Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Life Of Reilly (RIP 2005 -2016)

I never could get Reilly on the squash court. She was a sweet girl, portly, short legged and always greeted me and my son early in the morning when we were headed off to the squash courts at LA Fitness for our training. She would take early morning walks with her mom, Robin, and over the years my son and I grew to love her like she was our own. We would jokingly tell her, "come with us, Reilly, we have extra rackets, you don't need shoes, and we could probably fit you for protective eye wear." We even went so far as to point out that squash would get her seriously fit. Walking with her mom must have been very special, because Reilly was content to walk around our complex and, in all the years, never took us up on our offer. Even some nice crispy breakfast biscuits wouldn't entice her to join us. When we came back from our training, there was Reilly and Robin, still walking about and exploring the early morning. They had been out the entire time we were at the courts. I would remark to my son, "can you imagine how good we could make her? Look at her low gravity, and her grace, and dedication, for a kid that big to move around like that is something." He would just remind me that not everyone and everything in the world wants to play squash. I would look at him, not really understanding what he could possibly mean. He would just shrug his shoulders and I would go on about maybe Reilly and how she could be a champion some day. In retrospect, I might have succeeded if I had convinced Robin, her mom, to join us on the court. Surely, Reilly would have wanted to join in. The two were inseparable. Sometimes, if Robin had to travel, Robin's sister, Lisa, would take care of Reilly. I could tell if Robin wasn't around, because Reilly didn't have the same spring in her steps, she seemed sad. I would always try and cheer her up, "Reilly girl, you look sad, Mommy will be home soon, don't you worry, she always comes home." I would jokingly remark to Lisa, "What are you, Gals, feeding this girl?" I made sure Reilly never really heard me because I'd never want to hurt her feelings. But, in retrospect, Reilly was confident and you could tell she was brought up to love herself and didn't adhere to any of the usual body images of svelte young things plastered on the Purina and Pedigree bags of food in the store. She never fell for that. I miss you, girl, you could have been a champion, don't tell Robin that, you were always her champion. I don't go in the early mornings with my son anymore to train for squash, he's in law school now, and Reilly has passed, but I go to a different club, and I still leave in the early morning to go and do a bit of coaching and playing. With Reilly gone, I don't see Robin much. Reilly is the one that got away, I guess. She had all the makings of something really great, it didn't take squash to do that, but it would have been nice to have given squash that opportunity. She didn't pass because of her weight, she ate well, she was a bon vivant, but it was some strange disease, called leptospirosis, Lisa told me, that is deadly to dogs. Robin always scolded Reilly for eating the grass at times (call it mother's intuition), who knew such a disease was in the grass, raccoon or rodent urine and droppings. It took me awhile to get over the shock that the old girl is gone, but I found solace in getting on court and hitting countless rails, always thinking what might have been and what once was. Someday, I might just get her on that big court somewhere and I bet she'll be running diagonals, as if she was born to it. She really did have the life of Reilly, even without ever having set foot on the squash court.

