The FIR caught up with UK Racketlon player Piers Boden via Zoom for a chat. The former World No.16 is one of the sport’s brightest young talents, winning this year’s CHA Thailand Open. Here, Piers discusses how he discovered racketlon, his decision to move to Finland (the birthplace of Racketlon), and his dreams for the sport both on and off the court.
How’s life in Finland at the moment?
Finland’s going great. I’ve just been enjoying the sunshine this week, doing a bit of swimming and sauna obviously and trying to keep up with some studies but they’re not the forefront at the moment.
I can’t really complain when I’ve got a lake on my doorstep. I’ve always wanted to go fishing and there are so many activities to do out in the forest as well.
We’ll go right to the very start. How did you discover racketlon?
Actually, it was a long time ago now. It was in my tennis club in Huddersfield. I had a friend who played tennis with me and he mentioned to me that he went to some racketlon tournament and told me how fun it was and I’d love it.
I already played a bit of squash with Hannah [Boden] and a bit of table tennis and obviously badminton but I never knew about racketlon. I thought “hey, why not have a go”. I’d played all of them socially at least and tennis quite competitively at the same time so I thought I’d give it a go. And here I am now, so many years later, still playing.
How did you start out? Did you dive straight into the international circuit or domestic tournaments first?
I played maybe one year domestically. I remember my first tournament was the English Open in Surrey. It was an under 16 event. After that I thought, let’s give it a go and play some more domestics. My first international was actually at Surrey Sports Park, in the 2014 World Championships. That was my first taste of international competition and playing against all these foreign guys. It was a big, scary experience but I enjoyed it and that’s what kept me hooked. That and the community as well.
Jumping right forward to this year, you did something that very few other European players did have done. You went over and played the Thailand Open and Indian Open. Tell us a little bit about that experience, especially having played largely European tournaments up to this point.
It’s a big difference. The culture shock was huge for me. I’d never been outside of Europe apart from Canada for the Canadian tournament in 2016 but I’d never been to Asia. I knew the culture shock would be quite big and it really was, especially India.
Thailand in Pattaya was kind of like a holiday destination. There were lots of tourists and it was a typical holiday place.
Udaipur, in the middle of nowhere in northwest India. It was a huge culture shock driving from the airport to the hotel. There were people on the sides of the streets begging. Really poor people. It was quite hard to see.
Then you go into the inner city and there were guys in suits going to work in the banking district. It was a huge separation in their society and that was the biggest thing for me, to see the social side.
Obviously, the racketlon scene is quite different there. We’ve got some new players but for me, the social differences were quite big.
What are your thoughts on the expansion of Racketlon into Asia?
There’s obviously a much bigger target market for racketlon there. There are so many players in India and Thailand and other Asian countries that haven’t been explored. Obviously, Duncan’s working pretty hard trying to move things over there with all the FIR strategy. India’s a really big place to get into because there are so many players from all the different sports and the population’s so big that it’s hard to imagine how big it can grow if a bit of publicity is put into the sport over there. I think there’s really big potential in the Asian countries personally.
Would you like to go back and play tournaments in those countries again next year?
Yeah definitely. If I can afford it, that’s the only difference.
In 2018 you made the decision to move from the UK over to Finland. Talk to us about that.
I was working in London in the fire service and I decided to have a new start. I moved completely alone to Finland. I was an au pair for four months and then I became a student here in Finland on a Bachelors’s degree and that’s still what I’m doing now.
Why Finland? What was it that drew you over?
I think obviously it’s the birthplace of racketlon. I had a few friends already in Finland. The nature is so beautiful and it’s such a chilled way of life. On top of the fact that tuition is free. That was big pull factor for me because tuition fees in the UK at the moment are quite high. I didn’t really want to get into any sort of debt when I finished my studies and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I wanted to study.
That’s why I just took the leap and started a new life here and now I’m happy that I choose to do that because it’s worked out as a really good decision to me.
