Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Greatest Professional Squash Match-ups, Real and Imagined

We’ve done the all-time greatest squash players list (which reminds me may need to update). But here goes – keep in mind these are matchups I’ve seen. Purely subjective, not based on any statistics or results. 1. Jansher Khan vs. Chris Ditmar 2. Jonathan Power vs. Peter Nicol 3. Ramy Ashour vs. Nick Matthew 4. Jahangir Khan vs. Jansher Khan 5. Jahangir Khan vs. Geoff Hunt 6. Mohamed ElShorbagy vs. Gregory Gaultier 7. John White vs. anyone he ever played 8. Rodney Martin vs. Jansher Khan 9. Jonathan Power vs David Palmer 10. Nick Matthew vs. James Willstrop Matchups that could have been great but never happened. Just imagine. All players at their prime. Par 11 scoring. 1. Jansher Khan vs. Ramy Ashour; This is one for the ages…This is Ali/Frazier I; Boston Celtics/LA Lakers; 1968 Green Bay/Dallas Superbowl; Fisher/Spassky. Jansher never ever faced the likes of the Egyptian. A grueling, tactical, masterful match. One for the Ages. Ramy 3-2 (last 3 games tie breakers; Ramy comes back from being down 0-2). Jansher seems stunned. His entourage closes in on him and hurries him out. It will be three months before he resurfaces. 2. Nick Matthew vs Jahangir Khan (Wolf vs Bull); This is a slugfest and a match of attrition at the highest level. While I love Matthew and his relentless play, I give the nod to Jahangir 3-1. Critical points in the 4th could have sent this to a deciding 5th, but as tough mentally as the Wolf is, the Bull – well he is the Bull and tough too. The Bull is just too much in the end for the Wolf. Matthew acknowledges afterwards it was the toughest match of his career. 3. Palmer vs. Chris Ditmar; This is a bare-knuckle fight to the end. Palmer and Ditmar relentless in their attack. Very physical match which comes down to who wants it more. Both mentally tough, both Australian, playing for heaps of pride and bragging rights; at the end, these two great warriors hang on as Palmer tins his patented forehand kill. Ditmar 3-2. 4. Tristan Nancarrow vs Hisham Ashour; If there were ever two players who exhibited pure artistry on court these two are the ones. Almost mirror images of each other’s shot making and creativity. No long rallies here, just breath-taking nicks off either side of the volley. Each player trying to match the other players shots. Hisham knew ahead of this match it could be his legacy, the greatest match of his career. Down 1-2 and 0-5 in the fourth, he brilliantly changes tactics and starts extending the rallies by not giving Nancarrow the angles to cut the ball off. Nancarrow, wasn’t prepared for this and begins to tire and shoot. Hisham comes back to even it 2-2. The fifth game is all Hisham’s, Nancarrow is ranting and raving and trying to disrupt Hisham’s rhythm, but the Wizard will have none of it and finishes Nancarrow off in the 5th easily. 5. Olli Tuomen vs Anders Wahlstadt; Two of the fittest pros in their time on the tour. For those of us who appreciate attrition squash, this is a match that goes over two hours. The crowd marvels at the long rallies, the 20-30 shot rallies as both players display magnificent court coverage. Each game a tie breaker and each game lasting 30 minutes. The fifth game shows the tenacity of each player as the fifth games tie breaker ends 20-18: Wahlstadt. Both must be helped off the court. They ran a full marathon; no one left the match people lingering about as if there’ll be a sixth game. Squash from the Hunt and Barrington era. Jonah is in the booth with Joey Barrington. Jonah has a big smile. 6. Peter Nicol vs Mohamed ElShorbagy – The puncher vs the counter puncher. ElShorbagy in the match of his life; Power vs Finesse. Nicol weathers the onslaught and begins to wear ElShorbagy down. Nicol doesn’t back down, but counters with a pace that outdoes ElShorbagy. Nicol, the master of setting and dictating pace, attacks to the front court in the later part of the match and when ElShorbagy attacks the front, Nicol counters with his patented offensive lob. Nicol easily in 4. 7. Peter Nicol vs Nick Matthew; Matthew the huge underdog and Nicol maybe a bit too over confident. Nicol realizes by his demeanor that Matthew is supremely fit and can play Nicol’s style. The match is sea saw back and forth. Down 1-2 and 0-7 in the fourth, Matthew digs deep just when you thought the match was over; it’s like he has had a second wind. The rallies are punishing, and Nicol looks weary -- uncharacteristically tinning a couple of balls. At 7-7 there’s a controversial call, Matthew awarded a stroke, Nicol seems broken, but then at 8-10 ties it up and Matthew goes back up with game ball. Matthew hits a patented forehand volley drop Nicol throws up a lob, Matthew attacks and hits an overhead volley nick. The fifth game is much the same and Nicol this time shows no let up and the match goes to 10-10 before a couple of uncharacteristic errors by Matthew gives Nicol the match. Matthew immediately looks forward to a rematch, he’s told that he’ll have to wait for the Canary Wharf next month. Matthew seems disappointed and Nicol seems relieved. 