Friday, December 10, 2010

The Cold War Is Over

It has been about 4 years (may have been 40 years) since Arif Hussai and Ali Mirza last stepped on the court together at our Lake Success LA Fitness club. They are two native Pakistanians with an absolute passion for squash. I have become friends with both of them and they both have impressed me with their passion for the game and their resolve to get better and help make lesser players better. All roads lead through them for beginner/intermediate players, except over the last four years there's been a fork in the road: Arif one way and Ali the other way. No one knows for sure what happened between the two of them to cause this "cold war"; legend has it some business deal gone awry, others say it was a series of bad let calls during a match...who knows for sure, these kind of things have a way of evolving to the point where no one knows for sure why there's even a feud.

But the wall between the two was impenetrable. During round robin play last year when I tried to get the two of them on court none would have any part in it. At one point when one referee'd the other's match, over a call, a confrontation ensued and we had to spearate the two.

But these two older squash gladiators are remarkable in their own right. Ali Mirza is a lesson in intensity and never ever give up on a point. He is also a master of the mind game and frequently gets inside the heads of his opponents causing them to fluster and make mistakes. He'll take it as much as he'll dish it out. He will admit that he's had little formal training with squash, so his technique and style are awkward, but he makes up for it in tenancity and a fierce competitive spirit. Sometimes that fierceness rubs players the wrong way. He can be agressive and pushy on the court, but outside the court he exudes a charm and confidence that is different from the chip he has on his squash shoulders.

Arif, is a gentleman on and off the court but very wily. Many of the younger players hate playing him because in his back court posture he will nick any ball not tightly served up to him. The points are short, he aims to win without to much exertion. The younger players try harder than ever to get the ball past him, but with his great hands, he just routinely dumps the ball into the front court nick. When one of the younger players moves him away from the T, or from his post in the back, when behind in the score he'll push hard to play it back. When winning, he won't bother to try. Conserve energy and movement, don't tire yourself out. Frustrate the opponent and with the nicest smile and demeanor smile slightly after every front court nick.

During a Muslem holdiay a couple of weeks back, Arif, as he tells me decides to end this cold war. He's very philosphical about it. It was a good time to end the "war" and get on court together. So one day he came to the club and saw Ali at the courts; Arif gently patted him on the back and said hello. Quite a gesture to which Ali, according to sources, nodded hello in approval. Later that evening they came onto the court to hit around for the first time in a very long time.

Last night I watched them play a very good match, two old squash warriors renewing their battle on court. The squash was fun to watch as Arif moved Ali all around but Ali was game, and seemed to get to everything and retrieve it well. It was cause for celebration, believe me, it took a lot for these two to put their differences behind them, forgive and forget, and simply just play squash.

I hope to see these guys on court alot and to see them individually continue to get on court with the less experienced players and even compare notes and maybe eventually root each other in match play. I am wondering, it's hard to resist, just how the cold war would have gone if Nixon and Brezhnev played squash?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Run To The Roar...Review of Assaiante and Zug's new book

I had always thought if Trinity Men's squash had assembled it's astounding streak of titles and wins with American born players, then it would be something. I have always been of the belief that an American born player reaching the top ten at the professional level would be equivalent to the US Olympic Hockey team winning the gold in 1980...I never gave much consideration to college squash and not much more to Trinity College. Until now.
I am half way through Trinity men's squash coach, Paul Assaiante, and History of Squash author, James Zug's new book Run To The Roar. I had to stop to write a bit about what I've read so far.
From the opening page through the first half of the book this is a remarkable story of a remarkable man, "coach", as he is called by his players. This is a book about the true meaning of what it means to make sacrifices for your passions in life, for doing whatever it takes to achieve your goals, and to reflect, always reflect and stop and think did the end justify the means, was what you achieved worth those sacrifices? After some soul searching, it's only then, it seems that we begin to take on some wisdom. Ezra Pound said at 50 if you have no wisdom you are nothing. Paul Assaiante at 50-something or more, has wisdom, no doubt something far greater than the Trinity win streak or all the glory associated with it.
The book is the story of Trinity's squash 2009 men's varsity squash team. Filled with player matches, scores, discussions of squash, is woven in Assaiante, the man, the father, the coach, the friend....all of those titles a man seems to have throughout his life. He openly acknowledges and questions his failures and seems to push past his successes, which in the collegiate athletic world, are titanic -- getting to that point whereby (like many of us) he almost lies awake at night asking himself were the personal sacrifices worth his accomplishments: a failed marriage, single parenthood, a son, Mathew, lost to heroin addiction. Many of us admire a man when he owns up to his mistakes, perhaps this book is a bit of a journey for Mr. Assaiante, to comes to terms with the sacrifices he made, to ask first the question were they worth it, and of course, if he had to do it over again would he do it differently. In the asking of these questions, sometimes is as good as answering it.
The record, the streak, all those wins...Assaiante seems in the tone of his diversions from squash into his past and present personal life to say without having all those you love to share it with what can they mean?
When the ugly incident of Trinity's number one player, Baset Chawdhry and Yale Univeristy's Kenneth Chan hit prime time ESPN News earlier this year in the national collegiate title match for number 1 (and keeping the Trinity win streak alive), because of the unsportsmanlike and ugly behavior by Chawdhry, I for one was very critical of Assaiante and his handling of his player. I thought he was too lenient and forgiving of his player and was doing this young man a disservice by explaining away the player's behavior. I now understand Assaiante better and why he stood by his player, even though the player betrayed him and the team with his ugly behavior, he was in some sense standing by Mathew, his son, whom he gave up on many years ago and let his own child walk out of his life. He didn't give up on his young athlete even while the world was critical and coming down on the young man.
I am a single parent of two amazing children, whom I raised from the time they were very little and whom I am so proud of -- I often refer to them as my heart and soul -- which is which is anyone's guess. I made mistakes, tons of them, some I did out of arrogance when I should have been listening to, my daughter, especially. I made mistakes, alienated her, while my son and I basked in a commaraderie with squash, I ignored her interests in cheerleading, or just being a teenager. I lie awake at night, my body so sore from coaching squash all day, a passion as player, student and coach I've pursued most of my adult life, and think of my daughter and miss her now that she left home angry and hurt to go to school as far from me as she could -- yes, I would do it differently. I've questioned what I did as a single parent in so many different ways, I know I wanted the best for both my children, but I didn't know how to listen to anyone, not until it was too late. I can share in Assaiante's pain on this level.
I'm sure there are so many different ways to measure success, but maybe only one way to measure failure. If you've hurt someone you love you didn't succeed no matter how much you tell yourself and write about it or talk about it, that sense of failure, that sickening feeling, just never goes away.
I applaud this book immensely because it seems, probably like many who will read it, a book about being human...about this life and what we do in it regardless of the level of that success. As I'm ready to post this, I only hope I didn't read too much into Assaiante's personal journey because of my own, but who cares another's wisedom should inspire thought, reflection, and introspection as the wisdom of his book has.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

David and Goliath -- A Lesson in Humility

Humility is healthy, it is good, it has a great purpose in life, especially in squash. Afterall, squash often imitates life, which is one of the many reasons this game is so great, and why on court I often begrudgingly accept some of those humbling squash ("life") lessons in humility.

Last night, my best student, Haadi Khan, whom I've written about before came to play squash. He had been frustrated by me for months in our match play often times venting his frustrations with broken rackets and childish sulking after defeat. He has talked so much trash in recent weeks and I've just gone out and played becoming comfortable in frustrating him with that brand of twisting and turning squash, Jim Masland (LA Lifetime Fitness Club Pro and great friend), termed the pretzel game.

The last two weeks has also seen another David and Goliath battle, the PST taking on the PSA (rivalling professional squash organizations). There's a parallell here of course, which I'll connect wutg my own defeat of last night.

What made last night different for Haadi and me in our match? I'm his coach, I know everything about his game, was always comfortable that I could turn it on when need be and take the games from him. Most of all I could frustrate him and wait for him to mentally break down and start his yelling and anger -- which spelled certain defeat for him. However, last night was different, was a poised young man, a player, a good player who didn't get rattled, who watched the ball, who had decided that he was going to win each eand every point. He attacked our game with discipline and quiet confidence. No bravado or trash, just business.

Sound familiar? If you've been following the David-like PST (Professional Squash Tour) and it's recent battles and lawsuit with the bigger and badder Goliath-like PSA (Professional Squash Association) there are so many similarities. The PST is young and purposeful in wanting to bring squash to a wider US audience. It has some former number 1 players, but most of the top 30 players are all ranked under the richer PSA tour. Joe McManus, commissioner of the PST, is gracious, humble and devoted to his purpose of bringing squash to the people. He and his PST are like David, going up against and challenging the dominance of the PSA. The biblical accounts of Goliath and his boastful arrogance in stating he will destroy David seems to be the same tactic the PSA has employed with it's mandate to it's players banning them from PST events. While David was all about what was good for his people and Goliath about what was good for his own image of invincibility, Mr. McManus is all about what's good for squash, especially here in the US. The PSA seems to be doing what's good for it's image of controlling and ruling the professional squash world and not what's good for squash. Enough said, the parallel is there, squash does really imitate life and it seems the bible as well.

...Haadi easily took the first game from me taking me a bit off guard as he was doing things we'd been working on for weeks, stepping up, cutting the ball off, not worrying about some loose shots, not fretting over the imperfections. At one point I hit a nice rail off his loose shot and was poised to return a week comeback from him when within a split second he rifled a cross court past me and had me scurrying. He cut the ball off and atttacked my shot with his quickness and early ppreperation. It may have been the stone from his slingshot right between my eyes; like Goliath, it brought me to my knees. While I recovered enough to take the third game and was up in the fourth, Haadi took the fourth game and match in a tie breaker when I mounted a ferocious comeback to tie the deciding game only to see him push through and close out the match.