Monday, June 6, 2016

He Would Have Been the Greatest Squash Player Of All Time

As much as I admired and loved Mohamed Ali, I wonder would he have achieved a similar greatness if he had other opportunities open to him other than just boxing? Our country has a way of deifying those we once exploited, killed, slaughtered or crucified. The Buffalo, whom we systematically slaughtered (30 million in a matter of years) we put on our nickel as an endearing American icon. The American Indian, whom we committed enormous acts of genocide against (Hitler's Holocaust pales by comparison), finds it way as an American icon at so many different levels. And then there is Ali, whom we paid to watch him fight others, white audiences, watching him beat another black man to near death, and himself, later on, taking terrible beatings. We remember him in his passing heroically. The very same man we imprisoned and stripped away his titles and the basic right to earn a living --we've now come full circle, from vilified to deified. What would Ali have done on that fateful day, when, as a young boy, he had his bicycle stolen and instead of being near a boxing gym, he was nearby a public squash court, and someone, maybe a club player, a coach, a mentor, had given him a squash racket and told him squash will make your day, will make you forget your stolen bicycle and will make you great in some way? What would he have done with that instead of entering a boxing gym? Would he have achieved the same level of greatness and notoriety? My guess, yes. He would have been the "greatest" at whatever he did. He would have gone to the public squash court in Louisville, Kentucky, picked up a racket and never let it go for the rest of his life. I imagine him coming up through the professional ranks on the courts against the likes of Jonah Barrington and Geoff Hunt, running them around as if he were playing a game of fetch. He would be like nothing they'd ever seen, footwork like we'd never seen, and his racket skills to match. Most of all, how many more inner city kids would he have inspired to play squash? Can you imagine Sugar Ray Leonard playing squash and not boxing, not detaching his retina, or Jerry Quarry, who ended up in diapers and thoroughly punch drunk, appearing alongside all the old grand masters of squash reminiscing about a bygone era. And of course, big George Foreman, how could you forget him in the World Open or British Open, against Jansher Khan. George Foreman in his early 40's, not upsetting boxing champion Michael Moore, but upsetting Khan in the finals to become the oldest World Champion in the history of the game. For me, Ali was always a calm voice in the storm of so much madness. He would move around the court like a butterfly and sting his opponents with perfect length, or a subtle head fake, or a perfectly placed drop shot. He would be known for leaving his opponents just shaking their heads. Ali and Squash, now that would have been something great. I am almost certain Squash would be an Olympic sport, I am almost certain there would be 100's of public courts just like the ones New York Public Squash is trying to build. I can almost hear him predict it, I can almost hear him say, when it comes to Squash, the court doesn't care whether your Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Black, White or anything, just how you play the game. I am almost certain he would still be around, and the El Shorbagys, the Ashours, the Willstrops and Matthews, would all come and meet with the great man, the "greatest" Squash player ever; and you would see his familiar and great face on the pages of the Daily Squash Report every day. You would see him visiting the Zimbabwe Squash Academy, somewhere, in the far reaches of the planet, opening, yet another, Squash academy. You would see him dedicating public courts around the world. And he would be heard to say, Squash doesn't define him, it's just a platform from which he would deliver his message. But he would be heard loud and clear, he would hold his still, formidable racket, with a steady hand, and, of course, would keep his eye always on the ball. He'd be known for being funny, witty, wise and he'd occasionally host the PSA Live play-by-play with Joey Barrington and Paul Johnson. He would be Ali, the "greatest" player in a game loved and played by millions around the world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

New York Could Become The Thermopylae of Squash

Having recently watched the great El Gouna finals match between Greg Gaultier and Mohamed El Shorbagy, I can only say it's not unlike the great Spartan warrior Leonides fending of the Persian invasian of Greece at the Battle of Thermopylae. Gaultier played the best squash I've ever seen him play, and in the end, he was carried off the court on his shield in the manner of all Great Spartan warriors, like Leonides himself. A great, great, honor, but not as great an honor if Gaultier had won that match. With Nick Matthew injured, Gaultier stands alone with a small group (Rosner and Rodriguez) battling a ferocious onslaught and overpowering presence of Egyptian squash players . They keep coming at you, and not just the name, marquee players. Moreover, this onslaught is currently without arugably the greatest player of his generation, Ramy