Thursday, January 28, 2010

The best player on the planet....was tired!

What a match! One of the best I've seen in so long...Wilstrop, sorry my son, I never thought he was at this level, kryptonite, you have believed in Wilstrop for the past 4 years, he did things like I haven't seen since Brett Martin...he really schooled the best player on the planet...strange, the opportunity was there, if Ramy came back, he could have been there in the Jansher periphery. What a match and I watched it on SquashTV...I paid the year subscription.

I emailed Hisham Ashour in the middle of the match, I asked him what he saw, he said he saw a very tired player, a very tired Ramy...interesting, I never would have seen that.

Ramy has a weakness...

It showed in the Mathew match...when he goes to the front on the forehand side he can't pick up the hold from the front by his opponent. Young Nicol had the same weakness...see the Brett Martin vs. Nicol match he beats Nicol often on this...Mathew beat Ramy on this and Wilstrop has capitalized on this.

Page 6 -- "Keep Eye on Ball" Easdon's Squash Documentary -- Tournament of Champions 2010 Final Day

Page 6 -- Keep Eye on the Ball Documentary -- Tournament of Champions Final Day...
Media were invited to a private viewing of the Josh Easdon documentary on Hashim Kahn. It was really tough at times to sit through this. I think its intention was to show how squash bridged the gap between two distinctly different cultures at a time when there was great prejudice towards peoples from India/Pakistan by Great Britain. British Colonialism at its best. Not sure that is all that successful in the documentary, it's probably a documentary in and of itself. The world at the time, Europe in particular, was reeling from devastating impact of the War and I don't think a player from Pakistan winning the British Open really meant all that much at the time. I think the film is disjointed in that it wants to portray Hashim as a rags to riches story (through squash) along side this small squash player that in his own way was a political force, a David and Goliath story -- the latter probably not all that significant. To the world, it probably meant so little, to Hashim and Pakistan it meant a great deal, that is good and it is moving the tribute to that. Was Hashim an ambassador for squash or Pakistan or both, probably a great ambassador for squash. He lived for so long away from Pakistan but his accomplishment meant something to his country -- I was in India during the Beijing Olympics when India won its first gold medal. India was euphoric Probably the best part was that Hashim was able to see the world and play the best players.
But much of the film reminds me of a very well done home movie, or the kind of video you do for a family wedding. The film just falls flat, you will watch it, won't walk out, be polite and sit through it in the same way you would your hosts video of a vacation or family reunion.
The film does have it's moments, especially the early part in Pakistan and the courts where Hashim learned to play (courts like that) and the re-enaction of young Hashim and the club pro days was nicely done as well.
Many of the interviews repeat the same things over...noticeably missing was Jahangir, Jahnsher (not related) and Roshan (brother-in-law), who I believe was still alive at the time (he passed away a couple of years back). It does touch a bit on suggestion of bad feeling between Roshan and Hashim, Roshan, himself is a remarkable story of survival and danger at a time during the partition, when it was very dangerous for a Muslim to be in India. This was sort of glossed over, I once asked Hashim what he thought of Jahangir's game, he replied, just like his father, a retriever...
He is a gentle, peaceful man, wonderful charismatic man...but I wonder what the film was trying to accomplish. A documentary? Yes, but it is more just a video celebrating Hashim's life and many of the people whose hearts he's touched in his travels.
If you have a chance to see this, separate the Man from the Documentary, the Man, Hashim is wonderful to watch and listen to, but the Documentary is not so wonderful..
The historical stuff in the beginning, origins in squash, for the squash enthusiast, is very nice, and it is a bit obvious the sudden switch to Hashim's birthplace, what Easdon is trying to suggest -- a sport of privilege against the backdrop of a most unlikely place to produce a squash champion.
I think the highlight is at the end of the film, this wonderful bit, when Hashim is sitting in this big leather chair and simply says "I just loved the game" and he smiles, laughs a bit, that's all, that's all it was, it wasn't any of the other things brought into the film.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Page 6 Part Two -- TOC Tournament of Champions 2010

I have been a bit of a cheat the last couple of days, I've been watching the matches on SquashTV -- I can tell anyone, this is great stuff, I am signing up for the unlimited year round coverage....$80.00 and you are right there around the world. The video and coverage is phenomenal, I became so used to the other site over the years, but this one is leagues above that one.
Tonight, I came down from the Graybar building to see the semifinals (Darwish vs. Wilstrop and Ramy Ashour vs. Nick Mathew). I'm on a contract in that building and it coincided with this great tournament, how great is that?
First of all Shawn and Fram sitting side by side looked like a divorced couple having to sit together to watch one of their children love loss there, I should have photo'd that...anyone who knows them and their history will understand what I mean. Squash should transcend all of that bickering, etc.
I was sitting right near the backhand front corner my favorite perch in the tournament. Can't understand why everyone wants to watch the player's backs? Explain that, the best view is seeing them from the front, the free seats should be the 400.00 seats or at least the side wall...look into the eyes of Ramy, that "cobra" shot, his eyes are like a cobra.
Darwish in the first match in the warmup looked tight, every time he went to the front he seemed to tin the ball. Anyone at any level who has played tournaments, knows that the warmup is so important, you can gauge your opponent before the match even starts. Sure enough, Darwish looked tight throughout the match and tin'd so many balls I think in Hashim Kahn's detention class he would have had to wirte 500 times "no tin ball..."
Wilstrop attacked the front court with such deft of touch, it was something. Here, I feel stupid, and I take my hat off to my son, he said two years ago that Wilstrop is devestating to the front of the court, I sort of dismissed that. I witnessed a surgeon perform open heart surgery on a patient while riding the IRT train. Enough said. I thought the court was cold, it was chilly, and maybe it was like the British courts, how it changed the pace and the ball, I couldn't tell.
Darwish sat dejectedly after the match in the shadows under the stands wondering how glory slipped away, perhaps an all Egyptian final? His wife, sorry, I'm too tired to look her up but she's a highly ranked player, seemed to assuage his defeat but backed off. I went up to him to ask for some comments, he was alone, within himself, "10 minutes" he said. I never went back.
I was really pressed for time and had my son cover my lessons, perhaps tonight, Nick Mathew would send a message to Ramy that he is the Number 1 player in the world. Nick had everything to proove, Ramy, what did he have to prove, he's number 1? Certainly not, take that from him.
I have to say I have seem some incredible players over the years, probably more than Fram G. has, including Jahsher, Jahangir, Ditmar, and the list goes on. Any you know what, Ramy does things, I don't even know what he's doing. I needed Hisham to explain it, I am looking forward to hearing the commentary on the squashTV replay. It seemed Nick Mathew came out in the third game a bit distracted, I wondered if he had tightened up, he played so brilliantly in the first two games, he might have been up 2-0, but was at 1-1. By the way, I wonder about some of those calls, a rolling nick as a Let in the fourth game? When will they put 1 ref in back and 1 ref each side of the front court?
Nick was smoked in the third game, I was wondering lost his concentration, or was he hurting or worried about his bakc, he came out in the fourth game doing some stretches, tell tale sign of tightness. He stopped attacking the front and re-dropping, he went to the lob, an easier shot on the back. Like I said I don't know anything about the post match interview, so did he tighten up?
He seemed to play the match out, just wasn't his night. He has to prove he is really number 1, he's the challenger, he will have to take it from Ramy. But right now, Ramy is simply the best player on the planet, at least tonight, let's see after tomorrow night.
I spoke to Ramy's coach, "he has both the talent and the heart", he emphasized the "heart", that is what makes a champion, I think is what he was saying.
John Nimick, slick, still using the street squash kids to mop up the floors and clean the glass, but without their Urban Squash emblems...okay that might work, but it leads me to believe something else is going on there, a bit amateur to have a 13 year old girl wipe the floor and close the door -- I noticed no one checked to make sure the door latched close. And what was with the floor tonight, scary slip by Wilstrop, we're talking about a player who can really hurt himself. For god's sake, Mt. Olympus, was never known to be a slippery peak, nor should that floor within the grand pantheon of squash.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know -- Sightings of Past Pros at the TOC

