Brokedown Palace

Last weekend we celebrated the lives of Dave Talbott and Ann Bartlett Talbott.

It reminded many of us of Bob Callahan’s memorial service in Princeton Chapel in February 2015: a moving service in a beautiful space for an Ivy League squash coach who died too young. This time it was Battel Chapel on Yale’s campus. Like with Bob’s, there were hundreds of former players and friends in the pews. People came from across the country; a half dozen old buddies flew down from Canada. It was at once a reunion of Yale Squash, of the old hardball tour from forty-odd years ago, of the squash community at large. At the reception afterwards at Trumbull College, stories flowed for hours—just exactly who did what.

At Battel, it was bittersweet to remember their love story: born a day apart in California in June 1952, they died two days apart in Connecticut in September 2023. They were married for forty-six years.

A half dozen family members and friends eulogized Ann and Dave, often tearfully and always powerfully. Many spoke with a smile about Dave’s storytelling instincts, how he would spin long, circular tales, comparing him to James Joyce and Neal Cassidy. Dave talked for hours in his office at Payne Whitney, including the old office below court one. People spoke about six national championships, eight Ivy League titles, hijinks in Vermont, dancing at music festivals, getting pulled over on roadtrips, his surfer mien (tie-dyed flags appeared in the audience), recruiting visits, tight matches. Julie Greenwood, the executive director of Squash Haven, talked about how Dave helped start and sustain the after-school program. Blake Gilpin played the banjo. There were sunflowers seeds handed out in their honor.

Mark Talbott, Dave’s younger brother, outlined Dave’s CV: Dave’s very short stint at university in Arizona—when they said Dave couldn’t keep a German shepherd in the dorm, he dropped out. Dave’s many years in Detroit before coming to Yale in 1983.

Ming Tsai, his brother-in-law, talked about what it was like to play for Dave, then join the family, then have his own son play for Dave. He said Dave’s motto was: “Play hard—good things will happen.”

The most poignant moment at the service was not words but images: a great slideshow of photographs from Ann and Dave’s lives. A song accompanied the slideshow. It was that old standby, “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead: Fare you well, Dave and Ann. All the birds that were singing have flown except you alone….Fare you well, fare you well, I love you more than words can tell.

The Pelota Years

We have lost a lot of great people this spring. The sad list includes two dear friends who had been chairs of the board of US Squash (Lenny Bernheimer and Alan Fox) who I spent hours together with on the phone and on the court; Ann Wetzel, the Hall of Famer; and the great Frank Stella. I produced remembrances of all four: https://ussquash.org/category/news/

I miss them all. I think I only write obituaries now.

But another wonderful member of the community also left us, someone perhaps not as well known. In March David Body died at the age of eight-four.

David was born in England, went to Sheffield University to become an architect, sojourned in Toronto for a few years and moved to Los Angeles in 1969. He became one of the world’s leading sports facility architects. He designed forty-two collegiate recreation centers, including the John Wooden Center at UCLA. He was able to insert more than a hundred squash courts into these facilities.

In grammar school in England he played tennis and lacrosse at a high level. He picked up squash as a teenager after joining Manchester Northern Lawn Tennis Club—but barely. He didn’t own a car and it took him a long walk and an hour’s bus ride to get to the club, so his progress was, as he said, “not mercurial.”

When he arrived at architectural school at Sheffield, he found that they had two squash courts. He played on Sheffield’s squash team for four years, becoming No.1 on the ladder and eventually one of the top five collegiate players in England. It was club squash: there were no coaches or administrators to schedule matches and transportation. The squash team had the dubious pleasure of sometimes traveling with Sheffield’s men’s rugby team. After graduation, he returned to MNLTC, playing on their second team and traveling across northern England for league matches.

In Toronto, he joined the Cricket Club, learned hardball singles and doubles and rose up, as he said, to become the worst A player in the club

He was a galvanic leader in Southern California squash. He played a lot, winning and losing with a smile. He was a mainstay in the Copa Wadsworth, playing every year for three decades, as well as the Cate Invitational and California state tournaments. His favorite quote was “I’m not consistent enough to be bad all the time.” Three squash pals—Alan Fox, Barry Seymour and Murray Smith—were groomsmen when he married Stephanie DeLange (he first met her when he looked up from a squash court into the gallery). David was a prominent member at more than a half dozen SoCal squash clubs that eventually closed—the fate of so many squash clubs in LA—including Pasadena YMCA, University Club, Squash Club International, Center Courts and the Venice Squash Club, with its infamous coed showers.