Like David and Haadi, let's hope that the PST lawsuit is just the stone between the eyes of the PSA to bring it to its knees and loosen ts stronghold on professfional squash. It might mean the likes of Nick Mathew and Rany Ashour play on both tours. I for one, learned a lesson, never get too comfortable with the game and your hold on it or on a particular opponent and always do what is fair and right; expect and welcome change and grow with it, don't resist it. The game speaks for itself, as it did when Haadi beat me. It will again speak for itself when all the legal stuff is untangled with the lawsuit against the PSA's ban on PST participlation for its players. Haadi didn't behead me nor did the PST lawsuit close down the PSA, if the PSA learns anything, it should be to respect your opponent, do what is right for the game and not for your organization. Learn David's, Haadi's and McManus's lessons in defeat and look at yourself but get back out there, do battle where it counts -- in an arena of fair competition and rewarding games and make sure that battle promotes goodgreat battle, squash battles that is.

When our match ended, Haadi shook my hand, no bravado, no trash, just an indication that this is just the beginning of our future competition. He no doubt will push me to stretch, to be prepared, and come out to win in these match and most of all don't become comfortable and assume victory. Take nothing for granted and no matter make each other's games better.

Monday, October 11, 2010

America, Meet Squash -- Pro Squash Tour (PST)

I recently attended the NY stop at Sports Club/LA for the newly formed Prof Squash Tour (PST). One of my students, John Gross, provided me with a ticket and a first row seat for the finals between a very game Bradley Ball (Union Club squash pro) and Thierry Lincou, former world number 1 player. The evening also included a wonderful match (for third place) featuring Julian Ilingsworth (US top ranked player and world ranked top 30 and his opponent, former world top 10 player, an Egyptian wizard, Wael Hindi (City View resident pro).
What a show! Kudos to Joe McManus for bringing high level squash back to the squash clubs and providing a venu for rising stars like Ilingsworth and veteran stars like Hindi, Ball and Lincou as well as those other stand out players like Chris Gordon and Graham Basset. For those who remember, Jahangir Khan played pro matches at Park Place Squash and 86th Street! I had a front row seat in a 40 to 50 plus crowd setting and I was immediately struck by how different the game was on regular club courts. This level of play is usually on the glass courts in a large venue like Grand Central Tournament (Tournament of Champions -- TOC), so this was a real treat. The game is different, the ball slower, the players more aggressive and attacking on the ball. This was how the game was designed to be played. With the ball slower, the players more aggressive, the play was so exciting, the slashing and slicing to the ball combined for some great rallies and rally finishers. I looked at the small crowd and wondered why weren't there 5 times more people, fellow squash lovers, watching? I wouldn't have known about it except for my student who bought me a ticket.
The PST has received quite a bit of press about it's "no-let" rule, I wasn't sure what it's accomplished except the referee is a bit more involved in the match, maybe too much involved in the match. Players still argue and complain about the calls and sometimes exaggerate contact to emphasize interferance, the game speaks for itself and always has. There are still the same questionable calls and questionable referee decisions and the flow of the game seems the same to me, may be I chose just to ignore the referee's attempt to be humorous and share a bit of the spotlight with the players.
Ilingsworth might well be the poster player for the PST, he is as an exciting player as there is. I for one wasn't ever that impressed with him. I saw him look very back in last years TOC match with Mueller...but a magic wand seems to have touched him. He is the real deal, a complete player, his attacking style is relentless, his front court game devastating. He looks to cut everything off and attack. Very exciting player. This young league should hang its proverbial hat on this guy because he is only going to get better. Dare say, the first American player to break top tenIt seems he goes a bit to the front too much, but once he starts feeling more comfortable with his style he will be a force to reckon with. He is so close to getting in the top 20 group with the likes of Anjema and the older Ashour.
I would have liked to have seen Graham Basset and Chris Gordon play in their matches and some of the other qualifiers, the marquees players are great, but so too are these eager young squash warriors.
McManus has delivered what his poster says: "America meet Squash" now he just needs to get the word out to America that squash is in town and would like to meet you.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ramadan -- The Khans

The Khan brothers of LA Fitness Squash in Lake Success couldn't be two more different players and personalities. Haadi is the younger brother, tempermental, very talented, technically getting better each month, a fierce competitor, very smart squash wise, but his physical ability hasn't caught up with his squash intelletual ability. He often gets frustrated, yells at himself on court, and has on occassion directed his ire towards his coach. I've written before how he often seems to be battling some demon in his head and easily looses focus on the match at hand. Fayaz, his older brother, a second year student at St. John's University, is an aspiring lawyer and will talk anyone's head off about politics, religion, Entourage, his mind thinks in express mode and his mouth matches his head. He doesn't have the same skills as Haadi on the court, but he is as fierce a warrior as there is. He's been accused of giving up, being lazy, and not really working hard at his squash. But these days he's been so motivated and seems to relish the hard court drills I put him through. He knows at the end of those drills are his rewards to play points.The two brothers are impossible to have on court during the same session, they can drive you crazy with their constant sibling rivalries. It's hard to work through this and focus on a lesson when every five minutes they're cursing and swiping balls at each other. And Fayaz does have a temper and has broken rackets, I'm told out of anger, but he'll only admitt he never knows how they break.But this month is the holy Muslem holiday, Ramadan. A month of fasting from sun up to sun down. What has impressed me with these two young squash warriors is how they are at the squash courts 6 a.m. to train and play when they are fasting from food and water. They seem inspired more than usual and they never seem to lose their cool or tempers during these sessions. During these holy days they are to reflect on patience, God, and the positive energy in life. There are no demons to battle, no tempers to control, no slamming rackets or berating themselves -- this is a time for inner peace, and on the squash court it translates into a warrior like approach to the game. They are all business, they are focused, the ball and racket are the center of their hour, they transcend thirst when running court sprints, they transcend hunger when doing star drills, they transcend dissension when playing rallies. At LA Fitness there are many observers of this holy holiday, and the squash players all seem to work squash into their fasting schedule, but nothing like these Khan brothers, who inspire me and whom I admire for their dedication and discipline...they are afterall Khans, descendents of great warriors, and while not related to the Hashim and Roshan tree of squash champions, in their own way they are their own tree of squash players who bring together their love of squash and honor to their religion and culture -- a most profound purpose anywhere whether it's on court or off court.

Squash is Like Religion...

Hyperbole isn't hyperbole if it's true. The love of one's life is truly the love of one's life if it is true. The love of my life who has appeared in this blog before came into my life through squash. I coached her for awhile before lightening struck me, struck me in such a way that it sent a shock through my whole being. I would spare no words in writing about her, she is as part of my being as the air itself is. The ancient greeks thought inspiration was literally a Muse breathing into you, the very air of life, love and words, she has inspired me. You might ask what does this have to do with squash? This is afterall a blog about squash...
Someone very near and dear to her was diagnosed with cancer, brain cancer. A man to young to be dealt such a sentence. It is a long story to unravel here, but he and I have one thing in common. The love of our lives is one and the same. She is with me and I cherish her devotion and love. He has caused me some angst mostly because their estrangement has caused her much stress and pain. At first when she told me he was very ill, I thought, just another ploy to win her back. I was convinced this was the case, we men know there's nothing we wouldn't do to have the woman of our dreams. But as this story unfolded, I began to feel a sense of sorrow, I began to empathize with this man. I don't know him, never met him, what must he be going through? I could only imagine that he should not see his son become a man or see any of his dreams fulfilled or new ones fashioned. Most of all he will never feel the love of this woman whom we both love, he will die without her and I will go on living with her.
I thought about this and felt bad about my selfish jealously. Petty, insecure, it's not like me. I then turned to one of the few things in my life which I've always found solace in: squash. I thought, squash doesn't care if you are happy, sad, good, bad, rich, poor, dying, in love, heart broken, it cares about nothing but you and your ability at any level to play. It might sound a bit like religion, maybe to me it is. And with these thoughts I wondered what if it had been me dealt this tragedy and not him, what would I do? Like most, I'd turn to my "religion", I'd have to turn to it for comfort and the center of my being. My comfort would have to include how I'd want to leave this game as I know it. Here's my list, like a "kick-the-bucket squash list":
My first and foremost desire would be to see my son, my heart and soul, play and win in the British qualifiers. While this might sound not too ambitious, it would be one of my life's dreasuch a great achievement on any level. My son has overcome so much in his life, who has been in many ways my hero, I would do anything in my time to help him achieve his dream. Next I would love to teach my daughter this game. We are estranged from one another, we rarely speak, I miss her terribly, she never wanted to play squash, she rebelled against me in every way. Her rejection of squash was painful, I took it personally. I would give anything to have another chance with her, to teach her to strike the ball, move about the court, see her smile at her accomplishments, teach her something about this game I have loved so much. Equally important to me would be to play as much with my love this great game and remember and celebrate squash is what brought us together. I would in my limited time teach her to retrieve and strike the ball out of the back corners, teach her to move ever so gracefully to and from the corners of the court, and I would marvel at her grace and beauty knowing like I have -- since that first bolt of lightening struck me-- just how much she means to me. Next, I would like to play once and for all the game of my life, I would want to play this game or at least perceive to play it like Nick Mathew does. I would want to see the yellow dots of the ball while in play, hear the beautiful hiss of the strings as I cut deftly through the ball, I'd like to move as if I'm moving on air, and I would like to strike the ball with such precision and accuracy that any 5.0 player would be scampering to retrieve, did I say 5.0 player, sorry, I meant Greg Gaultier. Finally, I would like to go back to India where I lived for a bit and take some desolate, poor child, many of which I saw, take just one, and teach them this game, find a wall, give them a ball and racket, give them a meal, and shoes, and teach them this great game. Inspire him maybe to dream of being a champion, teach him in squash, he will always matter.
As I complete this list, I realize I don't need to be dying to accomplish any of this and more. I should do what I can in whatever time there is, I have no choice in that matter. I do have choice in striving and working towards becoming a better player and helping to make others better and inspiring those around me to love and cherish this game. May that young man who has nothing to do with squash directly someday rest gently in peace perhaps not knowing that he had something to do with fulfilling mine and other's squash dreams.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Arti Locker and Eric Ma RIP August 2009

It's hard to believe it's a year since Arti and Eric past away. I hope they found peace and a bit of squash in their latest travels.

