Friday, September 4, 2020

Old Squash Players – They Don’t Fade Away They Just Play Pickleball

The Squash world is amazing. I love all the different types of people you meet and when you come to know their life stories, some can be remarkable, some tragic, some inspiring. But it’s not often I’ve come across someone with whom I have had a squash connection to that spans close to 35 years. I played this young man once in 1990 when I was playing at Park Place Squash near City Hall in Downtown Manhattan. I’ve written about Park Place Squash before and how this basement hole of a place featured the first International squash court in the country. Lionel Hope who came over from South Africa and was a trader for Merrill Lynch brought the likes of Jahangir Khan, Sharif Khan, Anders Wahlstadt, Chris Stevens, Richard Chin (right out of Cornel University) and many others to his club. The American hardball game was past its Zenith and so was the club’s glory days. Lionel had 4 hardball courts and that showplace International court with its old-style plaster on cinder block construction. The hardball courts were for a while mostly used for softball because that international court was always booked. Whether because of cost, engineering, or other issues, there was no plan to expand to add another international court. Around that time, the Downtown Athletic Club (DAC) had just put in several international courts and it seemed everyone was leaving for that amenity rich club. This does have something to do with Pickleball? I’m getting there…One afternoon in those early playing days, I was on court with a young man who had a British accent and was very athletic and fleet of foot. But he confessed he was really a tennis player and played a lot of tennis. It then made sense, but I had fun, and of course it’s always fun thrashing someone at Squash or for that matter any sport. The young man’s name was Steven, Steven Hope, his dad, Lionel owned the club. His sister Heather worked the front desk. When Lionel passed a few years later, the club was sold to a consortium or cooperative of people who tried to keep it alive. But with one international court and the demise of American hardball, is was tough to make a go of it. More importantly, the luster and magic of the place was gone with Lionel’s passing. Like most of the remaining players, I went to the DAC and didn’t look back for years. Over the years, I’d occasionally run into Steven Hope on the LIRR and I had always known that Lionel’s family lived in my town, Great Neck. And so, time marched. A few years back, I left Wall Street technology and started working at the Parkwood Tennis center, truly my dream job since I had a renewed passion for tennis. It was there at Parkwood, that Steven Hope showed up. He played regularly there with a group of guys and we enjoyed reminiscing about his dad and Park Place Squash. I’d play in Steven’s group as a fill in sometimes. Then when COVID hit and they closed the courts both indoors and outdoors, I went months without playing squash (this was closed as well) or Tennis. I didn’t mind it so much because I’d sustained a knee injury before the lockdown -- this gave me time to heal. As soon as the lockdown ended my son and started playing tennis. I just wasn’t a good enough match for him, so I contacted Steven Hope to see if he wanted to hit. We played singles and I was fortunate to make it interesting enough for him to play me regularly Sunday mornings. Last year I started playing Pickleball in Great Neck attending some free clinics and match play. It was a lot of fun and much more social than squash or tennis. People generally played just for fun – well, maybe I was just playing for fun and didn’t focus so hard on that infernal, ‘I need to fix this, or fix that’. Pickleball was so much less strenuous on the body than squash and if you have a good squash backhand, you’re immediately a decent player. In Pickleball, most players have weaker backhands. I started playing my son in singles Pickleball, and he was good, then again, he’s an accomplished tennis and squash player. I think he enjoyed it and certainly the games were well played. I asked Steven if he wanted to join us and he surprisingly he did. We started playing Australian doubles with my son and Steven proved a natural; with his quickness and his shot placement the games were competitive. We added other players into the mix and each Saturday now we all play. I keep my tennis game with him on Sunday where he’s stepped up his game and has dealt me a thrashing here and there (no doubt payback for the Saturday morning Pickleball competition, or maybe that squash game years back). I asked him, “Isn’t it strange how this all works?” “What do you mean? he asked. “Thirty years later from those great times at Park Place Squash and here I’m playing Pickleball on Saturday and tennis on Sunday with Lionel’s son –is Squash on Wednesday’s the only thing missing!” That would be really something, to play all three sports with the same person who just simply crossed my squash path a long time ago.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Greatest Professional Squash Match-ups, Real and Imagined

