Sunday, December 27, 2009
I have complained when I have had to pay a 95.00 dollar entry fee to play a young female junior player old enough to be my daughter. Sorry, I don't like playing teenage girls or for that matter an ocassional adult woman in tournaments. But that really isn't what this is about.
I have a student I coach, Margaret, who is an ex collegiate player and now mother of three. She is coming back to the game after about 15 years. She played since she was 9 years old and was coached by a legend in women's squash who recently passed away. Margaret hasn't kept up with how the game has evolved. She is probably typical of most women players, compete in the juniors, get into college, play in college and then launch a career and family and stop playing squash. She is really good and works so hard in our sessions, I push her very hard, because squash is hard it demands a lot from any who play it.
I question the premise for anyone who thinks squash is a vehicle to something better that isn't about squash. Squash to me is like Ancient Greek Poetry, which I studied throughout college and still do. It takes a lot of work and study and dedication to read it, in the end few will care that you read it except me, the reader, who has reaped the most amazing benefits of reading a language and literature that is the penultimate of our Western Civilization . Squash is the same to me as that Greek Poetry -- it's the penultimate sport, there is no fanfare, no exposure, it is so hard and difficult to do, but if you play it and get good at it is the most amazing experience. I can only equate it with reciting lines of Homer's Odyssey in Ancient Greek with striking continuously tight rail after tight rail. Both took so much dedication and hard work, but ultimately who cares, some might ask where did it get me?...to a college scholarship, a better job? No they just fueled this incredible passion for this game as well as for that poetry.
I would like to say I do either of these callings for simply the love of doing them, I spent 12 years studying Greek and Latin and 30 years playing squash and I have never derived anything from them other than the love of doing them and trying to do them better with the passing of time.
I have sat through enough junior tournaments and listened to parents talk incessantly about their children playing squash and being recruited and playing in college. I am sure Klipstein ecstatically is rolling his eyes in his corporate head and thinking all sorts of success, but in reality, it is a quick reward for what is ultimately a pathetic failure.
Do those players who option for playing college squash and spend their entire junior careers working towards that ever think about or dream of playing this game professionally? I doubt it. When I was 13 I didn't dream of playing college baseball I dreamed of sharing the field with all the great players of the day. How many women squash players dream of playing like David, the Grihnam sisters, or ever understand the most amazing accomplishments of squash's greatest woman player, Heather Mckay? But they do, I'm sure, dream of knowing what getting into an Ivy League school seems to mean.
You can probably meet this dilemma at a crossroads of men's collegiate squash as well...is it no wonder that we have never placed a US born squash player in the upper echelons of squash, woman's or man's?
I once sat with a gentleman who had a highly ranked girl's junior player and he was talking to me about the potential for her receiving a scholarship, I watched her play, and just thought a perfect college squash player, basic tactics, will play the boring game of college squash and probably never pick up a racquet after turning 24. He watched my son play and said wow who is recruiting him for college and I responded by saying he doesn't want to play collegiate squash he wants to play professionally. He looked at me like I just said something really nasty and said, why would my son want to do that there's no money in it, he should use it for college. I responded there are just some things you simply do for the love of it. Enough said, he never spoke to me again.
So I am so happy that my student, Margaret, started playing again, not because she aspires to great things in squash, playing professionally, but simply because squash rekindled something in her -- I'm glad to support her, maybe make her a better player and to once again play this game simply for the love of it -- I might encourage her to join the USSRA to play in some women's tournaments and play her best squash. She won't be some percentage statistic for squash CEOs to present to squash board members or shareholders -- not yet at least.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Upon Jim's arrival, he hardly had time to put his stuff down then we headed for the courts. I hadn't seen him in over a year and at that time I was injured and couldn't get on the court with him. Last June I was away on business but my son played and trained with him while he was passing through which set up this week's highly anticipated match between them.
My son had been training hard but not playing many matches at a high level. Jim had been playing on the old narrow American courts at UCLA while teaching English Literature and doing a bit of coaching. It seems each of their disadvantages would cancel each other's out.
We were on the courts at LA Fitness and hitting around before the next day's match. They warmed up and Jim seemed befuddled on the court, the ball whizzing by him. Anyone who has played on the old narrow court for awhile knows when you first get back to the international court it is like another planet, or maybe like looking into space. It takes awhile to adjust and and get your bearings -- they drilled and played some long ball. The first deep shot Jim shanked and checked his racquet to make sure it had strings, I must confess I thought, the master is getting old he may have lost a bit.
A 40 year old player, however great, is much different than a great 20 year old player. The pace and the power in their games are different, the reflexes too. While the 20 year old can run and bait an older player into playing that fast paced game, the older wiser player no doubt will attempt to slow it down. While I was thinking this, it occurred to me the master might be disguising himself, much like Odysseus did when returning home disguised as a simple beggar to a house of hostile young warriors. Was he maybe baiting my son into thinking he was slower and lacked the killer instinct he displayed in some of their past matches. He was sore, and he had trouble with the pace and the court. I didn't get on the court with him since I had numerous lessons, which he observed, and of course offered some helpful pointers -- he extended his approval for my coaching methods, which was very important to me as I always strive to get the master's approval.
We spent the evening talking about squash and watching a DVD of Ikskander and Ashour in a match from two years ago. It's great to watch these matches with Jim because he can provide some really astute observations. Ah, I thought, his brilliance is he is at once a student and a teacher.
The day of the match arrived. We headed back to the courts and my son and Jim stretched and warmed up. My son ran a mile and Jim went on the Elliptical. One of my students remarked to me how good could a squash player could Jim be with a beer gut. A slight over exaggeration but yes, Jim has a bit of a gut, but his legs and upper body are strong and he has a solid well balanced squash player's gait and center of gravity. My son is the perfect specimen of a squash player around 6 feet tall, long legs, strong upper body and moves around the court like a gazelle with grace and balance.
We had invited members of the LA Fitness squash community to come watch. I would referee the match. Jim was introduced to all our fellow squash players and he greeted them in his usual friendly manner -- he always seems so at ease around any level of squash player. Both my son and Jim got on court and began warming up. I watched Jim for signs of that wily warrior disguised behind the old beggar. Instantly, Jim cracked a cross court off of my son's cross court warm up shot. And then another and another, down the rail, cross nick, the racquet was like a wand. His backhand is so good -- he takes his racquet back and follows through and with perfect precision makes contact at just the right point. My son seemed a bit tight, I play him and train with him so much I knew his legs hadn't loosened up, best that he gets them going early since Jim looks on his game, so I thought.
