Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hisham Ashour and The Cantos of Squash

In the professional squash world, there are so many players who exhibit such skill and brilliance, that it's almost taken for granted. I've often tried to articulate what is it about this game that has fostered such a passion in me, I haven't ever found someone who could. My son and I often just look at each other and just shake our heads, just this morning, he asked me, "what is it about this game that I love so much and can't live without it?" This was at 5:30 a.m. (almost each and every morning and nights too). I never have an answer for that question . Maybe, there is no answer for why we develop and sustain such passions...or maybe only few of us can answer that.

Everything seems to tie together in some strange way. I was reading Ezra Pound's Canto XXXVI on the subway ride into work this morning and I thought it's about these kinds of questions. I then met up later in the day with Hisham Ashour (world ranked #24), the older brother of Ramy Ashour (world ranked #1), for an interview and article on his squash game. I had met him a couple of times in the past and certainly watched him play at the TOC in the past. I always thought this guy is more talented than his brother, he is easily a top 10 player. He wasn't particularly fit, at that top 10 level when we saw him in the past, but his racquets and his shots were just extraordinary.

We sat down in the coffee shop of the Grand Hyatt and I had a number of questions to ask him, like a good journalist would. Shawn, the editor of SquashZag, was with us and we started talking about Hisham and his game. He is fit, fit like he's never been. He always had a bit of a gut, but that is a thing of the past. No other sport, I think, highlights a player's fitness, or lack of it, than squash. These squash players sometimes compete at a gruelling level and pace for over an hour, sort of like triple overtime in basketball, 21 innings in baseball, double triathalons.

Why, of all the players in this tournament, did I feel compelled to interview and talk to this player? The answer came within 5 minutes of speaking with Hisham. I understood why. This is not only a special player with such squash gifts that my son and I marvelled at way back, but this is a remarkable human being with equally great gifts in the way he interacts with people and his knowledge of this game. I watched him a couple of days ago at the tournament while he was watching his brother play his match, people just gravitate towards him, and he has that gift for making anyone he meets feel comfortable and want to think and talk about squash. While he admits, this can be a distraction from his game, it is who he is, he loves people.

He's a celebrity in Egypt, has done commercials, but his charisma is born out of what appears to be just loving what he does, and when he talked about squash on TV, it wasn't that old song and dance about generating money or exposure for the sport and its players but exposing more people to the game and getting them to play this game. There are some stars who just care about themselves, he remarked.

He admittedly is his brother's life coach, "Ramy was born to play squash, that's what he knows, and better than anyone, he can't teach or explain what he does he just does it." Hisham, however, can explain not only what his brother does, but even his own crazy shot he hits, I think he called it the Mizuki, which I caught my son practicing or trying to hit a while back in imitation of Hisham. He explained this complicated trick shot and made it seem so simple, he hit six of them against White in a match last year. That is a great gift of his to make a shot like that seem so simple, to make this sport seem so simple, that anyone, if they just could see it like he does, would want to play it. And he will teach and talk about squash to anyone, he sometimes watches the professional matches from different angles outside the glass court and pretends he doesn't know the game, and expresses excitement at a rally or a nick or some imposssible angle, you can almost believe him that he is seeing the game for the first time. He has that power, that presence and when he speaks about squash, the game of squash, it is brilliant and insightful.

He talked about his evolving game, how he was brought up being taught kill the ball into the nick, don't hit rails and sustain the rallies, "go for the kill shot". He emphasized he is going to a new racquet, it's going to change his game, he needs to play the ball differently. When asked about Ramy and his game, he said no one will ever do what Ramy does, he and only Ramy will ever do that, that is the essence of Ramy's greatness, he's changed the game and changed it in a way that only Ramy can do. Greatness as in Jansher Kahn? "No", he said, Jahnsher had gifts that were far beyond anyone, "he seemed to walk through this game".

Hisham seems so confident now that he is fit, his fitness can sustain where he wants to take his game, he wants to play those 70 minute matches, because he can...since last spring he rattled off players he nearly beat in long matches but lost to, top ten players, whom he once couldn't really hang with in the longer points. While loosing to Kareem Darwish, his countryman, in 3 games the other day at the TOC, he felt when he came off the court for the first time that he can beat Darwish and should have beaten him.

Five years ago, he would play his brother Ramy, he would play all his super shots, and Ramy would take those shots and upgrade them to "perfection". He is not stating this because Ramy is his brother, he is simply stating it as an indication of just how gifted Ramy is. He shared something insightful about his brother, and said while sometimes Ramy waves his racquet around and tins the ball, within a short time those tins are upgraded to "perfection".

None, other than my son and Jim Masland, could I spend hours talking about squash with, except I now would include Hisham. I had to return to my "real" job, so I didn't have the hours and Hisham was on his way to a photo shoot with Rob White for SquashZag. And how does this tie into that Canto XXXVI? As complex as that poet and poem is, it's simply about how an artist has the ability to take something so abstract, like a feeling of passion, or strength, or even light itself, and put it into a worldy perspective. Hisham, like Pound, is an artist, he can take the abstract essence of squash and his love of it and explain it in a myriad of different ways, in as many angles as there are on that court and in this game, and it makes sense. While I read so many squash books by former players, I hope someday he writes his own book about squash and the game, and if I might suggest, he calls it "The Cantos of Squash".

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