We’ve done the all-time greatest squash players list (which reminds me may need to update). But here goes – keep in mind these are matchups I’ve seen. Purely subjective, not based on any statistics or results. 1. Jansher Khan vs. Chris Ditmar 2. Jonathan Power vs. Peter Nicol 3. Ramy Ashour vs. Nick Matthew 4. Jahangir Khan vs. Jansher Khan 5. Jahangir Khan vs. Geoff Hunt 6. Mohamed ElShorbagy vs. Gregory Gaultier 7. John White vs. anyone he ever played 8. Rodney Martin vs. Jansher Khan 9. Jonathan Power vs David Palmer 10. Nick Matthew vs. James Willstrop Matchups that could have been great but never happened. Just imagine. All players at their prime. Par 11 scoring. 1. Jansher Khan vs. Ramy Ashour; This is one for the ages…This is Ali/Frazier I; Boston Celtics/LA Lakers; 1968 Green Bay/Dallas Superbowl; Fisher/Spassky. Jansher never ever faced the likes of the Egyptian. A grueling, tactical, masterful match. One for the Ages. Ramy 3-2 (last 3 games tie breakers; Ramy comes back from being down 0-2). Jansher seems stunned. His entourage closes in on him and hurries him out. It will be three months before he resurfaces. 2. Nick Matthew vs Jahangir Khan (Wolf vs Bull); This is a slugfest and a match of attrition at the highest level. While I love Matthew and his relentless play, I give the nod to Jahangir 3-1. Critical points in the 4th could have sent this to a deciding 5th, but as tough mentally as the Wolf is, the Bull – well he is the Bull and tough too. The Bull is just too much in the end for the Wolf. Matthew acknowledges afterwards it was the toughest match of his career. 3. Palmer vs. Chris Ditmar; This is a bare-knuckle fight to the end. Palmer and Ditmar relentless in their attack. Very physical match which comes down to who wants it more. Both mentally tough, both Australian, playing for heaps of pride and bragging rights; at the end, these two great warriors hang on as Palmer tins his patented forehand kill. Ditmar 3-2. 4. Tristan Nancarrow vs Hisham Ashour; If there were ever two players who exhibited pure artistry on court these two are the ones. Almost mirror images of each other’s shot making and creativity. No long rallies here, just breath-taking nicks off either side of the volley. Each player trying to match the other players shots. Hisham knew ahead of this match it could be his legacy, the greatest match of his career. Down 1-2 and 0-5 in the fourth, he brilliantly changes tactics and starts extending the rallies by not giving Nancarrow the angles to cut the ball off. Nancarrow, wasn’t prepared for this and begins to tire and shoot. Hisham comes back to even it 2-2. The fifth game is all Hisham’s, Nancarrow is ranting and raving and trying to disrupt Hisham’s rhythm, but the Wizard will have none of it and finishes Nancarrow off in the 5th easily. 5. Olli Tuomen vs Anders Wahlstadt; Two of the fittest pros in their time on the tour. For those of us who appreciate attrition squash, this is a match that goes over two hours. The crowd marvels at the long rallies, the 20-30 shot rallies as both players display magnificent court coverage. Each game a tie breaker and each game lasting 30 minutes. The fifth game shows the tenacity of each player as the fifth games tie breaker ends 20-18: Wahlstadt. Both must be helped off the court. They ran a full marathon; no one left the match people lingering about as if there’ll be a sixth game. Squash from the Hunt and Barrington era. Jonah is in the booth with Joey Barrington. Jonah has a big smile. 6. Peter Nicol vs Mohamed ElShorbagy – The puncher vs the counter puncher. ElShorbagy in the match of his life; Power vs Finesse. Nicol weathers the onslaught and begins to wear ElShorbagy down. Nicol doesn’t back down, but counters with a pace that outdoes ElShorbagy. Nicol, the master of setting and dictating pace, attacks to the front court in the later part of the match and when ElShorbagy attacks the front, Nicol counters with his patented offensive lob. Nicol easily in 4. 7. Peter Nicol vs Nick Matthew; Matthew the huge underdog and Nicol maybe a bit too over confident. Nicol realizes by his demeanor that Matthew is supremely fit and can play Nicol’s style. The match is sea saw back and forth. Down 1-2 and 0-7 in the fourth, Matthew digs deep just when you thought the match was over; it’s like he has had a second wind. The rallies are punishing, and Nicol looks weary -- uncharacteristically tinning a couple of balls. At 7-7 there’s a controversial call, Matthew awarded a stroke, Nicol seems broken, but then at 8-10 ties it up and Matthew goes back up with game ball. Matthew hits a patented forehand volley drop Nicol throws up a lob, Matthew attacks and hits an overhead volley nick. The fifth game is much the same and Nicol this time shows no let up and the match goes to 10-10 before a couple of uncharacteristic errors by Matthew gives Nicol the match. Matthew immediately looks forward to a rematch, he’s told that he’ll have to wait for the Canary Wharf next month. Matthew seems disappointed and Nicol seems relieved. 