Ashour. With Ramy out indefinitely due to injuries, lo and behold, you now have to contend with the brilliant new comer, Ali Farag, who might have been in the top 3 if he had gone directly to the pros and bypassed college. Also, to this onslaught, add the surging Marwan ElShorbagy, and you see every draw is packed with a talented, top ten, Egyptian player. The Egyptians have ushered in a new game, no doubt, a new era; the pace of their game is ferocious, ending up with number 1 in the world, Mohamed ElShorbagy hitting shots, as Hisham Ashour described them, as if they might go through the walls of the court. He dictates a pace in the game that's never been seen before, and not far behind is Farag and Marwan, and of course, Mosaad and Gawad (did I forget anyone? probably another 5 or 6 very talented Egyptian players). If you watch that match Mohamed ElShorbagy had with Rosner in El Gouna, Rosner sometimes didn't have anytime to prepare for any decent return. While Mohamed is dominating right now, there are many, as I've described, waiting in the wings. What makes pro-squash right now so exciting, is the drama created by Gaultier, and Matthew before, standing up against this massive Egyptian squash invasion. All roads to the top ten seem to go through Thermopylae, or Egyptian squash. Pakistan in its glory years had to contend with a very talented group of Players from Australia;Leonides was not alone, back then, like he is today. With Matthew and Gaultier nearing the end of their brilliant careers, no one outside of Egypt is on the horizon to really challenge Egypt's utter and absolute dominance. Where are Diego Elias, Richie Fallows, or Nicolas Mueller (whom I thought would be in the top ten by now)? Who is on the horizon? And of course, where's US squash, who has no one even on the same planet?. Canada? Autstralia? France? Iraq? So what's the plan for the rest of the squash world? At that Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians used Greeks to find a way around the Spartans and thus enabled a successful (albeit temporary) defeat of them. The pro-squash world is at a similar critical point today. Maybe, the rest of the squash world should use the Egyptian coaches for training to learn to beat them at their own game? Maintain that drama, it's great for squash. Diego? Richie? and anyone else aspiring to make the PSA Top Ten, come to New York, you have one of the most brilliant coaches (Egyptian or otherwise), right here in New York. Leonides gave the Greeks time, the rest of the squash world needs some time too. My left arm is on the cutting board for this, I believe Diego Elias (I am not as certain about anyone else), coming to New York, will be challenging for number 1 in the world in two years. He's here, that wizard of squash, one of the best squash minds in the world, right here, let him take you to the honor and glory that is, and was, Gaultier and Matthew. As for Pakistan, as great as your past glory was, and as great as the two Khans were, you too, come to New York, it's here for you as well. Farhan Zaman, come train with the wizard, help New York become the epicenter of professional squash development. (BTW the Persians were eventually defeated at Salamis after they won their Battle at Thermopylae.)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Magnificent 7 and New York Public Squash

On a recent snowy and grey holiday afternoon at the club I play squash, I was playing my all-time favorite club player, Imran Khan. Not since the days of Jay Munsie and Mark Pasquale at Park Place Squash ("The Dungeon"), have I enjoyed playing and training so much. On that day, I was very excited because Imran's father was in town visiting from Pakistan. Mohammad Mobin Ahmed coached all over the world in the 1970's and 1980's. He was the junior Malaysian national coach at one point and coached in Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan and England. Curiously, he held a package wrapped in plastic which contained his scrapbook with news clippings and photographs with himself and a litany of Who's Who's in Pakistani squash. I looked at these clippings and photos with great admiration, because it hearkened back to a time when Pakistani players ruled the squash world. It wasn't unlike what we have going on with Egyptians now. Years before the US fought Iraq in the gulf War, Ahmed coached in Iraq. He was awarded medals and trophies and met many dignitaries in all his foreign travels. And of course, he posed for photographs with the great professional players: Jahangir, Qamar and Jansher. His squash pedigree is extensive. Now at 70, he’s retired from coaching and confessed to not having lifted a racket in a long time. I asked him to show me some of the drills the Pakistani players of his era did. He led Imran and me onto court and told us he would show us the Magnificent 7 drills. They are solo drills that were meant to build fitness and strength and promote good ball control. This was a time when players had to train like this. He explained. They didn't have trainers, sports psychologists, coaches, facilities or academies like they do today. The drills involved two and three wall shots with the player toggling back and forth between forehand and backhand; as you become adept at this, you make the ball hit the side and front