When The D's Play like B's

It sometimes happens when two intermediate players get on court and play the match of their lives and the squash looks like advanced squash. Matt Levine (my student) and Russ Feinberg (my son's student) play each other so much in the early a.m. at our LA Fitness Club in Lake Success that it's routine chaos or helter skelter squash. To be expected since both players are extremely competitve and play to win. Matt has been working with me for nearly a year and has suffered through back problems and the frustrations of trying to transfer his often stellar drilling in practice to real match play. Russ, is often an enigma, an accomplished ballroom dancer he moves on the court so well, the key word being 'move'. He often however comes on court and looks like and moves like he's on the tail end of one of those 72 hour dance marathons. He'll show up for the early morning lessons and matches running on a few hours of sleep.
Both players approach the game in a similar manner. They analyze the game, they want to understand it and they are very keen on technique and the right way to play. They are a coaches best type of student.
Last week I observed Matt and Russ play what was an ugly match, that helter skelter type of squash, anyone's guess where the ball was going. Matt wasn't watching the ball very well and was under lots of pressure from Russ' typical front court reverses and trickle boasts. My son and I could only watch the match for a few obligatory minutes. We argued who was bringing who's game down.
I'm not quite sure what happened but both players had lessons with me and my son on the same day and time. My son must have said or done something because I observed Russ in practice take the game up a level and was hitting well. I thought to myself there's no way he's that much better at hitting the ball than Matt. Matt was also watching Russ hit with my son. When I asked Matt to get on court and start I talked to him more like an older brother and less like a coach. I wanted both to encourage him and castigate him for his poor play the previous week. I told him he was awful, he can play better and then just said something as simple as he doesn't grasp the concept of the court 'T'. I explained to him it is the eye of the hurricane, it is the center of the squash universe, it is one of the few places on earth where it is center, where you can reach anything from. I also explained that if he doesn't really watch and see the ball he is at a huge disadvantage and will feel so rushed in trying to cover the court because in fact he's looking for the ball before it bounces twice rather than taking time to prepare a timely shot.
Something might have clicked, because we drilled and I noticed that he was moving better , was staying away from the ball and as the drill progressed he was hitting nice tight shots for good length. We made some further adjustments in his footwork and he was starting to hit the cross court out of the front with much more balanced. Was this the same guy who a week earlier looked so bad?
I looked outside the glass backed court and there was Russ watching Matt. He saw how well Matt was striking the ball. I noticed too that while Matt often has this friendly demeanor, his demeanor on court was fierce. He didn't smile, he was all squash business. I knew I had reached him he was practicing better and looked like a squash player.
When Matt and Russ met up for their usual match (my son was in the city playing an early match) and I had my most favorite student Haadi on court while Matt and Russ were warming up on the other court. Haadi and I were drilling and Haadi himself was striking the ball well and moving about the court during the drills. We took a break and I went over to watch the Matt and Russ. Both looked like they were in a match and when Russ served I was immediately struck by how structured their point was. 5-7 backhand rails then a cross court and then a few forehand rails. Matt was moving around the court and not rushing around. Russ was trying to control the 'T' with shots that were deep and tight. He was controlling the 'T' ever so slightly, but Matt was stepping in and cutting the ball off. I noticed Matt's racquet no longer dangled usellessly at his side, but was lifted and ready to strike the ball. His eyes were on the ball, he actually turned his head fully to see the shots being hit from the back corners. He moved purposefully and there was even some elusive squash agility in his movement.
Russ was playing very well, and his backhand, was really good, better than Matt's -- I could see my son's influence on his backhand, perfect preparation, quick feet and slow racquet. One thing I'm sure my son was on Russ about was that his non-racquet hand is held to his heart, a bit awkward, and not too good for balance when setting up to strike the ball or moving to cut the ball of behind the service box.I kept coming back to watch their match.
When they came off the court I told them how great their squash was, I was so impressed with their play and told Matt he should be proud of how he played. There wasn't the usual court chaos, the points were structured and the play at a much higher level.
Matt was so happy with his play, I could tell. It is the best time for a coach to see his student recognize an accomplishment for which that student has worked so hard. I didn't even gloat a bit that my student beat my son's student, certain games and matches sometimes transcend the outcome. They both played, sort of like each other, I was reminded of years ago when I played at Park Place Squash and had a rivalry with Jay Munsie, intense rivalry, who always seemed to bring out the best in my play and I his. We battled like Matt and Russ and played at a level that was well above our skill level, we just brought out the best. Hopefully, Matt and Russ will push themselves to solid B and eventually even A level play...I know my son would appreciate having a hand in that as I would too.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When A Parent Becomes A Spectator

Squash always seems to my continued amazement to imitate life. Anyone who has been a parent, knows that when your children become young adults it's a major adjustment as your role as parent changes. I've been rightly accused by my young adult son and daughter of still treating them like children -- and I can tell you it does really make them mad. I'm often slow to adjust and make changes but once I recognize the need I do make the changes necessary to keep things going. I recently received a wake up call from my daughter that seem to say if I didn't relate to her as an adult, I might as well not talk to her. We recently had an AIM conversation, she can always go offline if I annoy her rather than just hang up the phone, where I asked her how her studies in pre-med were going. She said she was studying for a Micro-Biology exam, I then asked her what that was, and she proceeded to tell me quickly what that was. I'm still trying to understand what it is and how to relate to that. She never played squash but foil fenced and was really very good.
For my son, who plays squash and wants to play professionally, he is at the point where I coach him but mostly he likes the way I train him and feed him. It's on rare occassion that I'm allowed to offer any advice. He is incredibly demanding and edgy on court and has little or no patience if I am on court with him and have been coaching 7 hours and seem tired or sore. I'm not his father on court, I'm on court to help him train.
Recently our good friend and squash guru, Jim Masland (whom I've written about frequently on this Blog) was back in town. My son first joined Jim on court when he was 4 years old in Durham, North Carolina in 1993. Since then they have played numerous times, and even as recently as last December, Jim beat him. The gap has closed significantly since my son was 4 years old, and last time they played the better player lost to a wily fox, an Odyssean journeyman, a Yoda with the lightsaber. Jim has slowed in recent years, has put on some pounds, but his game is still great, he's a joy to watch. He has a magnificent forehand, short, compact, economical and holds the ball forever. His feathery drops to the front are tantalizing and he can punctuate a long rally with a sudden and winning trickle boast. Jim is a fierce competitor and I've often noticed just how fierce he is when he's pressured. He is used to winning, if not in score, then in the quality of the squash.
We invited the club members at LA Fitness in Great Neck to come watch, what was now becoming a grudge match between the two warriors. Trash talking started a week before. My son has been training hard and is in the best shape of his life. His game is the foundation of a professional game, 3 months ago it was but he tin'd the ball and didn't execute well. Thanks go to a brief stint in England playing in Birmingham with Chris Hall and Chris Fuller, under the tuteledge of Steve Townsend.
The crowd was small but some of my favorite members were there to watch. Margaret Higgins who had taken a break from squash was back, the place smelled wonderfully with some "beach" labelled perfume (she always adds class to the squash area there), Shyamala was there as well, beautiful and with that most infectious laugh. John Gross, Pooya, Tom, and a number of other passer-by's had stopped to watch
Jim was in considerably better shape than the last time they played, he was more muscular and balanced. You could see his footwork was sharper, he moved extremely well around the court. My son, was quick, his racquet speed and preperation explosive. A few early points into the game Jim returned shots and before he even looked back to follow his ball, my son had cut the ball off and rifled shots back. There was a nice even tone to the first game, Jim was still trying to find his timing and the way of the court, which is fast off the wall but slow on the floor. My son built an early lead and then Jim tied it and went ahead 9-7. I could see a very cool and calm player with a gameplan, every shot he hit had purpose. Jim was a bit impatient and when he tin'd a loose ball in the front he was a bit frustrated it was the opening he had been looking for. My son then missed a hard tight rail from Jim and Jim had game ball at 10-8. It was then that I realized that I wasn't watching my son, I was watching a player, a really good player in a great match. For years my son played, wasn't fit, was evolving, a work in progress, he'd hit a bad ball and look at me, I'd gesture with calm, focus, watch the ball signals, he's wave me off. He'd argue with the referee and yell at himself -- his squash mind was well beyond his physical abilities. Here, I was referreeing this match and he never even looked in my direction. He was separate, he was a young man on court simply playing a game he loves more than anything in the world. He won that first game 16-14, Jim looked like he had been through a round with a young Mike Tyson.
The second game began with Jim making an adjustment. He'd shorten the rallies and end the point on the fist opportunity he had. He wasn't going to "hang" with my son, so his gameplan was to frustrate my son, hold the ball, go for the nick, redirect the ball. It worked brilliantly, my son started playing Jim's game but was tin'ing. A couple of times I made some signals to settle and watch the ball come off Jim's racquet, but my son wasn't looking at me. By looking at him you wouldn't know whether he was winning or loosing. He just played. And the games were 1-1.
Between games my son came off the court didn't even notice me, I was talking to Shyamal and Margaret but was watching my son out of the corner of my eye: "is his asthma bothering him, does he need a hit from his nebulizer, how are his knees"; the floors at that club aren't sprung and unforgiving. But he took drinks of his vitamin water and stared blankly ahead.
My son played brilliantly in the third game and just dominated a fading Jim. I wanted to tell my son to beware of the aging possum, to finish Jim off and not let him in. In the fourth game, tensions mounted. Neither player gave an inch. My son was calm and composed, Jim was edgy, shaking his head, and when he missed a forehand volley off my son's backhand cross he seemed to drunkenly stumble to the side wall. He was tired. Jim was trying to upset the rhythm of the game he argued a let when no let was called. He opened the door and said "where was the let" I responded by saying "no let was called" a bit puzzled that he was arguing a call that wasn't requested. To Jim's credit he came back, he wasn't ready to concede and fought back, he was he now the underdog, the scrapper, fighting for every point. I've watched Jim play for years and I always marvelled at his balance and fluidity on court. Now it was my son, striking the ball with tremendous pace and precision, taking it right to Jim, he wanted to grind Jim into submission, and if it went to a fifth game, so be it, my son was none the weary for the match. My son had three match balls and when Jim went for a forehand trickle boast and tin'd it my son gently pumped his fist, job done, match over. He shook Jim's hand as an equal -- they walked off the court and sat for a while discussing the match. I watched with some regret but a great deal of respect that what I was once to my son in squash he now to himself. He was and is his own man both on the court and off the court. I briefly talked to him about my observations, but stopped myself, old habits are hard to get rid of, he didn't seem to notice as I cut myself off and said "well done".