8. Mohammed ElShorbagy vs Chris Ditmar; ElShorbagy considered the more talented player of the two, by whom, not quite sure. The experts under estimate Ditmars talent and style of play. Ditmar isn’t playing Jansher here, nor is he under that large and looming shadow. Ditmar shows an edgy but cool grace as he weathers the ElShorbagy power and surprisingly punishes ElShorbagy in the front court. Tactically, ElShorbagy made some mistakes but regroups down -1-2 and ties it at 2-2. Ditmar is the fitter player and it goes down to the wire, Ditmar in 5. Ditmar wasn’t happy with his performance felt he was sluggish and a bit off, he makes no mention of ElShorbagy and the quality of his play. 9. Tristan Nancarrow vs Jonathan Power; Tristan comes in ready and Power goes up against the master. There’s some great shot making and Power’s deception troublesome for Nancarrow. But Nancarrow can play some head games and Power is susceptible to such head games. On numerous occasions Power fishes for strokes, but the refs are calling a tight match. In a contentious 4th came, Power loses his cool, Nancarrow has beaten him mentally. The rest is easy, Nancarrow in 4. 10. Amr Shabana vs Jansher Khan. This is an intriguing matchup. Shabana plays flawless squash but so too does Jansher, game 1 to Jansher. In the second game Shabana ups the pace and is moving Jansher around. Jansher counters by attacking the front; in vintage Jansher fashion, he isn’t killing the drop but putting enough pressure to control the game. The “Maestro” is performing a symphony of sorts, meaning the full array of his skills is on display. Ultimately, Jansher in 4, but we walk away from this match with a sense that Shabana played brilliantly, it’s just that he played someone who is the greatest player of all time and except for Ramy, he’s beaten the best of any generation. Side Note: In the rematch between Ramy and Jansher later at the British Open, they go head to head again. You decide the outcome. A second look at Ramy and you can see Jansher is homed in on this one with great anticipation. Ramy’s deception and redirection of his shots has little or no impact on Jansher. He’s controlling the center and dictating the pace. Ramy, the great champion he is, realizes the adjustment and makes his own…you decide, I can’t.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

No Squash on the Island of Elba

Two years ago, I had a pretty decent routine of work, and after work, squash. Occasionally, I would write a blog piece on squash. But that all changed when my company decided to send all its technology overseas to Hungary. I was part of that technology group. I had the opportunity to relocate to Hungary and of course the first thing I did was inquire about squash clubs near the office there. There were some clubs. To make a long story short, I no longer had to go into the City and my work was done from home remotely with the group from Hungary, at least, until all my paperwork and work Visas were processed. That, in and of itself, was a long and tedious story – ultimately, I decided not to relocate my family and retired from technology. I couldn’t justify the time it would take to go into the City from Long Island, play, shower and change, and head back to Long Island (roughly and easily 3 hours). But wait a minute this is squash. I used to drive for 20 minutes each way to a squash club in Durham NC when I was sent there for my job. I would pick up my two young children from after school, stop at a Burger King and then head to the club where I would put them in the Kid’s Room. I might be taking a lesson with Harvard great Jim Masland, who coached there. I might be playing Peter Smith the best player in the club (always loosing badly, but hey it was great squash), or I’d play a myriad of other players many of whom I would beat. I would play and then get my children and head home We did this for two years before moving back to New York and resuming our normal life. What happened? I think this sneaky little thing called age crept into my squash life. Playing my son was great; he never played to my weaknesses, and, as time went by, the weaknesses started to accumulate. He kept me in the rallies -- as someone once said, one of the wisest things I ever heard, you must be good to play down to someone. He always made it seem like a great match. I was spoiled for years by this. Then, my son decided to go to law school, he stopped playing squash – it was sudden and quick. I was left with that creepy partner called age who was now loitering about. The people I now played, in my time, I would have blown them off the court. I had to play players who didn’t want to make the game fun for me, a good sweat, long rallies, the length game, they wanted to win. And when pride kicked in, I didn’t want to lose. When playing with my son I just cared about good squash, albeit good conditional squash. Now I had to cover that horrible and evil front court where age snickered most. When was the last time I had to cover a drop? My son didn’t drop that was one of the unspoken conditions. He knew, I knew, he could end the point at any time, but we didn’t think about that. He was good enough to make me good without letting on that I wasn’t good at all. I played half the court. But