Monday, August 31, 2009

Top 20 Greatest Squash Players

Here goes again. I've updated the top 10 (actually 11 total) because some really great players have emerged for the ages over the last few years. By the way this only goes back 30 years when I started playing and following squash. My son will debate me on this after the 4th pick, no doubt. Any one has a strong argument against these players on the list, I'd love to read about it. These are only from the players I've seen in person or matches I've watched.

Jansher Khan -- Is there any question here? No doubt here. Thank god for films because memory fades a bit. I can view his matches on Youtube rather than rely on a distant memory. He is even greater the second time around.

Jahangir Khan -- Okay if it weren't for Jansher, perhaps the greatest ever. If anyone hasn't seen that match in the early 90's on tape you have to see it. Frazer and Ali III a tremendous match. It took Frazer in that fight to reallly show Ali's greatness, it took Jahangir to show Jansher's greatness. Watch the drops from Jansher as the match progresses. If ever a squash player can tighten those screws his drops did just that. Same punishing drops in a match on tape against Rodney Martin around that time (he's also somewhere on this list).

Ramy Ashour -- I think when it's all said and done he will move up probably another notch. He's still (barring any injury) has a ways to go in his career. But arguably at this stage or any prior stage one of the greatest ever. He has the tenacity and courage of Jahangir and the pure natural ability of Jansher. To see him play up close is well worth whatever price admission.

Peter Nicol -- Okay this was really tough, because my heart tells me Chris Ditmar, but you can't deny the statistics and dominance. I remember first reading about him when I think he was a teenager playing on that US Grand Prix tour. I was a huge fan of Anders Wahlstadt and thought he was such a great player, indeed he was, but who was this kid thrashing Wahlstadt all the time. Some might argue Nicol is the greatest ever... what they said about him when he came on to the squash scene: " he takes the ball so early".

Nick Matthew (tied with Nicol) -- In an age of Ramy, Shabanna, Gaultier, his world titles and return to top spot in the world rankings deserve him in this top list. He really changed the game and raised the bar for his contemporaries. His level of fitness, his pace, and when it's all said and done he will be remembered most for the best forehand volley ever.

David Palmer -- This is a no-brainer. He is sorely missed on the tour. His retirement left a gaping hole. At his peak,  in the current crop of top players he'd be 1 or 2.  But this guy is truly one of the greats. His forehand drop is probably the best ever. And his athleticism and mental toughness without question among the best. I have to put him ahead of Ditmar, tough for me because I think so highly of Ditmar, but this guy against Ditmar, we can only imagine, but the edge for his incredible athleticism.

Chris Ditmar -- One of those players, what can you say, to me one of the most talented I ever saw. I think his stature has dimished in a way because looking at Matthew and Shabanna they found ways to beat the best. Matthew has beaten Ramy and I think Matthew would have presented immeasurable problems for Jahnsher. But still, to think I saw him after he blew out his knee and came back to play at such a high level. What a throwback, sort of like the Larry Bird of squash. If it weren't for Jansher's dominance over him would he have been number two on this list? I can watch clips of this great player and athlete to no end. Gritty and tough, but smart too, just missed the mark. I think he would have had alot of trouble with Ramy Ashour.

Rodney Martin -- The greatest shotmaker in the modern game. Comparable to Ramy. I'm sure there were others, I just didn't see them. Hey, how can you argue with success, he gave Jansher fits. Why Rodney and not Jonathan Power? Hey, this is subjective, was never a big fan of Power and his game.

Geoff Hunt -- Hard to place him now, that age of attrition squash seems like the silent film era. He was the best of his time, but the level of competition wasn't as it has been for the past 20 years. He was the best at what they did back then.

Tristan Nancarrow -- To see him play was something. He was born in to it, maybe came too easily, but such raw talent, such brilliance. I would say he's right there with all those players in any sport that are just so gifted. If he had to do it all over again, my bet is he would have done it differently, worked and trained hard -- and we'd be saying he was in the top 5. Remember, just my opinion. Check out him playing Jahnsher when he was nearly in retirement. He is the one player I'd give anything to see again and agian.

Amir Shabanna -- He may well move up, for some reason just picked up on him and began watching him play. The "Maestro", at 34 years old winning the TOC and beating in successive matches Wilstrop, Matthew and Gaultier -- remarkable. The stats are there.

Too early to tell, but Shorbagy is the future of the game. This player may end up when it's all said and done being somewhere in the top 5 all time. Gaultier? I am a huge fan of his game, a remarkable player, he's got to win the big ones to get on this list.

