Friday, December 10, 2010
But the wall between the two was impenetrable. During round robin play last year when I tried to get the two of them on court none would have any part in it. At one point when one referee'd the other's match, over a call, a confrontation ensued and we had to spearate the two.
But these two older squash gladiators are remarkable in their own right. Ali Mirza is a lesson in intensity and never ever give up on a point. He is also a master of the mind game and frequently gets inside the heads of his opponents causing them to fluster and make mistakes. He'll take it as much as he'll dish it out. He will admit that he's had little formal training with squash, so his technique and style are awkward, but he makes up for it in tenancity and a fierce competitive spirit. Sometimes that fierceness rubs players the wrong way. He can be agressive and pushy on the court, but outside the court he exudes a charm and confidence that is different from the chip he has on his squash shoulders.
Arif, is a gentleman on and off the court but very wily. Many of the younger players hate playing him because in his back court posture he will nick any ball not tightly served up to him. The points are short, he aims to win without to much exertion. The younger players try harder than ever to get the ball past him, but with his great hands, he just routinely dumps the ball into the front court nick. When one of the younger players moves him away from the T, or from his post in the back, when behind in the score he'll push hard to play it back. When winning, he won't bother to try. Conserve energy and movement, don't tire yourself out. Frustrate the opponent and with the nicest smile and demeanor smile slightly after every front court nick.
During a Muslem holdiay a couple of weeks back, Arif, as he tells me decides to end this cold war. He's very philosphical about it. It was a good time to end the "war" and get on court together. So one day he came to the club and saw Ali at the courts; Arif gently patted him on the back and said hello. Quite a gesture to which Ali, according to sources, nodded hello in approval. Later that evening they came onto the court to hit around for the first time in a very long time.
Last night I watched them play a very good match, two old squash warriors renewing their battle on court. The squash was fun to watch as Arif moved Ali all around but Ali was game, and seemed to get to everything and retrieve it well. It was cause for celebration, believe me, it took a lot for these two to put their differences behind them, forgive and forget, and simply just play squash.
I hope to see these guys on court alot and to see them individually continue to get on court with the less experienced players and even compare notes and maybe eventually root each other in match play. I am wondering, it's hard to resist, just how the cold war would have gone if Nixon and Brezhnev played squash?
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
I am half way through Trinity men's squash coach, Paul Assaiante, and History of Squash author, James Zug's new book Run To The Roar. I had to stop to write a bit about what I've read so far.
From the opening page through the first half of the book this is a remarkable story of a remarkable man, "coach", as he is called by his players. This is a book about the true meaning of what it means to make sacrifices for your passions in life, for doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals, and to reflect, always reflect and stop and think did the end justify the means, was what you achieved worth those sacrifices? After some soul searching, it's only then, it seems that we begin to take on some wisdom. Ezra Pound said at 50 if you have no wisdom you are nothing. Paul Assaiante at 50-something or more, has wisdom, no doubt something far greater than the Trinity win streak or all the glory associated with it.
The book is the story of Trinity's squash 2009 men's varsity squash team. Filled with player matches, scores, discussions of squash, is woven in Assaiante, the man, the father, the coach, the friend....all of those titles a man seems to have throughout his life. He openly acknowledges and questions his failures and seems to push past his successes, which in the collegiate athletic world, are titanic -- getting to that point whereby (like many of us) he almost lies awake at night asking himself were the personal sacrifices worth his accomplishments: a failed marriage, single parenthood, a son, Mathew, lost to heroin addiction. Many of us admire a man when he owns up to his mistakes, perhaps this book is a bit of a journey for Mr. Assaiante, to comes to terms with the sacrifices he made, to ask first the question were they worth it, and of course, if he had to do it over again would he do it differently. In the asking of these questions, sometimes is as good as answering it.
The record, the streak, all those wins...Assaiante seems in the tone of his diversions from squash into his past and present personal life to say without having all those you love to share it with what can they mean?
When the ugly incident of Trinity's number one player, Baset Chawdhry and Yale Univeristy's Kenneth Chan hit prime time ESPN News earlier this year in the national collegiate title match for number 1 (and keeping the Trinity win streak alive), because of the unsportsmanlike and ugly behavior by Chawdhry, I for one was very critical of Assaiante and his handling of his player. I thought he was too lenient and forgiving of his player and was doing this young man a disservice by explaining away the player's behavior. I now understand Assaiante better and why he stood by his player, even though the player betrayed him and the team with his ugly behavior, he was in some sense standing by Mathew, his son, whom he gave up on many years ago and let his own child walk out of his life. He didn't give up on his young athlete even while the world was critical and coming down on the young man.
I am a single parent of two amazing children, whom I raised from the time they were very little and whom I am so proud of -- I often refer to them as my heart and soul -- which is which is anyone's guess. I made mistakes, tons of them, some I did out of arrogance when I should have been listening to, my daughter, especially. I made mistakes, alienated her, while my son and I basked in a commaraderie with squash, I ignored her interests in cheerleading, or just being a teenager. I lie awake at night, my body so sore from coaching squash all day, a passion as player, student and coach I've pursued most of my adult life, and think of my daughter and miss her now that she left home angry and hurt to go to school as far from me as she could -- yes, I would do it differently. I've questioned what I did as a single parent in so many different ways, I know I wanted the best for both my children, but I didn't know how to listen to anyone, not until it was too late. I can share in Assaiante's pain on this level.
I'm sure there are so many different ways to measure success, but maybe only one way to measure failure. If you've hurt someone you love you didn't succeed no matter how much you tell yourself and write about it or talk about it, that sense of failure, that sickening feeling, just never goes away.
I applaud this book immensely because it seems, probably like many who will read it, a book about being human...about this life and what we do in it regardless of the level of that success. As I'm ready to post this, I only hope I didn't read too much into Assaiante's personal journey because of my own, but who cares another's wisedom should inspire thought, reflection, and introspection as the wisdom of his book has.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Last night, my best student, Haadi Khan, whom I've written about before came to play squash. He had been frustrated by me for months in our match play often times venting his frustrations with broken rackets and childish sulking after defeat. He has talked so much trash in recent weeks and I've just gone out and played becoming comfortable in frustrating him with that brand of twisting and turning squash, Jim Masland (LA Lifetime Fitness Club Pro and great friend), termed the pretzel game.