these other guys, they played the front court and wanted to win, and I tried covering the front court -- but the injuries started coming. Nagging injuries at first, a few days off; then more serious ones, weeks off. It stopped being fun, it stopped being good squash for me. Age became to me what the Russian winter was to Napoleon. We never saw it coming. The defeat was hard to take, but it coincided with some of life events and I took full advantage of these events, or should I say excuses. I had no reason to go into the City now except for squash. But I was defeated, age had won out. Age drove and forced me to Elba, a place of exile, a place without squash. While Elba had no squash, it did have tennis. So, I dug out my old Head Radicals and went to the courts. Drop feeds at first, 50, 100, 200 balls – backhand and forehand. I hadn’t hit a tennis ball in over 15 years. I started watching the tennis channel and following the players. I hired a coach to get me back in form. It was an immense struggle. I came from a tennis beginning a long time ago where everything was flat, I struggled with switching grips on my forehand, brushing up more and finishing with the racket higher. I started hitting against the backwall, it snuck up on me this age thing and not only age but 30 extra pounds. I started working on my backhand; went to a two-handed backhand: flat, always flat. I could not, no matter how much I tried, put much spin on the ball. But I was moving, and I was slicing; I forgot how good my slice was. Then came the volleying and the overhead smashes. I thought, I can play this game. I changed coaches and found a great coach who would rally 10, 15, 20 shots. We would be outdoors in the 100-degree heat, I could play this game. He taught me the principles of the game again, don’t worry about spin, I needed consistency first. Don’t worry about power, it will come. We worked on consistency, putting the ball four feet above the net. Consistency: 20 shots the same height. It took a while, but it started to click. I was on the courts now 5 days a week. I expected tennis to help me shed the weight, get fitter, go back to my old self. I kept trying and waiting, but then the harsh reality, yes, I love it, but I’m not moving all that well. “You only play as well as you move.” After all this time and money, I was back to where it all started downhill. I used to watch older players, not so fit, hit the ball well, but. like them, I didn’t move. As soon as coach moved me or extended me laterally, I felt the age and nd my shots weren’t good. I enjoyed it until he started playing to my weaknesses. I didn’t pull any muscles or god forbid tear anything, but I had to pop a lot of Advil – hey, I thought of that old Andre Agassi commercial for Advil. It seemed okay, then I developed horrible gastritis, it was the Advil. I had to stop the Advil. But I loved tennis, I ignored squash until, as luck (good or bad) would have it, there were some squash courts now available nearby. That was now in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to give up tennis. No, I wouldn’t give up tennis. But I had said back in the spring when I was changing my grip and doing things differently with tennis, it must be hard to play both. The technique and grips are so different. And the footwork, I had just spent months undoing years of squash foot work: big steps, long lunges. I was now taking little steps, fast little steps to the ball. My coach said, if I were fitter and trained hard, I could be a 4.5/5.0 tennis player! Maybe he was just saying that because he knew I needed a goal. Elba wasn’t such a bad place. The tennis made it nice. I kept telling myself, just enjoy the time and opportunity to do something you love. Don’t set any goals, just have fun. But how could I have fun, I needed a mission. Coach said…. And then re-arranging the closet, I saw those squash rackets of mine, my rackets, nicely taped and strung; still in my squash bag, just how I had left them. I took them out of the closet, held them, swung them, and stood in front of the mirror. Damn, how did I get to this point. Life without squash? Is it any life at all? Suddenly Elba seemed small and restricting. I needed to escape, escape to where and what? I needed to get back to squash. I went back over months of the daily squash report. I used to read this religiously every day. That made sense, squash was a religion to me. I had been so out of the loop that it was strange to be back in it, interested in squash again. I started watching matches. Wow, the Wolf was hanging it up, a player came out, as in announcing he was gay (okay, it would mean more to me if a player came out and said he was old), Willstrop and Selby are back; some new and exciting players: Paul Coli, Ali Farag. Gaultier was still there, old warrior, great warrior, and wait, what happened, I missed Diego Elias ascent to the top ten. And the Wolf would be gone and Ramy hopefully not too soon as well. It all just started coming back just like that. I started to pick up where I left off. And my son was done with Law School, it took its squash toll on him. He hadn’t played, but as it happened, he found his