walls lower and lower. In the next set, you move back to the middle of the court and do a series of volleys and drives. Then in the last set you hit cross courts to yourself culminating in, cross, drive, cross, drive. I struggled quite a bit, but Imran fell right into the drills. All total, 7 solo drills, hence Magnificent 7. I listened to Imran's father talk about how Pakistani players at all levels were known for their great racket work and shot making. At a higher level, Jahangir ushered in for Pakistan the game of attrition, soon others, he said, had to follow suit. Then came Jansher, who made it all seem so effortless. As Imran’s father said, Jansher used to seem like he was always walking casually to the ball. It then struck me that rarely do you see juniors or adult club players train like that. I have to confess they are brutal drills. You see the occasional adult player doing star drills and hitting rails repeatedly, but nothing like this. I asked Imran's father about that and his response was telling, "We didn't have coaches to always feed players. Clubs and players couldn't always afford coaches, so we drilled ourselves and often each other." I explained to him that growing up squash wise years ago in the US, I used a combination of coaches for instruction and solo hitting to improve on the lessons. Often, it was the adult players, seasoned in drilling and fitness, getting on court with a lower level adult or junior and less experienced player. We helped each other because we wanted to make other players better, we wanted new competition, and we were always trying to improve our games and those of others. I can remember the great Swedish top 20 player, Anders Wahlstedt, telling me years ago at Park Place Squash that he learned the game from playing, at a young age with his father and his father’s squash friends. In the US, with the invasion of foreign elite players/coaches, squash is teetering on becoming that perceived elitist sport it's tried so hard to shed. The fierce competition to land one of those coaches for your child’s junior development is prohibitive for most -- and the prices for their services keeps going higher and higher. Without Adult squash players in “public clubs”, the cost for learning how to play squash at a decent level is very high. I only know the squash scene in New York (over a span of 30 years) and for adults, the game is slowly dying. It's heartbreaking, because with only a few “public” courts remaining in the 5 Boroughs, adult squash is at its lowest. The junior players are great, but on this afternoon at my club there were none. It seems they come mostly for groups and private lessons, and so I never see them, I never have the opportunity to get on court with them, nor do any of the other, few remaining, adult players. It's a bit of a catch 22 because junior squash development, fueled by the college squash craze, is turning a big profit. But it will not keep our sport alive and vibrant in New York. I can't tell you how many parents when asked why squash for their kids, respond with, it will help them get into a top tier school. I wince, what about just playing this game for a lifetime because it's the greatest game on the planet? The private and restricted clubs in and around the City are very exclusive and very expensive. Without “public” courts, I would have to mortgage the house if I have to play at one of those elite, private clubs (that’s if they even accept me). Yet, recently I found some glimmer of hope. Just a glimmer. A couple of players have managed to garner public park space in New York City to build the first outdoor squash court. New York Public Squash (http://www.publicsquash.org/) a non-profit organization, is trying to build a court for public use. Imagine that for anyone or everyone. Yet, to my dismay, they cannot come up with the funding for the actual court. What New York Public Squash has done is clawed and scraped its way in an attempt to help squash survive and make it accessible to anyone who wants to play. Yet, they don’t have enough money to put this initiative into a reality for the spring. Imagine, a squash court next to the tennis courts and basketball courts down on FDR Drive on the Lower East Side, free, public space for a squash court. I am convinced New York Public Squash is on to something. Is this the kind of grass roots effort that could possibly resuscitate our sport here in New York? You can talk all you want about the Olympics or Grand Central Terminal as a showcase for our great sport, but in reality, it's what New York Public Squash wants to do that might showcase this sport better. As one of the founders, Ryan Wall, said, "Democratize" this sport. Should they build this true public court, it will be a great day for squash in this City. Imagine, the Magnificent 7 on a beautiful spring morning, as the sun comes up over the horizon and shines its first rays on that court. I will be there, helping to keep alive a sport and a bygone era that I love, the Magnificent 7 and public squash. Perhaps, on one of those mornings, some kid on the nearby basketball courts will come over and want to know what I'm doing. "Come, try the Magnificent 7." Like me, maybe he'll fall in love with this sport, and maybe, just maybe, he'll call his friends over from the basketball courts, or tell his friends at school about this game. Maybe, a gentleman jogging along will stop and say, "I've always wanted to try this game." I'll hold up a racket and a ball as if to entice him, "come, let’s get on court. Let me show you how to play." Maybe, he will bring his friends and those friends will bring their friends; then everyone will complain how hard it is to get court time, and New York Public Squash will just build another court in some other park, in some other part of the City.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Larry Bird Of Squash