The last two weeks has also seen another David and Goliath battle, the PST taking on the PSA (rivalling professional squash organizations). There's a parallell here of course, which I'll connect wutg my own defeat of last night.
What made last night different for Haadi and me in our match? I'm his coach, I know everything about his game, was always comfortable that I could turn it on when need be and take the games from him. Most of all I could frustrate him and wait for him to mentally break down and start his yelling and anger -- which spelled certain defeat for him. However, last night was different, was a poised young man, a player, a good player who didn't get rattled, who watched the ball, who had decided that he was going to win each eand every point. He attacked our game with discipline and quiet confidence. No bravado or trash, just business.
Sound familiar? If you've been following the David-like PST (Professional Squash Tour) and it's recent battles and lawsuit with the bigger and badder Goliath-like PSA (Professional Squash Association) there are so many similarities. The PST is young and purposeful in wanting to bring squash to a wider US audience. It has some former number 1 players, but most of the top 30 players are all ranked under the richer PSA tour. Joe McManus, commissioner of the PST, is gracious, humble and devoted to his purpose of bringing squash to the people. He and his PST are like David, going up against and challenging the dominance of the PSA. The biblical accounts of Goliath and his boastful arrogance in stating he will destroy David seems to be the same tactic the PSA has employed with it's mandate to it's players banning them from PST events. While David was all about what was good for his people and Goliath about what was good for his own image of invincibility, Mr. McManus is all about what's good for squash, especially here in the US. The PSA seems to be doing what's good for it's image of controlling and ruling the professional squash world and not what's good for squash. Enough said, the parallel is there, squash does really imitate life and it seems the bible as well.
...Haadi easily took the first game from me taking me a bit off guard as he was doing things we'd been working on for weeks, stepping up, cutting the ball off, not worrying about some loose shots, not fretting over the imperfections. At one point I hit a nice rail off his loose shot and was poised to return a week comeback from him when within a split second he rifled a cross court past me and had me scurrying. He cut the ball off and atttacked my shot with his quickness and early ppreperation. It may have been the stone from his slingshot right between my eyes; like Goliath, it brought me to my knees. While I recovered enough to take the third game and was up in the fourth, Haadi took the fourth game and match in a tie breaker when I mounted a ferocious comeback to tie the deciding game only to see him push through and close out the match.
Like David and Haadi, let's hope that the PST lawsuit is just the stone between the eyes of the PSA to bring it to its knees and loosen ts stronghold on professfional squash. It might mean the likes of Nick Mathew and Rany Ashour play on both tours. I for one, learned a lesson, never get too comfortable with the game and your hold on it or on a particular opponent and always do what is fair and right; expect and welcome change and grow with it, don't resist it. The game speaks for itself, as it did when Haadi beat me. It will again speak for itself when all the legal stuff is untangled with the lawsuit against the PSA's ban on PST participlation for its players. Haadi didn't behead me nor did the PST lawsuit close down the PSA, if the PSA learns anything, it should be to respect your opponent, do what is right for the game and not for your organization. Learn David's, Haadi's and McManus's lessons in defeat and look at yourself but get back out there, do battle where it counts -- in an arena of fair competition and rewarding games and make sure that battle promotes goodgreat battle, squash battles that is.
When our match ended, Haadi shook my hand, no bravado, no trash, just an indication that this is just the beginning of our future competition. He no doubt will push me to stretch, to be prepared, and come out to win in these match and most of all don't become comfortable and assume victory. Take nothing for granted and no matter make each other's games better.
Monday, October 11, 2010
What a show! Kudos to Joe McManus for bringing high level squash back to the squash clubs and providing a venu for rising stars like Ilingsworth and veteran stars like Hindi, Ball and Lincou as well as those other stand out players like Chris Gordon and Graham Basset. For those who remember, Jahangir Khan played pro matches at Park Place Squash and 86th Street! I had a front row seat in a 40 to 50 plus crowd setting and I was immediately struck by how different the game was on regular club courts. This level of play is usually on the glass courts in a large venue like Grand Central Tournament (Tournament of Champions -- TOC), so this was a real treat. The game is different, the ball slower, the players more aggressive and attacking on the ball. This was how the game was designed to be played. With the ball slower, the players more aggressive, the play was so exciting, the slashing and slicing to the ball combined for some great rallies and rally finishers. I looked at the small crowd and wondered why weren't there 5 times more people, fellow squash lovers, watching? I wouldn't have known about it except for my student who bought me a ticket.
The PST has received quite a bit of press about it's "no-let" rule, I wasn't sure what it's accomplished except the referee is a bit more involved in the match, maybe too much involved in the match. Players still argue and complain about the calls and sometimes exaggerate contact to emphasize interferance, the game speaks for itself and always has. There are still the same questionable calls and questionable referee decisions and the flow of the game seems the same to me, may be I chose just to ignore the referee's attempt to be humorous and share a bit of the spotlight with the players.
Ilingsworth might well be the poster player for the PST, he is as an exciting player as there is. I for one wasn't ever that impressed with him. I saw him look very back in last years TOC match with Mueller...but a magic wand seems to have touched him. He is the real deal, a complete player, his attacking style is relentless, his front court game devastating. He looks to cut everything off and attack. Very exciting player. This young league should hang its proverbial hat on this guy because he is only going to get better. Dare say, the first American player to break top tenIt seems he goes a bit to the front too much, but once he starts feeling more comfortable with his style he will be a force to reckon with. He is so close to getting in the top 20 group with the likes of Anjema and the older Ashour.
I would have liked to have seen Graham Basset and Chris Gordon play in their matches and some of the other qualifiers, the marquees players are great, but so too are these eager young squash warriors.
McManus has delivered what his poster says: "America meet Squash" now he just needs to get the word out to America that squash is in town and would like to meet you.
