Sergey Belyaev serves up a Russian recipe for squash success, with a little help from James Willstrop

Rosanna is proud mother of two young squash players, a talented linguist and translator, and a popular writer on the European squash scene. Based in Bristol.

An introduction to squash by a friend led to Sergey Belyaev finding a new sporting passion, a new business building clubs … and a love match!

He is now leading a squash boom in Moscow and his long-term target is to build courts across one of the world’s biggest countries.

Despite the current political crisis on the Russian-Ukraine border, it was enlightening to talk to Sergey about his experiences so far and his exciting plans for the future.

He recently played host to James Willstrop in Moscow, and the former world No.1 was delighted to fly over to lead a number of clinics and share his passion for the sport with an enthusiastic group of players new to squash.

James told Squash Mad editor Alan Thatcher: “Sergey is a great guy who is working hard to grow the sport of squash. It was my first visit to Russia and it was exciting to see such an appetite for squash in Moscow.

“Squash has been my life and I have seen so many courts but there was a newness about this experience and it was clear that everyone at the club had caught the squash bug. It shows that squash grabs people and is totally addictive. We are all part of the same community. It made me want to build a relationship with them and help them.

“I was on court at various times over three days and one exciting session was to be on court with 20 coaches who will act as ambassadors and attract even more new players to the sport.

“Everyone was so keen. They all knew about SquashTV and I had lots of questions about playing double or triple fakes!”

Sergey Belyaev is Russia’s key squash enthusiast. A former national champion, Sergey has coached hundreds of amateur players, organises workshops and camps, promotes the game and works for the squash federations of Moscow and Russia.

Sergey walked a path from becoming an amateur player to a recognised industry leader in Russia. He represented his country in international tournaments, became Russia’s number one men’s player, commentated on squash for Eurosport, created the first squash club chain in the country, and started constructing his own courts.

Russia is now enjoying something of a squash boom. Even COVID lockdowns can’t stop a fast growing interest from both players and investors into new projects in Moscow, St Petersburg and other Russian cities.

Sergey is the one who knows how to create a squash club from scratch and lead it to a commercial success. He is now gearing for a new venture – a squash franchise business – that he hopes will lead to dozens of new clubs across the country.

Squash Mad: Good evening, Sergey. Your career in squash looks very interesting. Please, remind me when and where you started your squash adventure. Was it in Russia? Or was it abroad?

SB: I started playing squash in Russia at the end of 2008. Until then I had tried many sports and although it seemed that I had been good at them all, I had not achieved a high ranking in them all.

A few years before that I graduated from Moscow Lomonosov State University (Mathematics majors) and found myself working at a bank. A decent job but I didn’t quite like it. I always wanted to be independent and run my own venture. A business that I’ll be enjoying every day.

Then I discovered squash. I still have this flashback – something I saw on TV: two people hitting the ball against walls. I didn’t understand what was actually going on, but the picture of the game and a glass court stayed in my head. I called up a friend of mine, who had already played squash in Thailand and abroad, and when he came back to Russia, he had a special gift for me – my first squash racket.

We went to a club together – there I watched a coach coaching some players and this was an unforgettable experience. I didn’t understand how a ball goes to the back corners so deeply, how those players were able to hit the ball and the way they did it – not just hit, but hit with a purpose. That’s how I got my inspiration.

My next step was a session with a coach. My first professional coach was Irina Belyaeva, well, back then Irina Assal, a multi-champion of Russia. I got hooked on squash very quickly and the learning process was fast as well. Perhaps it was due to the sports I played as a child. I have never got to the professional level in them, but the agility, strength, speed have been transferred to squash successfully.

Irina and I got married a year after and our adventure with squash began. This was the moment I decided to leave bank to finally do what I love. Irina helped me a lot, it wouldn’t have been possible without her.

Squash Mad: The most difficult opponent?

SB: I have made a quick progress, got the national title, and the most difficult opponent became Vladimir Osipov. He also started late (playing squash). Vladimir was improving consistently. At first, it was not hard to win 3:0, but then he started taking games off me and finally beat me. This was the moment when I realised that I can refocus my career from being a squash player to being…

Squash Mad: A coach?

SB: I mean entrepreneur. I have already been working as a coach.

Squash Mad: Do you have any coaching certificates from the ESF or WSF?

