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.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hitting with our old (as in past) coach Edy Kapur

My son and I went to Sports Club LA in NYC on the east side on Friday night to catch up with our old coach Edy (from 86th Street and Sports Club LA days)...It was really great to see him back on the court after a recent illness. I drilled with him for awhile, drilling him on a combination of on the ball and ghosting, gruelling drills, but I wanted to see what he thought of the drill sets. He worked up quite a sweat and was hitting the ball extremely well. It was great for me because, while these drills are good for all levels, the higher the level the more demanding on the feeder to hit good shots and not hit loose balls and certainly not tin the ball. I think he liked the drills and I didn't tin more than a couple in a 25 minute stint. Next he showed me a great drill of his own that I used on my students all weekend long where the feeder from either back on the forehand or backhand boasts the ball, the striker must boast the ball from the front of the court to the opposite side and strike a rail back to the feeder. This should be continuous and, according to Edy, it helps players build up strength in their quadreceps for lunging and getting lower to the ball. My students loved it and one of my more talented students, William Chu, immediately saw how he didn't have the proper distance to the ball to really strike a good rail. He started to get it and towards the end was hitting some nice rails.
My son then showed up and drilled a bit more with Edy before they played a match. My son hasn't beaten Edy and both players were a bit rusty from lack of match play. But it kicked into high gear midway through the first game when there were some really nice rallies. Edy has such a great back court game, especially on the forehand, where he takes the ball so early and puts a nice pace onto some very tight shots. I especially love his half vollies and sometimes vollies from near around his foot. I noticed that Edy has developed some front court game as well, hitting some backhand drops from the backcourt that hadd my son scurrying to cover them, which he didn't (need to fix that). In the third game as they were tied 1-1, my son went up 8-3 after a long rally. Edy seemed on the verge of just stepping over the edge into defeat, but man, this guy is ferocious, a perfect gentleman off the court, but a fierce competitor on the court. You could sense my son was about to pull away and then you could see my son let up and Edy caught his second wind and clawed back to even the score at 8-8. Just a gutsy game. Edy then went to the slower pace and started throwing in some reverses and volley drops and kept the ball coming from different angles on the court. Imagine your a hitter and you've been facing a fastball for 7 innings and then in the 8th inning you face a big curve or changeup, it throws you off. My son started tinning, his rhythm was now off. Edy came back and took the third game. The fourth game was almost a forgone conclusion, my son tinned about 9 of the points...good match for a bit, but my son just lost focus when he should have picked up the pace and gone in for the kill. This week will be better, I think, because both have something to prove, one that it wasn't a fluke he won the other player that it was a fluke. Some disagreement over some calls, particularly one where my son played a forehand drop from the service box, there was contact, and Edy called for a let. I was refereeing and said no let, the play was in front not to the side, so there was no block. Edy had played my son and not the ball -- interesting that some club members were watching and all agreed it was a let...but none of them could explain why it was a let, just simply the contact seemed to be enough for them.
It was great to hit on those courts, really nice floors, my knees and legs felt great. The LA Fitness courts have no padding under the floors so they are very hard floors where your knees and back take some punishment.
BTW my son's game, while riddled with tins, was really nice, he was cutting the ball off, moving it around and when he is sharp he will be tough to beat. He has worked hard on this complete game, front, mid and back court. His volleying off the backhand while a bit eradict during the match isn't in practice, he's added this to his game. Plus, a little head fake let Edy searching in the whitewall abyss for that ball.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Coach's Pet

I try to write as much as I can about the students I coach in squash. Since I've taken on a technology project in the city, I've had to cut back a bit on my coaching hours. Regrettfully, because at our club we have a dedicated, albeit small, following of squashers and I never like to turn anyone down for a lesson or just a hit. My days are a bit brutal now and start at 5:30 a.m. with my son and training partner...we go hard for 2-3 hours, I then rush off to the City for my technology project and return home around 6:30 pm for a quick bite to eat, a change of clothes, and then off to the squash club to coach. I keep it to only 2-3 lessons.
Okay, so we all have demanding schedules and this isn't what this post is about. It is about when a student shows up for a lesson ready to work and to improve and push hard through the lesson. There's nothing worse than getting on the court with a student who is really not all that into the lesson, it's a downer, because every coach should take pride in their work and accomplishments and it takes two to make a student succeed. But that's part of the challenge, to motivate, to push your student into wanting to succeed.
My most favorite student these days is Margaret, the 30 something year old and former captain of the Princeton squash team. I've written about her before and thought I would just write a bit of an update. She is the one whom I've called a combination of Grace Kelly and a Pit Bull. I look so forward to her lesson because she is so motivated to succeed, she has quite a nice game as it is and she could probably just settle for playing points and improving a bit here and there, but she doesn't, she strives in our lessons to take it to another level. She is very intuitve on the court which means when you show her something and work on something she gets in in a short period of time, so for me as her coach, I often see instant results. I have other talented students who are very capable of taking their games to a much higher level, but they haven't reached her mind set, I watch her when we work on something, sometimes she gets frustrated, sometimes takes a bit of time off in concentration and focus, but when you tell her hey work harder, focus, get to that ball, better length...she snaps to it...the best part of it is she projects this attitude that tells me she's on court with a purpose -- to get better. She came on the court last night and seemed a bit annoyed because her sets of star drills on the other court (while I was finishing up with Matt and his evolving backhand...) was interupted by players who wanted the court. I could only smile because she had done sets of these the other night and was a bit sore when doing's pet, no doubt. But should she read this, she'll know that she's only as good as her last session that is my constant reminder to her and my other students.

Don't Sell Squash's Soul to the Devil(s)

Why are there so many out there who feel that squash, this great game of ours, needs any validation from selection committees, squash organizations, television/mass media or corporations? Does squash really need to be in the Olympics? What would it matter? Is it a better way to market the sport? And to what end? Is the appeal for more players or spectators or money, ah, that all pervasive motivator --money! Is the idea to profit more from this sport? This sport is difficult and if money isn't the motivator now, what is it, dedication, devotion, pursuit of excellence -- not bad qualities, actually qualities you can't put a price on. I suspect money is at the root of those wanting this Olympic or any other validation. This is not a sport that has been contaminated by television dollars or mass marketing. I am reminded of Kahn's book "The Boys of Summer" about the old Brooklyn Dodgers, a time before television dollars changed that once great sport into a morass of corruption and greed. You could run into the players at a local deli and talk to them or on a subway on their way to a game. These players were part of the community of "Baseball" not segregated by huge amounts of money they nowadays make. I think if those who want profits and dollars from squash succeed I for one will someday be writing here about how incredible it was that you could once go up to and talk to the Ashour's, Jahangir Khan, James Wilstrop and Nick Matthew...ask them about squash, how to hit the "Mizuki", or seek out Peter Nicol and have a chat about his academy. "Money is the root of all evil", and I for one hope that I never see this great sport of ours march to the almighty dollar. These players who grow up playing this sport at the highest levels, don't do this out of desire for money or fame and material success, they are the truest athletes harkening back to a time, like Kahn describes, when players seemed to simply play the game for the love of it, as cliched and naive as that might sound. To all those who want to cash in on this sport of squash, be careful what you wish for, you just might be selling the soul and essence of this game to a committee of devils.