On the forehand side Jim really started hitting his stride moving about, taking the ball early, volley dropping. He had his game face on, this wasn't my son he was playing but some opponent that was challenging his squash realm. He was a warrior now. He plays the front well, but he isn't as accomplished there because of a long ago hamstring and knee injury. If you can hit great length, you're more selective in the front patiently waiting for the best opportunity to apply pressure in the front court. My son's front court game has come a long way, he is really strong in the front and I knew he would be attacking the front against Jim forcing him to cover the front as much as possible.
The match started and the points in the first game were beautiful. Both players flowed effortlessly around the court. Jim's movement was so efficient, but a bit flat footed, so my son really took it to him and it was clear his strategy was to make Jim run. The points were long both players feeling each other out, but Jim was being outplayed by a younger and faster player. My son built a solid lead and seemed to take control of the game at 6-3. But then, as it often happens, the player up in the game gets a bit over anxious and wants to close the game out early. Jim was clearly huffing not from a lack of fitness, but from the pace. He argued a few calls, there were some lets, wily that he is, he was trying to disrupt the rhythm of the game. He also started throwing a bit of junk, the old hardball reverse in the front and the Philadelphia Boast, and then really slowing the ball down. I watched how my son reacted and he pressed harder and I could see his cross courts weren't as good ow and Jim stepped in and took them but changed the pace of the ball. He started to take control the first storm weathered. At 6-7 Jim served up this high lob serve that seemed to hang in the air for 5 minutes and my son hit a loose cross and Jim placed a beautiful forehand straight volley drop into the nick.
They went back and forth and Jim had a couple of game balls but my son hung in there and at 11-10 Jim serving, they had a long point and then Jim did the unthinkable, he hit a reverse cross into the backhand (an old hardball shot) that caught my son flatfooted -- he had no chance to retrieve. It was Odysseus, the wily old warrior, seizing game 1.
The second game was Jim's. He ran my son around and my son tinned quite a few. Jim used his pretzel game to create havoc. My son was valiant in his efforts but slow to adjust to Jim's strategy. I thought my son the better player, but as often is the case, the better player doesn't always win.
I tried to offer encouragement and advice to my son between the second and third games, an old habit of mine from my son's junior playing days, and he brushed me off. Okay, he was coming up with his own strategy and he doesn't need me.
The third game was all out war. My son began retrieving better and moving Jim to the front. The game was very tight, Midway through the game it seemed Jim was thinking okay, maybe give my son this game and come back in the fourth game. Dangerous. Jim began slicing and dicing and redirecting the ball off his hold, but my son hung in there, countered well cutting the ball off. He seemed to frustrate Jim with a drop to the backhand front wall from behind the service box. I thought, if my son takes this game he will win because it would have taken too much out of Jim. Jim must have picked up my thoughts because I saw how he wanted to finish it there and he pressed hard and started taking the ball early. It was fast and furious a game which brought out the best in each player.
In the end, Jim won the third game in a tiebreaker and the match. It was not my son's best play, but it was a lesson only playing a match like that can teach -- beware of warriors disguised in beggar clothes! Jim discussed the match and his strategy and it was right on. I was proud of him for some reason maybe because I felt guilty about doubting him the previous night. As we left the courts for dinner, he said he learned some things watching my son's footwork and movement and I responded he taught us some things as well -- at once both student and teacher, warrior and wiseman.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
I recently watched him play a match which he was losing. He was sapping the wall with his racquet, mumbling to himself, and his slumped shoulders and overall body language suggested he was losing not to his opponent but to himself. Yes, I realized, he was better than his opponent and should beat him but he was really battling and playing himself, an opponent you can really never beat. People come up to me all the time and compliment me on how I have brought him along but the suggest ways to fix his temperment. I nod and say his temperment has cost him a lot of racquets and there's not much I can do about that.
When he is doing well he listens to me when doing badly he will basically tell me @$@$ off! That is okay, because I know where he is coming from, he is coming from a place where he knows the absolute joys of that tight rail and the utter misery of the loose shot. He is a practice player right now and his success is measured in the quality of his shots, not in the results of the point.
To me, he is already showing signs of a great player. He might not win and make lots of mistakes, but he does things that show me a really high IQ on the court. He is determined to split step on the court during the match, he wills this large frame to split his step and bound toward the ball. While he is perhaps late on the ball, I marvel at the thought of when he is 20 lbs lighter and doing this and exploding to the ball. He has this innate desire to take the ball earlier and pressure his opponent. I see it, I see what he's trying to do and love it. Unfortunately and frustrating for him is his body and skill level won't support that yet.
Haadi will go through a lot of changes in squash, lose a lot of matches, but when he starts winning he will win like a champion, a champion who has known what it is to lose, what it is to be hindered by certain things, he will know what it is to strive to be better, strive to win, to reach every ball. He will someday soon become a player who doesn't critisize himself and evaluate his every shot, he will judge himself at the end of each match and not at the end of each stroke...we will bring him to this point, train him, teach him, and give him the tools to take squash to whatever levels his talent and desire take him -- it may cost some racquets and lots of embarassment and lectures too, but this junior is gifted and someday I hope to watch him play a match where I won't know the score and I won't know whether he is winning or losing.
The best softball players in the city played there, there were 4 hardball courts and 1 1nternational court. I worked 3 blocks away so I was able to steal away at lunch and play on the international court. I'd played the hardball court if necessary, but I loved the international court. I worked like a demon, running and training to play the softball game. It took about 8 -10 months to really get fit again. I played 7 times a week, sometimes twice a day. I was now going through a messy divorce and coupled with demanding work, it was the only place on earth I felt whole and complete. I remember stopping in between points with my friend and partner in squash Stephen Aronoff (he stopped playing) and just thinking that other than holding my children in my arms or reading them to sleep at night, there was no place on earth where I'd rather have been than that squash court. I must have pinched myself (is this like heaven) as much as I cursed myself (is this like hell), but it all seemed to even out.