The trunk of his red Volvo P1800 overflowed with lacrosse, squash and tennis equipment. And also pelota gear. In 2010 I started corresponding with David about how it came about that he was an international practitioner of various Basque country games.. In 2013 he wrote up a scintillating sixteen-page memoir, My Pelota Years.

The story started in the early 1970s when, through a squash friend, he met Bob Falkenburg. The American had famously saved three championship points before winning the finals of Wimbledon in 1948. He owned a house in Bel Air and built in a hillside below the house a trinquet, a four-wall Basque pelota court.

Body played in the trinquet about three days a week. Occasionally, there were tournaments, including when Falkenburg annually hosted a U.S. v. Mexico match. Stars abounded in the gallery: tennis players like Jack Kramer, Frank Sedgman, Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert all watched, as well as Sugar Ray Robinson. Once Body accidentally broke Falkenburg’s nose with an errant shot—Jerry West, who was watching, helped take Falkenburg to the emergency room.

Then there was some exotic, exciting and exhausting travel for pelota championships: Body was on the U.S. team that went to Mexico City in 1973 (where he was awarded a trophy for “El Major Deportivo” for taking a day off from play due to exhaustion); Montevideo in 1974; Biarritz and Bayonne in 1978 in the world championships (the TV commentator referred to him as “L’immense Body”); Buenos Aires in 1979; and Mexico City in 1982.

Falkenburg eventually sold his home in Bel Air and the trinquet court was now inaccessible and David Body’s Pelota Years alas came to a close—another example of how obscure racquet sports can lead to lifelong friendships around the world.

Ode to Jadwin

One of the most beloved squash facilities has just ended its run.

The L. Stockwell Jadwin Gymnasium at Princeton was opened in 1969. It was named after Stock Jadwin, class of 1928, who had died a year after graduation in a car accident on Manhattan Bridge. When his mother, Ethel Jadwin, died in 1964, she gave Princeton a bequest of $27 million, the largest gift ever to the school (about $271 million today). Some of the money went to building a state-of-the-art gym.

At the time, Jadwin was the best squash facility in the world. It had twelve singles courts and a hardball doubles court. And a unique architecture. Herbert Warren Wind, in one of my favorite phrases from a writer that produced dozens, said it resembled “a Brobdingnagian armadillo.”

Jadwin was iconic. It hosted the Tigers’ women’s and men’s squash team teams. It was a good run: over the fifty-five seasons in Jadwin, they collected seventeen national team titles for the women and nine for the men. Jadwin hosted the 1998 World Juniors, the first time a world championship was played in the U.S. Jadwin also hosted numerous national championships for juniors, collegiate players and adults, many with incredible, heartbreaking and nerve-wracking matches. It was the setting for the story of Run to the Roar, the epic 2009 match between the men of Trinity and Princeton; and it was where Princeton finally broke through and ended Trinity’s streak in 2012. Jadwin hosted one of the world’s oldest summer squash camps. Hall of Fame coaches like Betty Constable, Gail Ramsay and Bob Callahan had their memorabilia-filled offices there.

Jadwin was a unique facility. We stretched in the fencing room, reputedly the world’s largest. We poked around the tennis courts, the track, the wrestling room. We loved the main floor basketball gym, with its echoes of Pete Carril running the Princeton offense.

The plaster-back walls on the squash courts were old-school: Jadwin was one of the last places with a tiny door that you had to bend over to enter or exit the court (or bang your head—a rookie mistake that every player did once). I am sorry I might never again bang my head leaving a Princeton squash court.

Estusa

Recently, when I was out at the famous outdoor squash court in Maspeth, New York, Robert Gibraltar kindly gave me a rare copy of the 1991 U.S. Open program.

The 1991 Open, as it was for a decade and a half, was directed by Hazel White Jones and Tom Jones. They held it in October 1991 on a portable court on the indoor tennis court at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn. The official title was the Pierce Leahy U.S. Open—the event was generously sponsored by the squash-playing Pierce family. The family has been central supporters of squash in America ever since, including the Pierce Family U.S. Squash Hall of Fame at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center.