first job as a lawyer close by. Some force other than ourselves was moving us back toward squash. “Don’t break the racket, we only have two.” We hit around, I couldn’t even see the ball, he still had it, that beautiful stroke. I wanted to get on my hands and knees and kiss the court’s floor, I was off Elba and back home, back in France! We started going each day, a little bit longer and harder each time out. “Hey, it will take time, this is an unforgiving sport, remember?” And the game started coming back, all the nuances started materializing. The drills, the drills, and the mantra that it will take time. And we added in ghosting; must learn how to move again, to lunge, to split step, to follow my shots. And I was still playing tennis. I am playing both, playing both like I use to years back. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. No Advil, just stretch, include weights, strengthening, lots of ghosting. Focus on your feet, the rest will follow. God, I love this game, and the other one too. But this squash game, it’s special, special, and however long I have on this earth, I can share this love for the game with my son -- who says he’s sore, he’s tired, or he had to work late and doesn’t feel like getting on the court. He’s a grown man, he wears suits and ties and carries a brief case and goes to an office and sits at a desk – but he’s not old and neither am I – well, just not all the time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Life Of Reilly (RIP 2005 -2016)

I never could get Reilly on the squash court. She was a sweet girl, portly, short legged and always greeted me and my son early in the morning when we were headed off to the squash courts at LA Fitness for our training. She would take early morning walks with her mom, Robin, and over the years my son and I grew to love her like she was our own. We would jokingly tell her, "come with us, Reilly, we have extra rackets, you don't need shoes, and we could probably fit you for protective eye wear." We even went so far as to point out that squash would get her seriously fit. Walking with her mom must have been very special, because Reilly was content to walk around our complex and, in all the years, never took us up on our offer. Even some nice crispy breakfast biscuits wouldn't entice her to join us. When we came back from our training, there was Reilly and Robin, still walking about and exploring the early morning. They had been out the entire time we were at the courts. I would remark to my son, "can you imagine how good we could make her? Look at her low gravity, and her grace, and dedication, for a kid that big to move around like that is something." He would just remind me that not everyone and everything in the world wants to play squash. I would look at him, not really understanding what he could possibly mean. He would just shrug his shoulders and I would go on about maybe Reilly and how she could be a champion some day. In retrospect, I might have succeeded if I had convinced Robin, her mom, to join us on the court. Surely, Reilly would have wanted to join in. The two were inseparable. Sometimes, if Robin had to travel, Robin's sister, Lisa, would take care of Reilly. I could tell if Robin wasn't around, because Reilly didn't have the same spring in her steps, she seemed sad. I would always try and cheer her up, "Reilly girl, you look sad, Mommy will be home soon, don't you worry, she always comes home." I would jokingly remark to Lisa, "What are you, Gals, feeding this girl?" I made sure Reilly never really heard me because I'd never want to hurt her feelings. But, in retrospect, Reilly was confident and you could tell she was brought up to love herself and didn't adhere to any of the usual body images of svelte young things plastered on the Purina and Pedigree bags of food in the store. She never fell for that. I miss you, girl, you could have been a champion, don't tell Robin that, you were always her champion. I don't go in the early mornings with my son anymore to train for squash, he's in law school now, and Reilly has passed, but I go to a different club, and I still leave in the early morning to go and do a bit of coaching and playing. With Reilly gone, I don't see Robin much. Reilly is the one that got away, I guess. She had all the makings of something really great, it didn't take squash to do that, but it would have been nice to have given squash that opportunity. She didn't pass because of her weight, she ate well, she was a bon vivant, but it was some strange disease, called leptospirosis, Lisa told me, that is deadly to dogs. Robin always scolded Reilly for eating the grass at times (call it mother's intuition), who knew such a disease was in the grass, raccoon or rodent urine and droppings. It took me awhile to get over the shock that the old girl is gone, but I found solace in getting on court and hitting countless rails, always thinking what might have been and what once was. Someday, I might just get her on that big court somewhere and I bet she'll be running diagonals, as if she was born to it. She really did have the life of Reilly, even without ever having set foot on the squash court.