Friday, October 1, 2010
Someone very near and dear to her was diagnosed with cancer, brain cancer. A man to young to be dealt such a sentence. It is a long story to unravel here, but he and I have one thing in common. The love of our lives is one and the same. She is with me and I cherish her devotion and love. He has caused me some angst mostly because their estrangement has caused her much stress and pain. At first when she told me he was very ill, I thought, just another ploy to win her back. I was convinced this was the case, we men know there's nothing we wouldn't do to have the woman of our dreams. But as this story unfolded, I began to feel a sense of sorrow, I began to empathize with this man. I don't know him, never met him, what must he be going through? I could only imagine that he should not see his son become a man or see any of his dreams fulfilled or new ones fashioned. Most of all he will never feel the love of this woman whom we both love, he will die without her and I will go on living with her.
I thought about this and felt bad about my selfish jealously. Petty, insecure, it's not like me. I then turned to one of the few things in my life which I've always found solace in: squash. I thought, squash doesn't care if you are happy, sad, good, bad, rich, poor, dying, in love, heart broken, it cares about nothing but you and your ability at any level to play. It might sound a bit like religion, maybe to me it is. And with these thoughts I wondered what if it had been me dealt this tragedy and not him, what would I do? Like most, I'd turn to my "religion", I'd have to turn to it for comfort and the center of my being. My comfort would have to include how I'd want to leave this game as I know it. Here's my list, like a "kick-the-bucket squash list":
My first and foremost desire would be to see my son, my heart and soul, play and win in the British qualifiers. While this might sound not too ambitious, it would be one of my life's dreasuch a great achievement on any level. My son has overcome so much in his life, who has been in many ways my hero, I would do anything in my time to help him achieve his dream. Next I would love to teach my daughter this game. We are estranged from one another, we rarely speak, I miss her terribly, she never wanted to play squash, she rebelled against me in every way. Her rejection of squash was painful, I took it personally. I would give anything to have another chance with her, to teach her to strike the ball, move about the court, see her smile at her accomplishments, teach her something about this game I have loved so much. Equally important to me would be to play as much with my love this great game and remember and celebrate squash is what brought us together. I would in my limited time teach her to retrieve and strike the ball out of the back corners, teach her to move ever so gracefully to and from the corners of the court, and I would marvel at her grace and beauty knowing like I have -- since that first bolt of lightening struck me-- just how much she means to me. Next, I would like to play once and for all the game of my life, I would want to play this game or at least perceive to play it like Nick Mathew does. I would want to see the yellow dots of the ball while in play, hear the beautiful hiss of the strings as I cut deftly through the ball, I'd like to move as if I'm moving on air, and I would like to strike the ball with such precision and accuracy that any 5.0 player would be scampering to retrieve, did I say 5.0 player, sorry, I meant Greg Gaultier. Finally, I would like to go back to India where I lived for a bit and take some desolate, poor child, many of which I saw, take just one, and teach them this game, find a wall, give them a ball and racket, give them a meal, and shoes, and teach them this great game. Inspire him maybe to dream of being a champion, teach him in squash, he will always matter.
As I complete this list, I realize I don't need to be dying to accomplish any of this and more. I should do what I can in whatever time there is, I have no choice in that matter. I do have choice in striving and working towards becoming a better player and helping to make others better and inspiring those around me to love and cherish this game. May that young man who has nothing to do with squash directly someday rest gently in peace perhaps not knowing that he had something to do with fulfilling mine and other's squash dreams.
Monday, August 9, 2010
Both players approach the game in a similar manner. They analyze the game, they want to understand it and they are very keen on technique and the right way to play. They are a coaches best type of student.
Last week I observed Matt and Russ play what was an ugly match, that helter skelter type of squash, anyone's guess where the ball was going. Matt wasn't watching the ball very well and was under lots of pressure from Russ' typical front court reverses and trickle boasts. My son and I could only watch the match for a few obligatory minutes. We argued who was bringing who's game down.
I'm not quite sure what happened but both players had lessons with me and my son on the same day and time. My son must have said or done something because I observed Russ in practice take the game up a level and was hitting well. I thought to myself there's no way he's that much better at hitting the ball than Matt. Matt was also watching Russ hit with my son. When I asked Matt to get on court and start I talked to him more like an older brother and less like a coach. I wanted both to encourage him and castigate him for his poor play the previous week. I told him he was awful, he can play better and then just said something as simple as he doesn't grasp the concept of the court 'T'. I explained to him it is the eye of the hurricane, it is the center of the squash universe, it is one of the few places on earth where it is center, where you can reach anything from. I also explained that if he doesn't really watch and see the ball he is at a huge disadvantage and will feel so rushed in trying to cover the court because in fact he's looking for the ball before it bounces twice rather than taking time to prepare a timely shot.
Something might have clicked, because we drilled and I noticed that he was moving better , was staying away from the ball and as the drill progressed he was hitting nice tight shots for good length. We made some further adjustments in his footwork and he was starting to hit the cross court out of the front with much more balanced. Was this the same guy who a week earlier looked so bad?
I looked outside the glass backed court and there was Russ watching Matt. He saw how well Matt was striking the ball. I noticed too that while Matt often has this friendly demeanor, his demeanor on court was fierce. He didn't smile, he was all squash business. I knew I had reached him he was practicing better and looked like a squash player.
When Matt and Russ met up for their usual match (my son was in the city playing an early match) and I had my most favorite student Haadi on court while Matt and Russ were warming up on the other court. Haadi and I were drilling and Haadi himself was striking the ball well and moving about the court during the drills. We took a break and I went over to watch the Matt and Russ. Both looked like they were in a match and when Russ served I was immediately struck by how structured their point was. 5-7 backhand rails then a cross court and then a few forehand rails. Matt was moving around the court and not rushing around. Russ was trying to control the 'T' with shots that were deep and tight. He was controlling the 'T' ever so slightly, but Matt was stepping in and cutting the ball off. I noticed Matt's racquet no longer dangled usellessly at his side, but was lifted and ready to strike the ball. His eyes were on the ball, he actually turned his head fully to see the shots being hit from the back corners. He moved purposefully and there was even some elusive squash agility in his movement.
Russ was playing very well, and his backhand, was really good, better than Matt's -- I could see my son's influence on his backhand, perfect preparation, quick feet and slow racquet. One thing I'm sure my son was on Russ about was that his non-racquet hand is held to his heart, a bit awkward, and not too good for balance when setting up to strike the ball or moving to cut the ball of behind the service box.I kept coming back to watch their match.