Here is an ad from the program:

The 1991 Open was men only (the women’s draw started two years later); thirty-two in the qualies which Jody Larson helped host at Uptown, and twenty-four in the main draw; and $60,000 prize money (the equivalent of $139,000 today).

The thirty-three year-old program had a few other fascinating tidbits.

*Olympics: IOC president Juan Samaranch visited the 1990 Spanish Open—perhaps we had a better shot getting into the 1992 Barcelona Games than we thought?

*Refereeing: The 1991 Open was refereed and marked entirely by the players before or after their own matches. Shaun Moxham was the tournament’s head referee. The Australian, who was then based in Boca Raton, Fla, coordinated the officiating assignments and refereed the semis and finals himself. Today Moxham has a burgeoning squash facility network called MSquash. He claims the M references mindset, movement and match strategy. Perhaps it’s also a reminder of the 1991 Open, as in “I MOST definitely do not want to do that again?”

*The official racquet of the 1991 Open was Estusa. The Taiwanese brand was briefly at its height in the early 1990s. Jahangir Khan was using their squash racquet and both Boris Becker and Jimmy Connors played with their tennis racquet. Connors, the month before, had used a neon yellow Estusa racquet during his notorious run to the semis of the US Open at the age of thirty-nine. All those images of Connors fist-pumping with one hand—in the other is a Estusa bat. Today, Estusa are among the rarest of collectible squash racquets

Club Squash

For the third year in a row, I peeked in at the National Collegiate Club Team Championships. They were again in Philadelphia, but after two years at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center, this year they moved down 33rd Street to Penn.

But there was the same grassroots excitement. You had 6.0-rated players and other former high-level juniors who could easily play for any top program, and you had some players who had only picked up the sport a few weeks earlier. You had coaches in snazzy branded gear, and you had teams without coaches or without courts on campus or without any financial support whatsoever from their university. I talked with one player who served as his team’s captain, coach and administrator, all in one.

The variety among the twelve women’s teams, twenty-four men’s teams and twelve co-ed teams was palpable. There were teams that have serious varsity women’s programs (Stanford, Georgetown) but because of Title IX have just a well-run club men’s team. There were men’s club teams from colleges that also have a bonafide varsity men team running parallel (all the Ivies but Columbia; other teams like Tufts, Navy, Drexel). Of course Cal Berkeley, which has had a robust club squad for half a century, was there. So was former varsity, recently demoted to club programs like Brown (who fielded both a men’s and a women’s team) and George Washington. I counted eighteen states (including the District of Columbia) represented among the forty-eight squads.

This is a wonderful growth opportunity for the game in the U.S. There are many more colleges with squash courts or easy access to squash courts than what we saw in Philadelphia. And more eager players: Peter Heffernan, who was helping run the championships, told me that he calculated that more than 1,900 kids play high school team squash in one form or another, but there are only 1,100 kids playing organized college squash. Creating lifelong players, filling quiet courts and expanding access to team squash—one of the best parts of the squash community in America—is a major goal for the second century of collegiate squash.

ToC 2024

What an incredible event, per usual.

Some of the gossip: Nour El Sherbini’s parents were with her at the tournament in part to help her shop for a dress for her wedding this summer. Selection is good in New York, her father Atef told me, but the prices in Dubai are much better.

While one great player stepped down this month (Olivia Blatchford Clyne) another might be coming back. Camille Serme might rejoin the tour. The thirty-four year-old former world No.3 is training again full-time. Perhaps her first event will be the Paris Squash Open 2024 in September, poised to be at a new site.

Another legend in Grand Central was eyeing a comeback, but more towards full health. Anders Wahlstedt, the Swedish international, former world No.18 and U.S. national champion, was there watching the matches. (Wahlstedt is the answer to one of squash’s great trivia questions—”who beat Geoff Hunt in Hunt’s final appearance in the British Open?”)

In October while biking along the Hudson River, Anders was sideswiped by an electric bike messenger who was looking at his phone. It was a traumatic accident—he spent a fortnight in the hospital—and a long recovery still in process.

Rock & Fire

Earlier this month I attended a concert in the Princeton University Chapel. It was the first time I had been in that famously soaring, awe-inspiring space since February 2015 when we gathered there for Bob Callahan’s funeral.