Monday, June 6, 2016

He Would Have Been the Greatest Squash Player Of All Time

As much as I admired and loved Mohamed Ali, I wonder would he have achieved a similar greatness if he had other opportunities open to him other than just boxing? Our country has a way of deifying those we once exploited, killed, slaughtered or crucified. The Buffalo, whom we systematically slaughtered (30 million in a matter of years) we put on our nickel as an endearing American icon. The American Indian, whom we committed enormous acts of genocide against (Hitler's Holocaust pales by comparison), finds it way as an American icon at so many different levels. And then there is Ali, whom we paid to watch him fight others, white audiences, watching him beat another black man to near death, and himself, later on, taking terrible beatings. We remember him in his passing heroically. The very same man we imprisoned and stripped away his titles and the basic right to earn a living --we've now come full circle, from vilified to deified. What would Ali have done on that fateful day, when, as a young boy, he had his bicycle stolen and instead of being near a boxing gym, he was nearby a public squash court, and someone, maybe a club player, a coach, a mentor, had given him a squash racket and told him squash will make your day, will make you forget your stolen bicycle and will make you great in some way? What would he have done with that instead of entering a boxing gym? Would he have achieved the same level of greatness and notoriety? My guess, yes. He would have been the "greatest" at whatever he did. He would have gone to the public squash court in Louisville, Kentucky, picked up a racket and never let it go for the rest of his life. I imagine him coming up through the professional ranks on the courts against the likes of Jonah Barrington and Geoff Hunt, running them around as if he were playing a game of fetch. He would be like nothing they'd ever seen, footwork like we'd never seen, and his racket skills to match. Most of all, how many more inner city kids would he have inspired to play squash? Can you imagine Sugar Ray Leonard playing squash and not boxing, not detaching his retina, or Jerry Quarry, who ended up in diapers and thoroughly punch drunk, appearing alongside all the old grand masters of squash reminiscing about a bygone era. And of course, big George Foreman, how could you forget him in the World Open or British Open, against Jansher Khan. George Foreman in his early 40's, not upsetting boxing champion Michael Moore, but upsetting Khan in the finals to become the oldest World Champion in the history of the game. For me, Ali was always a calm voice in the storm of so much madness. He would move around the court like a butterfly and sting his opponents with perfect length, or a subtle head fake, or a perfectly placed drop shot. He would be known for leaving his opponents just shaking their heads. Ali and Squash, now that would have been something great. I am almost certain Squash would be an Olympic sport, I am almost certain there would be 100's of public courts just like the ones New York Public Squash is trying to build. I can almost hear him predict it, I can almost hear him say, when it comes to Squash, the court doesn't care whether your Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Black, White or anything, just how you play the game. I am almost certain he would still be around, and the El Shorbagys, the Ashours, the Willstrops and Matthews, would all come and meet with the great man, the "greatest" Squash player ever; and you would see his familiar and great face on the pages of the Daily Squash Report every day. You would see him visiting the Zimbabwe Squash Academy, somewhere, in the far reaches of the planet, opening, yet another, Squash academy. You would see him dedicating public courts around the world. And he would be heard to say, Squash doesn't define him, it's just a platform from which he would deliver his message. But he would be heard loud and clear, he would hold his still, formidable racket, with a steady hand, and, of course, would keep his eye always on the ball. He'd be known for being funny, witty, wise and he'd occasionally host the PSA Live play-by-play with Joey Barrington and Paul Johnson. He would be Ali, the "greatest" player in a game loved and played by millions around the world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

New York Could Become The Thermopylae of Squash

Having recently watched the great El Gouna finals match between Greg Gaultier and Mohamed El Shorbagy, I can only say it's not unlike the great Spartan warrior Leonides fending of the Persian invasian of Greece at the Battle of Thermopylae. Gaultier played the best squash I've ever seen him play, and in the end, he was carried off the court on his shield in the manner of all Great Spartan warriors, like Leonides himself. A great, great, honor, but not as great an honor if Gaultier had won that match. With Nick Matthew injured, Gaultier stands alone with a small group (Rosner and Rodriguez) battling a ferocious onslaught and overpowering presence of Egyptian squash players . They keep coming at you, and not just the name, marquee players. Moreover, this onslaught is currently without arugably the greatest player of his generation, Ramy Ashour. With Ramy out indefinitely due to injuries, lo and behold, you now have to contend with the brilliant new comer, Ali Farag, who might have been in the top 3 if he had