Sunday, December 27, 2009

Simply for the Love of Squash

I really need to stop reading Squash News. It really makes me feel sorry for all of those who listen to its CEO and his knee-jerk reaction in response to what ails US squash. His latest is a column on the positive signs of Women's Squash in the US. said CEO is a great marketer, his columns read like a quarterly corporate report. I grant him that, but all you need to do is play in tournaments and realize that he is, maybe like George Bush did when telling the American public we weren't in a recession, just telling his board and shareholders what will get them through the moment. Adult women's squash is an abysmal failure, just look at the turnout for the major tournaments. Women consistently play in men's draws, which is troublesome to me because if women are allowed in those draws, then it's not a man's draw but a mixed draw.

I have complained when I have had to pay a 95.00 dollar entry fee to play a young female junior player old enough to be my daughter. Sorry, I don't like playing teenage girls or for that matter an ocassional adult woman in tournaments. But that really isn't what this is about.

I have a student I coach, Margaret, who is an ex collegiate player and now mother of three. She is coming back to the game after about 15 years. She played since she was 9 years old and was coached by a legend in women's squash who recently passed away. Margaret hasn't kept up with how the game has evolved. She is probably typical of most women players, compete in the juniors, get into college, play in college and then launch a career and family and stop playing squash. She is really good and works so hard in our sessions, I push her very hard, because squash is hard it demands a lot from any who play it.

I question the premise for anyone who thinks squash is a vehicle to something better that isn't about squash. Squash to me is like Ancient Greek Poetry, which I studied throughout college and still do. It takes a lot of work and study and dedication to read it, in the end few will care that you read it except me, the reader, who has reaped the most amazing benefits of reading a language and literature that is the penultimate of our Western Civilization . Squash is the same to me as that Greek Poetry -- it's the penultimate sport, there is no fanfare, no exposure, it is so hard and difficult to do, but if you play it and get good at it is the most amazing experience. I can only equate it with reciting lines of Homer's Odyssey in Ancient Greek with striking continuously tight rail after tight rail. Both took so much dedication and hard work, but ultimately who cares, some might ask where did it get me? a college scholarship, a better job? No they just fueled this incredible passion for this game as well as for that poetry.

I would like to say I do either of these callings for simply the love of doing them, I spent 12 years studying Greek and Latin and 30 years playing squash and I have never derived anything from them other than the love of doing them and trying to do them better with the passing of time.

I have sat through enough junior tournaments and listened to parents talk incessantly about their children playing squash and being recruited and playing in college. I am sure Klipstein ecstatically is rolling his eyes in his corporate head and thinking all sorts of success, but in reality, it is a quick reward for what is ultimately a pathetic failure.

Do those players who option for playing college squash and spend their entire junior careers working towards that ever think about or dream of playing this game professionally? I doubt it. When I was 13 I didn't dream of playing college baseball I dreamed of sharing the field with all the great players of the day. How many women squash players dream of playing like David, the Grihnam sisters, or ever understand the most amazing accomplishments of squash's greatest woman player, Heather Mckay? But they do, I'm sure, dream of knowing what getting into an Ivy League school seems to mean.

You can probably meet this dilemma at a crossroads of men's collegiate squash as it no wonder that we have never placed a US born squash player in the upper echelons of squash, woman's or man's?

I once sat with a gentleman who had a highly ranked girl's junior player and he was talking to me about the potential for her receiving a scholarship, I watched her play, and just thought a perfect college squash player, basic tactics, will play the boring game of college squash and probably never pick up a racquet after turning 24. He watched my son play and said wow who is recruiting him for college and I responded by saying he doesn't want to play collegiate squash he wants to play professionally. He looked at me like I just said something really nasty and said, why would my son want to do that there's no money in it, he should use it for college. I responded there are just some things you simply do for the love of it. Enough said, he never spoke to me again.