When they came off the court I told them how great their squash was, I was so impressed with their play and told Matt he should be proud of how he played. There wasn't the usual court chaos, the points were structured and the play at a much higher level.
Matt was so happy with his play, I could tell. It is the best time for a coach to see his student recognize an accomplishment for which that student has worked so hard. I didn't even gloat a bit that my student beat my son's student, certain games and matches sometimes transcend the outcome. They both played, sort of like each other, I was reminded of years ago when I played at Park Place Squash and had a rivalry with Jay Munsie, intense rivalry, who always seemed to bring out the best in my play and I his. We battled like Matt and Russ and played at a level that was well above our skill level, we just brought out the best. Hopefully, Matt and Russ will push themselves to solid B and eventually even A level play...I know my son would appreciate having a hand in that as I would too.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
For my son, who plays squash and wants to play professionally, he is at the point where I coach him but mostly he likes the way I train him and feed him. It's on rare occassion that I'm allowed to offer any advice. He is incredibly demanding and edgy on court and has little or no patience if I am on court with him and have been coaching 7 hours and seem tired or sore. I'm not his father on court, I'm on court to help him train.
Recently our good friend and squash guru, Jim Masland (whom I've written about frequently on this Blog) was back in town. My son first joined Jim on court when he was 4 years old in Durham, North Carolina in 1993. Since then they have played numerous times, and even as recently as last December, Jim beat him. The gap has closed significantly since my son was 4 years old, and last time they played the better player lost to a wily fox, an Odyssean journeyman, a Yoda with the lightsaber. Jim has slowed in recent years, has put on some pounds, but his game is still great, he's a joy to watch. He has a magnificent forehand, short, compact, economical and holds the ball forever. His feathery drops to the front are tantalizing and he can punctuate a long rally with a sudden and winning trickle boast. Jim is a fierce competitor and I've often noticed just how fierce he is when he's pressured. He is used to winning, if not in score, then in the quality of the squash.
We invited the club members at LA Fitness in Great Neck to come watch, what was now becoming a grudge match between the two warriors. Trash talking started a week before. My son has been training hard and is in the best shape of his life. His game is the foundation of a professional game, 3 months ago it was but he tin'd the ball and didn't execute well. Thanks go to a brief stint in England playing in Birmingham with Chris Hall and Chris Fuller, under the tuteledge of Steve Townsend.
The crowd was small but some of my favorite members were there to watch. Margaret Higgins who had taken a break from squash was back, the place smelled wonderfully with some "beach" labelled perfume (she always adds class to the squash area there), Shyamala was there as well, beautiful and with that most infectious laugh. John Gross, Pooya, Tom, and a number of other passer-by's had stopped to watch
Jim was in considerably better shape than the last time they played, he was more muscular and balanced. You could see his footwork was sharper, he moved extremely well around the court. My son, was quick, his racquet speed and preperation explosive. A few early points into the game Jim returned shots and before he even looked back to follow his ball, my son had cut the ball off and rifled shots back. There was a nice even tone to the first game, Jim was still trying to find his timing and the way of the court, which is fast off the wall but slow on the floor. My son built an early lead and then Jim tied it and went ahead 9-7. I could see a very cool and calm player with a gameplan, every shot he hit had purpose. Jim was a bit impatient and when he tin'd a loose ball in the front he was a bit frustrated it was the opening he had been looking for. My son then missed a hard tight rail from Jim and Jim had game ball at 10-8. It was then that I realized that I wasn't watching my son, I was watching a player, a really good player in a great match. For years my son played, wasn't fit, was evolving, a work in progress, he'd hit a bad ball and look at me, I'd gesture with calm, focus, watch the ball signals, he's wave me off. He'd argue with the referee and yell at himself -- his squash mind was well beyond his physical abilities. Here, I was referreeing this match and he never even looked in my direction. He was separate, he was a young man on court simply playing a game he loves more than anything in the world. He won that first game 16-14, Jim looked like he had been through a round with a young Mike Tyson.
The second game began with Jim making an adjustment. He'd shorten the rallies and end the point on the fist opportunity he had. He wasn't going to "hang" with my son, so his gameplan was to frustrate my son, hold the ball, go for the nick, redirect the ball. It worked brilliantly, my son started playing Jim's game but was tin'ing. A couple of times I made some signals to settle and watch the ball come off Jim's racquet, but my son wasn't looking at me. By looking at him you wouldn't know whether he was winning or loosing. He just played. And the games were 1-1.
Between games my son came off the court didn't even notice me, I was talking to Shyamal and Margaret but was watching my son out of the corner of my eye: "is his asthma bothering him, does he need a hit from his nebulizer, how are his knees"; the floors at that club aren't sprung and unforgiving. But he took drinks of his vitamin water and stared blankly ahead.
My son played brilliantly in the third game and just dominated a fading Jim. I wanted to tell my son to beware of the aging possum, to finish Jim off and not let him in. In the fourth game, tensions mounted. Neither player gave an inch. My son was calm and composed, Jim was edgy, shaking his head, and when he missed a forehand volley off my son's backhand cross he seemed to drunkenly stumble to the side wall. He was tired. Jim was trying to upset the rhythm of the game he argued a let when no let was called. He opened the door and said "where was the let" I responded by saying "no let was called" a bit puzzled that he was arguing a call that wasn't requested. To Jim's credit he came back, he wasn't ready to concede and fought back, he was he now the underdog, the scrapper, fighting for every point. I've watched Jim play for years and I always marvelled at his balance and fluidity on court. Now it was my son, striking the ball with tremendous pace and precision, taking it right to Jim, he wanted to grind Jim into submission, and if it went to a fifth game, so be it, my son was none the weary for the match. My son had three match balls and when Jim went for a forehand trickle boast and tin'd it my son gently pumped his fist, job done, match over. He shook Jim's hand as an equal -- they walked off the court and sat for a while discussing the match. I watched with some regret but a great deal of respect that what I was once to my son in squash he now to himself. He was and is his own man both on the court and off the court. I briefly talked to him about my observations, but stopped myself, old habits are hard to get rid of, he didn't seem to notice as I cut myself off and said "well done".