SB: No, I don’t. I had so many students willing to learn how to play squash that I didn’t have time to go on a course. Actually, I became a coach when this certification system didn’t exist in Russia at that time. It was introduced later. When the certification became available I was encouraging and will be encouraging everyone to do it. Now, we promote certified coaches in Russia. We have a lot coaches with level 1, a few with level 2 and we even have one level 3 and tutor for level 1 in Russia. However, I am not interested in continuing my coaching career.

My ambition is not to coach juniors or professionals in Russia. I am taking care of amateurs, social players, people who play for fun. This is my vocation. This stems from my own career. I started playing when I was 25. This is the most popular category for amateur players in Russia i.e. people who tasted squash at the age of 25, 30 or 35. They are the core of the squash movement. It is impossible to turn them into professional athletes because they started playing squash late and are busy working in another industry.

This is the age when you get the grip of the game, it is fun and it keeps you healthy and fit. They can play amateur tournaments, and can travel the world to watch the best players and play Masters events if they want. That’s the main reason I am not interested in official recognition of my coaching skills. I have students who have participated in those coaching courses, and they have become good coaches. I do recommend others to do those courses of course and develop their coaching knowledge, but it’s the unusual circumstances that have manifested themselves in my case that stopped me from getting qualified.

Squash Mad: Thank you. I can see a man who is absolutely in love with squash and passionate about our sport. Let’s move to the topic of owning a club.

SB: It is clear from my story that I got hooked on squash very quickly. At a time, 12 years ago in Moscow, there were just a few coaches and players that kept squash alive and kicking. It was the Multisport Club with three courts where five or six of us worked as coaches. The club phone was ringing all the time with many people wanting to book the court and a coach, but it was impossible as hundreds of our customers have been playing in this club with all three courts being occupied day in, day out.

Many of the club’s customers were foreigners and expats who came to Russia to work and had played squash before. They observed how crowded the club was and they started asking questions about courts construction, costs, profits, about a business model etc. At the time I was already looking for an idea for my own venture – so I started listening carefully to those conversations about squash as a business.

I left the bank job for the game but not to become the best player or coach ever. I was always aiming to turn this into a successful business venture. I have done my research on this properly and decided together with Irina to give it a go.

Luckily, she is the person who likes new challenges and new projects. We decided to open a small club which was supposed to be a family business. I started with family means and then I managed to get an investor who was one of our customers.

Squash Mad: You say a small club. Could you please give more details?

SB: Two courts, changing rooms, toilets, showers, reception desk. Nothing extra. With time our players got used to its size and started using courts for warming-up, cooling down, and fitness sessions. At the beginning we were a little bit worried that it might not work out, but people liked it. It created a unique club atmosphere – small and cosy, everybody knows each other. The place is small but in this case less is more. The courts are of correct measurements, with good floor, good lighting, and enough height to play a lob.

Former Russian champion Alexey Severinov and I organised a camp with Gregory Gaultier (world No.1 at that time) in 2015 and he spent three days with us running group and individual sessions. We played some exhibitions matches as well. This club has become my second home as I am there every day. It has become home for many others, too. This is how I started my own club, a risky step, but so much worth it. It is a very special club in a special place with very special customers. (Rosanna: The club was destroyed by fire but has been rebuilt and reopened).

Squash Mad: Please tell me more about the chain of the clubs that you have mentioned at the beginning.

SB: This is my next project. As soon as my first club (which was opened eight years ago) became popular I decided to launch a chain of clubs. The business was working well, the number of people involved was growing, so I decided I could have more clubs. I opened two more small clubs with two courts each.

We aimed to create a homely and cosy atmosphere. One club was opened in a mall and unfortunately it failed. Another club was opened at the Olympic Stadium but also closed down almost two years ago due to building reconstruction. We are planning to re-open it once the renovation is done.

While opening clubs I decided to build courts. All certified courts from the established court builders were so expensive to get to Russia that I realised I could arrange this myself much cheaper and faster with Russian manufacturers.

My first courts were self-constructed and under my supervision. They were so well liked that people began to enquire about my courts. The first court we built upon order was in the Newton Arena in Moscow six years ago. It was so exciting! Then I partnered with tennis court manufacturer Oleg Kasatkin with whom we began building and improving courts together. We have set up a company called BelKa Squash Group.

Oleg has been involved in manufacturing and building tennis courts all his life. Squash was never his priority, but when we started working together he started getting involved more and more. BelKa Squash Group came into being in 2016. We started producing good quality courts and we are still working on making them better.