So I am so happy that my student, Margaret, started playing again, not because she aspires to great things in squash, playing professionally, but simply because squash rekindled something in her -- I'm glad to support her, maybe make her a better player and to once again play this game simply for the love of it -- I might encourage her to join the USSRA to play in some women's tournaments and play her best squash. She won't be some percentage statistic for squash CEOs to present to squash board members or shareholders -- not yet at least.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Odysseus and his Return to the Wide Court

From the master himself, he aptly quoted Caeser: "Venni, Vidi, Vinci..." as he twisted me on the court like a pretzel and poked his way to defeating my son in 3 hotly contested games. Jim Masland, our long time squash guru and friend, visited us recently from California without a racquet, but with his squash shoes and no socks. Not having seen the inside of an international court in a year. He was much fitter than I last saw him and before we headed to the club I handed him Wilkinson's most brilliant book "How to Win at Squash" as a gift for the holiday's and a Feather 2125 Cyclone to use -- and a pair of socks as well!

Upon Jim's arrival, he hardly had time to put his stuff down then we headed for the courts. I hadn't seen him in over a year and at that time I was injured and couldn't get on the court with him. Last June I was away on business but my son played and trained with him while he was passing through which set up this week's highly anticipated match between them.

My son had been training hard but not playing many matches at a high level. Jim had been playing on the old narrow American courts at UCLA while teaching English Literature and doing a bit of coaching. It seems each of their disadvantages would cancel each other's out.

We were on the courts at LA Fitness and hitting around before the next day's match. They warmed up and Jim seemed befuddled on the court, the ball whizzing by him. Anyone who has played on the old narrow court for awhile knows when you first get back to the international court it is like another planet, or maybe like looking into space. It takes awhile to adjust and and get your bearings -- they drilled and played some long ball. The first deep shot Jim shanked and checked his racquet to make sure it had strings, I must confess I thought, the master is getting old he may have lost a bit.

A 40 year old player, however great, is much different than a great 20 year old player. The pace and the power in their games are different, the reflexes too. While the 20 year old can run and bait an older player into playing that fast paced game, the older wiser player no doubt will attempt to slow it down. While I was thinking this, it occurred to me the master might be disguising himself, much like Odysseus did when returning home disguised as a simple beggar to a house of hostile young warriors. Was he maybe baiting my son into thinking he was slower and lacked the killer instinct he displayed in some of their past matches. He was sore, and he had trouble with the pace and the court. I didn't get on the court with him since I had numerous lessons, which he observed, and of course offered some helpful pointers -- he extended his approval for my coaching methods, which was very important to me as I always strive to get the master's approval.

We spent the evening talking about squash and watching a DVD of Ikskander and Ashour in a match from two years ago. It's great to watch these matches with Jim because he can provide some really astute observations. Ah, I thought, his brilliance is he is at once a student and a teacher.

The day of the match arrived. We headed back to the courts and my son and Jim stretched and warmed up. My son ran a mile and Jim went on the Elliptical. One of my students remarked to me how good could a squash player could Jim be with a beer gut. A slight over exaggeration but yes, Jim has a bit of a gut, but his legs and upper body are strong and he has a solid well balanced squash player's gait and center of gravity. My son is the perfect specimen of a squash player around 6 feet tall, long legs, strong upper body and moves around the court like a gazelle with grace and balance.

We had invited members of the LA Fitness squash community to come watch. I would referee the match. Jim was introduced to all our fellow squash players and he greeted them in his usual friendly manner -- he always seems so at ease around any level of squash player. Both my son and Jim got on court and began warming up. I watched Jim for signs of that wily warrior disguised behind the old beggar. Instantly, Jim cracked a cross court off of my son's cross court warm up shot. And then another and another, down the rail, cross nick, the racquet was like a wand. His backhand is so good -- he takes his racquet back and follows through and with perfect precision makes contact at just the right point. My son seemed a bit tight, I play him and train with him so much I knew his legs hadn't loosened up, best that he gets them going early since Jim looks on his game, so I thought.

On the forehand side Jim really started hitting his stride moving about, taking the ball early, volley dropping. He had his game face on, this wasn't my son he was playing but some opponent that was challenging his squash realm. He was a warrior now. He plays the front well, but he isn't as accomplished there because of a long ago hamstring and knee injury. If you can hit great length, you're more selective in the front patiently waiting for the best opportunity to apply pressure in the front court. My son's front court game has come a long way, he is really strong in the front and I knew he would be attacking the front against Jim forcing him to cover the front as much as possible.