gone directly to the pros and bypassed college. Also, to this onslaught, add the surging Marwan ElShorbagy, and you see every draw is packed with a talented, top ten, Egyptian player. The Egyptians have ushered in a new game, no doubt, a new era; the pace of their game is ferocious, ending up with number 1 in the world, Mohamed ElShorbagy hitting shots, as Hisham Ashour described them, as if they might go through the walls of the court. He dictates a pace in the game that's never been seen before, and not far behind is Farag and Marwan, and of course, Mosaad and Gawad (did I forget anyone? probably another 5 or 6 very talented Egyptian players). If you watch that match Mohamed ElShorbagy had with Rosner in El Gouna, Rosner sometimes didn't have anytime to prepare for any decent return. While Mohamed is dominating right now, there are many, as I've described, waiting in the wings. What makes pro-squash right now so exciting, is the drama created by Gaultier, and Matthew before, standing up against this massive Egyptian squash invasion. All roads to the top ten seem to go through Thermopylae, or Egyptian squash. Pakistan in its glory years had to contend with a very talented group of Players from Australia;Leonides was not alone, back then, like he is today. With Matthew and Gaultier nearing the end of their brilliant careers, no one outside of Egypt is on the horizon to really challenge Egypt's utter and absolute dominance. Where are Diego Elias, Richie Fallows, or Nicolas Mueller (whom I thought would be in the top ten by now)? Who is on the horizon? And of course, where's US squash, who has no one even on the same planet?. Canada? Autstralia? France? Iraq? So what's the plan for the rest of the squash world? At that Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians used Greeks to find a way around the Spartans and thus enabled a successful (albeit temporary) defeat of them. The pro-squash world is at a similar critical point today. Maybe, the rest of the squash world should use the Egyptian coaches for training to learn to beat them at their own game? Maintain that drama, it's great for squash. Diego? Richie? and anyone else aspiring to make the PSA Top Ten, come to New York, you have one of the most brilliant coaches (Egyptian or otherwise), right here in New York. Leonides gave the Greeks time, the rest of the squash world needs some time too. My left arm is on the cutting board for this, I believe Diego Elias (I am not as certain about anyone else), coming to New York, will be challenging for number 1 in the world in two years. He's here, that wizard of squash, one of the best squash minds in the world, right here, let him take you to the honor and glory that is, and was, Gaultier and Matthew. As for Pakistan, as great as your past glory was, and as great as the two Khans were, you too, come to New York, it's here for you as well. Farhan Zaman, come train with the wizard, help New York become the epicenter of professional squash development. (BTW the Persians were eventually defeated at Salamis after they won their Battle at Thermopylae.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Magnificent 7 and New York Public Squash

On a recent snowy and grey holiday afternoon at the club I play squash, I was playing my all-time favorite club player, Imran Khan. Not since the days of Jay Munsie and Mark Pasquale at Park Place Squash ("The Dungeon"), have I enjoyed playing and training so much. On that day, I was very excited because Imran's father was in town visiting from Pakistan. Mohammad Mobin Ahmed coached all over the world in the 1970's and 1980's. He was the junior Malaysian national coach at one point and coached in Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan and England. Curiously, he held a package wrapped in plastic which contained his scrapbook with news clippings and photographs with himself and a litany of Who's Who's in Pakistani squash. I looked at these clippings and photos with great admiration, because it hearkened back to a time when Pakistani players ruled the squash world. It wasn't unlike what we have going on with Egyptians now. Years before the US fought Iraq in the gulf War, Ahmed coached in Iraq. He was awarded medals and trophies and met many dignitaries in all his foreign travels. And of course, he posed for photographs with the great professional players: Jahangir, Qamar and Jansher. His squash pedigree is extensive. Now at 70, he’s retired from coaching and confessed to not having lifted a racket in a long time. I asked him to show me some of the drills the Pakistani players of his era did. He led Imran and me onto court and told us he would show us the Magnificent 7 drills. They are solo drills that were meant to build fitness and strength and promote good ball control. This was a time when players had to train like this. He explained. They didn't have trainers, sports psychologists, coaches, facilities or academies like they do today. The drills involved two and three wall shots with the player toggling back and forth between forehand and backhand; as you become adept at this, you make the ball hit the side and front walls lower and lower. In the next set, you move back to the middle of the court and do a series of volleys and drives. Then in the last set you hit cross courts to yourself culminating in, cross, drive, cross, drive. I struggled quite a bit, but Imran fell right into the drills. All total, 7 solo drills, hence Magnificent 7. I listened to Imran's