Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chip on The Shoulder: In Defense of Willstrop’s US Squash Assessment

It’s interesting that a number of squash enthusiasts and authors around the US targeted a passage in James Willstrop’s recent publication, “Shot and a Ghost…”, took exception to a passage in his book that assesses the abysmal squash scene in the US. One author went so far as to suggest that tournament audiences boo Willstrop whenever they see him play and certainly not buy “Shot and a Ghost”.

I reviewed the book a while back and loved it. I must not have been all that affected by Willstrop’s remarks about US Squash, because even though the truth sometimes hurts, he is saying it like it is.

Keep in mind Willstrop is a top world class squash professional and his remarks are specifically targeted towards why the US can’t produce a consistent stream of professional squash players. Not a bad observation. Supposedly the greatest nation on earth who espouses a thriving squash scene, comparable to an emerging and burgeoning market, has 3-4 full time touring professionals. Is he wrong about squash being elitist, still? I don’t think so. Unless you are deep in pocket forget about acquiring top coaching for your developing junior player. For those of you who might not know, top coaching for juniors runs you 85.00 to 210.00 dollars for 45 minutes. And those of us who have developed juniors know to become really good you need to have your junior on court with a coach 3 times a week. This on top of tournament entry fees (85.00 to 120.00), travel expenses, equipment, I hope you are getting the picture. Elitist means only a select few can afford this. I found a great alternative, I’ve sent my son to England for top coaching at a fraction of the cost and that includes air fare and room and board. I work an extra two jobs to fund my son’s squash aspirations. But not everyone can do that.

And hardball? It is a dead sport, except for doubles and a few older players who cling to it. It died because the parent game is so far superior as were the players. I recently went on court with a doubles player who had a hardball and we knocked the ball around a bit. It was crazy, how did we ever play this game. I started out in hardball years ago and when I played softball for the first time I never looked back. Mark Talbot was a great American Hardball player, but in the scheme of world squash, he was a bit provincial. I watched him play softball as a wild card entry at the TOC years ago, to be honest, it was a bit embarrassing. Not to take away from his hardball achievements which were great, but his achievements on the world squash stage aren’t impressive at all.

I don’t want to go into comparing the British development system with ours, because there really isn’t a comparison. As much as I truly believe the British Empire was one of history’s great evils, they did give us Squash, Gin, and Led Zeppelin. For that alone we can’t fault them for anything. Instead of carrying around this chip on our shoulders, we should make it our mission to make squash a viable professional sports career. Urban squash isn’t going to make squash available to the average middle class youngster who plays baseball, lacrosse or football. The US Squash organization isn’t going to make squash viable for those middle class or working class youngsters. As long as squash is viewed as an avenue to an Ivy League education it will remain within the realm of those who aspire to attend or compete for Ivy League placements – which are elitist institutions.

It’s a difficult situation because you have to make available squash at a grass roots level. I for one love what we do at LA Fitness, there are two international courts, ok, not the best courts, there is not the highest level squash instruction, but certainly instruction to take anyone with skill to the B or low A level – we do it because we want anyone and everyone to play this game, we spend countless hours promoting this game for the love of this game. `This isn’t to pat us on the back, but it is to say, there’s an alternative to the high cost of playing this game which fosters elitism – money fosters elitism. And money is as the saying goes the “root of all evil”.

If I read Willstrop correctly, he didn’t ponder over the US Squash scene all that long; it’s evident what’s wrong. We will come and watch him play at the highest level and marvel at his play, but ask any parent about why their child plays squash and 99.9% of the answers will be to help them get into college. If you say, why not play professionally, the answers will be is there any money in it, or why would anyone want to play professionally – no money? Is there any money in teaching, social work, special education, counseling or any of the grand aspirations beyond the world of big business and economics? Probably not, but read Willstrop’s book, he’s living the dream, he’s doing what he loves to do, which is more than most of us can say. Besides, he’s a really smart guy, probably more articulate than most US College educated young men, who happened to also write te a great book about the life of a professional squash player.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Willstrop's Squash Book, "Shot and Ghost..." -- A Review

Wow! For those of you who like to know the inner workings of the lives of professional athletes, this is a great read, a diary in the life of a professional squash player. It is right up there with my favorite squash books, Shattered by Peter Marshall, and, Murder on the Squash Court by Jonah Barrington. It is all the more special because James Willstrop, current number 1 in the world, is a very gifted writer (or at least storyteller if his collaborator Ralph Gilmour did much of the writing). Wilstrop is clever, ironic and sometimes outright funny. He can also be very poignant, especially in the passages about his squash-iconic-father, Malcolm (“Malc”). I can hear my own son describe me to someone the same way as Willstrop describes his own father's difficult personality. Just the other day my son described me as a jerk that just happens to help people, go figure. “Jerk” wasn't his exact word more like that reference to one of our less than public orifices.

No doubt squash players who have competed at any club, regional or national as well as professional level with bask in the narrative of this book. These guys who play at the highest level of their sport have days when they hate the sport, when they don't want to train, bicker, complain, feel sore, insecure and even eat a big bowl of cereal for breakfast as they head for a tough training session.

I was never a big fan of Willstrop's game, I confess, until I watched a match between him and I think Darwish or one of the Egyptians and my son pointed out just how devastating Willstrop is especially when attacking to the front courty. This, all from a player at 6'4 the tallest on the tour! When he won the Tournament of Champions in 2011, a major win for him, he spent 30 minutes thanking everyone from his father to the milkman for his success. I found his litany annoying; after having read his book I feel a bit bad for those feelings because it is just the way Willstrop is. He utilizes so many people in his success: nutritionist, coach, trainers, and masseuse -- whatever it takes to bring out the best in his body, mind and soul. And the quote he uses might be remembered by anyone aspiring to such accomplishments: "It's amazing just what can be achieved when nobody cares who takes glory."

In an age of fist pumping, or the zealous behavior of Shorbagy and Tom Richards gestures at this year’s TOC, Willstrop is a gracious gentleman and sportsman. His father emphasized proper court demeanor as much as anthing. Often accused of being too nice and lacking that acerbic edge of the so called "wunderkinds" of squash, he is much more, he is confident and knows himself very well, he goes with the flow until it becomes time to question where the flow leads him. You have the sense that he was raised properly with great appreciation for his gifts as an athlete and the gifts of others as well. He is rarely critical of a person, outright, maybe critical of behavior or character traits, especially exhibited towards his ongoing perceived feud with fellow squash great and countryman Nick Matthew.

In the end, Willstrop, as great an athlete as he is at the pinnacle of his success, is simply human. Nowhere do you have a sense of this dichotomy between supreme athlete and simple human being than his entries about his "mum". Very moving passages without being maudlin. For any sports fan, squash enthusiast, aspiring professional squash player this is a great read and I only hope we can come to expect more from Willstrop both in terms of his wonderful prose and his squash game as well. I always contend that the greatest gift a professional player can make to the game, aside from his or her actual play, is a documented history of their game and how they played it and lived it in their time.

Available on and