Saturday, February 20, 2016
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.