Monday, June 14, 2010
I look so forward to my sessions with Samir, not so much for the squash, that's always a challenge to coach someone that young, but for his keen presence in and around the court. I watch him leave the court frequently for water, on his way to the fountain, if he sees someone around the courts, he'll stop and say to that person "you play squash?, I'm Samir, what is your name". I watch how people react to him, he does this with such ease, I tell him he is a natural politician. People respond to him with genuine friendliness and ease as well. He has this ability, that rare ability, to make people feel so comfortable. I call him the future mayor of Great Neck.
During his most recent session, he showed me something on the court as he consistantly hit the beginner ball for nice tight rails and wide cross courts. After a while, I stopped play, and looked at him, and said he was hitting the ball very well. I said that I thought he was ready, "are you ready for the real ball?" "Yes", he shouted out, and pumped his fist. I went and took a yellow double dot and warmed it up a bit. We started hitting, and he was hitting the ball as if a magic wand had touched him. The balls were tight, deep and with decent pace. "Wow", I said, "it must be your haircut, you've never ever hit like this!" "Thanks, Mr. Will" (he always calls me Mr. Will). We worked through the session and he kept looking for his dad, he wanted so much to tell him he was off the beginner ball. When his dad showed up toward the end of the lesson he excused himself and went out to tell his dad, I could see by his face and rapidly moving face, he was so excited about this latest milestone. Whether it's double digits in age or double dot in the ball you hit, accomplishment is accomplishment.
As we finished up I noticed my next lesson, Shyamala, a beautiful Malaysian/Hindu woman, stretching. I pointed to her and asked Samir if he'd ever seen anyone so pretty as her. She smiled at us, I commented how beautiful her smile is. He asked me if I liked her, or "liked" her or was she just a friend? I told him I really "liked" her and asked him if he thought she would like me? He said "sure, Mr. Will, take her to a movie and out to dinner, she will really like you." Great advice from the future mayor, I'll let him know how it goes when I next see him on court. As he left the court he went up to Shyamala and asked her if she hit with the "real ball", to which he quickly added, "I hit with the real one too."
As a follow-up to this posting I wanted to add that Samir's advice was very good indeed. When I saw him next on the court I complimented him for his advice. I told him that Shyamala is now my girlfriend. I added that it had been a while since I took a woman out to movie and a dinner and remarked how expensive it was. In typical Samir fashioned, he paused and said to me, "money doesn't ever equal love..." That is Samir, wise beyond his years.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
His wife, Lola, the sharpest and prettiest senior around, and whom I check in with periodically to see how she's getting along in life after Arti, invited me over to her house because I showed an interest in learning to play the card game, Bridge. Arti, she told me was very good, and I thought it would be fun to have her teach me.
I had no idea about Bridge, but I know that many people play it and as you progress in life it's important to work your mind and memory the way you conitnue to work your body and heart. So I thought why not give it a try we spent weeks trying to coordinate our schedules -- last night I finally arrived at her home and I could tell she was eager to teach, I was hoping that I could keep up with her instruction and explanation to this very complex game.
When I arrived at her house she had lots of photographs of her wonderful familiy, including pictures of Arti. The ones she had of him playing handball years and years ago in Brooklyn (where American squash great Victor Niederhoffer used to play), taken sometime in the 50's showed a stocky and extremely muscular youn man in his late 20's or early 30's striking the ball...the pose reminded me of the Ancient Greek scuplture, The Discus Thrower. Arti, to his last days, was etremely fit.
Bridge is really hard, I can only equate it to squash. By evenings end my mind was exhausted and Lola only covered the first chapter of her introduction to this card game. But this post insn't really about learning Bridge or the comparisons to squash. It's about how I left Lola's house last night and on the drive home heard Arti's voice in my head and saw his face in my memory of him. I thought, how could it all have passed from that photo taken of him on the handball court in Brooklyn to now, simply memories among the people that knew him. I knew him only within a certain context and in the later years of his life, but for whatever reason, his impression on me has been lasting.
This morning my son and I went to the courts, we were both stiff and sore from a lot of weekend squash. We warmed up, we stretched, we did star drills and then played one game. What a game it was. My body was like air, my feet light and swift, my head was completely clear, no frustrations no over thinking my mistakes, not a care in the world, as if this game was outside of time,as if I was born to play it -- and I saw every ball no matter how fast the pace like we were playing in slow motion. My son dominated the points and the pace as usual, in the early going some long rallies but I kept it close. At 4-4 he hit some bullet crosses that I step up and cut off and cross nicked. It wasn't my intention, I wasn't even thinking, except for the thought who is this guy hitting the ball this morning. At 7-4 I nicked a serve into the backhand corner, I could hear my son mumbling that this is just luck 3-4 nicks. He started mounting his come-back, I felt no pressure even though he was running me around, I was retrieving anything and everything. Then, as I was up 9-8, he hit a cross-nick that rolled out -- but lo and behold, I was so quickly on it that as it came out ever so slightly I turned on it and ripped a low hard shot down the rail that he couldn't get a racket on. At game ball, a few shots into the rally, he hit a loose shot that I held and dumped ever so lightly into the forehand front nick. Game over. My son, who has never complimented me in any of my squash, was a bit stunned but recovered and reminded me it took 4 nicks to get it done.
Coming off the court there was Russ Feinberg, one of my son's students waiting to get on the court with a lesson with him. I looked over at him, I had to tell someone, and just pumped my fist and said I took a game! But the person I really wanted to tell wasn't there, the fan who for so many games watched me lose again and again, and who would just smile and say youth takes over, wasn't there -- maybe Arti wasn't on the bench just watching, maybe this day he was right on the court playing through me, forever the young Brooklyn hand baller; afterall, I did play like a man possessed.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
I have watched him in both defeat and victory he is one and the same, perhaps the truest test of any great athlete. They seem to just relish the game. He is fierce, intense, but ever so gracious and seems almost in awe of his opponents, especially Ramy. This comes from a genuine respect for his opponents' talents and an almost gracious appreciation for an opponent who can bring out the best in his game.