I am really interested whether anyone has sighted any past greats in the attendance at this years Tournament of Champion. I often scan the crowds. I was thinking of players from any era, whether from hardball or softball, North America, Europe, Far East, Australia, etc. I thought about Stu Goldstein, the great North American hardball player, Anders Wahlstadt, former world ranked #17 who was the best in the US for a while, any others? Do any of them come to the TOC -- Rodney Martin supposedly is around in NY, Brooklyn did he come to watch any of this great squash. What about Frank Sauterwaite, another great hard baller and brilliant author of Angles and Nicks (something like that)...Of course Nicol and Power and I saw Richard Chin, former top 100 player. A couple of years ago, Jahangir Kahn was in attendence, that was quite treat and was able to talk to him...If you've seen anyone, any of the retired touring pros, please let us know. Inquiring minds want to know.

Page 6 -- Cavalier View of Sportsmanship -- of the Tournament of Champions 2010 Day 6

Ron Beck's past editorial/opinion (I missed it last year, but it's back on the current home page), comparing the unsportsman-like conduct of Cleveland Cavalier's Lebron James against the Orlando Magic in last May's Game 6 loss in the playoffs to the sportsmanship exhibited in Squash, has prompted an examination of this element of squash so many seem to hold so dear. Watching these matches at the TOC these past few days, where good sportsmanship is exhibited in almost in every match, I realized Beck's comparison is too simplistic for such a complexity of issues. First and probably foremost, the stakes in NBA Basketball are much different than in squash, where players earn millions of dollars in salaries, bonus', and endorsements. At best, the top 10 squash players make a fraction of that. The millions of fans and would-be players who buy millions of dollars of Lebron James merchandize aren't interested in his sportsmanship, they're interested in his game and that he and his team wins. And basketball, like squash, is a product and it reflects those who watch it, play it, and live it. Sportsmanship learned from a role model in some suburban town is great, it's an easy lesson, but sportsmanship learned often on the streets, in playground pickup games, is a hard sell -- survival of the fittest, and sportsmanship is the least of a players concern when the money to be made is more than any of our squash sportsman combined will see in their lifetime. I don't want to get into the soci-economic implications of this, because it's way to complex for me to attempt, but there's a lot going on than simply that LeBron is a bad sport. Squash doesn't reflect life much except maybe the lives of a very small, often privileged group of people who lead very sheltered lives. Basketball reflects real life, and while I don't condone that bad sport conduct, it is what it is -- a product of the people who play it and the people who watch it. I would like to see how Peter Nicol and Jonathan Power played each other if at stake were piles of money and how they would play if they went to bed often times hungry and that squash was there only way out of significant economic challenges -- that is if their squash game was their only ticket out of hell. And in that hell who might their role models be, their fathers, their playground coaches? And I could just imagine the squash referees, if it seems players behavior is bad now, imagine a bad call is the difference in, what, say a half of a million dollars in prize money, such as that call that foot fault against Serena Williams at the U.S. Open this past year cost her. Oh, and if I were Beck, I'd be more concerned about updating his piece with the recent Wizard's Gilbert Arena's gun incident than LeBron's innocuous behavior because that's more a question of life and death rather than just being a bad sport.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hisham Ashour and The Cantos of Squash

In the professional squash world, there are so many players who exhibit such skill and brilliance, that it's almost taken for granted. I've often tried to articulate what is it about this game that has fostered such a passion in me, I haven't ever found someone who could. My son and I often just look at each other and just shake our heads, just this morning, he asked me, "what is it about this game that I love so much and can't live without it?" This was at 5:30 a.m. (almost each and every morning and nights too). I never have an answer for that question . Maybe, there is no answer for why we develop and sustain such passions...or maybe only few of us can answer that.

Everything seems to tie together in some strange way. I was reading Ezra Pound's Canto XXXVI on the subway ride into work this morning and I thought it's about these kinds of questions. I then met up later in the day with Hisham Ashour (world ranked #24), the older brother of Ramy Ashour (world ranked #1), for an interview and article on his squash game. I had met him a couple of times in the past and certainly watched him play at the TOC in the past. I always thought this guy is more talented than his brother, he is easily a top 10 player. He wasn't particularly fit, at that top 10 level when we saw him in the past, but his racquets and his shots were just extraordinary.