Squash Suicide in Bangalore, India

Last year my company transferred me to Bangalore, India. I was very excited about this since I had always wanted to live in India. I had been to Chennai, India, with my good friend Vanamali Raghunathan. I took my son with me. We had a blast in Chennai, played squash at the Heritage Hotel, became friends with the attendant. We loved playing in the heat and the ball was fast and when we came off the court it was as if we had been playing in a sauna.

Originally I thought going to India would be the adventure of a lifetime. My son and I talked about it, he wasn't so keen, but I thought this could be such a rewarding experience for him. We assumed the squash would be great and we had plans on having him going periodically to Chennai to train with players out of the Cyrus Poncho's Indian Squash Institute. There was so little information on squash in Bangalore, but we assumed that we just had to go to the clubs. No one really responded to our inquiries. The most prominent club in our search was the prestigious Bangalore Club. I looked up membership information, and to be honest, it was so complicated to figure out. I tried emailing them. It was important to figure out the squash scene because there was no point in my son coming to India if he couldn't play.

My company was to put us up for 6 weeks and we found a hotel that also had squash. We were all set we could continue training and playing. We were in for a shock. The people handling the relocation took it upon themselves to change the agreed upon hotel and put us up in a 2 star or less hotel. For some reason the idea of squash to these people meant we thought ourselves privileged. I found this out later in the snied remarks about squash that was levied towards us by the people in my company. We are so far from that perception; we were just stereotyped and met with disdain as if we were reminders of a painful and humiliating past -- British Colonialism of course.

We spent days in between adjusting to India life trying to find a squash court to pay and play on. It was becoming increasingly futile when we realized the only places to play were very exclusive private clubs with long waiting lists for memberships. Our hearts sank. Most of these clubs offered temporary memberships but they wanted 5 year up front fees. The more frustrated I became the more futile it seemed. Anyone knows if you have a passion for something, you cannot be denied that passion. We would not be denied playing this game simply because of the perception that squash is for the privileged few and that to keep it that way you place so many restrictions and rules and regulations which keep 99% of the people out, the undeirables no doubt.

I contacted Cyrus Poncho in Chennai and he, bless him, put us in touch with a member out of the Bangalore Club. I don't remember his name we were passed on to another member of the club, Vinnie Singh. Vinnie was a godsend and I think was so happy to have someone of my son's caliber willing to play that he put us in touch with numerous players who had us play as their guests. We immediately took to Vinnie, he was soft spoken, played an old style but graceful squash that was thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, I had torn my meniscus before leaving for India so I couldn't play without a great deal of pain. I could hit a bit with my son, but I knew I had a bad injury. But my son was able to play with Vinnie and others. The style of play was much like hardball, the ball fast, the courts very hot and the game and points very quick. We were coming from courts in Great Neck, NY that were less than half the speed. It was like going from softball to hardball. But my son adjusted slowly and began developing that soft volley drop which is so effective as well as an attacking boast. His footwork was slower to adjust because it was a challenge to keep distance off the ball when it comes at you from different angles and so fast. He had some great matches with Vinnie.

But it became apparent that my son couldn't play there because he wasn't the son of a member and wasn't 25 years old, the minimum age to be a temporary member. I was able to secure through Vinnie a temporary membership, but it didn't matter I couldn't really play because of my injury. And I could not add family to my temporary membership. We were back to square one sort of. That's when Vinnie had the great idea of getting my son in as a squash coach. My son had coached in the City and Long Island so he had the credentials. Vinnie's heart was in the right place, he saw all the old players at the club and wanted to see some new blood, to bring in the sons and daughters of the squash members and any other members to this game. He came up with the idea of coaching and in return a membership to the club. It took a while for Vinnie to put in the proposal and present it. Our fingers were crossed. Vinnie showed such patience, the kind of patience I could never have. He knew the system and always told me no matter how frustrated I became to never yell at the staff or officials of the club. This was probably more difficult to do than to rehabilitate my knee. My son would coach clinics at the club in exchange for playing. He was not a member and was only allowed to play certain times. We lived about 2 hours bus ride (because of the horrific Bangalore traffic) so he would just have to make due if he wanted to play.

What became apparent was the old attendant there who sometimes gave lessons and was not happy about this arrangement. Simply put, he made my son's life miserable. This is a trait I think I observed in India that you make someone miserable by making everything a chore even the simplest things. My son did these clinics on the worst court in the club, if he was hitting with a non-senior member of the club on the good court, and a senior member came along, he was kicked off. He could not have any guests and could not go 1 minute past his lesson time, which, even at times the old attendent would try and kick him off during a lesson if there was a member waiting to play. He wasn't allowed to reserve courts and if a player/student cancelled on him by calling the attendant the information wasn't passed on so there would be a rush to come in on that 2 hour bus ride for a canceled lesson.