I wrote 6 months ago he'd be number 1 by March (not too far off), he is my favorite player and has been for some time. But my son reminded me 6 years ago at the TOC when after a Matthew match he went up to him for an autograph (I asked him where was that autograph since I avidly collect everything past and present related to squash -- we'll look a bit harder for it now) and Beth Rasin, tournament magician, was there. Beth asked my then 14 year old son if he thought Nick Mattew would be number 1 someday, my son answered her emphatically "yes"! My son's point was he discovered Matthew long before I did and knew back then he'd be number 1 someday.
So I want to go on record here that Nicolas Muller will be number 1 within 5 years and if it isn't in 5 years, maybe 10 years. And as my son aspires to whatever level he will achieve in squash, should he or Muller ever get discouraged, I advise them to just think of Nick Matthew -- 12 years before reaching the top of the squash world -- the best place in the entire universe.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
It's interesting having a student come from Leach and look for help in improving his game. I hit with RJ and observed his play and pointed out some things. He agreed with my observations and added he had heard it before, especially about his cross courts.
What transpired in the next few sessions indicates one of the challenges a coach faces. He was comparing me to Clive Leach, Clive told him this, told him that. What I realized is that Clive as a player can say your cross courts are short but how do you tell RJ why they are short? When was the last time Clive hit a "B" level cross court? What are the components that make up a decent cross court. I defer to Clive, he's a great player but great players are rarely students of the game. I began to break down the components of hitting a good cross court. Very basic stuff, racket up, shoulder turned, take the ball slightly in front. Very simple, yet RJ was so late in his preperation, didn't understand the angle of the ball when striking it to the front wall, and was just trying for a good cross court without understaning why he wasn't hitting them well. There resulted frustration, tense shoulders, and a stiff racket. To use Clive as an example, he doesn't need to think about bringing his racket back nor turning his shouldrer and striking through the ball, he does this in his sleep. But for a "B" level player like RJ what Clive does just won't work. RJ hasn't the wrists of Clive, so it's important he bring his racket up and back and turn his shoulder to generate racket speed. Basic stuff, but some of the components to build a good cross court on.
RJ and I also started working through some drills and focussed a lot on his footwork, his footwork is so good, but off, he does basic things that are wrong especially in how he recovers. He bends forward too much when retrieving in the extreme points of the court that he finds himself on every shot struggling to recover. This is most evident when covering shots in the front of the court. Also, he has a very long stride to the ball, but tends to play a bit flat footed. So worked on getting him when applicable playing on the balls of his feet, especially when coming out of the front. The other aspect we worked on adding was dragging his back foot as he went into his shot as an achor and to help his balance.
He has been doing a lot of "star drills" along with me to feel more comfortable and balanced. I'm not so concerned about his racket skills because I think that if he moves better to the ball and prepares a bit earlier and feels balanced even when striking under some pressure, he'll hit good shots, including cross courts.
Coaching is mostly a thankless job, but when a student compliments the lesson and the way in which you teach certain technique and that student has been coached by a high level coach,, it's the best compliment. The components of squash, I like that, each component builds on the next and you improve and try and perfect each component as you become a more advanced player. The components become fewer but bigger at Clive's level -- "your cross courts are short", now just imagine the hundreds of little components at the beginner level -- "racquet up, wrist cocked, grip right, shoulder relaxed, eye on the ball, strike through the ball, follow the ball with your follow through" and how long before you do it without thinking, I guess ask Clive.
Don't confuse arrogance with excellence. I watch enough squash in the US and there is this arrogance about squash that is, frankly embarrassing. We in the US have a chip on our shoulders. Here we are one of the greatest countries in the history of civilization and when it comes to squash we look foolish. The US Squash organization doesn't help matters, they promote glimmers of immediate hope while sacrificing long term goals. What do I know? Not much, but I do know this, that we will never EVER producce a top 10 player in the world doing what we are doing.
Someone once asked me if I had a few wishes in this world before I die, what would they be. It didn't take me long to formulate my answer. First and foremost would be that when I drive into the city on a hot July day I don't see Ozone warmings but see a crisp hot blue, deep blue sky. Secondly, I'd like to see poverty eradicated, I would like to see every person of color celebrating the dream of this country and not wallow in its nightmares and find themselves disenfranchised. And finally, most dear of all to my heart, I'd like to see a US squash player reach top 10 in the world. I would die a most happy man, even if only the last on this list would be achieved.
When I read that Gilly Lane beat top 10 Peter Barker in Montreal recently, I thought, wow, this is the most magnificent achievement in US squash history. And this came a couple of years after Julian Illingsworth beat Ollie Thuummen in what was at that time the greatest victory a US player ever achieved in international squash. And here Gilly Lane didn't beat a top 20 player he beat a top 10 player!
I saw Gilly Lane play in the Rhode Island open a few years back. Nothing special, just solid 200 ranked level squash. Three years later what did he do? He went and trained in Europe and elevated his game to new levels. What's going on here? We have so many professionals and past touring professionals coming to the US and what are they contribuiting to the US game? If they are here why then do we have to send a serious US player to Europe or England to take his game to the next level?
To me, the US Squash Organization is like NASA. I challenge them to put a US player in the top 10 before this decade is out, like Kennedy challenged the establishment to put a man on the moon...We did that 40 years ago, surely we can do this and send a US player to the top 10 position.
It may not, most certainly not, be Gilly Lane or Jullian Illingsworth or Chris Gordon, but I dream that it might be my son, and if not my son, then my grandson. We will get there, and we'll get there, if the desire and dedication is there, and may my weary soul rest in peace when we do.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Anyways, this very same Mike was on the court with Josh Epstein on Saturday. Josh is a former high level racket ball player who is lightening fast, agressive, pint size, and has this intensity that is just amazing to watch as in he will do anything to get a racket on the ball. I've seen him get to shots that leave you wondering is there anything this guy can't get to? It isn't always squash and not always pretty, but the shear determination overshadows that. Sometimes that quality crosses the boundary of safety -- that style can get someone hurt.. I once saw a player dive across the length of the court to get to a ball he was severley fooled on only to slam into his opponent, not such a wise move, because the opponent doesn't always expect such a move, and ended up with a severely sprained knee -- he was lucky, it could have been worse. I don't like the way Josh plays, but I admire his on court attitude.