We sat down in the coffee shop of the Grand Hyatt and I had a number of questions to ask him, like a good journalist would. Shawn, the editor of SquashZag, was with us and we started talking about Hisham and his game. He is fit, fit like he's never been. He always had a bit of a gut, but that is a thing of the past. No other sport, I think, highlights a player's fitness, or lack of it, than squash. These squash players sometimes compete at a gruelling level and pace for over an hour, sort of like triple overtime in basketball, 21 innings in baseball, double triathalons.

Why, of all the players in this tournament, did I feel compelled to interview and talk to this player? The answer came within 5 minutes of speaking with Hisham. I understood why. This is not only a special player with such squash gifts that my son and I marvelled at way back, but this is a remarkable human being with equally great gifts in the way he interacts with people and his knowledge of this game. I watched him a couple of days ago at the tournament while he was watching his brother play his match, people just gravitate towards him, and he has that gift for making anyone he meets feel comfortable and want to think and talk about squash. While he admits, this can be a distraction from his game, it is who he is, he loves people.

He's a celebrity in Egypt, has done commercials, but his charisma is born out of what appears to be just loving what he does, and when he talked about squash on TV, it wasn't that old song and dance about generating money or exposure for the sport and its players but exposing more people to the game and getting them to play this game. There are some stars who just care about themselves, he remarked.

He admittedly is his brother's life coach, "Ramy was born to play squash, that's what he knows, and better than anyone, he can't teach or explain what he does he just does it." Hisham, however, can explain not only what his brother does, but even his own crazy shot he hits, I think he called it the Mizuki, which I caught my son practicing or trying to hit a while back in imitation of Hisham. He explained this complicated trick shot and made it seem so simple, he hit six of them against White in a match last year. That is a great gift of his to make a shot like that seem so simple, to make this sport seem so simple, that anyone, if they just could see it like he does, would want to play it. And he will teach and talk about squash to anyone, he sometimes watches the professional matches from different angles outside the glass court and pretends he doesn't know the game, and expresses excitement at a rally or a nick or some imposssible angle, you can almost believe him that he is seeing the game for the first time. He has that power, that presence and when he speaks about squash, the game of squash, it is brilliant and insightful.

He talked about his evolving game, how he was brought up being taught kill the ball into the nick, don't hit rails and sustain the rallies, "go for the kill shot". He emphasized he is going to a new racquet, it's going to change his game, he needs to play the ball differently. When asked about Ramy and his game, he said no one will ever do what Ramy does, he and only Ramy will ever do that, that is the essence of Ramy's greatness, he's changed the game and changed it in a way that only Ramy can do. Greatness as in Jansher Kahn? "No", he said, Jahnsher had gifts that were far beyond anyone, "he seemed to walk through this game".

Hisham seems so confident now that he is fit, his fitness can sustain where he wants to take his game, he wants to play those 70 minute matches, because he can...since last spring he rattled off players he nearly beat in long matches but lost to, top ten players, whom he once couldn't really hang with in the longer points. While loosing to Kareem Darwish, his countryman, in 3 games the other day at the TOC, he felt when he came off the court for the first time that he can beat Darwish and should have beaten him.

Five years ago, he would play his brother Ramy, he would play all his super shots, and Ramy would take those shots and upgrade them to "perfection". He is not stating this because Ramy is his brother, he is simply stating it as an indication of just how gifted Ramy is. He shared something insightful about his brother, and said while sometimes Ramy waves his racquet around and tins the ball, within a short time those tins are upgraded to "perfection".

None, other than my son and Jim Masland, could I spend hours talking about squash with, except I now would include Hisham. I had to return to my "real" job, so I didn't have the hours and Hisham was on his way to a photo shoot with Rob White for SquashZag. And how does this tie into that Canto XXXVI? As complex as that poet and poem is, it's simply about how an artist has the ability to take something so abstract, like a feeling of passion, or strength, or even light itself, and put it into a worldy perspective. Hisham, like Pound, is an artist, he can take the abstract essence of squash and his love of it and explain it in a myriad of different ways, in as many angles as there are on that court and in this game, and it makes sense. While I read so many squash books by former players, I hope someday he writes his own book about squash and the game, and if I might suggest, he calls it "The Cantos of Squash".

Jonathan Power and Rocky Marciano

I ran into Jonathan Power at the Grand Hyatt lobby while waiting to do another interview during the TOC Squash tournament at Grand Central Station. I didn't recognize him, but Shawn from SquashZag pointed him out. I started talking to JP and told him he was one of my son's favorite players, that my son studies his instructional videos, and contends he is one of the greatest players ever (my son's squash IQ is through the roof). I have a past blog posting listing the top 10 greatest players I ever saw and JP isn't on it....I apologized to JP for that. I asked JP if he missed competing at that high level and he said emphatically, "NO". Was it the training, the regiment, the grind, I asked. I don't remember his answer, because I remembered suddenly, that when he retired, he retired number 1 in the world. I said to him you retired at number 1..."that's right!", he said. I thought to myself, that's right, how many players in any sport, in any sport's history, can say that when they left the game, they left the game on top, number 1, the best for that time? Not many, I thought of Rocky Marciano, while he died tragically, he is most remembered because when he left the sport he was the heavyweight champion of the world. Would Muhammed Ali have been truly the greatest ever if he had retired after he beat Leon Spinks in their championship rematch? I have a lasting image of Ali being pummelled towards the end of his career. So, JP is really special, and while I'm no squash historian, I wonder just how many great squash players retired at number 1 in the world? Not even god of squash, Jahnsher Khan, did that, I'm almost certain.
True to my word, I did say I might someday change that top 10 list of greatest squash players I've seen -- and that's what I just did.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bad Knee, Back, Hip or Even One Leg...

When I was in India I was injured and couldn't play squash for 3 months. It was absolute torture, I had a slight tear and opted not to have surgery and instead let it heal on itself. During that time I used to take my racket and squash ball and go into the high rise apartment garage stalls, which were like miniature squash courts with white plastered walls and smooth floors. I would spend a long time stationary just hitting the ball back to myself. I had to travel 2 hours in heavy Indian traffic to go to real courts, so injured as I was, this was better.