The match started and the points in the first game were beautiful. Both players flowed effortlessly around the court. Jim's movement was so efficient, but a bit flat footed, so my son really took it to him and it was clear his strategy was to make Jim run. The points were long both players feeling each other out, but Jim was being outplayed by a younger and faster player. My son built a solid lead and seemed to take control of the game at 6-3. But then, as it often happens, the player up in the game gets a bit over anxious and wants to close the game out early. Jim was clearly huffing not from a lack of fitness, but from the pace. He argued a few calls, there were some lets, wily that he is, he was trying to disrupt the rhythm of the game. He also started throwing a bit of junk, the old hardball reverse in the front and the Philadelphia Boast, and then really slowing the ball down. I watched how my son reacted and he pressed harder and I could see his cross courts weren't as good ow and Jim stepped in and took them but changed the pace of the ball. He started to take control the first storm weathered. At 6-7 Jim served up this high lob serve that seemed to hang in the air for 5 minutes and my son hit a loose cross and Jim placed a beautiful forehand straight volley drop into the nick.

They went back and forth and Jim had a couple of game balls but my son hung in there and at 11-10 Jim serving, they had a long point and then Jim did the unthinkable, he hit a reverse cross into the backhand (an old hardball shot) that caught my son flatfooted -- he had no chance to retrieve. It was Odysseus, the wily old warrior, seizing game 1.

The second game was Jim's. He ran my son around and my son tinned quite a few. Jim used his pretzel game to create havoc. My son was valiant in his efforts but slow to adjust to Jim's strategy. I thought my son the better player, but as often is the case, the better player doesn't always win.

I tried to offer encouragement and advice to my son between the second and third games, an old habit of mine from my son's junior playing days, and he brushed me off. Okay, he was coming up with his own strategy and he doesn't need me.

The third game was all out war. My son began retrieving better and moving Jim to the front. The game was very tight, Midway through the game it seemed Jim was thinking okay, maybe give my son this game and come back in the fourth game. Dangerous. Jim began slicing and dicing and redirecting the ball off his hold, but my son hung in there, countered well cutting the ball off. He seemed to frustrate Jim with a drop to the backhand front wall from behind the service box. I thought, if my son takes this game he will win because it would have taken too much out of Jim. Jim must have picked up my thoughts because I saw how he wanted to finish it there and he pressed hard and started taking the ball early. It was fast and furious a game which brought out the best in each player.

In the end, Jim won the third game in a tiebreaker and the match. It was not my son's best play, but it was a lesson only playing a match like that can teach -- beware of warriors disguised in beggar clothes! Jim discussed the match and his strategy and it was right on. I was proud of him for some reason maybe because I felt guilty about doubting him the previous night. As we left the courts for dinner, he said he learned some things watching my son's footwork and movement and I responded he taught us some things as well -- at once both student and teacher, warrior and wiseman.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Junior Progess...Haadi and his evolving game

He's noyouw 14 and 25 lbs lighter since I wrote about him in September. He's a perfectionist, not always good in squash, and tempermental, and his mind is well beyond his physical capabilities. He shows me things on the court that are at once brilliant and at once retarded. When he finds that middle ground and evens out he will be a force to be reckoned with.

I recently watched him play a match which he was losing. He was sapping the wall with his racquet, mumbling to himself, and his slumped shoulders and overall body language suggested he was losing not to his opponent but to himself. Yes, I realized, he was better than his opponent and should beat him but he was really battling and playing himself, an opponent you can really never beat. People come up to me all the time and compliment me on how I have brought him along but the suggest ways to fix his temperment. I nod and say his temperment has cost him a lot of racquets and there's not much I can do about that.

When he is doing well he listens to me when doing badly he will basically tell me @$@$ off! That is okay, because I know where he is coming from, he is coming from a place where he knows the absolute joys of that tight rail and the utter misery of the loose shot. He is a practice player right now and his success is measured in the quality of his shots, not in the results of the point.