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future Mayor of Great Neck

Samir of Pakistan heritage, just turned 10 years old last week. He missed his squash lessons at La Fitness in Lake Success, because this past week was a milestone for him to reach double digits in years. I had him on court this past Sunday, didn't recognize him because he had his hair cut short, big boy style, a crew cut, having cut off his long hair that often covered his eyes when he was hitting. For weeks he had been asking me when he would move off the large, bouncy, blue ball for beginners to the regulation double yellow dot ball. I kept telling him you have to show me you can hit the beginner ball first. He is smart, very smart, and at 10 years old still has more of the toddler in him than the strapping teenager he'll someday become. He plays soccer and seems to love squash, but it's a challenge to get him to focus and to get fitter. He has asthma, so I have to be careful not to push him too hard, I do emphasize "no bread, and certainly NO RICE, and no soda." He tells me he doesn't eat or drink that stuff. He probably won't be tournament ready in the junior under 11 and our goal is to get him playing in maybe the under 13's.

I look so forward to my sessions with Samir, not so much for the squash, that's always a challenge to coach someone that young, but for his keen presence in and around the court. I watch him leave the court frequently for water, on his way to the fountain, if he sees someone around the courts, he'll stop and say to that person "you play squash?, I'm Samir, what is your name". I watch how people react to him, he does this with such ease, I tell him he is a natural politician. People respond to him with genuine friendliness and ease as well. He has this ability, that rare ability, to make people feel so comfortable. I call him the future mayor of Great Neck.

During his most recent session, he showed me something on the court as he consistantly hit the beginner ball for nice tight rails and wide cross courts. After a while, I stopped play, and looked at him, and said he was hitting the ball very well. I said that I thought he was ready, "are you ready for the real ball?" "Yes", he shouted out, and pumped his fist. I went and took a yellow double dot and warmed it up a bit. We started hitting, and he was hitting the ball as if a magic wand had touched him. The balls were tight, deep and with decent pace. "Wow", I said, "it must be your haircut, you've never ever hit like this!" "Thanks, Mr. Will" (he always calls me Mr. Will). We worked through the session and he kept looking for his dad, he wanted so much to tell him he was off the beginner ball. When his dad showed up toward the end of the lesson he excused himself and went out to tell his dad, I could see by his face and rapidly moving face, he was so excited about this latest milestone. Whether it's double digits in age or double dot in the ball you hit, accomplishment is accomplishment.

As we finished up I noticed my next lesson, Shyamala, a beautiful Malaysian/Hindu woman, stretching. I pointed to her and asked Samir if he'd ever seen anyone so pretty as her. She smiled at us, I commented how beautiful her smile is. He asked me if I liked her, or "liked" her or was she just a friend? I told him I really "liked" her and asked him if he thought she would like me? He said "sure, Mr. Will, take her to a movie and out to dinner, she will really like you." Great advice from the future mayor, I'll let him know how it goes when I next see him on court. As he left the court he went up to Shyamala and asked her if she hit with the "real ball", to which he quickly added, "I hit with the real one too."


As a follow-up to this posting I wanted to add that Samir's advice was very good indeed. When I saw him next on the court I complimented him for his advice. I told him that Shyamala is now my girlfriend. I added that it had been a while since I took a woman out to movie and a dinner and remarked how expensive it was. In typical Samir fashioned, he paused and said to me, "money doesn't ever equal love..." That is Samir, wise beyond his years.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Like a Man Possessed

Quite a while back I published a post on Arti Locker, my son's and my favorite fan, who passed away last August. Arti used to watch us play squash at our LA Fitness club in Lake Success, Long Island. He always bet on my son and I used to jokingly tell him, "Arti, stick with me, one day I'll win a game..."

His wife, Lola, the sharpest and prettiest senior around, and whom I check in with periodically to see how she's getting along in life after Arti, invited me over to her house because I showed an interest in learning to play the card game, Bridge. Arti, she told me was very good, and I thought it would be fun to have her teach me.

I had no idea about Bridge, but I know that many people play it and as you progress in life it's important to work your mind and memory the way you conitnue to work your body and heart. So I thought why not give it a try we spent weeks trying to coordinate our schedules -- last night I finally arrived at her home and I could tell she was eager to teach, I was hoping that I could keep up with her instruction and explanation to this very complex game.

When I arrived at her house she had lots of photographs of her wonderful familiy, including pictures of Arti. The ones she had of him playing handball years and years ago in Brooklyn (where American squash great Victor Niederhoffer used to play), taken sometime in the 50's showed a stocky and extremely muscular youn man in his late 20's or early 30's striking the ball...the pose reminded me of the Ancient Greek scuplture, The Discus Thrower. Arti, to his last days, was etremely fit.

Bridge is really hard, I can only equate it to squash. By evenings end my mind was exhausted and Lola only covered the first chapter of her introduction to this card game. But this post insn't really about learning Bridge or the comparisons to squash. It's about how I left Lola's house last night and on the drive home heard Arti's voice in my head and saw his face in my memory of him. I thought, how could it all have passed from that photo taken of him on the handball court in Brooklyn to now, simply memories among the people that knew him. I knew him only within a certain context and in the later years of his life, but for whatever reason, his impression on me has been lasting.

This morning my son and I went to the courts, we were both stiff and sore from a lot of weekend squash. We warmed up, we stretched, we did star drills and then played one game. What a game it was. My body was like air, my feet light and swift, my head was completely clear, no frustrations no over thinking my mistakes, not a care in the world, as if this game was outside of time,as if I was born to play it -- and I saw every ball no matter how fast the pace like we were playing in slow motion. My son dominated the points and the pace as usual, in the early going some long rallies but I kept it close. At 4-4 he hit some bullet crosses that I step up and cut off and cross nicked. It wasn't my intention, I wasn't even thinking, except for the thought who is this guy hitting the ball this morning. At 7-4 I nicked a serve into the backhand corner, I could hear my son mumbling that this is just luck 3-4 nicks. He started mounting his come-back, I felt no pressure even though he was running me around, I was retrieving anything and everything. Then, as I was up 9-8, he hit a cross-nick that rolled out -- but lo and behold, I was so quickly on it that as it came out ever so slightly I turned on it and ripped a low hard shot down the rail that he couldn't get a racket on. At game ball, a few shots into the rally, he hit a loose shot that I held and dumped ever so lightly into the forehand front nick. Game over. My son, who has never complimented me in any of my squash, was a bit stunned but recovered and reminded me it took 4 nicks to get it done.

Coming off the court there was Russ Feinberg, one of my son's students waiting to get on the court with a lesson with him. I looked over at him, I had to tell someone, and just pumped my fist and said I took a game! But the person I really wanted to tell wasn't there, the fan who for so many games watched me lose again and again, and who would just smile and say youth takes over, wasn't there -- maybe Arti wasn't on the bench just watching, maybe this day he was right on the court playing through me, forever the young Brooklyn hand baller; afterall, I did play like a man possessed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nick Matthew The Best Squash Player in the Universe

As much as I marvel at Ramy Ashour's on court brilliance and his amazing early success , Nick Matthew, soon-to-attain the world number 1 PSA spot, is an inspiration to every athlete at any level. This unassuming young man has come back from serious injuries, has devoted his life to squash and reaching a pinnacle so few attain. He's been on the tour for 12 years, where most players stay half that time on the tour. Imagine all the years of qualifiers, imagine all the years climbing ever so slowing through the ranks, imagine the thousands of hours travelling from city to city, the countless hours of training and dedication, the huge expectations placed on himself...but most of all imagine coming back on two occassions from serious injuries to in some ways start part of the journey to the top over again.