8. Mohammed ElShorbagy vs Chris Ditmar; ElShorbagy considered the more talented player of the two, by whom, not quite sure. The experts under estimate Ditmars talent and style of play. Ditmar isn’t playing Jansher here, nor is he under that large and looming shadow. Ditmar shows an edgy but cool grace as he weathers the ElShorbagy power and surprisingly punishes ElShorbagy in the front court. Tactically, ElShorbagy made some mistakes but regroups down -1-2 and ties it at 2-2. Ditmar is the fitter player and it goes down to the wire, Ditmar in 5. Ditmar wasn’t happy with his performance felt he was sluggish and a bit off, he makes no mention of ElShorbagy and the quality of his play. 9. Tristan Nancarrow vs Jonathan Power; Tristan comes in ready and Power goes up against the master. There’s some great shot making and Power’s deception troublesome for Nancarrow. But Nancarrow can play some head games and Power is susceptible to such head games. On numerous occasions Power fishes for strokes, but the refs are calling a tight match. In a contentious 4th came, Power loses his cool, Nancarrow has beaten him mentally. The rest is easy, Nancarrow in 4. 10. Amr Shabana vs Jansher Khan. This is an intriguing matchup. Shabana plays flawless squash but so too does Jansher, game 1 to Jansher. In the second game Shabana ups the pace and is moving Jansher around. Jansher counters by attacking the front; in vintage Jansher fashion, he isn’t killing the drop but putting enough pressure to control the game. The “Maestro” is performing a symphony of sorts, meaning the full array of his skills is on display. Ultimately, Jansher in 4, but we walk away from this match with a sense that Shabana played brilliantly, it’s just that he played someone who is the greatest player of all time and except for Ramy, he’s beaten the best of any generation. Side Note: In the rematch between Ramy and Jansher later at the British Open, they go head to head again. You decide the outcome. A second look at Ramy and you can see Jansher is homed in on this one with great anticipation. Ramy’s deception and redirection of his shots has little or no impact on Jansher. He’s controlling the center and dictating the pace. Ramy, the great champion he is, realizes the adjustment and makes his own…you decide, I can’t.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

No Squash on the Island of Elba

Two years ago, I had a pretty decent routine of work, and after work, squash. Occasionally, I would write a blog piece on squash. But that all changed when my company decided to send all its technology overseas to Hungary. I was part of that technology group. I had the opportunity to relocate to Hungary and of course the first thing I did was inquire about squash clubs near the office there. There were some clubs. To make a long story short, I no longer had to go into the City and my work was done from home remotely with the group from Hungary, at least, until all my paperwork and work Visas were processed. That, in and of itself, was a long and tedious story – ultimately, I decided not to relocate my family and retired from technology. I couldn’t justify the time it would take to go into the City from Long Island, play, shower and change, and head back to Long Island (roughly and easily 3 hours). But wait a minute this is squash. I used to drive for 20 minutes each way to a squash club in Durham NC when I was sent there for my job. I would pick up my two young children from after school, stop at a Burger King and then head to the club where I would put them in the Kid’s Room. I might be taking a lesson with Harvard great Jim Masland, who coached there. I might be playing Peter Smith the best player in the club (always loosing badly, but hey it was great squash), or I’d play a myriad of other players many of whom I would beat. I would play and then get my children and head home We did this for two years before moving back to New York and resuming our normal life. What happened? I think this sneaky little thing called age crept into my squash life. Playing my son was great; he never played to my weaknesses, and, as time went by, the weaknesses started to accumulate. He kept me in the rallies -- as someone once said, one of the wisest things I ever heard, you must be good to play down to someone. He always made it seem like a great match. I was spoiled for years by this. Then, my son decided to go to law school, he stopped playing squash – it was sudden and quick. I was left with that creepy partner called age who was now loitering about. The people I now played, in my time, I would have blown them off the court. I had to play players who didn’t want to make the game fun for me, a good sweat, long rallies, the length game, they wanted to win. And when pride kicked in, I didn’t want to lose. When playing with my son I just cared about good squash, albeit good conditional squash. Now I had to cover that horrible and evil front court where age snickered most. When was the last time I had to cover a drop? My son didn’t drop that was one of the unspoken conditions. He knew, I knew, he could end the point at any time, but we didn’t think about that. He was good enough to make me good without letting on that I wasn’t good at all. I played half the court. But these other guys, they played the front court and wanted to win, and I tried covering the front court -- but the injuries started coming. Nagging injuries at first, a few days off; then more serious ones, weeks off. It stopped being fun, it stopped being good squash for me. Age became to me what the Russian winter was to Napoleon. We never saw it coming. The defeat was hard to take, but it coincided with some of life events and I took full advantage of these events, or should I say excuses. I had no reason to go into the City now except for squash. But I was defeated, age had won out. Age drove and forced me to Elba, a place of exile, a place without squash. While Elba had no squash, it did have tennis. So, I dug out my old Head Radicals and went to the courts. Drop feeds at first, 50, 100, 200 balls – backhand and forehand. I hadn’t hit a tennis ball in over 15 years. I started watching the tennis channel