I can still hear the softball off the old British style court at Park Place come off the wall, like music, the sound was pure poetry. I can still see Anders Wahlstadt and Chris Stevens playing, simply awed by their level of play. The hardball courts remained mostly empty. I had started playing with a heavy wooden racquet and held out as long as I could with the wooden racquet, in fact I used to buy 20 of them at a time from a sporting goods place on Nassau Street. I went through them in a matter of months. Eventually I switched to the graphite ones, first Dunlop, then Black Knight, and eventually Head.
I played squash in the old style of the wooden racquet whereby you had to hold the butt of your racquet near your ear and come down and through the ball. I learned softball technique. Afterall, I never picked up a hardball again once I played softball. It was the only way to generate some racquet head speed and put some pace on the ball. But softball was the faster game in theory because the ball died and you needed to be faster and quicker to the ball. Hardball required not as much speed of foot because the court was smaller and the ball came out more to the middle. The stroke had to be more compact, more efficient and quicker to play the fast moving hardball.
The two games remained distinctly different until the racquet technology changed. Once the racquet became lighter and the sweet spot bigger, softballers really put some pace on the ball. Not only did the game require faster movement and footwork, but the pace of the ball was really fast. But then the hardball game became really troubled, because on the narrow court players could literally get to everything...the game became boring, the exciting winners and nicks or crushing the low hard cross for a winner wasn't a winner anymore. The ball stood up and the game wasn't that much different than a racquet ball flying all over the place. Imagine if a racquetball court had a tin and you couldn't hit the ceiling, it would essentially be hardball squash in the 90's.
Anyways, it wasn't until I read Frank Sautterwait's autobiography and his chapter on the softball game from a professional hardball player's perspective did I finally understand how hardball players were able to so convincingly switch to the softball game with the new racquet technology. I'm thinking of those great Canadians Power and Waite and maybe even Stevens too. When I met Jim Masland he had only been two years into his softball career when I met him in North Carolina, having played hardball most of his life. The hardball stroke was perfect for the new racquet and the faster speed and pace of the softball. The old softball stroke was inefficient for the new racquet technology and pace of the softball game...and those softball players who overlapped into the new racquet age and the leap in evolution in the softball game, changed their strokes...they needed to, and when the glass court was introduced along with new racquet technology, the softball player needed a quicker, hardball like stroke! To me that is when hardball died.
I don't expect I'm saying anything new, but this always interested me how a sport that was booming in the 70's and 80's just died. It's like a lot of things in America, new technology, replaces old technology and workers get displaced...new technology spawns new participants or compels those to convert to the new and reinvent themselves. Those that don't are left behind, this is America, always reinventing itself. I always read James Zug history of squash as a sort of eulogy for the hardball game in America.
The softball game grew to combine the quickness and fast paced ball with the athleticism and strategy and depth of the old softball game. It's like chess on the clock vs. chess off the clock. The game has changed, it is the best game in the world...and in all of this, I spent thousands of hours and dollars to convert my game into the newer game as it was starting to be played in the early to mid 90's. I am glad I did, and my body and god willing, I will continue to incorporate new techniques into my game like the open stance backhand (which took me two years to build into my muscle memory ) or the dying length rail or the drop with minimal slice. It is this innate fear that this ever evolving game will someday leave me behind that I push myself to the point of keeping up with whatever changes in technology, technique, or training -- lest I remain like those few hardballers that cling to the distant past of a game that has long since died.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
I used to hit the forehand rail and ghost the backhand rail and maybe ghost a front cross court off a boast and then play the actuall volley, but what I never did and what I think was missing in these drills was a combination -- as complex as you like depending on your level -- of ghosting and striking the ball.
These drills can be moderate to very brutal depending on the player's fitness and skill and of course desire to get better. It's a system worked through with collaboration between coach and player that enables any level player to work on fitness, movement, court mechanics and good shots. I like to use these drills for those players wanting to extend themselves a little or a lot beyond their comfort zone...you need a coach who understands the player's level and can construct patterns along with appropriate length and width to coincide with that player's level.
There's no point hitting tight rails of dying length to a B level player since that isn't something they will likely encounter at their level, but it is appropriate to let's say ghost a boast from the backhand and hit a volley about a foot off the side wall for the player to volley...once you observe that player can consistantly hit that volley at a B level you start adjusting position and angle of the volley feed to enable the player to start hitting off the volley shots in that A realm. This can often lead to some early raggedness in the drills, but if the player is keen, the coach, player and drill tend to clean up the loose ends.
I am a proponent of combining multiple ghosts with on the ball hitting. Ghosting alone addresses footwork and racquet preparation only, but when you combine striking the ball you are covering a complete gamut of movement, preparation and ball handling. One thing I found in video examples of ghosting was a glaring mistake, by even higher level players, when ghosting out of the front they simply don't look behind them to simulate picking up the ball in the back to where they just hit it. What's the point if you don't follow the imaginary line pf the ball with your eyes? However, if you have a coach who is holding the ball and instructs you to pick it up immediately and you see the ball and watch him strike it, you are really incorporating some reality of match play.
I have been doing these drills with my aspiring pro son and believe that it is the most challenging drilling he can do. I used to do drills with him without ghosting combination and I wasn't able to push him mostly because I didn't have the skills to feed him at that low pro level. There was too much pressure on me and my feeds weren't tight enough in many of those continuous striking drills. With the ghosting combinations I have time to place my feeds tight and with good length or deftly place the front court volley drops or attacking boasts. The results are quite amazing.
And the absolute beauty of these drills, okay I admit it, they are much easier on the coach who has been on the court for 7 hours straight. If the player works hard at their level and wants to improve to a higher level, whether it be better fitness, tighter shots or better technique, they will accomplish that. During the drills the player can see immediately, without a lot of convincing from the coach what they need to work on -- the drill sort of speaks back to them.
I looked at the Footworker video which is a computer generated movement drill (check out their website footworker.ca) that serves the purpose of practicing footwork and movement drills. This is good and for fitness, you probably can't beat it. But footwork and ball striking aren't mutually exclusive. You always play and practice to your ability without having that coach's set of eyes telling you that your lifting your head to soon off your ghosting rail to the front or bending too much at the waste on d not your knees, what is the point of practicing what's wrong with what you're doing over and over again -- are you perfecting bad technique and movement?
A coach is critical to observation, maybe not if you are a top 50 ranked pro, but for the rest of the squash mortals you need someone to observe and with a critical eye observe your movement and ball striking and to construct drills according to your level and ability.