father talk about how Pakistani players at all levels were known for their great racket work and shot making. At a higher level, Jahangir ushered in for Pakistan the game of attrition, soon others, he said, had to follow suit. Then came Jansher, who made it all seem so effortless. As Imran’s father said, Jansher used to seem like he was always walking casually to the ball. It then struck me that rarely do you see juniors or adult club players train like that. I have to confess they are brutal drills. You see the occasional adult player doing star drills and hitting rails repeatedly, but nothing like this. I asked Imran's father about that and his response was telling, "We didn't have coaches to always feed players. Clubs and players couldn't always afford coaches, so we drilled ourselves and often each other." I explained to him that growing up squash wise years ago in the US, I used a combination of coaches for instruction and solo hitting to improve on the lessons. Often, it was the adult players, seasoned in drilling and fitness, getting on court with a lower level adult or junior and less experienced player. We helped each other because we wanted to make other players better, we wanted new competition, and we were always trying to improve our games and those of others. I can remember the great Swedish top 20 player, Anders Wahlstedt, telling me years ago at Park Place Squash that he learned the game from playing, at a young age with his father and his father’s squash friends. In the US, with the invasion of foreign elite players/coaches, squash is teetering on becoming that perceived elitist sport it's tried so hard to shed. The fierce competition to land one of those coaches for your child’s junior development is prohibitive for most -- and the prices for their services keeps going higher and higher. Without Adult squash players in “public clubs”, the cost for learning how to play squash at a decent level is very high. I only know the squash scene in New York (over a span of 30 years) and for adults, the game is slowly dying. It's heartbreaking, because with only a few “public” courts remaining in the 5 Boroughs, adult squash is at its lowest. The junior players are great, but on this afternoon at my club there were none. It seems they come mostly for groups and private lessons, and so I never see them, I never have the opportunity to get on court with them, nor do any of the other, few remaining, adult players. It's a bit of a catch 22 because junior squash development, fueled by the college squash craze, is turning a big profit. But it will not keep our sport alive and vibrant in New York. I can't tell you how many parents when asked why squash for their kids, respond with, it will help them get into a top tier school. I wince, what about just playing this game for a lifetime because it's the greatest game on the planet? The private and restricted clubs in and around the City are very exclusive and very expensive. Without “public” courts, I would have to mortgage the house if I have to play at one of those elite, private clubs (that’s if they even accept me). Yet, recently I found some glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer. A couple of players have managed to garner public park space in New York City to build the first outdoor squash court. New York Public Squash (http://www.publicsquash.org/) a non-profit organization, is trying to build a court for public use. Imagine that for anyone or everyone. Yet, to my dismay, they cannot come up with the funding for the actual court. What New York Public Squash has done is clawed and scraped its way in an attempt to help squash survive and make it accessible to anyone who wants to play. Yet, they don’t have enough money to put this initiative into a reality for the spring. Imagine, a squash court next to the tennis courts and basketball courts down on FDR Drive on the Lower East Side, free, public space for a squash court. I am convinced New York Public Squash is on to something. Is this the kind of grass roots effort that could possibly resuscitate our sport here in New York? You can talk all you want about the Olympics or Grand Central Terminal as a showcase for our great sport, but in reality, it's what New York Public Squash wants to do that might showcase this sport better. As one of the founders, Ryan Wall, said, "Democratize" this sport. Should they build this true public court, it will be a great day for squash in this City. Imagine, the Magnificent 7 on a beautiful spring morning, as the sun comes up over the horizon and shines its first rays on that court. I will be there, helping to keep alive a sport and a bygone era that I love, the Magnificent 7 and public squash. Perhaps, on one of those mornings, some kid on the nearby basketball courts will come over and want to know what I'm doing. "Come, try the Magnificent 7." Like me, maybe he'll fall in love with this sport, and maybe, just maybe, he'll call his friends over from the basketball courts, or tell his friends at school about this game. Maybe, a gentleman jogging along will stop and say, "I've always wanted to try this game." I'll hold up a racket and a ball as if to entice him, "come, let’s get on court. Let me show you how to play." Maybe, he will bring his friends and those friends will bring their friends; then everyone will complain how hard it is to get court time, and New York Public Squash will just build another court in some other park, in some other part of the City.