What is the domestic scene currently like in Finland? How popular are the four individual sports and in racketlon as a whole?
In Finland there’s a pretty low population – only 5.5 million approximately. Compared to other countries that’s pretty much nothing – it’s about half the size of London. The size of this country in terms of area it takes so long to travel to places.
I’d say most of the competitions are in the capital region, Helsinki, and there’s a few in some of the other cities including Jyvaskyla and Oulu in the North where Tommi Laine is based.
To be honest with you, I haven’t participated much in the domestic tour here. There hasn’t been so much going on from what I can see – maybe one tournament a month maximum. Nothing compared to the UK team. I really hope that I can help try and build it up again with the help of Racketlon Finland and help get it much bigger once again.
You’ve obviously come from the UK which has one of the largest domestic scenes in the world. What have you learnt from the UK scene that you’re hoping to translate into Finland to reignite the passion for racketlon that was really big 15 years ago?
It’s been such a big thing here and it’s quite disappointing to see how it’s dropped off a little bit. With the big names like Mikko Karkkainen and Ismo Ronkko retiring, there’s been a bit of a fall in racketlon participation here.
I would say that I aim to increase, to start with, the numbers of players in racket sports because that’s a big stepping stone to increase the size of racketlon. Lots of players maybe don’t even know what it is in Finland, like in other counties. Here’s there’s big potential though because it’s the birthplace [of the sport]. It was invented here in Finland so I can bring it back here and try and get it bigger and that’s what I aim to do eventually with my business and some hard work.
You’ve obviously got the coaching side of things to promote the sport. Outside of the coaching, is there anything else that you’re looking to do to boost participation?
I’ve had some big ideas before starting up my business because I was also working as a racket sports coach. I was employed by a big holiday resort company for two years so I was working all the time, coaching and I had a lot of experience there.
I was planning on doing some training camps. I was thinking of some weekend training camps and maybe some week camps in this part of Finland because it’s such a fantastic place off of the court as well. There’s lots of options for activities.
There’s even an idea that if I can get some form of international event, starting off as a challenger, maybe even going to Lapland. It’s somewhere that many places would like to visit – it’s got the Northern Lights and many other holiday attractions. We could maybe merge it with some sort of racketlon tournament in the future and I think that would be quite a big leap for Finnish Racketlon association.
There’s a few ideas floating around but to start with I just want to increase the idea and the concept of racketlon and get more people into racket sports.
What’s your relationship with the Finnish Racketlon Association like?
I know all of the guys who work there and the current chairman. We’ve had some conversations in the past about how we can grow racketlon, especially in my part of Finland. I’m located in one of these quiet zones where there’s not so much going on in terms of Racketlon. We’ve discussed in the past about how to increase the setup here and I know them all pretty well and I know most of the players including Luka Penttinen and Tommi Laine.
If we can get the interest out there there’s real potential for it to grow much bigger. That’s what I hope for.
My last question would be about your personal ambitions. What are your ambitions for you on the court, with your business and for Finnish racketlon?
With my own playing career, when this corona is all over and we can return to the courts, I want to get into the top 10 in the men’s world rankings. It’s been a thing on my list since I started playing. I reached No.16 before I had my nasty knee injury which kept me out for a year or so. I’d also like to win another title on the international scene and maybe another two or three. Who knows.
For my business, personally, I just want to get as many people involved in racket sports and increase participation, especially in terms of grassroots and children and youth because essentially that’s the future of racketlon. I have some plans to go into some schools and introduce the concept there when my Finnish language gets a little bit better.
How is your Finnish coming on?
It’s getting better, let’s put it that way. I’ve been here for two years but obviously all my studies are in English so it doesn’t help me to learn. I’m trying though and speaking it as much as I can. Obviously it’s one of the most complex languages in the world but I’m giving it a good go at least.
Sam Barker / FIR Media Officer
Image Credit / Piers Boden