I was close to purchasing the Footworker and using it on court to simulate movement in an A level match and then I had this flash of my son's expression as he saw me doing the movements -- as if to say, hey, you aren't getting low enough to the ball, your presence on the T is too jumpy (watch the video the player demonstrating this is like a jack rabbit on the T! Also watch how when he moves out of the front court his eyes are fixed often on the front wall), or you are lifting your head to early when striking the ball. I later thought about this tool and realized if they could put a camera in it to film your movements for later review or immediate replay feedback, that would be extremely helpful and make the tool all the more valuable. You could record the session and upload it to your computer to watch or forward it to your coach for review and analysis.
I decided not to purchase this item and will continue with my methods, refining them, pushing my students, myself, and my son, hopefully, to new and greater levels.
Monday, December 14, 2009
It seemed like he would never finish a match I was watching -- a couple of times he retired injured. But then I saw him beat Willstrop a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to go up to him and tell him he was absolutely my favorite player and what a great match he played.
I remember at that same tournament talking to a local knucklehead pro who said to me Matthew doesn't "do enough with the ball." That really annoyed me and I told him he was ridiculous trying to remind him of that incredible forehand volley drop.
Okay, how many of us tried copying that Dave Pearson like backhand of his? I think that knucklehead pro went to Pearson's camp and came back with an abortion of that stroke.
Anyways, Matthew as of this writing is at number 4 in the world! This is great news and I truly believe if he remains injury free he will eventually hit number 1. The path through that is not through any Egyptians as he has shown, but most likely through Gaultier. I think Gaultier is the uncrowned number 1 in the world and I hope Matthews proves me wrong. France and England always a fierce competition.
I talked to someone who watched Matthews come up in the juniors. The thing he said that struck him most was his tenacity at wanting to win every point and at whatever cost. He never gave up on any points -- something you can't teach or coa
Maybe by March, number 1, Mr. Matthew?
As an addendum, since this was written Ashour and Matthew battled it out in Saudi Arabia recently in what was reported to be an incredible match. I can't wait to see a replay of this. At staked was the number 1 ranking...Mr. Matthew is ever so close, but what is even better is the Matthew - Ashour matches are shaping up to be a great rivalry. Anytime an opponent elevates another player's level of play, and intensity, makes for some great squash.
Monday, November 30, 2009
When my son and I returned home from a long stint in India, we were eager to get back to playing and training at our La Fitness squash home in Great Neck, New York. It had become over the years our temple of squash, we loved it especially since we didn't have to go into the City all the time and pay for parking, membership and court time. When we were in India, it was so difficult to pay and play (see my posting on squash in Bangalore, India). So we were back. We spent early mornings training and drilling and evenings playing matches. I was in really good shape and had dropped around 50 lbs and my son was very fit and had taken his game to a new level. All the while we were playing and training, we saw very few players. The La Fitnesse in Great Neck is an airplane hangar-like factlity with 40,000 members. It has two international squash courts. Squash isn't popular on Long Island, mostly LaCrosse and baseball and basketball are the staple sports. The club also has a pretty active racquetball community. I am constantly chasing racquetball players soccer, volley-ball, tennis and hand-ball players off these courts. I've been even known to tell those who threaten to damage the courts by hitting soccer balls into the tin that if need be I will defend the court with my life. They mostly look at me like I'm insane maybe mutter some expletive and leave.
Anyways, in a facility like that space is at a premium so I always feared that they would eventually take the courts and use them for something else.
There's a point to this so bear with me. Five years ago when I was doing some coaching, mostly for free, I wanted some limited A players to play with. Many of the players were old and over weight and didn't care about drilling, training, or elevating their game. But then I found Chuck, a very athletic law student who really loved the game. He had horrible technique, but I saw something in him and was certain within a year I could coach him to a limited A level. We would drill and play games and he was very coachable, just absorbing everything I would show him. After about three months of playing 3 times a week he really started improving and giving me a good match. We had long rallies, contentious competitve play, and both of us left the courts feeling we had played quite a match. I was also coaching my son at the time whom I consistently beat to his immense frustration. Witin six months Chuck and my son started beating me. While I should have been pissed I was absolutely delighted. I had taken two players and elevated their games to a new level. As it turned out, the first time my son beat me in a five set marathon, I never have beaten him again. As for Chuck, he took his new A level game to D. C. where he works as a tax lawyer. I hope many players in that area are reaping the benefits of his game and talent.
I then spent about a year coaching about 7 players each 3 times a week, this was before India. I had one really talented woman player, Elaine, who was very gifted. But then I had to take a project in India and was gone for quite sometime. When I left, those courts were often booked full the weekends and most evenings.
When we eventually returned from India it was to empty courts again. We were barely off the plane when we headed over to LA Fitnesse, we were really home. It was great since we didn't have to worry about booking courts and extended play and training time. We used to joke how the courts were like our own private ones.
But then the empty courts started to bother me again. Empty courts. You can't have empty squash courts! That fear of loosing them crept back into my head. I then started emailing players telling them we were back and offering clinics very cheaply. Two and three person clinics. I started emailing players for matches, I started matching people up, the courts slowly came to life again. There was a semblance of life again in that squash community, players who hadn't played because they couldn't finnd matches started returning. I was fortunate because I worked from home so my schedule was very flexible. Anyone who stopped to watch me and my son play, people who never played, were interested. I put together a ladder with my email address, I tried to get on court with as many potential and existing players as possible. I held early a.m. sessions, evening sessions. Those who showed promised I offered to coach individually. It was then that I discovered Hadii, the thirteen year old Pakistani youth about 40 lbs overweight. I offered to coach him, his brother, cousin and father for a nominal fee. Within five minutes I knew Hadii had a gift, his footwork and racquet skills were far beyond a novice. I began working with him and his cousin Adam also with great promise. But Haddii quickly separated from the pack and I separately started coaching him individuall. I offered him four lessons for the price of two. I started picking up a number of other students while charging them very reasonable rates It's been about five months now and most of my really dedicated students are moving into the solid C realmI have since started coaching a few of the more advanced players for free. One in particular, George Ferrer, is 41 years old and 45 pounds overweight. He has such skill despite the weight and lack of formal training and coaching. Watch for my blog positing on him we are on a six month program to drop his weight and move him into that A level area. He is keen on this.