I have watched him in both defeat and victory he is one and the same, perhaps the truest test of any great athlete. They seem to just relish the game. He is fierce, intense, but ever so gracious and seems almost in awe of his opponents, especially Ramy. This comes from a genuine respect for his opponents' talents and an almost gracious appreciation for an opponent who can bring out the best in his game.

I wrote 6 months ago he'd be number 1 by March (not too far off), he is my favorite player and has been for some time. But my son reminded me 6 years ago at the TOC when after a Matthew match he went up to him for an autograph (I asked him where was that autograph since I avidly collect everything past and present related to squash -- we'll look a bit harder for it now) and Beth Rasin, tournament magician, was there. Beth asked my then 14 year old son if he thought Nick Mattew would be number 1 someday, my son answered her emphatically "yes"! My son's point was he discovered Matthew long before I did and knew back then he'd be number 1 someday.

So I want to go on record here that Nicolas Muller will be number 1 within 5 years and if it isn't in 5 years, maybe 10 years. And as my son aspires to whatever level he will achieve in squash, should he or Muller ever get discouraged, I advise them to just think of Nick Matthew -- 12 years before reaching the top of the squash world -- the best place in the entire universe.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Components of Squash

I acquired a new student at LA Fitness, RJ Elrose, who lives in the area, but came to us because of reading this blog. He has been coached by Clive Leach and Mark Heather, two high level tour professional players. I've seen Clive play, a former #31 in the world, he has a beautiful game. While I saw him loose to David Palmer in last year's Hyder's Cup, I saw some brilliant play on his part. Ironically, I was studying the difference in where Clive's cross court hit the side wall with where Palmer's did. Amazed at how little in the length seemed to separate the two. But squash is a game of inches, an inch better length is huge. Anyways, RJ joined our club and sought me out for coaching. This is one of those players with a high squash IQ but was frustrated in his lack of success in competition and the ability to get better.

It's interesting having a student come from Leach and look for help in improving his game. I hit with RJ and observed his play and pointed out some things. He agreed with my observations and added he had heard it before, especially about his cross courts.

What transpired in the next few sessions indicates one of the challenges a coach faces. He was comparing me to Clive Leach, Clive told him this, told him that. What I realized is that Clive as a player can say your cross courts are short but how do you tell RJ why they are short? When was the last time Clive hit a "B" level cross court? What are the components that make up a decent cross court. I defer to Clive, he's a great player but great players are rarely students of the game. I began to break down the components of hitting a good cross court. Very basic stuff, racket up, shoulder turned, take the ball slightly in front. Very simple, yet RJ was so late in his preperation, didn't understand the angle of the ball when striking it to the front wall, and was just trying for a good cross court without understaning why he wasn't hitting them well. There resulted frustration, tense shoulders, and a stiff racket. To use Clive as an example, he doesn't need to think about bringing his racket back nor turning his shouldrer and striking through the ball, he does this in his sleep. But for a "B" level player like RJ what Clive does just won't work. RJ hasn't the wrists of Clive, so it's important he bring his racket up and back and turn his shoulder to generate racket speed. Basic stuff, but some of the components to build a good cross court on.

RJ and I also started working through some drills and focussed a lot on his footwork, his footwork is so good, but off, he does basic things that are wrong especially in how he recovers. He bends forward too much when retrieving in the extreme points of the court that he finds himself on every shot struggling to recover. This is most evident when covering shots in the front of the court. Also, he has a very long stride to the ball, but tends to play a bit flat footed. So worked on getting him when applicable playing on the balls of his feet, especially when coming out of the front. The other aspect we worked on adding was dragging his back foot as he went into his shot as an achor and to help his balance.

He has been doing a lot of "star drills" along with me to feel more comfortable and balanced. I'm not so concerned about his racket skills because I think that if he moves better to the ball and prepares a bit earlier and feels balanced even when striking under some pressure, he'll hit good shots, including cross courts.

Coaching is mostly a thankless job, but when a student compliments the lesson and the way in which you teach certain technique and that student has been coached by a high level coach,, it's the best compliment. The components of squash, I like that, each component builds on the next and you improve and try and perfect each component as you become a more advanced player. The components become fewer but bigger at Clive's level -- "your cross courts are short", now just imagine the hundreds of little components at the beginner level -- "racquet up, wrist cocked, grip right, shoulder relaxed, eye on the ball, strike through the ball, follow the ball with your follow through" and how long before you do it without thinking, I guess ask Clive.

3 Wishes from the Genie

Don't confuse arrogance with excellence. I watch enough squash in the US and there is this arrogance about squash that is, frankly embarrassing. We in the US have a chip on our shoulders. Here we are one of the greatest countries in the history of civilization and when it comes to squash we look foolish. The US Squash organization doesn't help matters, they promote glimmers of immediate hope while sacrificing long term goals. What do I know? Not much, but I do know this, that we will never EVER producce a top 10 player in the world doing what we are doing.

Someone once asked me if I had a few wishes in this world before I die, what would they be. It didn't take me long to formulate my answer. First and foremost would be that when I drive into the city on a hot July day I don't see Ozone warmings but see a crisp hot blue, deep blue sky. Secondly, I'd like to see poverty eradicated, I would like to see every person of color celebrating the dream of this country and not wallow in its nightmares and find themselves disenfranchised. And finally, most dear of all to my heart, I'd like to see a US squash player reach top 10 in the world. I would die a most happy man, even if only the last on this list would be achieved.

When I read that Gilly Lane beat top 10 Peter Barker in Montreal recently, I thought, wow, this is the most magnificent achievement in US squash history. And this came a couple of years after Julian Illingsworth beat Ollie Thuummen in what was at that time the greatest victory a US player ever achieved in international squash. And here Gilly Lane didn't beat a top 20 player he beat a top 10 player!

I saw Gilly Lane play in the Rhode Island open a few years back. Nothing special, just solid 200 ranked level squash. Three years later what did he do? He went and trained in Europe and elevated his game to new levels. What's going on here? We have so many professionals and past touring professionals coming to the US and what are they contribuiting to the US game? If they are here why then do we have to send a serious US player to Europe or England to take his game to the next level?

To me, the US Squash Organization is like NASA. I challenge them to put a US player in the top 10 before this decade is out, like Kennedy challenged the establishment to put a man on the moon...We did that 40 years ago, surely we can do this and send a US player to the top 10 position.

It may not, most certainly not, be Gilly Lane or Jullian Illingsworth or Chris Gordon, but I dream that it might be my son, and if not my son, then my grandson. We will get there, and we'll get there, if the desire and dedication is there, and may my weary soul rest in peace when we do.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Josh Through The Looking Glass -- Literally...

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

Anyways, this very same Mike was on the court with Josh Epstein on Saturday. Josh is a former high level racket ball player who is lightening fast, agressive, pint size, and has this intensity that is just amazing to watch as in he will do anything to get a racket on the ball. I've seen him get to shots that leave you wondering is there anything this guy can't get to? It isn't always squash and not always pretty, but the shear determination overshadows that. Sometimes that quality crosses the boundary of safety -- that style can get someone hurt.. I once saw a player dive across the length of the court to get to a ball he was severley fooled on only to slam into his opponent, not such a wise move, because the opponent doesn't always expect such a move, and ended up with a severely sprained knee -- he was lucky, it could have been worse. I don't like the way Josh plays, but I admire his on court attitude.

Last Saturday I was casually telling him he needs to change how he plays, he has great hands and is lightening fast, but it works against him. I told him to start playing up and cutting the ball off, especially against the gym's A level players. He hangs back in returning the serve and when the pace picks up he plays such a low T that the court becomes cavernous, which is countered by this hurling and dervish type play of his.

But back to Mike Squillante, I match him and Josh up for a match in the Round Robin. The points are long, Mike is running Josh all over the place, Mike is so good at that. I'm watching Josh sprint tirelessly around the court and then Mike hits a shot first to the front court which Josh dives to cover, okay, we've seen John White do this many times, and then Mike pokes the ball back towards the glass back wall. Josh sprinting back in an attempt to retrieve it slides into the glass door, "boom" and the entire glass door explodes in this cascading flow of glass. Josh is cut on the arm and legs and is covered in glass, visibly shaken, we call for the paramedics.

I was talking to Josh while waiting for the ambulance, by the way some stitches but he checked out okay, and I was saying to him I guess like a father to a son, "you've got to change how you play, what were you thinking?" He just shook his head and said "I can't help myself." No one likes to see anyone hurt or hurt anyone else in this game, but more experienced players have an obligation to either help a player like Josh play safely or simply refuse to play him until he changes his game. Just as you wouldn't get on the court with a player who has an excessive backswing or follow through or who would rather nail the ball into your bakc than call a let, this kind of play can be applauded for a lot of its good qualities, athleticism, agressiveness, but ultimately it has to be channeled and controlled into structured points. I know Josh felt bad about taking the court out for however long it takes to repair, but I can't imagine how he might feel if he should hurl himself to a ball and catch his opponent at the knee, perhaps ending his opponents squash play for months.

