]   To be included walking had to be defined by the respondent as ‘primarily for recreational purposes’, had to be continuous for 30 minutes and had to be at least moderate intensity – i.e. described by the respondent as either ‘a fairly brisk’ or a ‘fast pace’.

[ii]   To be included cycling had to be defined as ‘primarily for recreational purposes’, had to be continuous for 30 minutes and had to be at least moderate intensity i.e.‘enough to raise the breathing rate’.

Participation in












(See note below)



Recreational walking




(mod intensity 30+ mins)




Swimming (all)








(incl. exercise bikes/rowing machines)




Recreational cycling




(mod intensity 30 + mins)




Football (all)








Golf/Pitch and Putt/Putting
























Keep fit/sit ups




Bowls (all)




Horse Riding (Any)




Weight training








Fishing (all)












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