Last Saturday I was casually telling him he needs to change how he plays, he has great hands and is lightening fast, but it works against him. I told him to start playing up and cutting the ball off, especially against the gym's A level players. He hangs back in returning the serve and when the pace picks up he plays such a low T that the court becomes cavernous, which is countered by this hurling and dervish type play of his.
But back to Mike Squillante, I match him and Josh up for a match in the Round Robin. The points are long, Mike is running Josh all over the place, Mike is so good at that. I'm watching Josh sprint tirelessly around the court and then Mike hits a shot first to the front court which Josh dives to cover, okay, we've seen John White do this many times, and then Mike pokes the ball back towards the glass back wall. Josh sprinting back in an attempt to retrieve it slides into the glass door, "boom" and the entire glass door explodes in this cascading flow of glass. Josh is cut on the arm and legs and is covered in glass, visibly shaken, we call for the paramedics.
I was talking to Josh while waiting for the ambulance, by the way some stitches but he checked out okay, and I was saying to him I guess like a father to a son, "you've got to change how you play, what were you thinking?" He just shook his head and said "I can't help myself." No one likes to see anyone hurt or hurt anyone else in this game, but more experienced players have an obligation to either help a player like Josh play safely or simply refuse to play him until he changes his game. Just as you wouldn't get on the court with a player who has an excessive backswing or follow through or who would rather nail the ball into your bakc than call a let, this kind of play can be applauded for a lot of its good qualities, athleticism, agressiveness, but ultimately it has to be channeled and controlled into structured points. I know Josh felt bad about taking the court out for however long it takes to repair, but I can't imagine how he might feel if he should hurl himself to a ball and catch his opponent at the knee, perhaps ending his opponents squash play for months.
Time to change how Josh plays squash, most of the better players at the Club are there to help, translate his style into a squash game that is first and foremost safe for him and any of his future opponents.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
When Josh first suggested we play the "short game", which consists of playing in front of the mid court service line and everything above the front wall service line, it was a bit humiliating. It sort of meant that I couldn't play the full court, and it seemed a game that supported a bit of a handicap for the out of shape, really challenged player. My strokes were great, but my footwork and movement was that of a past-his-prime man, overweight and slow.
It turned out that this "short game" kept me coming back. I could play it, and gradually my stamina and footwork improved. I felt an accomplishment when Josh awarded me with some full court points towards the end of our session. Looking back, I think that if Josh hadn't gone to the "short game" when he did I probably would have given up in trying to come back.
But this "short game" has evolved for me as I'm fit again and coaching and drilling both myself and others really hard. I have a couple of students, like Tom Katagores and Haadi Khan, who really get it. Tom is a former racketball player who moved over to squash two years ago. He is in his mid-fifties and surviced double by-pass surgery, and works very hard at his game. He is a fierce competitor, but has the rare quality of being very gracious and sportsmanlike. He owns the Jackson Hole Diners, which serve up some of the most amazing hamburgers in the City and Queens. Coming from racketball he is a bit challenged in his racket skills, but is so eager to learn the right technique, that it makes him the perfect student. When I introduced him to the "short game", keep in mind Tom is incredibly fit, he embraced it immediately. I used the "short game" to teach Tom how to control the center of the court, to cut the ball off, stay off the wall, and to hit as many straight balls as possible, and resorting to boasting only when it was a last resort. The result was extensive rallies where we moved each other around and I could see he softened his racket and really start moving the ball away from me.
The great thing about the "short game" is that it is a minature version of the regular game. If you don't move your feet, hang back, don't cut the ball off or control the center you will run around like crazy. Not unlike the regulation game of squash.
What was quite remarkable to me about Tom was that he understood what we were trying to do immediately. We came off of one of our recent sessions both drenched in perspiration and I think he really had a feeling for controlling the ball, placing it, and positioning himself in the center of the court.
I smile to myself when Haadi, who is 14 years old, asks me to play the "short game", he likes this game because it gets his feet moving. He too, extends the "short game" rallies to the point where we are breathing heavily (he more than me of course), but he really understands this drill and how important it is to his development as a squash player.
Both Tom and Haadi have great regulation games together, they are fun to watch, the older player really trying to help improve the younger "kid" as Tom calls him.
I love the irony of this game, "short", "long", or just regulation squash, in that what was once a bit of humiliation for me is a source of pride for me and my students.
I should point out that I replaced Tom's racket, the Feather 2125 Cyclone, with another one since he told me, like the "kid", he broke his racket -- you might remember Haadi is a racket breaker. Figure that one out.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Monday, March 22, 2010
About a month ago, much to the encouragement of my son I started converting my service to the forehand side to my opponents backhand receiving side from a very effective lob serve to the backhand serve the pros started using years back. My son has been using this server for a number of years. I knew it had an advantage, a significant advantage, in theory but I have a great lob serve so why would I change it? That the backhand serve is a better serve, straight and simple, there's no doubt -- the pros wouldn't use it if it weren't. It eliminates one complete step (this is a game of inches, here we're talking about a foot or more) in moving to the T off the serve and preparing for your opponents return. It's not an eacy serve to hit but with practice and the right technique, it didn't take long to start hitting that serve with a good deal of effectiveness. And most importantly, I find myself early in preparing for my opponents return off the serve.
My most favorite student, Margaret Higgins, started converting to this serve and, while it's only been a couple of weeks, it's coming along nicely. She recently told me she played one of the better players at the club and faulted alot. Her opponent remarked, "if the lob serve works, why change it?" I didn't have much time to go into it with her, but just told her stick with it, it will happen and it's without a doubt a better serve. I should have qualified this by explaining you basically target the ball in the same way you do with the lob serve with a couple of differences, one of which I already described with less a step for early preperation to receive the opponents return of your serve. The other, is you put a slight angle slice on the inside of the ball (that part of the inside of the ball closest to the racquet face), creating a rotation on the ball equivalent to a righthand pitcher's curve ball tailing away on a lefthand batter -- I think that's right. The ball isn't flat nor does it have the underspin of a lob server. The motion on the ball is different.