Time to change how Josh plays squash, most of the better players at the Club are there to help, translate his style into a squash game that is first and foremost safe for him and any of his future opponents.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Short Game -- Tom And The "Kid"

Years ago, I was introduced to the "short game" of squash by Josh Easdon then club pro at Lincoln Squash at NYSC near Columbus Circle. I was working as a consultant just after 9/11 at Credit Suisse, had put on 40 lbs and had not played squash in 2 years. I would cut out at lunch and head out from Credit Suisse in the Old Met Life building in the Flat Iron District and do a 3 time a week session with Josh. It was really tough after being away for two years, and in the beginning I would take water breaks every 10 minutes. What was most difficult was my pride. I was always extremely fit and would get on the court with players often better, but my stamina and retrieving kept me competitive. At first, I could barely play a few long points without gasping and struggling for oxygen.
When Josh first suggested we play the "short game", which consists of playing in front of the mid court service line and everything above the front wall service line, it was a bit humiliating. It sort of meant that I couldn't play the full court, and it seemed a game that supported a bit of a handicap for the out of shape, really challenged player. My strokes were great, but my footwork and movement was that of a past-his-prime man, overweight and slow.
It turned out that this "short game" kept me coming back. I could play it, and gradually my stamina and footwork improved. I felt an accomplishment when Josh awarded me with some full court points towards the end of our session. Looking back, I think that if Josh hadn't gone to the "short game" when he did I probably would have given up in trying to come back.
But this "short game" has evolved for me as I'm fit again and coaching and drilling both myself and others really hard. I have a couple of students, like Tom Katagores and Haadi Khan, who really get it. Tom is a former racketball player who moved over to squash two years ago. He is in his mid-fifties and surviced double by-pass surgery, and works very hard at his game. He is a fierce competitor, but has the rare quality of being very gracious and sportsmanlike. He owns the Jackson Hole Diners, which serve up some of the most amazing hamburgers in the City and Queens. Coming from racketball he is a bit challenged in his racket skills, but is so eager to learn the right technique, that it makes him the perfect student. When I introduced him to the "short game", keep in mind Tom is incredibly fit, he embraced it immediately. I used the "short game" to teach Tom how to control the center of the court, to cut the ball off, stay off the wall, and to hit as many straight balls as possible, and resorting to boasting only when it was a last resort. The result was extensive rallies where we moved each other around and I could see he softened his racket and really start moving the ball away from me.
The great thing about the "short game" is that it is a minature version of the regular game. If you don't move your feet, hang back, don't cut the ball off or control the center you will run around like crazy. Not unlike the regulation game of squash.
What was quite remarkable to me about Tom was that he understood what we were trying to do immediately. We came off of one of our recent sessions both drenched in perspiration and I think he really had a feeling for controlling the ball, placing it, and positioning himself in the center of the court.
I smile to myself when Haadi, who is 14 years old, asks me to play the "short game", he likes this game because it gets his feet moving. He too, extends the "short game" rallies to the point where we are breathing heavily (he more than me of course), but he really understands this drill and how important it is to his development as a squash player.
Both Tom and Haadi have great regulation games together, they are fun to watch, the older player really trying to help improve the younger "kid" as Tom calls him.
I love the irony of this game, "short", "long", or just regulation squash, in that what was once a bit of humiliation for me is a source of pride for me and my students.
I should point out that I replaced Tom's racket, the Feather 2125 Cyclone, with another one since he told me, like the "kid", he broke his racket -- you might remember Haadi is a racket breaker. Figure that one out.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vidant's First Tournament -- His Parents' First One Too.

Vidant, one of my students, played in his first junior tournament (BU11) this past weekend at City View. I wasn't able to attend, but I did receive emails and text messages expressing concern over his first round loss (later I learned to the Number 1 seed). Knowing the pain and disappointment of parents when seeing their child loose, is hard, but I think most kids take it in stride. My son was very mediocre in the juniors, but he was always or for the most part I thought one of the better players. He just wasn't fit enough to hang with the usual dashers and bashers who dominate the junior tournaments through most of the ranks. But to really keep it in perspective, what you do in the juniors won't seem all that important unless you stop playing squash. But if you go on to college squash or professional competition, the "juniors" won't matter. Squash players develop differently, but with the emphasis on winning, just learning the game correctly is often overlooked. That correct way will pay dividends down the road because it is the foundation for all future squash endevours. A junior's play, especially at a young age isn't an indication of their character or future successes. Because Vidant faulted on the serve, dosn't mean he'll be a failure for his junior career, nor isn't indicative of what he'll do later on in his real life and squash life. Vidant's mother really means well, his father a bit more laid back on it I think took it in stride. As for Vidant, he's very court smart, and I had him hit with Haadi on the court while I talked to his mother about the tournament. I listened carefully to what she was saying, she picked out all valid points, his shots to the middle of the court, faulting on the serve (it seems he was trying to hit a lob serve for a winner), and generally just being overmatched. While I was listening I was watching Vidant and Haadi have some nice rallies. What I saw was a junior player who was structuring the point extremely well but just not executing his shots. So I turned to his mother and said watch how he plays, look at the structure in his game, rail, rail, deep cross, volley drop tin! But it was impressive because it was squash, not some semblance of squash mixed with 5 other rackets sports. Haadi came off the court and remarked Vidant's shots are a lot better, to which his mom added he's comfortable with Haadie. Yes, tournament play is different, but if you have a structure that is solid you can always impose that structure against an opponent, even one who just happens to hit down on the ball with a two handed backhanded number 1 seed that he is. If Vidant works hard (not to be confused with pushed hard) and continues the way he's doing, somewhere in the 14 thru 17 year old range he'll be a force. I just hope I'm there to coach this really talented junior who is just now beginning to have a dialogue with me -- he is a young lad of so few words, for now.

Monday, March 22, 2010

If It Works, Why Change It? Lob vs Backhand Serve...

I am a student of the game, just plain and simple. I study this game and am always looking for ways to improve my understanding, my technique, level of play so I can pass that on to my students or anyone who listens. I am fortunate because my son is a high level player and I can always pass these things by him and thrash it about. He is also an astute student of the game, but his goal is to pick up things he can use first and foremost in match play.

About a month ago, much to the encouragement of my son I started converting my service to the forehand side to my opponents backhand receiving side from a very effective lob serve to the backhand serve the pros started using years back. My son has been using this server for a number of years. I knew it had an advantage, a significant advantage, in theory but I have a great lob serve so why would I change it? That the backhand serve is a better serve, straight and simple, there's no doubt -- the pros wouldn't use it if it weren't. It eliminates one complete step (this is a game of inches, here we're talking about a foot or more) in moving to the T off the serve and preparing for your opponents return. It's not an eacy serve to hit but with practice and the right technique, it didn't take long to start hitting that serve with a good deal of effectiveness. And most importantly, I find myself early in preparing for my opponents return off the serve.

My most favorite student, Margaret Higgins, started converting to this serve and, while it's only been a couple of weeks, it's coming along nicely. She recently told me she played one of the better players at the club and faulted alot. Her opponent remarked, "if the lob serve works, why change it?" I didn't have much time to go into it with her, but just told her stick with it, it will happen and it's without a doubt a better serve. I should have qualified this by explaining you basically target the ball in the same way you do with the lob serve with a couple of differences, one of which I already described with less a step for early preperation to receive the opponents return of your serve. The other, is you put a slight angle slice on the inside of the ball (that part of the inside of the ball closest to the racquet face), creating a rotation on the ball equivalent to a righthand pitcher's curve ball tailing away on a lefthand batter -- I think that's right. The ball isn't flat nor does it have the underspin of a lob server. The motion on the ball is different.

The great thing about squash is that it is constantly evolving, changing, as a number of outside variables come into play and pro players adapt to changes in fitness levels, speed, racket technology, even changes in the ball composition. Students of the game learn from the pros, learn by observing and understanding what they're doing and why they're doing it.

During our club round robin the other day Margaret served from the backhand side to her opponents rightside forehand and faulted. A few points later, she served with the backhand serve to her opponents backhand and faulted and shot me this dagger of a look, as if to say, "you're making me do this!" and being the fierce competitor she is, she doesn't like to give any points away. When she came off the court I remarked how well she played, and then paused, and reminded her matter-of-factly that she earlier faulted on the forehand side of the court as well. No explanation needed. She got it.

I will be surprised if her opponent who remarked on why 'change her serve' isn't hitting the same backhand serve in 3 months, certain then that Margaret was only too happy to show him how.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For -- Squash Alive and Well at LA Fitness

What a difference a year makes -- I've written before how squash at the Lake Success, NY LA Fitness club has gone from empty courts to a solid squash membership. A year ago the courts were empty, few people played, and whenever I'd call for court time and ask what was available the front desk taking racquetball and squash court reservations would laugh, "any court you want anytime;" followed by "what exactly is squash?" It was around that time that we heard rumors that one of the two squash courts would be converted to a racketball court (sort of like devolution if you ask me). That was really worrisome, because it would be first one court then the other and then no squash for us, except playing in the City. My son and I spent years playing and paying in the City to the tune of thousands of dollars in court time, tolls, gas, driving and parking.

My son and I both coach so we decided to start making some things happen at the club. It's worked out so far beyond what we expected. We have literally an influx of players from racketball who have converted to squash. Some are really good. and will no doubt be even better as they play more and take some lessons. We match up players and I was doing many lessons each week and spending hours on the court, often hitting and just pointing things out about someone's game. And then people watch me and my son play and the fierce battles (in my own mind -- my son is playing in his head conditional games) we have and they like that, especially when I come off the court drenched in perspiration and breathing so hard I think my lungs will burts, "quite a good workout," they'll ask. To which I say, "the best there is."

We have a very active Saturday afternoon round robin that is very competitive, especially now that we've implemented a handicap system. The better players have to really play the points hard, because with a 5 point disadvantage in par scoring anything can happen. The energy is great and we don't charge -- it also gives me an opportunity to see my students play and see what we need to work on for the next lesson time. We've just now put together a league of our own fielding 5 teams of 3 players and 1 alternative. Juniors are assigned to a team and play the junior member of the opposing team. It's worked out very well and you can see players stepping outside their usual circle. The round robin has also spawned match play among players who played well against each other. Pooya and Faraz had a great round robin match last weekend, both solid 3.5 players +, they had long rallies, very structured points, they just fed into each other's games and it was very fun to watch. We also referee the match because my students came back from a tournament asking rules and referee questions, so best to just do some hands on refereeing with them during these matches.