Needless to say, it was the most amazing thing one Saturday when about fifteen players showed up wanting to play and were complaining about the lack of court time. I could only smile, it couldn't have been a better day -- probably because I had my courts booked in advance!
We have a thriving squash community with new players joining all the time. I have about 5 juniors and 10 adults I coach...many more in the wings. I look forward to the next six months when we have 30 juniors and fifty more squash players. Am I in heaven? "The courts are booked tonight, would you like to schedule another day..."
Monday, November 9, 2009
one of the best racquet ever made. Incidently, Dunlop doesn't make it anymore, so eventually they'll all but disappear. My son is always looking for the latest and greatest and moved onto the Dunlop Aero Gel Pro long ago. I stayed with the Hot Melt Pro. He was about ready to switch to the later version of the Dunlop Aero Gel when I had him try and completely different racquet. I was coaching and pushing with my students the feather 2125 Cyclone. I suggested to my son he try it out, he was reluctant since he was always a Dunlop player. It took him breaking all the strings in his racquet and forgetting to get them strung (actually I was supposed to do it but oh well sort of forgot) to get him out of necessity to use the Cyclone 2125.
It took him all of about 45 minutes to really get used to the racquet, the balance, the lighter weight. I could see he liked it. He thought at first it was a bit stiff in the middle. I told him stick with it because his racquet speed and quickness was noticeably better.
By the third time out with it, the racquet changed his way of playing. He began taking the ball earlier as well as holding it -- both types of shots snapping the ball with increased pace (due to his quicker racquet head speed). I couldn't believe it how much of a difference switching the racquet made. Maybe, just maybe, it's time for a change for me as well. When you're young you change clothes, girlfriends, and yes, racquets too...while I'm not apt to change my girlfriends, I am eyeing that Feather Cyclone and thinking how my game would improve. At this stage, anything that can improve my play is worth a try...
Sunday, September 27, 2009
First and foremost, few can play A level squash without extensive coaching. Most squash players should always strive for A level squash because that is when the game is played at its finest. If you are 15 and a decent squash player, sure, you can aspire further than the A level, maybe pro, maybe top 100 who knows. But those players who don't really want to learn and understand this game, ie. get to the A level, they will linger in the lower levels of squash and never experience the 20 and 30 shot rallies A level players consistently experience. The will never know the sheer joy of playing all four corners of the court in one rally, cutting the ball off on the forehand rail and going cross court only to cover your opponents volley drop and extending yourself to throw up a lob and have an exchange of forhand rails tight to the wall, before your opponent hits a dying rail and you throw up a boast and your opponent fakes cross court and places a beautiful drop that bounces once and then hugs the side wall.
Instead, the players who never strive to achieve this, and I've noticed this especially with racquetball players are mired in hitting hard and loose balls with no concern for length or hitting a tight rail. They rarely work the point and look for the kill every opportunity. There's always the danger of their big back swings clocking you in the head or facel. So the racquetball players come to squash, even the really good ones. and try to muscle the ball past there opponent, they hit the ball hard and it invariably comes out to the center or off the back wall. This presents a problem for the striker, because his clearing collides with his shot, so he doesn't clear and stands while the ball flies past -- we talked about the difficulty this presents.
So what's really my point? I am confident that I can step on a racquetball court and play pretty easily without any coaching or much instruction. I am not confident a racquetball player can do that in squash. If you want to play squash at a high level to really appreciate it as more than running about and working a good sweat, take lessons, study and learn the game. Imagine a check player applying the same principles to chess? My advice learn the moves, the rules, right way to play -- squash players welcome heartily players from badminton, tennis and yes, even racquetball players who want to learn and play this key. Come to it with some sense of wanting to learn to well well, play right and play fair -- then play to win!
The racquetball stroke is big, there's lots of room on the racquetball court, unlike the squash court where the stroke must be compact and efficient. Getting on the court with these players makes me really nervous. I often feel the wind from there racquets so close to my face, especially on their follow throughs.
I for the most part won't get on the court with them to play, it's just too dangerous. And if they want lessons, they usually don't want to know a bout technique, just how to dig that dying ball out of the corners. They don't recognize the 10 things you have to learn and build upon before you know how to cut off the dying rail out of the back or how to retrieve the tight shot and rail it consitantly back. They want immediate results, the game to come to them which we all know squash never comes to anyone you have to go to it on your hands and knees stooped with hard work and long hours of practice.
I guess it's like a checker player wanting to master chess in a few sessions...it just won't happen, think of what a chess master has gone through to take his opponent in three or four moves, it's not much different than what that A level squash player has done to volley drop off his opponents cross court to nick the ball. I admire the racquet ball players challenge and desire to play squash, but it's a much more complicated game, squash is, it takes years of patience and dedication and instruction to do what seems easy to those A level players -- yes, digging the ball out of the back at the A level is routine, that's the bread and butter of the game, once you routinely cover the back of the court then the fun really begins, covering the more complext and difficult task of playing the ball out of the front court.
So why do I bring this up? I have long been bothered by the urban squash programs that have sprung up all over te country. Essentially, you go into inner cities, select the best and the brightest and through squash and education, preferably in suburban boarding schools, you open a whole new world of opportunity to these inner city children. After watching that Australian movie, it put my dislikie for the premise of these urban squash programs into better perspective. Basically, let's take the best from the ghetto, put them in predominatly white boarding schools, and take the "ghetto" out of them. What about all the others that don't qualify for these programs? Do they have the opportunity just to play squash? Do they have the opportunity to simply because they might love the game learn to play and have that opportunity? I have never been one to use something so close to truth and beauty, like the game of squash is, and use it for any purpose other than to play and love this game and dedicate yourself to being the best player you can. The USSRA (United States Squash and Racquets Association) has hung its future on urban squash and college squash. Here we are in the US, one of the greatest countries in the history of humankind and we have, according to a recent article in Squash News 3, yes 3 full time touring professionals. I always admired Chris Gordon for not going the college squash route, his dedication and hard work has allowed him to reach a level few US players have. But why haven't we been able to produce a top ten world ranked player? What is the difference between Chris Gordon and James Wilstrop or Nick Mathew? Talent, skill? How different were their early squash development? Therein, lies possibly the answer, squash development isn't controlled by one governing body in England, like it is here in the US.