I remember thinking at the time that just hitting the ball, feeling it come off the racket and hearing the ball strike the front garage wall that wonderful sound so familiar was comforting. It mattered I couldn't really move and I was very careful not to, but it was then that I realized if I ever got back to playing healthy, I will always have to have that wall, ball and racket -- even if I could move an inch.

I recently took on a former division 1 soccer player who wanted to learn how to play squash. 50 plus year old Richard Packer from Long Island, was not in the best shape, but what made matters worse he had had knee replacement surgery which had limited his motion of his knee. So what was I going to do with this man who simply wanted to learn to play this great game of squash?

I took him onto the court and talked a bit with him about squash and asked him some more questions about his knee, his mobility, and I was frank with him and told him the physical demands of the game are great...but I stopped myself, and thought back to India, and remembered how I had no mobility but how much enjoyment I derived from just striking the ball in the garage. I told Richard based on what he told me we would tailor the lessons around technique and a certain radius of movement and reach.

We started hitting back and forth to each other and I was astonished at his hands, he exhibited a very good feel for the ball and his eye and hand coordination were superb. We adjusted his grip and racket preparation and stance when striking the ball and he started hitting the ball pretty well. He had played tennis so there was lots of tennis in his strokes, no big deal, easy to fix over time. The lessons went by and his strokes off the feeds became better and better but I was faced with the dilemma of how to keep him interested. Let's change the court a bit, the way the more serious players sometimes play the short game as well as the long game to practice movement, angles and touch. The short game was suited very well to Richard, simple enough, the ball must land in front of the half court line (in front of the service box) and above the service line (mid line on the front wall). You cannot win off the serve. We played some very good points, but what this session was was abstract of what the game is really like in full court. You must control the center, clear, and hit tight shots. What we started doing was playing long rallies, which Richard loved, because he worked up quite a sweat and he started getting a feel for the essence of the game, cut off the angles, hit the ball where your opponent isn't and clear for your opponent. At the end of the session we both felt pretty good and it reminded me of match play. I then told him that he should play people that way, get good at this method, and start bringing people on court. I explained it's a standard drill but when he gets really good at it many better players will like to hit with him because we all do this kind of game to sharpen our footwork and rackets skills.

So now when I ask people who say they used to play squash but stopped because of bad knees or bad backs or any kind of disability, I can tell them about Richard and encourage them to go out and get on that court and play this game in whatever way you can -- next, I'll have Richard hit anywhere on the front wall while I still have to hit above the service line. I'll have to work a lot harder, but I'm sure watching coach retrieve the drops as well as the rails and crosses and reverses will delight this student who now has bit of this game.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Page Six of the Tournament of Champions 2010 -- Day 2

After a late night of TOC and writing and some early morning lessons and training...okay, took a wonderful nap and missed the afternoon session. But the evening session was great, the best night of the year in the US squash world.

First off John Nimick is a class act, the tournament director has stopped using urban squash kids to mop up the floors and clean the glass, or at least from what I've seen. The referees seem to be doing quite a nice job. Last year I wrote an email to John Nimick about the use of urban squash kids, most of who are minorities, that it promotes stereotyping.
The tournament this year has an energy that is incredible, I've been coming here for most of the last 13 years, and there is just something great going on...Beth Rasin, I watched her in action, she juggles about 10 things all at once, never dropping a thing.

Back to squash, Shaun Lereaux, who lost to Wilstrop in the first round, interesting perspective on the qualifier or the "David" facing a "Goliath". "You don't go on the court thinking you are going to lose, but you go on the court maybe thinking you can hang with a top 10 player..." -- for a game that is. So what does he take away from the experience, maybe the next time hanging with a top 10 player for a game and a half. The life of the qualifier, hard life, "financially very hard." Peter Barker, how many years before he broke into the top 10? The love of this game...

Dunlop balls, lots of talk about this lately. Per a source close to the ball, so to speak, the white ball the pros use is a spongier (if that's a word) ball than the black ones used. College, WISPA, PSA long term contracts to play with these balls, 5 years I think. This is one area not to copy the pros, it's a lock, so for all the rest who play with this ball and are wondering did they change it, it's inferior, simple as that. The Pinto of squash balls...

Mike Westin, head Pro at CityView squash and former touring professional is starting an elite development for younger players there with Touring Professional and great top 10/11 Wael Hindi. Mike is a really knowledgeable guy, great perspective on the Australian Institute of Sports and their squash development, they've had their day is what I've gathered. Mike is from New Zealand, would that have anything to do with his perspective?

Speaking of which, at the bar, met the best squash reporter on the planet Fran G. from, she is something...a French Woman without a glass of wine...but she had the quote of the day from Shabana or someone, concerning all the Egyptians, "their time has come..." but in the same breath..."what factory are they all from...shut down that factory!" The Australians, the Pakistans, now the Egyptians, they seem to have all had their time, the one constant though are those amazing Brits, will the Americans have their time? Not any time soon, 20 year old Nicolas Mueller, qualifier, dispatched US #1 Illingsworth methodically. And he beat Chris Gordon in the qualifying round 2 as well. I asked him what was his strategy going in, he said Julian was a bit injured but he knew he was weak in the forehand court so he attacked him there...interesting, Mueller said while, like most players, he plays 75% of his shots to his opponents backhand, he played a lot more to the forehand. And what does Illingsworth do with his neck and upper body when covering the forehand drop. Mueller received a call from his mother, congratulating him, but the call Tuesday, no doubt will be her condolences after he faces Ramy Ashour #1 in the world -- a learning experience, I think he said.

Back to Fran G. of -- great bits on Frenchman Gaultier her country's best player, and in my mind the real number 1 player in the world. At 11 years old he was doing 73 consecutive figure 8's...go to and check out Mark Chaloner doing 93, but Mark is not 11 and last I checked a top 100 pro. Fran G. had some great comments on Gaultier, he is "like a sponge, he picks up so much from the best players." My son joined this conversation and talked about how Gaultier picked up from Lincou the head fake out of the front and in a 2003 match totally faked Nicol out. Fran G. responded with now he has absorbed a lot of Shabana...