So with all this activity, wouldn't you believe you just can't get a court now, they are booked 6 am until 10 pm every night! People are complaining, is this a good thing? We're beginning to eye the racketball court next to squash court 7, can you imagine now, "can I reserve a squash court for next Wednesday, 7 or 8 pm?", the front desk says, " Court 8, 8 pm is the last court available." I book it just happy to have that court. In the long run those complaining will welcome what's going on ... there will be a bigger pool of better players, better matches and better play. Wishes do somtimes come true.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Haadi Takes the T and Margaret Glides

My two most favorite students, young 14 year old Afghani warlord descendant Haadi and ex-Princeton Captain, Margaret (aka Grace Kelly/Pitbull) reached some incredible milestones this week. For weeks, or what seemed like an eternity, Haadi, struggled in the rotating rails drill. He hung back, missed shots, and spent 99% of his time up against the backwall. I kept telling him over and over again to step up, cut the ball off and take the T. He would hit his shot, stop and watch, and then move towards the T as I struck the ball he'd have to scurry to the back, after awhile, the mind and body kept telling him, just stay back, why bother, your pinned back there. But his coach is telling him no, step up, move up, cut the ball off, hit a better shot and take the T! We'd repeat this over and over again...maybe it was because I told him that if he broke another racquet in anger, threw a tantrum when he was loosing, yell in frustration, I wouldn't coach him for a month. I meant it. I gave him my Hotmelt Pro last night, we drilled a bit, played the short game, did ghosting, he was moving well. We went into rotating rails, and just like that, it clicked, he stepped up, cut the ball off and moved me off the T. I could see by the expression on his face, he knew what I knew, he took another step towards becoming a squash player.
Prior to Haadi's lesson, I had a session with Margaret. We'd recently had some difficult sessions, but tonight, when we were doing these ghosting drills with Haadi, I observed a woman who really just is smooth, who can really glide on the court. We did some drills, mostly getting her to cut the ball off in the back by vollying of the side walls or stepping up and cutting the ball off -- I play cross courts out of the front court, she retrieves, volleys, to herself and boasts back to me. She struggled a bit, but then started to pick it up, lunging towards the ball, cutting it off or taking it early off the side wall. But what so impressed me is that while she lacks strength in the quads and whatever that muscle in the achilles that makes you explode on your first step, she moves beautifully. We talked about what she needs to do to strengthen those quads and calves/achilles like lunges and skipping rope. She has three children, her life is incredbily demanding, so it's hard to train and devote that kind of time, she said. I showed no sympathy, and reminded her I was a single parent with two small kids and a demanding job and trained relentlessly. I hope she took it in the vein I meant it, encouragement. I do believe she can be a national champion, and it is for me to push her and if she wants that to get her prepared for that level of competition.
What was most rewarding to me was the next day receiving an email from her telling me she didn't know how I trained her, got on the court with Haadi, all in a day where I trained my son at 530 am and worked on my tech project --my answer was simple, it's so darn easy when I watch Haadi step up and strike that ball early and see Margaret run her star drills, move around the court so smoothly, and above all, to know and recognize that it is those two who raise the bar, not me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Angles of Both the Squash Court and Real Life -- To Oleg Pakidoff

I've often wondered what makes this great game of squash so incredible and yet so immensely challenging. I won't say I've come to any conclusions, because that too, in squash isn't always the best thing to do. But this has been quite a week...I was on the court hitting with my new EyeRacket 120, I finally found a racket to switch to, never thinking I'd give up 6 years of Dunlop Hotmelt Pro use -- but I did. Anyways, I just loved the feel of this racket and the forehands and backhands I was hitting, great control, nice on the follow through. Of course 15 grams or so lighter did make a difference in racket speed. As I started to move the ball around from rail to cross to rail again, I found myself moving to the ball extremely well, great distance, good preparation and great length (the ghosting drills are paying off). I picked up the pace a bit and then the aforementioned elements began to break down a bit. It sort of just hit me, my shots were better, so my retrieval of my own shots were more pressured and then the angles began to move around which is really the source of the challenge in this game. I stopped and just looked at those simple, elegant, red lines that dip on the side walls to lower on the back corners, it opens up so manyu possibilities, almost endless. It introduces so many different variables where the ball hits and at what pace -- in combination with movement, distance, quickness, racquet preparation...well, you sort of get the hint. I thought about this all week how this came to me and how I might have intuitively known it, but when I started playing with the new racquet, it made sense. But another event much more incredible to me than what I just described happened to me outside the court. My beloved uncle, Oleg Packidoff, from Russia called me late last night through Skype, remarkable, because I lost touch with him and my Grandpa Igor and the family there after the fall of the USSR. I have been searching to reconnect for well over 20 years and here, in an instant, through a phone call it just came to me. His life, their lives, spanning wars, exodus, and this most wonderful uncle who was once orphaned for two years after the war and my Grandpa finding him in a post wore torn Russian orphanage... I met him years ago when he came to visit and we wrote once a week to one another for years until communication just stopped. What does this have to do with squash? Not much, except these angles in life, infinite in possiblity, are no different than those on the squash court. While I have been frustrated in squash and equally in life, for example, losing my Russian relatives as well as enduring a few years of injuries on the court, things change, the angles become different. What was once hard on the court now is easier and what was once unfathomable on the court now seems possible. The same with my Russian relatives, what once seemed so futile finding them amidst all the chaos, now seems so simple, it was Skype, we both just needed to be on Skype. As for my Eyeracket, maybe like Skype that brought me and my uncle together over a vast array of different angles in our lives, it just took me hitting with a different racket to get a different feel, a different angle(s) on the court. As long as I can connect the dots to life and squash it will always be just something to shake my head about and smile widely inside at this good fortune.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dear Mr. Fantasy -- Ramy Ashour

I was watching this great video of Stevie Winwood, okay, this might date me a bit, but for those of you that know about Winwood, he was the wunderkind of rock in the 60's and 70's. He was a mere 17 years old when he recorded with Traffic and barely 20 when he sang those exquisite, and I mean exquisite lyrics, for, and I will say, the greatest rock group ever to record, Blind Faith. It's so rare that we experience this virtuosity at such an early age. Read the poems of Rimbaud, about the same age as Winwood, and similarly the same age as this brillian racquet genius, Ramy Ashour. I have to confess, I'm not a big fan of Egyptian squash. I didn't put Amr Shabana in my top ten, I never ever really saw him play a great match. But I have seen matches recently of what undoubtably is a true virtuousa, a rock star of squash, pure and absolute poetry he writes these lyrics with a racquet rather than a pen. Ramy Ashour, aside from all the hype, does things with the squash ball not unlike Steve Winwood does with vocals with the likes of Traffic and Blind Faith. While I have no doubt that there is no one in the history of the planet that was meant to sing vocals on Dear Mr. Fantasy, I have no doubt that there was no one ever meant to be number 1 in squash. Such genius transcends time, it always does, there will come a time when people will look at the great amasss of videos of Ramy playing and shake their heads astounded at just how great this talent is. When I watch Steve Winwood with Blind Faith in Hyde Park London, singing Sea of Joy, I can feel the same thing. I shake my head and say this man is perhaps the greatest rock vocalist ever. Those who know me might be surprised at this, I'm conservative and love the British and Australian approach to squash. Nick Matthew to me is truly a genius on the court, he is so good, but he's the Clapton of Blind Faith, what made that group so great were the vocals of the Wunderkind, Steve Winwood. Strange correlations, but when you step outside of time and place you can invariably connect the dots you otherwise wouldn't connect. I have to say that Ramy is perhaps the greatest player I've seen since Jahnsher, what he does simply astounds me. The racquets of Ramy, the vocals of Winwood, if we could somehow bring them to a similar medium it would be perfect poetry, perfect squash.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Trinity Squash Chaudry Should Silence All Those...

For the Ron Beck's ( and followers who single squash out as the penultimate example of sportsmanship, just watch the ESPN clip of the behavior of Trinity's number 1 player as the team clinched its 12th national title. I grew up amidst the bravado of Ali, Reggie Jackson and Joe Namath and each of them had a great story associated with their bravado...they were all at one point underdogs who rose to the occasion. Could you imagine Ali pumping his fist in the face of Chuck Wepner when he bloodied and beat him? It was expected that Chaudry would win and dominate his opponent. But what a sad ending, a Goliath indeed, a target, no doubt, for some David down the road. So while Trinity celebrates its 12th National title, it's great they made it to ESPN, but that 20 second clip has done, I hope, enough to dispel the arrogance of those who believe because you play squash you're a better sportsman and competitor than the rest. But need we be reminded, that Chaudry's behavior is no different than low level club players, and unlike any professionals I've seen, imagine Nick Matthew pumping his fist and slamming the court door on a qualifier whom he just beat because that qualifier talked some trash.

By the way, here's the link to the clip...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Joey Barrington vs. Martin Heath

I watched PSA Live for years now I watch Squash TV...the commentary is first rate. I have to say Martin Heath might well be the best color commentator ever. His insights into those matches are phenomenal. The problem with Barrington is he hasn't played at the level he's watching. Martin Heath has. Do you really understand this game at a level beyond what you've played? Tricky question. Martin Heath, former number 4 player in the world, played at a top ten level. Most of squash tv is about the top ten level play. Joey Barrington, while very quick and bright, is a bit dull, sorry to say...he seems just a bit of a dull knife in a drawer with something really sharp. But then again, is it a question of whether or not Martin Heath is a better student of the game than Joey Barrington? I'm not sure of the answer. I know one thing, that I hear Martin Heath's analysis of these great players resounding in my ears, "...a player with phenomenal skills..." as he said in Ramy Ashour's match with Ikslander a couple of years's something, I guess, when the announcer reverberates in your ear years after an event, sort of like Cossell and all his quips: "DOWN goes Frazer...DOWN goes Frazer!" And so, I hear forever, "...a player with phenomenal skills..." Nothing yet has echoed in my head that Joey Barrington has said.

