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.