Edy Kapur, head Pro at Sports Club/LA in the city, is on the mend -- great seeing him about after a lengthy illness, he's one of our favorites. Rackets vs. Footwork vs. match play...both Gordon and Illingsworth don't have top 20 footwork, I said, they have great rackets and they have played lots of matches from the time they were young, to fix technical flaws at this stage really tough, big step back to do this. We've had this argument about my son an aspiring pro, my son has the footwork of Ramy and great rackets, he's a thing of beauty to watch, but he doesn't have the matches, he's a bit lazy, he doesn't have the edge...just watch Palmer before a match and during a match, the edge, mentally and experience. A long rode ahead in the match play, but it's all forward, no stepping back if my son wants it.

Hisham Ashour will do an interview and photo shoot with squashzag ( he is lean and mean and as stated earlier a great player. Boswell, sorry I missed your match, was taking that much needed nap, but like the post man, neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor flood (something like's engraved on the old 8 th Ave. and 33rd street Post Office in the City) will keep me from watching you play Nick Mathew -- tough call, you are both my two favorite players, and Boswell, a New Zealand qualifier, Shua, came up to me about my blog posting top 10 players I've seen of all time, of which you are there -- he complimented me on your inclusion on that list.

Okay lights out, but this note I made, don't confuse sportsmanship with complacency, will get to that when I've figured out what I meant. Might be something to ask Malcom Wilstrop about, he's been around the tournament, which reminds me, his book, Play to Win Squash, is a must read -- at the very least he can autograph it for me.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Page Six of the Tournament of Champions 2010 -- Day 1

As I walk around the tournament and talk to people, friends, players, and yes, even referees, it's quite amazing the tidbits you pick up.e

Okay, first one was during the Azzis and Shabanna match. Game 1 game ball Shabanna is awarded a stroke off a beautiful drop to the backhand side, Shabanna is clearly too far back to retrieve it and runs into Azziz, requesting a let. He is awarded a stroke! Bad call. What was interesting is the referees for that match were being assessed by one of the highest ranking referees in the world, only 8 hold that distinction. I went up to him and asked him about the call, he replied, a mistake, no question about it, a let, Shabanna was too far back. Too bad, he said because it came at a critical point in a tight game of the match.

Palmer remembers loosing to Olli Tuominen a couple of years back, my son and I were at that match, it was boring, Palmer was dominant; we left after the second game (I'm forever reminded about this) we found out later Olli beat Palmer in 5. It was remarked that Palmer doesn't like much playing Olli, no worries, Adrian Waller, 76 ranked in the world upset Olli in 5. I snuck away from the office and was there to see another match but running behind schedule I watched the first couple of games of the Waller match. This 20 year old is good, really good, I thought he was a bit awkward in his footwork, he's tall and big, but he has exceptional rackets. Okay, he faces Palmer next, who beat a youngster, rather dispatched him in 3 games...Palmer mentioned before his match to me "you have to watch these kids."

Lee Beachhill was about, will try and talk to him, what a great player and former number one, he seemed to be about with his game face on.

Back to David Palmer, a close associate of his, whom I spoke to said he will be retiring after this years Commonwealth games. I tell all of you, David Palmer is in my top 5 as one of the greatest players I've ever seen play, see him play before he retires. This guy is really a special player.

Okay, back to Shabanna and Azziz, they were warming up the ball and after a few hits threw it back and took another one. My son, the astute student of the game, and recovering from the flu which forced him out of the amateur draw this weekend, dragged himself out of bed to watch his idol, Palmer play. After Palmer's match, my son stopped him and had a lengthy chat. They talked about the white ball the players play with. Palmer went into great explanation about how the white ball is really supposed to be like the black double yellow dot but really isn't, it's very inconsistent these batches of balls. He cited Shabanna as throwing the ball out because it was probably too fast. God I love this game, the details of which are pure genius. And when will they use that great Feather ball as the official ball, if Feather still makes it -- the best ball ever made.

One other Palmer bit, I said to him after his match with the youngster Francomb , that I thought this kid was a great player, he said "yeah, he seemed to have a bit of trouble with the glass court..." to which I replied, "I think you just wore him down."

Missing from this year's tournament Anjema, Isklander, Grant, Pilley, and of course Lincou. I expect two of these mentioned to come back and make it through to the semis next year.

This tournament is really the real Christmas.

Where was the towel when Francomb slipped, it took too long to fetch one. Who was that referee, off duty, cleaning the court glass? "Hey, Just helping out, " replied Wayne.

The other Ashour, Hisham, to me and my son the more talented of the two brothers, when asked when he was going to break top 10, finally -- replied he recently took his brother, of course the number one player in the world to 5 games...okay, forget the Sprite commercials I told him, as a flock of 11 year girls hounded him for his autograph, it won't matter years from now but your squash will. Did I sound a bit like pater?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

LA Fitness Squashers in the MSRA Squash Grand Open 2010


I was able to see Haadi's match, he faced a number 1 seed and played very well. He kept his cool and tried to work his opponent in the back, when he did he controlled the game. He was hurt in the front court ot covering it very well. The Yale Club courts are the exact opposite of LA Fitness, slow front wall and fast and lively floors. Ashish, who recently played in a league match there remarked that all his kills on LA Fitness floors came up on the Yale courts: "what the @$#@ was that all about", he was heard to remark.

Quote of the day came from Haadi, while watching Shabana in the pro draw punish Aziss along with myself and my son and , Ashish turned to Haadi and said, "You could learn alot from these guys." To which Haadi responded smartly, "so could you!."

Paul Zummo played a gritty match and lost in 5 games. He was down 2-0, when he started making his comback. Any one who has played Paul knows he never quits, while he lost in 5 in his first tournament, he showed great mental toughness and literally got a racket on almost every ball. He rushed a lot of his shots, but for younger players, take a page from Paul's book, never quit, he almost pulled it out.

John Gross also went to 5 games after being down the first two games. I didn't see the match, but this is great for John. Like Paul, when you drill and practice and take lessons, soon those 5 game matches go your way. Hang in their John...

Kyle withdrew from the tournament, he had been sick all week. But he was watchig the pros, what I love about him is he talks shop with all the pros. He will be back training and promise to be ready for the up coming Men's Under 23 championships.

Pooya texted me to say he lost, didn't see his match, but great to have him playing and healthy again.

Margaret plays tomorrow morning.

Vidant had to withdraw because of a school committment, but I'm attaching the link to his drum session on Youtube for a school musical...