The great thing about squash is that it is constantly evolving, changing, as a number of outside variables come into play and pro players adapt to changes in fitness levels, speed, racket technology, even changes in the ball composition. Students of the game learn from the pros, learn by observing and understanding what they're doing and why they're doing it.
During our club round robin the other day Margaret served from the backhand side to her opponents rightside forehand and faulted. A few points later, she served with the backhand serve to her opponents backhand and faulted and shot me this dagger of a look, as if to say, "you're making me do this!" and being the fierce competitor she is, she doesn't like to give any points away. When she came off the court I remarked how well she played, and then paused, and reminded her matter-of-factly that she earlier faulted on the forehand side of the court as well. No explanation needed. She got it.
I will be surprised if her opponent who remarked on why 'change her serve' isn't hitting the same backhand serve in 3 months, certain then that Margaret was only too happy to show him how.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
My son and I both coach so we decided to start making some things happen at the club. It's worked out so far beyond what we expected. We have literally an influx of players from racketball who have converted to squash. Some are really good. and will no doubt be even better as they play more and take some lessons. We match up players and I was doing many lessons each week and spending hours on the court, often hitting and just pointing things out about someone's game. And then people watch me and my son play and the fierce battles (in my own mind -- my son is playing in his head conditional games) we have and they like that, especially when I come off the court drenched in perspiration and breathing so hard I think my lungs will burts, "quite a good workout," they'll ask. To which I say, "the best there is."
We have a very active Saturday afternoon round robin that is very competitive, especially now that we've implemented a handicap system. The better players have to really play the points hard, because with a 5 point disadvantage in par scoring anything can happen. The energy is great and we don't charge -- it also gives me an opportunity to see my students play and see what we need to work on for the next lesson time. We've just now put together a league of our own fielding 5 teams of 3 players and 1 alternative. Juniors are assigned to a team and play the junior member of the opposing team. It's worked out very well and you can see players stepping outside their usual circle. The round robin has also spawned match play among players who played well against each other. Pooya and Faraz had a great round robin match last weekend, both solid 3.5 players +, they had long rallies, very structured points, they just fed into each other's games and it was very fun to watch. We also referee the match because my students came back from a tournament asking rules and referee questions, so best to just do some hands on refereeing with them during these matches.
So with all this activity, wouldn't you believe you just can't get a court now, they are booked 6 am until 10 pm every night! People are complaining, is this a good thing? We're beginning to eye the racketball court next to squash court 7, can you imagine now, "can I reserve a squash court for next Wednesday, 7 or 8 pm?", the front desk says, " Court 8, 8 pm is the last court available." I book it just happy to have that court. In the long run those complaining will welcome what's going on ... there will be a bigger pool of better players, better matches and better play. Wishes do somtimes come true.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Prior to Haadi's lesson, I had a session with Margaret. We'd recently had some difficult sessions, but tonight, when we were doing these ghosting drills with Haadi, I observed a woman who really just is smooth, who can really glide on the court. We did some drills, mostly getting her to cut the ball off in the back by vollying of the side walls or stepping up and cutting the ball off -- I play cross courts out of the front court, she retrieves, volleys, to herself and boasts back to me. She struggled a bit, but then started to pick it up, lunging towards the ball, cutting it off or taking it early off the side wall. But what so impressed me is that while she lacks strength in the quads and whatever that muscle in the achilles that makes you explode on your first step, she moves beautifully. We talked about what she needs to do to strengthen those quads and calves/achilles like lunges and skipping rope. She has three children, her life is incredbily demanding, so it's hard to train and devote that kind of time, she said. I showed no sympathy, and reminded her I was a single parent with two small kids and a demanding job and trained relentlessly. I hope she took it in the vein I meant it, encouragement. I do believe she can be a national champion, and it is for me to push her and if she wants that to get her prepared for that level of competition.
What was most rewarding to me was the next day receiving an email from her telling me she didn't know how I trained her, got on the court with Haadi, all in a day where I trained my son at 530 am and worked on my tech project --my answer was simple, it's so darn easy when I watch Haadi step up and strike that ball early and see Margaret run her star drills, move around the court so smoothly, and above all, to know and recognize that it is those two who raise the bar, not me.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
By the way, here's the link to the clip...http://misstrade.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/even-squash-gets-heated-at-times/
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
It wasn't until my son, who endured the same problem throughout his junior development, became dedicated to fitness and diet off the court that he shed the pounds. And when he did his game leapt into high gear and changed how he played. While he was always smarter and better technically than anyone he played, he molded his game according to his fitness level. I followed suit, my biggest culprit was red wine, wow, did I love red wine, but I gave that up. I also went to a low carborhydrate diet: lean and green as we say. As I started loosing weight, I started doing strengthening exercises (push ups and dips and sit ups on the Swiss Ball), lots of start drills and some running. The running is difficult, because I'm on court training my son and coaching others and playing matches all in all 30-40 hours a week and it takes a toll on my knees, I prefer the old fashion stepper on high intensity or biking. For the first time in a long time I am starting to play the front court and sustaining rallies and getting that attacking style back. It is because I am more confident that I am fit to play this game with 20 shot or more rallies. It's hard to play back to back days of tough matches, that is my next goal. I should also add that I do a lot of stretching, as much as 45 minutes a day...this hopefully will ward off injuries. I will not step on the court and play a match unless I've thoroughly stretched and warmed up, this no doubt the result of a couple of tears in the knee and abductor in the past.
To become fit, and I don't mean at a touring professional level, and to derive the benefits of playing squash, get fit for squash. The difference in playing fit versus trying to get fit through squash is immense, the game is too hard as it is to play as if you're carrying around a knapsack filled with rocks...
Having said all that, there's nothing wrong with going out and playing and sustaining whatever fitness level you have -- it's better than not getting on that court. But when you wonder why you play and play and don't seem to get much fitter, think about are you in a comfort zone, do you play squash and burn 1,000 calories but then go off and have 3 beers and 3 slices of pizza afterwards? Get off the beer and pizza until you become fit and when you are fit and training and playing, hey 3 beers and 3 slices are nothing...check out what the pros in last month's TOC were eating in the food court of Grand Central...fit for squash.