He could not participate on the club ladder, for members only. Of all the people that he coached and paid his own bus fare to come in and coach for free none of them even tipped him. But I will say this Vinnie was very generous and "Bundy" was another really good friend that took to my son. All in all we have fond memories of the time there, but one of the parents of the best junior prospect in Bangalore, was told when he relocated from Bombay to Bangalore that it would be squash suicide.

To all those who make it so difficult to play this magnificent sport like not knowing how to sing and murdering the note, you simply murder this game. The PSA chairman I believe is out of India maybe he can promote and open the doors to the countless prospects in Bangalore who never did anything to anyone and who might simply want to play squash.

When the grinding commute to the Bangalore Club was a bit much, we'd go to the garage in our apartment building which was made of concrete. The ceiling was low, not unlike the old Harvard Business School American courts I played on with my Indian friend Supriya years ago, but we could at least hit the ball. And the sound of the ball coming off the concrete was the same as any ball coming off those old style courts, whether in Bangalore or Park Place Squash -- simply music.

My son eventually coached at Palm Meadows Country Club (suburban Miami in the heart of India) where he was paid and also they allowed me to play when I was healed. The sport manager, Mr Sagar Pawar, of Palm Meadows was like Vinnie, so gracious, a real gentleman, and really saw the benefit of my son playing and coaching out of his club.

I think many dislike an outdated system that discriminates so freely and easily against 99% of the population in the same manner that the old British system discriminated against the Indian population. Herman Hesse said something like be careful you don't become what you hate. In Bangalore, in the squash circles, I think there's some truth to that -- that old British Colonial system is still alive and well -- when they kicked the British out they should have kept all the good like squash and threw away all their foolish rules and regulations that were simply a disguise for their discrimination against the people whose home they occupied.

But maybe the real lesson here is that no matter what obstacles stand in your way there's always a way around them. My son and I since returned to New York where we play and coach squash and I never step onto the court in Great Neck taking this game or the ability to play it for granted. Before we left India, my son said to me, that his experience there was life changing. I'd like to think part of it was realizing what his life would be like if he wasn't allowed to play squash, not because of his ability or desire, but simply because many years ago a small group of people decided who should be allowed to play this game. I'd like to go back some day to Bangalore to hit around with Vinnie, perhaps build some outdoor courts, and invite any and all to hit a bit, run a bit, sweat a lot and experience the freedom of playing, within the confines of those four walls, the greatest game ever invented.

Squash Legacies

I have been truly blessed with a son that shares this long time passion of squash with me. Squash Fathers are put on this earth hopefully to pass on to their sons (and daughters too) this love and interest for what is the greatest game ever invented. I was at best a high B level player, a real dasher and basher, supremely fit which seemed to make up for the lack of overall technique. I used to take my son to the courts with me from the time he was two years old. He was still in diapers when he would sit transfixed watching me play. I once found him with one of those small umbrellas which you extend out swinging it against the couch reenacting a match he watched me play. I bought him at 3 years old the Dunlop child's squash racquet with the big sponge orange balls. We played games with that, I taught him racquet skills and footwork. He had his first lessons in Durham North Carolina at Metro Sports with Jim Masland, the former Harvard all American, top 100 touring pro, who became our good friend and remains so 20 years later. Jim recently visited us in New York stayed with us and played my son some matches. He has over the years visited us frequently and played and thrashed us, me more than my son. Jim is truly a genius at this game, he has studied it and broken it down into its most simplest forms in order to convey the complexity of this game. My son and I study this game and discuss squash endlessly with each other and anyone who will listen, in the same way Jim and I did for years. I learned so much about squash from Jim all of which I passed along to my son. So as I remember seeing Jim on court with my little boy so many years ago, I missed their recent match (unfortunately I was away on business). According to my son, Jim was fitter and playing better than the last time they played. Jim, now nearing 40, still has the pro level length and change of pace, but doesn't move quite as well to the front of the court. According to Jim, he lost a couple of games to my son and it really "pissed him off" -- he was pressured into mistakes. Jim is extremely competitive and gives nothing away on the court, so if he was pissed at my son taking games off of him it must have meant my son definitely improved. According to my son, the games were all very competitive and he could see his improvement since the last time he played Jim. There was tremendous respect on both their parts for each others game in the phone conversations I had with them after wards. My son has worked 6 hours a day training this summer for squash and the up coming season. But this posting is aptly dedicated to Jim Masland our great friend and whom we still greatly admire for his court mastery. It is also dedicated to my son's immense passion and love for this game that after so long is finally coming to him. I play my son some really tough matches now, tough on me, I had to lose 50 lbs to compete. When we serve it up I no longer see the boy on the court but a young man that reduces me simply to a dasher and basher (I think Mike Way, the great squash coach, coined this).