The following LA Fitness squash players will be competing in the Grand Open Squash Torunament January 22-24, 2010. This is a great showing and all of them are my students. Remember, as Hashim Kahn says, 'keep eye on ball and no tin...' something like that. Good luck!

Vidant -- Junior Boys U11
Pooya -- Men's 4.0
Paul Zummo -- Men's 3.0
Margaret Higgins -- Women's 5.0
Haadi -- Men's 3.5
John Gross -- Men's 3.5

Kyle -- Men's 5.5

I really wish I could join all of you as a participant, but will look forward to training and hopefully competing in the Nationals in April and the Hyder Cup in May. I will be around the various clubs all weekend hoping to catch some of your matches. Email me results, observations, concerns, achievements so I can put them here.

Sorry I wasn't able to update this in a timely manner, but now that the dust has settled I think the consensus among all the players, most of who, this is their first tournament, is that competing is a lot different than club playing.

I am really happy that all the players for the most part were able to participate in this incredible weekend including the amateur alongside the professional draw. I think a lot of the LA Fitness squashers were just awed by the pros, I myself, watch them on PSA Live and have seen this tournament for about 10 years, and I am so awed by these matches.

I hope everyone took away a list (large or small) of what to work on before the next tournament, and don't get discouraged, it's a process and I can tell you when you put into what it takes to win a tournament, when you do finall win one, or make it to the finals, it makes it all worthwhile.

You've all responded well to the idea of a weekly round robin of play to which we'll keep bringing in players you don't normally play so you get used to all sorts of styles and play. This is great and your enthusiasm is contagious. Next on the horizon are the Nationals in April, maybe another tuneup before then but I encourage you all to play in this it is a great event and this years it's about 1.5 hours away.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Men Who Walk In the Shadows Of Gods

Squash has produced some amazing prodigies. Three whom I've seen play are Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan and Ramy Ashour. These are in the pantheon of squash gods, there probably will be none who can equal what they've done. That is until the next god of squash comes along. But what about all those other great players. I'm not even talking about these guys but those players who in the entire world are 300, 200, 100 and even 50 ranked? John White was once ranked 300 and something.

The top 15 players seem to play each other all the time. Has that the way it's always been, do we judge squash excellence on the play of those players? I think not. I think back years ago to when I saw Chris Stevens play, I would watch him play Anders Wahlstedt at Park Place Squash. Chris was ranked in the 80's, which I think was his best ranking. I loved to watch him play, he moved like a gazelle and played Anders well, himself a top 20 player. But if you watched these two play, it was absolute lyricism. I can still see young Chris push Anders around that beautiful court at Park Place, I am reminded of how Anders, a TOC qualifier, lost to Chris Ditmar in 20 minutes 0, 1, 0. Men among the gods. But did that make Anders any less a player? Absolutely not.

We are a bit spoiled by the availability of matches on the internet or DVD, I think, and mesmerized by this top 20 ranking and tournamet draws. There are so many great players out there who will never walk with the gods, let alone crawl with them. But they are amazing to watch! I feel lucky to have seen Chris Stevens play, I feel lucky to have seen Brad Hindle play, Chris Gordon, Julian Illingsworth (when he wasn't ranked top 50), Graham Basset, and a host of others within the top 300 players of the world. How many among us can say we are among the top 300 out of tens of thousands of players? Certainly not I.

I remind myself and my son all the time that you cannot measure your squash game against the likes of Ramy, Jahangir, or Jansher, if you do you simply will stop aspiring to play professionally. But John White, who was once ranked somewhere in the 300's eventually became number 1, yes, he walked in the sun with the gods! Will Graham Bassett become number 1 in the world, highly doubtful, but I've seen him play, it is beautiful squash. I was at the match when Jullian Illingsworth beat Ollie Thuommen and he seemed to be godlike that night and as an American beat the highest ranked player ever. But then I watched him play Ramy, and you know what, he played a bit like me.

That is the beauty of squash, if you love this game, no matter who plays it, a great rail is a great rail. I am on the court with a 3.5 player who hits short crosses over and over, but then suddely, with a bit of god at his side, he will hit the most beautiful cross court. A cross court that maybe Ramy can hit with a racquet without strings and Illingsworth hit a 100 times in his sleep, but nonetheless it's a beautiful cross court -- one out of 10,000.

I used to think Graham Ryding was a boring player, so mediocre. I only saw him play Jonathan Powers, who seemed to toy with him. But then my son showed me some of Graham's matches with other players. This is a player who was once, I think top 15, and what a player. While he walked in the shadows of one of those gods, outside those shadows, he was ever so close to being great...we should all be so lucky or really so gifted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rebecca Macree Where Are You?

About 15 years ago I saw you, Rebecca Macree play Cassie Jackman at the US Open at Brown University. I think it was Cassie Jackman, does not matter, I was watching you. You had such a beautiful game , but what I loved most about you was your court presence. You challenged everything, referees, the ball, your opponent, the four white walls. Whether or not you could hear a stick of dynamite go off in the next court (anyone who knows you knows you are deaf) didn't matter, you were simply amazing to watch.

Ten years later I sat next to you at the TOC and we struck up a conversation. I noticed most about you was your exquisite eyes, these calico green eyes. It was exhausting talking to you because you read lips and I had to emphasize my pronunciation. I had had a deaf friend in college, so incredibly intgelligent, that after talking with him I had a headache and my jaws just screamed. It was the same thing. I loved talking to you and listening to all your recollections about squash. It was your last tournament and you were retiring.

I was too shy to ask you out but after we parted I spent months trying to contact you. I wasn't very successful. You were excited about leaving the tour and perhaps finding a life partner and starting a family and having a "normal" life. That was so charming to me because it seemed what you were doing in squash was more normal than anything you could possibly do. But I was at the time an overweight corporate type who loves squash probably more than anything. Rebecca, if you are reading, I'm fit and lean and mean. But forget that, what spawned this post was an article I read about the top 10 women squash players of the decade. You weren't on the list! If it were a popularity contest I could understand it, few liked playing you and probably many more didn't like refereeing your matches. But that edginess in your game was what made you stand out, you were in a world of your own, and when I watched you play, they, those on the outside, the hearing just didn't get it. I thank my brilliant deaf friend Steven from years back who taught me some things that allowed me to understand you a bit.