To me, he is already showing signs of a great player. He might not win and make lots of mistakes, but he does things that show me a really high IQ on the court. He is determined to split step on the court during the match, he wills this large frame to split his step and bound toward the ball. While he is perhaps late on the ball, I marvel at the thought of when he is 20 lbs lighter and doing this and exploding to the ball. He has this innate desire to take the ball earlier and pressure his opponent. I see it, I see what he's trying to do and love it. Unfortunately and frustrating for him is his body and skill level won't support that yet.

Haadi will go through a lot of changes in squash, lose a lot of matches, but when he starts winning he will win like a champion, a champion who has known what it is to lose, what it is to be hindered by certain things, he will know what it is to strive to be better, strive to win, to reach every ball. He will someday soon become a player who doesn't critisize himself and evaluate his every shot, he will judge himself at the end of each match and not at the end of each stroke...we will bring him to this point, train him, teach him, and give him the tools to take squash to whatever levels his talent and desire take him -- it may cost some racquets and lots of embarassment and lectures too, but this junior is gifted and someday I hope to watch him play a match where I won't know the score and I won't know whether he is winning or losing.

No Squash Player Left Behind -- Hardball to Softball

I used to think it was a liability that I started out in hardball during the boom of the 70's. But I was fortunate that I ended up working with an MIT programmer who first turned me on to softball. This must have been 1980 and we played it on the narrow hardball courts at MIT. I can still remember the first time I hit that softball and exclaimed this is squash! I was much younger and the slower ball and the more demanding physical aspects of speed and endurance immediately appealed to me. I never picked up a hardball again. When I moved from Boston to New York in the early '80's, I played at the Manhattan Squash Club in the Grace building and learned the rudiments of the softball game from Gul Khan, the pro there. I continued to play sporadically into the late 1980's, but work was too demanding and starting a family, etc. all familiar stumbling blocks to dedicated squash players, prevailed. When I ballooned to 45 lbs over weight and burdened with so much stress from working long hours in technology in the Wall Street area, it was then that I found Park Place Squash, located in the dungeons of a basement opened and run by Lionel Hope (RIP) just off of Church street near the World Trade Center. It had one of the first international softball courts, Lionel would say, it was where the first softball court was constructed in the US. I have heard otherwise...

The best softball players in the city played there, there were 4 hardball courts and 1 1nternational court. I worked 3 blocks away so I was able to steal away at lunch and play on the international court. I'd played the hardball court if necessary, but I loved the international court. I worked like a demon, running and training to play the softball game. It took about 8 -10 months to really get fit again. I played 7 times a week, sometimes twice a day. I was now going through a messy divorce and coupled with demanding work, it was the only place on earth I felt whole and complete. I remember stopping in between points with my friend and partner in squash Stephen Aronoff (he stopped playing) and just thinking that other than holding my children in my arms or reading them to sleep at night, there was no place on earth where I'd rather have been than that squash court. I must have pinched myself (is this like heaven) as much as I cursed myself (is this like hell), but it all seemed to even out.

I can still hear the softball off the old British style court at Park Place come off the wall, like music, the sound was pure poetry. I can still see Anders Wahlstadt and Chris Stevens playing, simply awed by their level of play. The hardball courts remained mostly empty. I had started playing with a heavy wooden racquet and held out as long as I could with the wooden racquet, in fact I used to buy 20 of them at a time from a sporting goods place on Nassau Street. I went through them in a matter of months. Eventually I switched to the graphite ones, first Dunlop, then Black Knight, and eventually Head.

I played squash in the old style of the wooden racquet whereby you had to hold the butt of your racquet near your ear and come down and through the ball. I learned softball technique. Afterall, I never picked up a hardball again once I played softball. It was the only way to generate some racquet head speed and put some pace on the ball. But softball was the faster game in theory because the ball died and you needed to be faster and quicker to the ball. Hardball required not as much speed of foot because the court was smaller and the ball came out more to the middle. The stroke had to be more compact, more efficient and quicker to play the fast moving hardball.