I don't pretend to have the answer, but as long as we view squash as something it can do for us in terms of promoting missionary work in the inner cities or a way in to college, we will never stand the chance of attracting great athletes into this sport. Why should grade point average be coupled with squash potential? Why should a stellar athlete not be exposed to this great game because they won't fit into the mold of a boarding school scholar/athlete? Again, how many of those young inner city children not accepted into the urban squash programs could be potential top 20 or tope 10 world rank players? To many here in the US, the answer probably is (and I do encounter this often when people ask why my son doesn't play college squash -- I simply tell them he wants to play professionally) "who cares there's no money in it? Why not use it to get in to a good college?"
We have no system of promoting squash at a grass roots level, the way baseball, football and basketball are. I for one would rather see squash as part of the PAL (Police Athletic League) open to all then continually promoted in what has now become the eliticism of the urban squash programs. It's time to promote squash and open it up to anyone who wants to achieve whatever level their dedication, passion and god-given ability has provided them. Squash for the sake of squash, nothing more, nothing less. I'm not accusing anyone of overt eugenics, but of certainly promoting at a different level the same elitist premise that has always plagued the US squash community -- still either boarding school or the ivy league.
Saturday, September 12, 2009
My son and I have been playing squash every early morning for a number of years. It is to put it politely all out war. The competition is fierce, arguments often break out, and to the casual onlooker you would think its trench warfare. But it's all contained within the class backed court enclosure. We also train together and will do endless rotating rails and boast drives, believe it or not, equally competitive. I'm often the walking wounded because it takes its toll.
Three years ago, in the midst of one of our morning battles, I looked through the glass backed court which overlooks this airplane hanger like gym floor and noticed this elderly man, very fit, with thick leather gloves sitting on the sit up bench. He was smiling and seemed quite amused by our play. I was a bit annoyed with the old guy because I thought to myself "you get out here old man and see how it feels to be run around by some kid until you're ready to collapse". But I was again focusing on the game and went back to the court battle. When we came off the court the old man was gone.
Next morning, again the old man was watching us play, again the same smile. That day I wasn't playing all that well and was REALLY annoyed with his smile. I decided to take a break between games and walk off the court and get a drink. My son always made a point between games to continue hitting the ball, I always thought, to show me the game we just played didn't phase him at all -- which it didn't of course. I followed suit and didn't want him to know I needed water, to sit for a minute, and to catch my breath. But that day I went out to get a drink and nodded to the old guy and he smiled and said "you're giving it a good try, he's just younger and quicker." While I was taking my drink at the water fountain, I thought, that's a really nice thing to say. Yeah, he's right, I'm giving it my all -- hey, if I were just 20 years younger.
I introduced myself and my son to the old man. His name was Arti Locker. Over the course of the next few years we came to know Arti and his lovely wife Lola. Each morning they came to watch us, they always put their bets on my son to beat me. I didn't mind; fans are fans. Arti played handball on the streets of Queens and Brooklyn and kept playing into his adult years. He found squash and handball had some similarities. Arti would train in the gym by pulling heavy weights with chains wrapped around his shoulders. He was a storm trooper during WWII and you could tell he was strongand very fit.
My son and I grew to really like this old guy with the sly sense of humor. We always listened to his stories and I used to love getting him talking about terroism. He was so indignant that these terrorist could do what they do -- it wronged his sense of justice and manner that they were cowards. Most of his comrades died in the war during combat and he always felt it was a miracle he lived. This is, in Artis mind, how wars should be fought -- not as terrorists but as soldiers.
This past spring we knew Arti was ill but then he told us he was diagnosed with cancer in his sinus regions. He had surgery but the cancer was malignant. The diagnoses was grim, when he told me I just didn't know what to say. We saw more of Lola in those days than Arti. She kept us up-to-date about his illness. Finally, I think the reality set in he was terminal and she said they gave him a few months to live.
When he passed away recently I was very sad, I missed him. I had only known him a short time but he was someone I just really liked. And he was a squash fan too. I had a dream recently that he was thin and ill but sitting in his usual spot on the sit up bench, just smiling like he did. His smile seemed to say more than it used to, this time he was saying, "it's all okay."
I don't see Lola much, she and Arti were married for so many years, the adjustment to life without him must be hard. I send her emails to check up on her since I rarely see her at the Gym. I hope Arti is playing handball again or even catching some squash matches as well. In the end, as it turns out, it was I who became a fan of his.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Matt Levine has come a long way since I last wrote this. The other day I had him on the court and began teaching him how to hit half volleys. he was in the good T position and I was in the front court. To his forehand I hit backhand cross courts that at first bounced off the side wall, simulating short cross court shots. I told him I wanted him to volley every shot I hit like this and then boast it back to me, whereupon, I would drop to myself and repeat the sequence. I moved the ball up and down the court as far back as the back of the service box. I wanted him to get a feel for the ball coming off the sidewall and the distance he needed to maintain to strike and volley the ball well. It was ragged at first but thenb he started to stay off the side wall. For weeks he had been working on lunging and sprinting and building leg strength. It was now paying off. He was starting to move away from the wall and use the lunge to measure and close the distance. He started hitting crisp rails back to himself and I watched with a bit of amazement how deft he was at this. I started sending balls back his way that required him to hit straight volleys or let them bounce to get him to make decisions on which balls to half volley and which ones not to.
Then I started to really get down to business. The shot we all dreaded at the C and B levels was that deep cross court that dies in the corner and forced us to back wall the ball or hit a boast, we marvelled at others who could hit a rail off that shot. I told Matt he now had to change his angle on the ball and approach the ball a bit differently. My great friend and coach Jim Masland always told mean quick feet and slow racquet. there's no better advice when teaching this shot. I watched Matt hurl himself at the ball and like a blind man stabbing his cane in the air.
Whiff. Each time I would show him where he needed to make the adjustment. Don't commit to cutting the ball off and then folliwng behing the ball: Death Valley. don't charge the ball and get to close. Move along the neutral area just outside the service box and folliwng the ball until it hits the side wall: demonstrating to him that the ball doesn't hit the side wall and then drop to the floor. The ball comes off the wall and it is there he needs to gauge and strike the ball. It took about a half hour but he started hitting these shots. then he started hitting them with good length. Occassionally, I would hit the shot that is most difficult that has such a trajectory and soft touch that it hits deep off the side wall and drops and dies. I showed him this is where his lunge, deep lunge, very low to the ball was required. He needed to hit this shot sometimes off his shoestrings. Okay, we accomplished quite a bit and called it a day, played some points and hit the water cooler. Let's see how Matt does in the coming weeks on that difficult volley.