I was at that Atkinson match in the quarters of the 2005 TOC (your last major tournament before retiring), she was the world number 1, you looked awful early on but then you seemed to hit your stride and took her to 5 games. You lost, you retired, but I was so happy to have seen you go out at your best, a fighter, elegant but yet such a scrapper.

You belong on that list not because of any physical challenge, but because you had and probably still do such a beautiful game. I hope you found that happiness you left squash for, if you haven't, well I'm here in New York and will be for awhile:)

Challenging the Gifted Squasher

I first saw Vidant hitting with his dad one day and it took all of 10 seconds to see this 11 year old had something special. He was hitting the ball as if his arm was a slingshot, but this ever so slight, thin young man from Bombay, had some of it right and was crushing the ball for decent length. I thought to myself, this kid could be really good.

I spoke to his dad, Ashok, a urologist, who, in watching him play, exhibited great hands and deft touch when striking the ball -- no doubt a surgeon's hands.

Vidant proved a challenge, because he already had some success in the way he hit the ball, but his technique was wrong, and I was concerned with how he might eventually hurt his shoulder or elbow. He had come from CityView Squash and they are pretty good there, but he was doing things only partly right. He brought his racquet back, but not back enough, and then turned his torso and with a slingshot motion spun around to crush a backhand cross court.

We spent months on feeds and playing points and the improvement was slight. I couldn't get him to adopt a technique that would get him to control the ball and retrieve the ball better. He was still hitting comfortably everything in front of him, but struggled with balls he had to cut off or play out of the back.

What's most interesting to me about coaching is the challenge of really reaching your student on a level that they buy into. The smarter the pupil (and I don't mean book smart), the harder it is to reach them at that level where they will really improve. Vidant was attracted to some of the fun stuff in squash, the trickery, behind the back shots, reverses, nicks, etc. but wasn't all that interested in the fundamentals. How do you get an 11 year old who likes all that flashy stuff to understand that it takes years of what amounts to drudgery in drills and thousands of basic shots before you can successfully do that stuff. Did Michael Jordan start dunking his first year in high school? Probably not, but what he did do was begin a path to understand and perfect the very fundamentals of basketball -- not all that different from squash: balance, distance, focus, speed, stamina, technique.

I started trying to provide some targets for Vidant and to challenge him subtly with suggestions and comments, that while encouraging him, suggested he might be struggling with other things, like better length, changing the pace, and covering the back court. It wasn't until recently that I finally found the angle I had been looking for. We were working on his better shot, the forehand, and I had been spending the past 4 sessions on hitting for length, taking pace off and retrieiving and cutting the ball off out of the corners. Other, less talented students, had by now picked this up, but he hadn't.

In this past session, we again faced this hurdle, he just wasn't buying into it. What I did was say to him that if this is too difficult let's practice something else. I used my other really talented student as an example and said, "Haadi had trouble with this as took him awhile to get it." That wasn't true, Haadi had actually picked it up pretty quickly. What transpired in the next half hour was eye opening. Vidant started moving to the ball, cutting off the angles, and striking the best forehands of any of my students, including Haadi. The balls were A level length and tight to the wall. I started moving him deeper in the court and he was having trouble striking the ball but I could see he was looking to me to help him figure out how to fix that. I suggested he fix the angle of his approach to the ball and also wait for the ball to come out a bit if it came off the back wall. His footwork was the best, his preparation excellent and he started hitting some tough shots.

I was absolutely ecstatic at what he had done at the end of the session, and was so proud of him. As a coach, the obvious reward is helping a student achieve a goal, however big or small. But what was best about this was I found a way to reach him on a level that seemed to tell him, he can trust me to make him a better player. I learned from this as well, because I'm often not the most patient coach (my son can readily attest to that), and I expect a lot from those who have a gift for this game, but from Vidant, so incredibly talented, I learned that a coach has to prove himself to the student. He seemed to challenge and test me as if to say, prove to me you know how to coach me...

But you're only as good as your last success, we will see how it goes as we start preparing him for tournament play in the coming months. Bring on the backhand, time to fix that too.

The Sun on the Court

for KDG

When the ball strikes the wall
and then bounces to the floor
and you lift your racquet high
to meet an apex of angles --
within these white walls
just then that Delphic priest
with oracle and time
creates the perfect fortune.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Do Not Go Gently Into Those Squash Age Groups

I was recently reading Geoff Hunt's book, "Geoff Hunt On Squash", which is such an intelligent account of both squash technique and playing. There are so many good points Hunt makes about squash playing, but one that stuck out is the reference to players who become older, still adept on the court, but noticeably slower. Where does this present a problem? It presents a problem when the older player has to clear for a much younger and quicker player. Contact is often made or subtle blocking, the older and perhaps slower player, maybe once a 6.0 player or national champion , is clever enough to block his opponent ever so slightly -- certainly enough to upset the rhythm of the game.
I am an older player and I play my 6.0 level 19 year old son frequently. He blasted me about 3 months ago in a match telling me I am too slow to clear for him. I was like, ok, and continued on. It bothered me what he said and I thought he was upset because I somehow managed to disrupt his play to and from the ball -- no doubt enough to prevent him from taking the ball early, cutting the ball off and putting more pressure on me.
It wasn't until I read this in Hunt's book did I really understand my son's complaint. But let me take this further back a bit to a couple of tournaments where my son had to play Will Carlin, former national amateur champion, a great player, now older and I'm sure a step slower. In the first match with Carlin, my son was so frustrated with Carlin's slowness to clear and the bumping to and from the ball, that he lost. A much younger and better player lost to an older and slower player.
They met again in last year's Hyder Cup and again the same outcome. My son was really upset and I told him it's the nature of the game it happens, it's tournament toughness, etc.
I have since realized how wrong I was. The rule is very clear and my son pointed it out in a match with me this past fall stating it doesn't matter how I, his opponent, needs time to clear, I must clear and provide that clear path to the ball. Once I realized that I have to clear quickly for my quicker and younger opponent, I started working on footwork and movement drills. And trying to clear quickly and not on my time. I did notice that when I'm tired in the match or sore or not loose, there tends to be contact. But my son challenged me as if to say, if I want to play a match with him, move quicker, clear for him, and stop playing like an old man...or else!
Or else, what? Play in the age groups, he said. It was like he struck me in my squash heart with a dagger. The age groups, he's saying I'm too old and slow.
I've been working the last couple of months to increase my quickness and stamina. I'm slowly getting there, I can see I clear out of the corners better, moreso in the back than in the front. My son still plays some matches with me, but we also drill...I refuse to concede I'm ready for the age groups, but I'll leave that up to time and his judgement. He knows I'm working like crazy to avoid the age group -- Dylan Thomas said, "do not go gently into that good night", he might have well have said do not go gently to the squash age groups.
I advised my son recently that should he play Will Carlin again, he might simply remind Mr. Carlin that there are appropriate age groups for players who are now slower and can't really in the best spirit of squash clear a path for the younger, quicker players.
Inevitably, just like the "night" Thomas alluded to, the age groups are a reality. But I will not go "gently" there, but will only go when I've done just about everything I can do to clear a path to the ball for my quicker opponent -- and it's still not quick enough.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Is Squash Really Supposed to be Fun?