The Rites of Passage -- The Squash Khans of LA Fitness

Asad Khan is one of the better players at our club, LA Fitness, in Lake Success, New York. About 5 months ago he asked me to start coaching his son, Ali, a straight A ninth grade student. Asad played intrmural hardball squash at SUNY Stony Brook in the hey day of hard ball, on courts built by a generous alumni contribution from the great pro-hard baller, Stu Goldstein. Harry Gordon, who plays out of Sports Club/LA was on that intramural team. Anyways, it's always great to talk with Asad about the hard ball glory days, we both remember many of the great players, both professionals and amateurs. Asad adapted very well to the softball game where he can demonstrate that deft, economic volley stroke hard ballers had as he directs the balls to reverse corners, nicks, and solid cross courts. Some of his less experienced opponents are flustered by this kind of shot making because you can see they don't really watch the ball as well as they should and the cross reverses are especially troublesome. I coached Ali for awhile and he began to really show signs of improvement. Technically, he had numerous problems in his preparation, racquet striking and movement skills. We worked extensively in all three areas over time. He started showing improvement, but what impressed me the most was Ali's spirit and desire to improve. He works very hard and made the sessions easy from a standpoint of motivation and coaching. I applauded his effort and strong desire to improve. They took a break from lessons for a while and I received an email from Asad recently saying he wanted to start Ali back with the lessons. Okay, that's good, but what really struck me about the email was Asad's description of his son's developing passion for the game. He always wants to be on the court. The words leapt out from the email, Asad is not one to exaggerate, so it meant so much to me that a father, like myself and my son, can now embark on this very special path and bond through their shared passion for squash. From experience, there's probably nothing like it in the universe, when your child shares your own passion for a game like squash, a game you introduced him to. As Ali returns back into the lesson fold, we are on a mission, to teach him and guide him to a level where he can compete against, and hopefully, eventually beat his father. As my son moves in a different direction with squash, I know the time will come soon enough where we won't be training partners anymore and won't play our early a.m. cathartic's all changing. I've been given a gift beyond my wildest expectation, that my son, has this great passion to play and compete in squash. I hope as the months and years unfold, that Asad will cherish that same gift, and when Ali does eventually beat him (confident as I am as a coach and Ali's desire/goal to beat his father at squash), that it will be a time when with each match father and son play it's squash imitating life as his son, as mine has, moved through the rites of passage to young adulthood.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

To Be Fit For Squash or Squash To be Fit

There's a saying in squash fit for squash or squash for fitness...I was reading Brett's MSRA blog about squash fitness and thought I'd write about the enormous difference in the two concepts. It is very difficult for someone not very fit to attain a level of play that will increase fitness. Most players play to their comfort zone. If you are 50 lbs overweight you can play squash 10 times a week and you probably won't get anymore fit or trim until you make other modications: diet and other fitness training. I was 50 lbs overweight and played lots of squash but it was always to the ability of someone 50 lbs overweight. I also did court sprints but again these were sprints of someone 50 lbs overweight. While I applauded my efforts, the results weren't that great. I tired easily, shy'ed away from longer rallies and played more in the back, since it's easier for someone not squash fit to cover the back of the court instead of the front. While I wasn't always overweight and used to play very fit and trim and strong, I didn't understand what was wrong.
It wasn't until my son, who endured the same problem throughout his junior development, became dedicated to fitness and diet off the court that he shed the pounds. And when he did his game leapt into high gear and changed how he played. While he was always smarter and better technically than anyone he played, he molded his game according to his fitness level. I followed suit, my biggest culprit was red wine, wow, did I love red wine, but I gave that up. I also went to a low carborhydrate diet: lean and green as we say. As I started loosing weight, I started doing strengthening exercises (push ups and dips and sit ups on the Swiss Ball), lots of start drills and some running. The running is difficult, because I'm on court training my son and coaching others and playing matches all in all 30-40 hours a week and it takes a toll on my knees, I prefer the old fashion stepper on high intensity or biking. For the first time in a long time I am starting to play the front court and sustaining rallies and getting that attacking style back. It is because I am more confident that I am fit to play this game with 20 shot or more rallies. It's hard to play back to back days of tough matches, that is my next goal. I should also add that I do a lot of stretching, as much as 45 minutes a day...this hopefully will ward off injuries. I will not step on the court and play a match unless I've thoroughly stretched and warmed up, this no doubt the result of a couple of tears in the knee and abductor in the past.
To become fit, and I don't mean at a touring professional level, and to derive the benefits of playing squash, get fit for squash. The difference in playing fit versus trying to get fit through squash is immense, the game is too hard as it is to play as if you're carrying around a knapsack filled with rocks...
Having said all that, there's nothing wrong with going out and playing and sustaining whatever fitness level you have -- it's better than not getting on that court. But when you wonder why you play and play and don't seem to get much fitter, think about are you in a comfort zone, do you play squash and burn 1,000 calories but then go off and have 3 beers and 3 slices of pizza afterwards? Get off the beer and pizza until you become fit and when you are fit and training and playing, hey 3 beers and 3 slices are nothing...check out what the pros in last month's TOC were eating in the food court of Grand for squash.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Broken Racquets

The broken racquets are beginning to pile up for my student, Haadi. He broke another Feather racquet this weekend out of frustration. Pretty durable racquet because he slammed it hard throughout the round robin before he really slammed it. He's 14, good, more a practice player right now, when he gets on the court with players who are older and not as good, he looses and becomes so frustrated. For some, the early lessons are how to win, for others, the early lessons are how to loose. Either extremes can mean so much and so many different things for a developing squash player, the junior who seems to win early on eventually will have to learn to loose,however, the early looser once tasting vicotry will have to keep winning in some kind of perspective. To me, the true test of one's character and heart is always how they respond after a loss as well as a victory. I remember years ago when I won my first tournament, it didn't mean much to me because I didn't like how I played in the finals, I dropped a game that I shouldn't have...I was out early Monday morning practicing the things I didn't do well in the final, but that's more about my odyssey through the squash realms. For Haadi, he wants a measure of success for his hard work, but squash is funny like that, sometimes you try so hard and it just doesn't come to you. You sort of have to let squash come to you, you can't force it, it is greater than you, it's a fickle god in some ways. Paul Zummo is another of my students, an investment banker, very tightly wound, very demanding of himself and supremely fit. At the 3.5 level he will get to everything or at least have a racquet on everything. He reminds me of myself at that level, supremely fit, and if I didn't have some kind of catharsis out on the court every time I played, it wasn't a good match. I was so fit, that in tournaments, if I faced a player that wasn't going to push me I was deeply disappointed, to the point of even letting myself get down in the game to feel the pressure of coming back and working really hard to out play my opponent. Sometimes this backfired and I found myself in really trouble and maybe spent by the fifth game. Paul wants to work, his body is conditioned that way, but not his head. He is easily frustrated and distracted if he cannot will the ball to do exactly what he wants it to do. Little does he realize, that it is only until you reach that pinnacle of squash Olympia, that you really master the ball, the four walls, the very air within. Watch Cameron Pilley in his recent Swedish Open quarterfinal match with Greg Gaultier set up and with supreme confidence hit a feather lite cross court backhand volley nick, he doesn't even move towards the T as he hits it so assured is he that he's hit a winner, and at a very tense moment in the match. Back to Haadi, at 14, life requires rewards and little successes to counter the insecurity associated with the rites of passage for a young teen. But the failures are equally as important as the successes, the fact that you can loose to a lesser player, break your racquet, and sulk in the corner, but then the next day be back on court says more to me than beating some older club players. As a coach I look for other things...will it matter 6 months from now that he lost to a wily 55 year old club player, no. Once he beats that wily player he will move on and the wily old player will still be doing what he's been doing for the last 10 years. But I look for things we do in practice taking form in these matches, I look for that better length on the cross courts -- because that's what we did in practice. Someone seemed to castigate me for allowing Haadi's behavior on the court, I shot back, I'm not his father, I'm his coach. As his father, I wouldn't allow him back on court for a month, as his coach, I have to work within the boundaries of that and bring him to a point where he measures his success by his play and poise. I admired Cameron Pilley's match with Gaultier, a contrast in two temperments. Gaultier, edgy, tempermental, angry, like Haadi slamming his racquet and then Pilley, poised, calm, playing in the biggest match of his career, he seemed a true champion, while Gaultier looked more like my student Haadi. When Haadi, finds his measure of success in how he meets the challenge of squash pressure, whether winning or loosing, he will find that Pilley kind of poise. Until then, he'll break racquets, flail at the squash court demons, but in all liklihood will succeed, as his coach, I tell him it's a hard game, it takes time to become good...Paul Zummo came back after a few days off this week in our club round robin and played his best squash ever, I could see the winning mattered, but what he was really happy about was his level of his own way he was saying thanks for the help and support -- the best for a coach is seeing a player improve and be really happy about that improvement. I have to wait a bit for Haadi, no doubt he will have lots of squash success, the kind of success that comes in ways hard to measure, not always in the score, but in knowing you played simply a heck of a good game.