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.