Thinking about Bob, still sorely missed nearly nine years after he left us, made me think about his counterpart, Dave Talbott, very much sorely missed three months after he suddenly had a heart attack following the death of his wife Ann. I’ve had so many conversations this fall with people who played for or against Dave, other coaches, friends. It has been a constant theme.

Recently, I was forwarded a vast email chain of correspondence amongst former Yale players. There were dozens in the chain, some of whom just graduated and others, like Sam Chauncey ’57, who knew Dave from when he was a youngster. Scrolling through the many comments, I saw in writing what people were saying in person. They remembered the long stories he’d tell in the van and the many hours spinning tales in his office, which was crammed with totemic items like a ball in a Ziploc from a special match. They remembered a young Dave being able to out-run everyone on the team on early-season training runs. They remembered his penchant for nicknames, the jargon and slang he used. They remembered how he stacked the ladder for matches (one extra-large player said that once Dave moved him up just so he could face another team’s very small player).

They remembered the van and bus rides—in the spirit of an earlier era, Dave sometimes allowed alcohol on board for return trips. Once a policeman tried to arrest Dave, and and a player took the cop aside and said, “look, we’re squash players from Yale and this guy is a crazy alum who loves the team and is harmless.” One alum mentioned that he and another teammate, a few years after graduation, hopped on the team bus after attending a match:

Someone from the athletic department who was onboard was questioning us if we were allowed to be on the bus. Coach just shushed him and sent us to the back of the bus because of course it was perfectly normal for two alums to just hop on the team bus completely unplanned and ride from Princeton to New Haven.  

One alum wrote:

He was so effective at making an impression on everyone he met because he led from a place of love—love of the game, love of the team, love of the individual—and that was infectious. He accepted who you were and that gave you the license to become what you’d be. And being around him, you trusted everything would be alright because he always had an absurd story of someone being in a tight spot and everything ending up just fine. 

One alum wrote about practice on the afternoon of 11 September 2001:

Dave didn’t cancel practice.  He had us circle up and hold hands on court one and I’m pretty sure we just talked for two hours. As always, it was a very diverse team, but looking back it was a simple gesture to have everyone listen to everyone’s reaction to it. 

One player, one of the greatest to go through Yale under Dave, ended the chain by writing:

Amazing to think how many players passed through with Dave who had such powerful formative relationships with him, and that he fostered such intense love and affection across so many years and with such a diverse group of people. As a coach now myself, I can see how much of himself he gave to each of us who passed through there, and how difficult it is to make that type of connection with each and every player. He was a master at that, and I think that was his super power as a coach. 

He concluded the way all the players signed off after they wrote their message: Rock & Fire.

Olympic Dreams

Let’s look back for a brief second, upon the news last month that squash is finally joining the Olympic Games. It had been the end of a long road: the first mention in the historical record was in June 1947 in Stockholm where squash pushed to join the 1952 Games award to Helsinki (five of the losing six cities bidding to host the Games were in the U.S.).

But the real effort started In 1986 when the IOC recognized squash as a sport, and national governing bodies around the world started joining their national Olympic committees. It will have been nine Games (Barcelona in 1992 to Paris in 2024) that squash failed to join before we see a squash ball in the air in Los Angeles in July 2028.

I thought of all the people who worked behind the scenes on those nine Games. Colleagues like Hazel and Tom Jones who led the push for a Pan American federation and inclusion in the Pan American Games, key steps along the way. (We saw the effects of that effort this week with the U.S. sweeping the women’s individual tournament at the 2023 Pan Am Games in Santiago.) And Mike Lee, the sports communications guru who squash hired in 2011 to get us into Tokyo 2020. Mike, ebullient and opinionated, sadly died in September 2018 at the age of sixty-one, and I am sure he would have been so pleased to see us finally triumph.

So what does the next five years look like? Here are some possibilities:

—The over-under on players switching nationalities is 9.5. With only two male and two female players allowed in the thirty-two player draws per country, players lower down the rankings perhaps will switch nations in order to qualify. Nation-switching has happened over the decades (see: Peter Nicol in 2001 from Scotland to England; Natalie Grinham in 2008 from Australia to the Netherlands; Mohamed ElShorbagy last year from Egypt to England), usually for reasons of money and support and sometimes because of a feud with a national federation. Now the switch will occur because a player wants to make LA28.