The two games remained distinctly different until the racquet technology changed. Once the racquet became lighter and the sweet spot bigger, softballers really put some pace on the ball. Not only did the game require faster movement and footwork, but the pace of the ball was really fast. But then the hardball game became really troubled, because on the narrow court players could literally get to everything...the game became boring, the exciting winners and nicks or crushing the low hard cross for a winner wasn't a winner anymore. The ball stood up and the game wasn't that much different than a racquet ball flying all over the place. Imagine if a racquetball court had a tin and you couldn't hit the ceiling, it would essentially be hardball squash in the 90's.

Anyways, it wasn't until I read Frank Sautterwait's autobiography and his chapter on the softball game from a professional hardball player's perspective did I finally understand how hardball players were able to so convincingly switch to the softball game with the new racquet technology. I'm thinking of those great Canadians Power and Waite and maybe even Stevens too. When I met Jim Masland he had only been two years into his softball career when I met him in North Carolina, having played hardball most of his life. The hardball stroke was perfect for the new racquet and the faster speed and pace of the softball. The old softball stroke was inefficient for the new racquet technology and pace of the softball game...and those softball players who overlapped into the new racquet age and the leap in evolution in the softball game, changed their strokes...they needed to, and when the glass court was introduced along with new racquet technology, the softball player needed a quicker, hardball like stroke! To me that is when hardball died.

I don't expect I'm saying anything new, but this always interested me how a sport that was booming in the 70's and 80's just died. It's like a lot of things in America, new technology, replaces old technology and workers get technology spawns new participants or compels those to convert to the new and reinvent themselves. Those that don't are left behind, this is America, always reinventing itself. I always read James Zug history of squash as a sort of eulogy for the hardball game in America.

The softball game grew to combine the quickness and fast paced ball with the athleticism and strategy and depth of the old softball game. It's like chess on the clock vs. chess off the clock. The game has changed, it is the best game in the world...and in all of this, I spent thousands of hours and dollars to convert my game into the newer game as it was starting to be played in the early to mid 90's. I am glad I did, and my body and god willing, I will continue to incorporate new techniques into my game like the open stance backhand (which took me two years to build into my muscle memory ) or the dying length rail or the drop with minimal slice. It is this innate fear that this ever evolving game will someday leave me behind that I push myself to the point of keeping up with whatever changes in technology, technique, or training -- lest I remain like those few hardballers that cling to the distant past of a game that has long since died.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Spooked by the Squash Ghost and the Footworker

I have trained and drilled what seems forever, with a variety of different coaches and players. While I teach more than I play these days, I incorporate a lot of ghost drills into my sessions. But having had the experience of ghosting countless star drills and movement drills, I've come to the conclusion that they are only meaningful when combined with actually striking the ball.

I used to hit the forehand rail and ghost the backhand rail and maybe ghost a front cross court off a boast and then play the actuall volley, but what I never did and what I think was missing in these drills was a combination -- as complex as you like depending on your level -- of ghosting and striking the ball.

These drills can be moderate to very brutal depending on the player's fitness and skill and of course desire to get better. It's a system worked through with collaboration between coach and player that enables any level player to work on fitness, movement, court mechanics and good shots. I like to use these drills for those players wanting to extend themselves a little or a lot beyond their comfort need a coach who understands the player's level and can construct patterns along with appropriate length and width to coincide with that player's level.

There's no point hitting tight rails of dying length to a B level player since that isn't something they will likely encounter at their level, but it is appropriate to let's say ghost a boast from the backhand and hit a volley about a foot off the side wall for the player to volley...once you observe that player can consistantly hit that volley at a B level you start adjusting position and angle of the volley feed to enable the player to start hitting off the volley shots in that A realm. This can often lead to some early raggedness in the drills, but if the player is keen, the coach, player and drill tend to clean up the loose ends.

I am a proponent of combining multiple ghosts with on the ball hitting. Ghosting alone addresses footwork and racquet preparation only, but when you combine striking the ball you are covering a complete gamut of movement, preparation and ball handling. One thing I found in video examples of ghosting was a glaring mistake, by even higher level players, when ghosting out of the front they simply don't look behind them to simulate picking up the ball in the back to where they just hit it. What's the point if you don't follow the imaginary line pf the ball with your eyes? However, if you have a coach who is holding the ball and instructs you to pick it up immediately and you see the ball and watch him strike it, you are really incorporating some reality of match play.

