Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Josh Through The Looking Glass -- Literally...

Our LA Fitness Squash Round Robin in Great Neck is great. Players of all levels -- upwards of 20 -- come to the Saturday 2-5 pm round robin. I run this round robin not unlike the Seinfeld Soup Nazi, hey, I need to get a lot of people playing and not siting out getting stiff and cold. Last weekend we had a smaller than usual crowd, but some good players showed up. there was a bit of electricity in the air as Margaret returned from a 10 day vacation to yet some other island, a number of players remarked on her striped turquoise colored coordinated skirt and top and how she always adds something really elegant to the Saturday RR. Inimitable Mets was on court 7 taking all comers. He is so much fun to watch because he gets the lower level players running endlessly all over the place. He rules the center of the court, dominating these players with a real gives the 3.0 players a glimpse of high B and low A level play. But then Michael Squillanted steps in former Queens College tennis standout and who happens to take up a lot of space with his 6'4" inch frame and his ability to cut everything off...He and Mets go at it. I think Mike is close to narrowing if not closing the slight gap between him and Mets. I've been coaching Mike a bit and have encouraged him to play up on the "T", use his incredibly soft hands to cut off everything and dump stuff to the front. Mets is a great athlete but doesn't play the extreme corners, front and back, as well as he should. Mike has an emerging frontcourt game the is showing some signs of being punishing.

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

The Short Game -- Tom And The "Kid"

Years ago, I was introduced to the "short game" of squash by Josh Easdon then club pro at Lincoln Squash at NYSC near Columbus Circle. I was working as a consultant just after 9/11 at Credit Suisse, had put on 40 lbs and had not played squash in 2 years. I would cut out at lunch and head out from Credit Suisse in the Old Met Life building in the Flat Iron District and do a 3 time a week session with Josh. It was really tough after being away for two years, and in the beginning I would take water breaks every 10 minutes. What was most difficult was my pride. I was always extremely fit and would get on the court with players often better, but my stamina and retrieving kept me competitive. At first, I could barely play a few long points without gasping and struggling for oxygen.
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.