and following the players. I hired a coach to get me back in form. It was an immense struggle. I came from a tennis beginning a long time ago where everything was flat, I struggled with switching grips on my forehand, brushing up more and finishing with the racket higher. I started hitting against the backwall, it snuck up on me this age thing and not only age but 30 extra pounds. I started working on my backhand; went to a two-handed backhand: flat, always flat. I could not, no matter how much I tried, put much spin on the ball. But I was moving, and I was slicing; I forgot how good my slice was. Then came the volleying and the overhead smashes. I thought, I can play this game. I changed coaches and found a great coach who would rally 10, 15, 20 shots. We would be outdoors in the 100-degree heat, I could play this game. He taught me the principles of the game again, don’t worry about spin, I needed consistency first. Don’t worry about power, it will come. We worked on consistency, putting the ball four feet above the net. Consistency: 20 shots the same height. It took a while, but it started to click. I was on the courts now 5 days a week. I expected tennis to help me shed the weight, get fitter, go back to my old self. I kept trying and waiting, but then the harsh reality, yes, I love it, but I’m not moving all that well. “You only play as well as you move.” After all this time and money, I was back to where it all started downhill. I used to watch older players, not so fit, hit the ball well, but. like them, I didn’t move. As soon as coach moved me or extended me laterally, I felt the age and nd my shots weren’t good. I enjoyed it until he started playing to my weaknesses. I didn’t pull any muscles or god forbid tear anything, but I had to pop a lot of Advil – hey, I thought of that old Andre Agassi commercial for Advil. It seemed okay, then I developed horrible gastritis, it was the Advil. I had to stop the Advil. But I loved tennis, I ignored squash until, as luck (good or bad) would have it, there were some squash courts now available nearby. That was now in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to give up tennis. No, I wouldn’t give up tennis. But I had said back in the spring when I was changing my grip and doing things differently with tennis, it must be hard to play both. The technique and grips are so different. And the footwork, I had just spent months undoing years of squash foot work: big steps, long lunges. I was now taking little steps, fast little steps to the ball. My coach said, if I were fitter and trained hard, I could be a 4.5/5.0 tennis player! Maybe he was just saying that because he knew I needed a goal. Elba wasn’t such a bad place. The tennis made it nice. I kept telling myself, just enjoy the time and opportunity to do something you love. Don’t set any goals, just have fun. But how could I have fun, I needed a mission. Coach said…. And then re-arranging the closet, I saw those squash rackets of mine, my rackets, nicely taped and strung; still in my squash bag, just how I had left them. I took them out of the closet, held them, swung them, and stood in front of the mirror. Damn, how did I get to this point. Life without squash? Is it any life at all? Suddenly Elba seemed small and restricting. I needed to escape, escape to where and what? I needed to get back to squash. I went back over months of the daily squash report. I used to read this religiously every day. That made sense, squash was a religion to me. I had been so out of the loop that it was strange to be back in it, interested in squash again. I started watching matches. Wow, the Wolf was hanging it up, a player came out, as in announcing he was gay (okay, it would mean more to me if a player came out and said he was old), Willstrop and Selby are back; some new and exciting players: Paul Coli, Ali Farag. Gaultier was still there, old warrior, great warrior, and wait, what happened, I missed Diego Elias ascent to the top ten. And the Wolf would be gone and Ramy hopefully not too soon as well. It all just started coming back just like that. I started to pick up where I left off. And my son was done with Law School, it took its squash toll on him. He hadn’t played, but as it happened, he found his first job as a lawyer close by. Some force other than ourselves was moving us back toward squash. “Don’t break the racket, we only have two.” We hit around, I couldn’t even see the ball, he still had it, that beautiful stroke. I wanted to get on my hands and knees and kiss the court’s floor, I was off Elba and back home, back in France! We started going each day, a little bit longer and harder each time out. “Hey, it will take time, this is an unforgiving sport, remember?” And the game started coming back, all the nuances started materializing. The drills, the drills, and the mantra that it will take time. And we added in ghosting; must learn how to move again, to lunge, to split step, to follow my shots. And I was still playing tennis. I am playing both, playing both like I use to years back. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. No Advil, just stretch, include weights, strengthening, lots of ghosting. Focus on your feet, the rest will follow. God, I love this game, and the other one too. But this squash game, it’s special, special, and however long I have on this earth, I can share this love for the game with my son -- who says he’s sore, he’s tired, or he had to work late and doesn’t feel like getting on the court. He’s a grown man, he wears suits and ties and carries a brief case and goes to an office and sits at a desk – but he’s not old and neither am I – well, just not all the time.