I have been doing these drills with my aspiring pro son and believe that it is the most challenging drilling he can do. I used to do drills with him without ghosting combination and I wasn't able to push him mostly because I didn't have the skills to feed him at that low pro level. There was too much pressure on me and my feeds weren't tight enough in many of those continuous striking drills. With the ghosting combinations I have time to place my feeds tight and with good length or deftly place the front court volley drops or attacking boasts. The results are quite amazing.

And the absolute beauty of these drills, okay I admit it, they are much easier on the coach who has been on the court for 7 hours straight. If the player works hard at their level and wants to improve to a higher level, whether it be better fitness, tighter shots or better technique, they will accomplish that. During the drills the player can see immediately, without a lot of convincing from the coach what they need to work on -- the drill sort of speaks back to them.

I looked at the Footworker video which is a computer generated movement drill (check out their website that serves the purpose of practicing footwork and movement drills. This is good and for fitness, you probably can't beat it. But footwork and ball striking aren't mutually exclusive. You always play and practice to your ability without having that coach's set of eyes telling you that your lifting your head to soon off your ghosting rail to the front or bending too much at the waste on d not your knees, what is the point of practicing what's wrong with what you're doing over and over again -- are you perfecting bad technique and movement?

A coach is critical to observation, maybe not if you are a top 50 ranked pro, but for the rest of the squash mortals you need someone to observe and with a critical eye observe your movement and ball striking and to construct drills according to your level and ability.

I was close to purchasing the Footworker and using it on court to simulate movement in an A level match and then I had this flash of my son's expression as he saw me doing the movements -- as if to say, hey, you aren't getting low enough to the ball, your presence on the T is too jumpy (watch the video the player demonstrating this is like a jack rabbit on the T! Also watch how when he moves out of the front court his eyes are fixed often on the front wall), or you are lifting your head to early when striking the ball. I later thought about this tool and realized if they could put a camera in it to film your movements for later review or immediate replay feedback, that would be extremely helpful and make the tool all the more valuable. You could record the session and upload it to your computer to watch or forward it to your coach for review and analysis.

I decided not to purchase this item and will continue with my methods, refining them, pushing my students, myself, and my son, hopefully, to new and greater levels.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Nick Mattew Number 1?

Five years ago I saw Nick Matthew play and I told my son he will someday be the number 1 player in the world. If I were to ever construct a game and player for myself this would be the player. His forehand volley drop is absolutely devasting. I love watchig him play Ramy and cutting off those cross courts and hitting those punishing drop volleys to the forehand.
It seemed like he would never finish a match I was watching -- a couple of times he retired injured. But then I saw him beat Willstrop a couple of years ago and had the opportunity to go up to him and tell him he was absolutely my favorite player and what a great match he played.

I remember at that same tournament talking to a local knucklehead pro who said to me Matthew doesn't "do enough with the ball." That really annoyed me and I told him he was ridiculous trying to remind him of that incredible forehand volley drop.

Okay, how many of us tried copying that Dave Pearson like backhand of his? I think that knucklehead pro went to Pearson's camp and came back with an abortion of that stroke.

Anyways, Matthew as of this writing is at number 4 in the world! This is great news and I truly believe if he remains injury free he will eventually hit number 1. The path through that is not through any Egyptians as he has shown, but most likely through Gaultier. I think Gaultier is the uncrowned number 1 in the world and I hope Matthews proves me wrong. France and England always a fierce competition.

I talked to someone who watched Matthews come up in the juniors. The thing he said that struck him most was his tenacity at wanting to win every point and at whatever cost. He never gave up on any points -- something you can't teach or coa

Maybe by March, number 1, Mr. Matthew?

As an addendum, since this was written Ashour and Matthew battled it out in Saudi Arabia recently in what was reported to be an incredible match. I can't wait to see a replay of this. At staked was the number 1 ranking...Mr. Matthew is ever so close, but what is even better is the Matthew - Ashour matches are shaping up to be a great rivalry. Anytime an opponent elevates another player's level of play, and intensity, makes for some great squash.