Johnny Most, the legendary longtime announcer for the Boston Celtics, once said that Larry Bird is so intelligent, he sees everything -- he has eyes all around his head. Larry Bird was my idol growing up. I saw him play at the old Boston Garden when I was a Graduate Student at Boston University. If it was a choice to see a game at the Garden or go a few days without food, I'd choose the game at the Garden. My graduate school colleague, and great friend, George Cohen, and I went to many Bird games. I truly cherish those days. Long after Bird retired I tried to pay due homage to my idol by starting a collection of Larry Bird memorabilia with my son. My son, I think humored me, because he was really more interested in Michael Jordan and Vince Carter. After all, Larry was old and retired by then. I wanted my son to appreciate the absolute genius of Bird's game. Simply, Bird made teammates and opponents better players, for some, even defining their careers. What does this have to do with squash? My wife for Christmas always gives me tickets to the Tournament of Champions in New York. It is the best week out of the year for me. Friday night's early round session produced a long awaited match up of my favorite player, Nick Matthew, versus the up and coming Diego Elias whom I've been watching closely over the past couple of years. I had my favorite left wall seat I could study the movements and ball striking of Elias. I saw Elias from the same seat a year when he played top ten Frenchman, Mathieu Castagnet. I knew Elias had improved, in fact most of the players who face him always remark how much he keeps improving between the times they face him. I thought about a match Mathew and current number one Mohamed El Shorbagy played a couple of years back when I thought it was the match that defined El Shorbagy as a future number one. I was looking for a similar sign from the Elias-Matthew match. While Elias is not quite there where El Shorbagy was back then, this match could have, should have, and maybe will be a defining match for him. While Dias didn’t show signs of catapulting to number 1 anytime soon, he did show that he could hang with Matthew and stay in the rallies. But this match showed just how far Elias has to go before he can hang with Matthew’s mental toughness. Matthew was and is still close to number one for a reason. And I can only hope that what Elias walked away with from his match with Matthew, is the need to get mentally ore tough and disciplined. When Elias started tiring in the fourth and deciding game, he did something that maybe was amusing in the juniors, but seemed completely frivolous at this high level. I can’t imagine David Palmer, Peter Nicol, and certainly not Nick Matthew leaning up against the side wall on one foot with a funny grin on their faces to receive the serve. I’ve seen Matthew in brutal matches and he would never, ever, intentionally show his opponent his fatigue. That’s his grit and determination. While Elias, at times during the match, seemed physically not up to the challenge, he does have remarkable great recuperative powers. Back to Matthew, if Elias is going to be number 1 in 2-3 years time, he needs to take a page from Matthew; study Matthew, not technically or tactically, but study how this great champion carries himself on the court. I watched Matthew’s demeanor completely change after Elias took a game from him in their match. He went back to work, shut the gates, and seemingly was on a mission to break Elias physically. On his way to number one, no one ever really questioned Matthews grit and determination and his seek and destroy mentality, they may have questioned his durability (having suffered through a number of injuries), his attrition style squash, but looking at him now he is a complete player. He arguably has the best forehand volley in the game, but most importantly he has adapted his game to a plethora of up and coming players, who are just as fit as he is, just as determined, and just as relentless in their attack. Over the past year, he has developed a devastating offensive lob out of the front, similar to what Nicol used later in his career. Matthew attacks, then counters, shifting nuances in the pace of his ball as he maintains control of the match; he is so intelligent in his game and so efficient, that should Elias become number 1 in the world, which I think he will, this might be the defining match that put puts him on that track. Bird and Matthew, two who would never ever meet, except maybe here, in my imagination; two champions, two incredibly intelligent athletes in their respective sports, who seemed to define and redefine themselves and how the game should be played. Marwan El Shorbagy, brother of Mohamed, your next up.