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
5. Rodney Martin -- Another gifted one. Watching him play and some of his shots would be like watch Da Vinci sketch or a great surgeon performing the most intricate surgery. That racquet and those hands. If I remember correctly I saw him lose to Jansher but you could see he really pressured Jansher, at least that was my observation.
6. David Palmer -- Okay, this is like three Australians in a row. But what a player, the best, arguably forehand drop and forehand kill shot ever. We've seen so much of him, when he retires, he will be held in even higher esteem.
8. Tristan Nancarrow -- In the genes I guess...This player was something, I saw him play Mark Talbot and it was like an adult toying with a child on the court. The way he moved, his racquet, he reminded me of all those great natural talents that prevail in any sport -- McEnroe, Bonds, Magic...he had those qualities, I still remember the details of that match almost 20 years later.
9. Gregory Gaultier -- I think he is just now coming into his own. I have seen a number of his matches. He attacks the ball with such ferocity and his balance and positioning near perfect. I think he is the real number 1 right now and will be for sometime.
10. Nick Matthew -- He's my favorite player. He has come into his own, has anyone ever had a better forehand volley in the game? I hope he stays healthy, because he could easily move into the top 5 of all time. So much talent and mental toughness.
Near Misses -- Brett Martin-- Sorry, a real favorite of mine, but JP replaced him on the list. Stuart Boswell -- I think he had one of the great games and such a brilliant backhand, unfortunately, all the injuries; he would or could have been one of the greats, and he's always been another of my favorites.
Note: I know, no Egyptians on the list. Too soon to tell. My son predicts when it's all said and done Kareem Darwish will be on this list. He's usually right but we'll see how it goes.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
Jansher Khan -- Is there any question here? No doubt here. Thank god for films because memory fades a bit. I can view his matches on Youtube rather than rely on a distant memory. He is even greater the second time around.
Jahangir Khan -- Okay if it weren't for Jansher, perhaps the greatest ever. If anyone hasn't seen that match in the early 90's on tape you have to see it. Frazer and Ali III a tremendous match. It took Frazer in that fight to reallly show Ali's greatness, it took Jahangir to show Jansher's greatness. Watch the drops from Jansher as the match progresses. If ever a squash player can tighten those screws his drops did just that. Same punishing drops in a match on tape against Rodney Martin around that time (he's also somewhere on this list).
Ramy Ashour -- I think when it's all said and done he will move up probably another notch. He's still (barring any injury) has a ways to go in his career. But arguably at this stage or any prior stage one of the greatest ever. He has the tenacity and courage of Jahangir and the pure natural ability of Jansher. To see him play up close is well worth whatever price admission.
Peter Nicol -- Okay this was really tough, because my heart tells me Chris Ditmar, but you can't deny the statistics and dominance. I remember first reading about him when I think he was a teenager playing on that US Grand Prix tour. I was a huge fan of Anders Wahlstadt and thought he was such a great player, indeed he was, but who was this kid thrashing Wahlstadt all the time. Some might argue Nicol is the greatest ever... what they said about him when he came on to the squash scene: " he takes the ball so early".
Nick Matthew (tied with Nicol) -- In an age of Ramy, Shabanna, Gaultier, his world titles and return to top spot in the world rankings deserve him in this top list. He really changed the game and raised the bar for his contemporaries. His level of fitness, his pace, and when it's all said and done he will be remembered most for the best forehand volley ever.
David Palmer -- This is a no-brainer. He is sorely missed on the tour. His retirement left a gaping hole. At his peak, in the current crop of top players he'd be 1 or 2. But this guy is truly one of the greats. His forehand drop is probably the best ever. And his athleticism and mental toughness without question among the best. I have to put him ahead of Ditmar, tough for me because I think so highly of Ditmar, but this guy against Ditmar, we can only imagine, but the edge for his incredible athleticism.
Chris Ditmar -- One of those players, what can you say, to me one of the most talented I ever saw. I think his stature has dimished in a way because looking at Matthew and Shabanna they found ways to beat the best. Matthew has beaten Ramy and I think Matthew would have presented immeasurable problems for Jahnsher. But still, to think I saw him after he blew out his knee and came back to play at such a high level. What a throwback, sort of like the Larry Bird of squash. If it weren't for Jansher's dominance over him would he have been number two on this list? I can watch clips of this great player and athlete to no end. Gritty and tough, but smart too, just missed the mark. I think he would have had alot of trouble with Ramy Ashour.
Rodney Martin -- The greatest shotmaker in the modern game. Comparable to Ramy. I'm sure there were others, I just didn't see them. Hey, how can you argue with success, he gave Jansher fits. Why Rodney and not Jonathan Power? Hey, this is subjective, was never a big fan of Power and his game.
Geoff Hunt -- Hard to place him now, that age of attrition squash seems like the silent film era. He was the best of his time, but the level of competition wasn't as it has been for the past 20 years. He was the best at what they did back then.
Tristan Nancarrow -- To see him play was something. He was born in to it, maybe came too easily, but such raw talent, such brilliance. I would say he's right there with all those players in any sport that are just so gifted. If he had to do it all over again, my bet is he would have done it differently, worked and trained hard -- and we'd be saying he was in the top 5. Remember, just my opinion. Check out him playing Jahnsher when he was nearly in retirement. He is the one player I'd give anything to see again and agian.
Amir Shabanna -- He may well move up, for some reason just picked up on him and began watching him play. The "Maestro", at 34 years old winning the TOC and beating in successive matches Wilstrop, Matthew and Gaultier -- remarkable. The stats are there.
Too early to tell, but Shorbagy is the future of the game. This player may end up when it's all said and done being somewhere in the top 5 all time. Gaultier? I am a huge fan of his game, a remarkable player, he's got to win the big ones to get on this list.
Originally I thought going to India would be the adventure of a lifetime. My son and I talked about it, he wasn't so keen, but I thought this could be such a rewarding experience for him. We assumed the squash would be great and we had plans on having him going periodically to Chennai to train with players out of the Cyrus Poncho's Indian Squash Institute. There was so little information on squash in Bangalore, but we assumed that we just had to go to the clubs. No one really responded to our inquiries. The most prominent club in our search was the prestigious Bangalore Club. I looked up membership information, and to be honest, it was so complicated to figure out. I tried emailing them. It was important to figure out the squash scene because there was no point in my son coming to India if he couldn't play.
