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.