Squash Mad: How many courts have BelKa Squash Group manufactured and sold?

SB: I think that from 2017 until now we have built and sold 30 courts in Russia or perhaps a bit more. I think it is quite a lot. I was receiving many enquiries, but I needed hands to build them.

I was responsible for quality and for attracting new customers, but it wasn’t a hard job as I have been known and active within the Russian squash community long enough. Now, we are actively competing with major manufacturers. If you put these courts next to ours, our courts will be of a comparable quality, but the price will be two times lower, not to mention the time of manufacturing and building – this is also two times faster. For example to install four courts by Belka Squash Group will take up to three months and will cost about $80,000.

Squash Mad: It is not a secret that certified courts are expensive, therefore people are actively seeking alternative solutions. So if there is anyone in Russia who thinks “I want to open a squash club?” who will advise them?

SB: I am exactly that person. My goal is to share as much information as possible about squash courts with investors. I help them to make a business choice in favour of a world known court brand or an alternative budget solution. Therefore, BelKa Squash Group offers more than just courts sale. Our advice is free, because the aim is to spread information, get the knowledge about the regions where squash courts can be potentially built, and most of all develop our sport.

Squash Mad: Out of those 30 courts you have built where is the most remote one located?

SB: There is one in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (on Sakhalin island, in the Far East). There is also one in Murmansk (Far North). We have renovated the squash courts in the Indian Embassy in Moscow and after that we were asked to build a court in India, which we did. We also delivered and built the court in Tajikistan, not to mention St Petersburg, which is definitely closer than Sakhalin or India!

These projects are completed, but I still have about 200 queries on the books and from this list I decided to launch my latest long-term project evolved which is a franchise model for clubs based.

Photo by Jacob
Photo by Kolya
Photo by Oliver
Photo by Leo
Photo by Paul
Photo by Lea

Squash Mad: A popular new discussion is trending about outdoor courts. Have you considered building outdoor squash courts?

SB: This concept is familiar to me. There are outdoor glass courts in New York and Israel, for example. We get such queries and we can do it, but permanent outdoor courts available to the public are not on the radar due to the weather. We have built a glass court on private land with a glass roof to protect it from the rain or snow. The floor is not wooden, it is hard tennis acrylic, so it can be wet. Having tried different business models I have no ambition to build the biggest club in the world, I think mostly about clubs with two or three courts, but preferably in every city in Russia.

I support all investors who want to build big clubs. I understand, however, that the most important thing for squash in Russia is to appear in every region and in every city as I mentioned. The club doesn’t have to be big at the beginning to get people play, it doesn’t have to be big to get people together and form an amazing squash community. (Rosanna: There is a town in Poland with 15,000 inhabitants and two courts, but the squash community is amazing and active, and I will write about it in my next piece).

We have a squash boom in Moscow, but I think about all the regions of Russia. The Russian Squash Federation helps to open regional federations as you know it from the interview with Kirill in 2017, but they have other work to do than to support investors all the way. And I take care of them step by step.

In Moscow the court hire is $20-25 per hour. It is not the price that will be easily paid in the regions. The price there will probably be $10, so my experience when I can actually count every penny, every meter and every hour is very important.

If they need coaches I know all the coaches who can teach how to coach, if they need courts, I have courts. If they need any other help, I have the experience to share. They will be also made aware that there is a risk factor as this is a business, not money in the bank. So this is my plan for the future.

And in conclusion, I want to say that now there really is a squash boom in Russia. I am proud to mention that friends from St Petersburg (with the support the Russian Squash Federation) has won a tender for the WSF World Juniors this year, and I have to praise them for this. Great job.

Squash Mad: I have contacted Robert Vrubel from the Russian Federation and I have already put my name as a volunteer for this event.

SB: I think it is going to be a very good and joyful event. If they need me, of course I am happy to help. In general, I used to be involved in many things, but now I want to focus more on my own path to the future.

Squash Mad: Please tell us your thoughts about the visit from James Willstrop.

SB: On January 28-30, the long-awaited arrival of James Willstrop in Moscow took place. Only positive emotions remained from working with James. He is always positive, open to people and completely devoted to the process.

It is noticeable with what pleasure he shares his knowledge and experience. Definitely a professional in his field and a real squash ambassador.