My company was to put us up for 6 weeks and we found a hotel that also had squash. We were all set we could continue training and playing. We were in for a shock. The people handling the relocation took it upon themselves to change the agreed upon hotel and put us up in a 2 star or less hotel. For some reason the idea of squash to these people meant we thought ourselves privileged. I found this out later in the snied remarks about squash that was levied towards us by the people in my company. We are so far from that perception; we were just stereotyped and met with disdain as if we were reminders of a painful and humiliating past -- British Colonialism of course.
We spent days in between adjusting to India life trying to find a squash court to pay and play on. It was becoming increasingly futile when we realized the only places to play were very exclusive private clubs with long waiting lists for memberships. Our hearts sank. Most of these clubs offered temporary memberships but they wanted 5 year up front fees. The more frustrated I became the more futile it seemed. Anyone knows if you have a passion for something, you cannot be denied that passion. We would not be denied playing this game simply because of the perception that squash is for the privileged few and that to keep it that way you place so many restrictions and rules and regulations which keep 99% of the people out, the undeirables no doubt.
I contacted Cyrus Poncho in Chennai and he, bless him, put us in touch with a member out of the Bangalore Club. I don't remember his name we were passed on to another member of the club, Vinnie Singh. Vinnie was a godsend and I think was so happy to have someone of my son's caliber willing to play that he put us in touch with numerous players who had us play as their guests. We immediately took to Vinnie, he was soft spoken, played an old style but graceful squash that was thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, I had torn my meniscus before leaving for India so I couldn't play without a great deal of pain. I could hit a bit with my son, but I knew I had a bad injury. But my son was able to play with Vinnie and others. The style of play was much like hardball, the ball fast, the courts very hot and the game and points very quick. We were coming from courts in Great Neck, NY that were less than half the speed. It was like going from softball to hardball. But my son adjusted slowly and began developing that soft volley drop which is so effective as well as an attacking boast. His footwork was slower to adjust because it was a challenge to keep distance off the ball when it comes at you from different angles and so fast. He had some great matches with Vinnie.
But it became apparent that my son couldn't play there because he wasn't the son of a member and wasn't 25 years old, the minimum age to be a temporary member. I was able to secure through Vinnie a temporary membership, but it didn't matter I couldn't really play because of my injury. And I could not add family to my temporary membership. We were back to square one sort of. That's when Vinnie had the great idea of getting my son in as a squash coach. My son had coached in the City and Long Island so he had the credentials. Vinnie's heart was in the right place, he saw all the old players at the club and wanted to see some new blood, to bring in the sons and daughters of the squash members and any other members to this game. He came up with the idea of coaching and in return a membership to the club. It took a while for Vinnie to put in the proposal and present it. Our fingers were crossed. Vinnie showed such patience, the kind of patience I could never have. He knew the system and always told me no matter how frustrated I became to never yell at the staff or officials of the club. This was probably more difficult to do than to rehabilitate my knee. My son would coach clinics at the club in exchange for playing. He was not a member and was only allowed to play certain times. We lived about 2 hours bus ride (because of the horrific Bangalore traffic) so he would just have to make due if he wanted to play.
What became apparent was the old attendant there who sometimes gave lessons and was not happy about this arrangement. Simply put, he made my son's life miserable. This is a trait I think I observed in India that you make someone miserable by making everything a chore even the simplest things. My son did these clinics on the worst court in the club, if he was hitting with a non-senior member of the club on the good court, and a senior member came along, he was kicked off. He could not have any guests and could not go 1 minute past his lesson time, which, even at times the old attendent would try and kick him off during a lesson if there was a member waiting to play. He wasn't allowed to reserve courts and if a player/student cancelled on him by calling the attendant the information wasn't passed on so there would be a rush to come in on that 2 hour bus ride for a canceled lesson.
He could not participate on the club ladder, for members only. Of all the people that he coached and paid his own bus fare to come in and coach for free none of them even tipped him. But I will say this Vinnie was very generous and "Bundy" was another really good friend that took to my son. All in all we have fond memories of the time there, but one of the parents of the best junior prospect in Bangalore, was told when he relocated from Bombay to Bangalore that it would be squash suicide.
To all those who make it so difficult to play this magnificent sport like not knowing how to sing and murdering the note, you simply murder this game. The PSA chairman I believe is out of India maybe he can promote and open the doors to the countless prospects in Bangalore who never did anything to anyone and who might simply want to play squash.
When the grinding commute to the Bangalore Club was a bit much, we'd go to the garage in our apartment building which was made of concrete. The ceiling was low, not unlike the old Harvard Business School American courts I played on with my Indian friend Supriya years ago, but we could at least hit the ball. And the sound of the ball coming off the concrete was the same as any ball coming off those old style courts, whether in Bangalore or Park Place Squash -- simply music.
My son eventually coached at Palm Meadows Country Club (suburban Miami in the heart of India) where he was paid and also they allowed me to play when I was healed. The sport manager, Mr Sagar Pawar, of Palm Meadows was like Vinnie, so gracious, a real gentleman, and really saw the benefit of my son playing and coaching out of his club.
I think many dislike an outdated system that discriminates so freely and easily against 99% of the population in the same manner that the old British system discriminated against the Indian population. Herman Hesse said something like be careful you don't become what you hate. In Bangalore, in the squash circles, I think there's some truth to that -- that old British Colonial system is still alive and well -- when they kicked the British out they should have kept all the good like squash and threw away all their foolish rules and regulations that were simply a disguise for their discrimination against the people whose home they occupied.
But maybe the real lesson here is that no matter what obstacles stand in your way there's always a way around them. My son and I since returned to New York where we play and coach squash and I never step onto the court in Great Neck taking this game or the ability to play it for granted. Before we left India, my son said to me, that his experience there was life changing. I'd like to think part of it was realizing what his life would be like if he wasn't allowed to play squash, not because of his ability or desire, but simply because many years ago a small group of people decided who should be allowed to play this game. I'd like to go back some day to Bangalore to hit around with Vinnie, perhaps build some outdoor courts, and invite any and all to hit a bit, run a bit, sweat a lot and experience the freedom of playing, within the confines of those four walls, the greatest game ever invented.