I was reading a coaching and referee book, "Squash Coaching and Refereeing" by R. B. Hawkey, former softball professional in the 1980's. He was head of developing coaching standards and certifications for the Squash and Racquets Association (SRA). It's very interesting, but what caused me to really pause and think was this statement he made. He asked what is the role of a coach, he said, invariably coaches and would-be coaches answer to make a player better. To which he responded, that the real purpose is to make squash fun, especially for juniors. This lead me to start thinking about fun and squash, something I never really thought aboutbefore.

Generally speaking, what is fun? Is it something you do that brings you happiness? Is it something you do that you love and in loving what you do you have fun? Does having fun mean you don't take it so seriously? Is fun the ultimate goal in pursuing something so difficult as squash?

Aside from coaching squash privately, I also test software. I have been doing this for so long I can nearly do it in my sleep, not that I ever sleep while testing software and looking for defects. I love testing software and finding bugs, it can be so much fun, but it can also have its share of drudgery involved with waiting for software releases, following poor procedures, meetings and reviews, appeasing software developer's egos, and reporting findings endless to management. When I am having fun simply testing, I often remark that I'd do this for free. When you are so good at something and have worked so hard at reaching a certain level, I guess, yes it's fun.

But as I continue along this reasoning, if you were to ask me, is testing fun, I would flat out say no. For the 100 hours I might spend on testing or preparig to test, maybe a few hours are what I call fun. For the most part it is tedious, detailed work, involving a lot of time going through hundreds of routine scripts with the same results for each iteration of testing. Boredom is often a huge challenge. But I'm a senior tester, actually, a testing architect, so I design the test approach but rarely execute those tedious, time consuming, repetitive tests. Do I make testing fun for those junior testers who have to execute them, no, it's simply not fun, I could make a party of it or try to inspire interest through all sorts of ways, but it's business, you have to put in your dues before you get to that advanced level when, yes, it becomes fun sometimes -- even if for some fleeting moments.

Back to squash. When I'm moving and playing well it's fun...meaning when I can play the game against an opponent as if it appears I can do it in my sleep, then it is incredibly fun. But those times are so few and far between, just as when I am having fun testing software. What I spend most of my time in playing squash is trying to get better, drilling, learning, getting fit, none of which I would put in the category of fun. But I do it, because when I play like there's no tomorrow and every shot and movemet is fluid and in my eyes only (probably) I'm moving with the grace and execution of a professional player, I think to myself, I could do this forever, it is so much fun.

But then there are those days I get up where I can barely move, every muscle and joint hurts, and I want just to stay in bed. Squash and training is a chore, it isn't fun, I don't hate it, I still love it but it's just not really fun at that point. But because the game has teased me with those moments of excellence and happiness (and yes lots of fun) I will myself to the gym for training and playing and practicing -- thanks sometimes to Advil.

When I started out playing this game I loved it the moment I hit my first the time I hit my one thousandth ball I knew I wanted to get better. I fell in love with this game, I can honestly say, and had in my head I'd do anything to get better, to beat my "B" level friend, Supriya Mehta, who introduced me to this game and made it look so easy playing against me. It was fun for him to get me chasing the ball and getting me so frustrated and no doubt it was funfor him because he could do this in his dreams, in his sleep, without strings without even the four walls. I envied him that he could do this with such ease. I eventually moved away and couldn't play Supriya much, we kept in touch and always talked about squash. I spent a lot of time working with a coachat a club in New York City determined to get better, I also became very fit for playing. So when I was up in Boston where Supriya was, I told him we'd have to play.

We went to play at MIT or Harvard, couldn't really remember. I was much better and had closed the gap in skill between us. We played some match, he beat me, but it wasn't fun for him. He remarked he thought he'd be sick -- I ran him about forcing him to shoot for nicks, which, on that day seem to be working. I didn't have fun doing this to him, because I didn't beat him! I went back to New York and hit the courts with my coach almost immediately, I told him about the match and he immediately went to work on how to cover shots from a shooter -- just hit your own shots better. Easier said than done and it wasn't much fun spending the next years doing that.

While I've been writing this, I realized the amount of time I actually had fun playing squash was miniscule compared to the effort and time put in to becoming a better player. But I wouldn't change anything in how I did this because for those miniscule times I did have fun when it all came together I would do it over in a heartbeat. No doubt I'm either driven by this passion for the game or a bit insanity or maybe just both. I wonder when I first stepped on the court and hit those first squash balls did I come off the court thinking this is fun? I don't remember. Squash, like life, I guess, has it's share of fun, but I don't think you start out by thinking it's going to be fun. You have your moments of fun, but they are at a premium -- work hard, play hard, you will be all the better as a player and a person for it.

As a coach, when I take on a new player, whether adult or junior, I ask them what their aspirations are. Most say to get better, occasionally, someone will say just to hit around and have fun. I usually tell them they don't need a coach for that, they can do that right off. I also tell them when you ceases having fun and want to get better and play this game like it was meant to be played come back and I'll do whatever it takes (and it will be hard work and often boring) to get good and have a shot, ever so few as they might be, when you play out of your mind and it's really fun.