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.