—Some might be from Egypt. Everyone is talking about how hard this will be for them, with twenty-one men and twenty-nine women ranked in the top hundred right now—if the Olympics were to occur today, only four of those fifty players would be there. But pity also those players from Great Britain. Although Team GB has been the norm since the modern Olympics began in 1896, in squash players typically compete for Wales or Scotland or England or Northern Ireland. Thus, Team GB has fifteen women and nineteen men ranked right now in the top hundred and they will have to scrabble over just four spots rather than sixteen.

—A lot of players now in their thirties spoke at the 2023 U.S. Open about hanging around for five more years in order to play in the Olympics. So expect a rash of retirements after the Games. The average retirement age for pro squash players has been in the mid-thirties. The Olympics will definitely push that back.

—At the same time, expect more players turning pro and joining the tour from less traditionally strong nations. Right now China and Russia have no one ranked in the top hundred—I’d be surprised if that is still the case in five years. Nations that have at least one player ranked in the top hundred are twenty-five for the men (including Team GB); and twenty-three for the women. About half of those countries have just one player ranked in the top hundred, and so LA28 might catalyze more funding to help those nations, especially formerly hegemonic powerhouses like Australia and Pakistan. More courts, more access, more tournaments, more coaches, more attention, more, more, more—all good for the game.

—There will be a fascinating scramble in the year leading up to the spring of 2028. Players will be trying to garner as many ranking points as possible, to either become one of the two highest-ranked players on the PSA tour from their country and/or to be ranked in the top one hundred (the cut-off for automatic qualification). Thus, both platinum and bronze-level tournaments will suddenly have an extra level of drama.

—It appears there might be qualifying tournaments for each continent in 2028 to help fill out the draws of thirty-two. It will be open to players ranked below one hundred. Those events will also be incredibly exciting.

U.S. Open 2023

A fabulous fiftieth United States Open just wrapped up. Here are some sudden thoughts and second thoughts:

—Brink of eliminations. Holy tension. In the quarters Nour El Sherbini was down 6-2 in the fourth, just five points away from a loss, before going on to win and eventually snag the only major trophy missing from her cabinet. Also in the quarters, Amanda Sobhy was down 6-1 in the fourth, also just five points away from a loss, before going to win. And Ali Farah saved a match point in the third game against Tarek Momen before taking the match in five.

—Best match? Probably Coll v. Farag in the men’s final: going into overtime in the fifth game of a Grand Slam? That is exciting.

—Team USA did well. Two American women (Amanda Sobhy and Olivia Fietcher) reached the semis for the first time ever and an American man (Timmy Brownell) made in the quarters for the first time since Houston in 1986 when both Ned Edwards and Mark Talbott reached the quarters. Brownell’s run propelled him to world No.40 in the rankings and for the first time heading the list of American men on the pro tour.

—Good crowds. It was the twelfth time at Drexel, third at the Specter Center. A lot of people there for early round day matches and a vibrant atmosphere every night. Nearly four hundred people came for the annual celebration of SquashSmarts; hometown, tee-shirt wearing support for Fietcher; and a boisterous group came to honor Berwyn which is officially marking its fiftieth anniversary this weekend—as the first and now lone mega-club left in the country, it is a remarkable milestone.

—The Open is a crossroads and one person courtside for the first time in a long time was Paul Price. It had been a decade since we had last seen Price. The former world No.4 in singles and dominant hardball doubles player had departed from Toronto to return to his native Australia. He’s now working with a number of players on the mental side of the game.

—Oh, and the thing that came at the beginning or end of almost every single conversation at the U.S. Open? Squash getting into the Olympics. More on that next time.

Seixas at One Hundred

A follow-up about Vic Seixas. A few days after Vic’s 100th birthday, I got a wonderful message from Walter Oehrlein.

Walter, like Vic, is a great athlete in both tennis and squash. While at West Point, he won the 1965 National Intercollegiates in squash; in tennis, Walter won his first round match at Forest Hills in the 1966 U.S. Championships for tennis and in 1967 he lost in a first-round five-setter. For years Walter coached squash and tennis at the Birmingham Athletic Club in Detroit.

He first met Vic in the 1960s at a squash tournament. In June 1973 Walter invited Vic to put on a tennis exhibition at Birmingham. Serving first in the match, Walter pulled out a squash ball and hit that rather than a tennis ball.

They stayed in touch. Vic arranged for Walter to look at becoming a head pro at Greenbrier, the West Virginia resort where Vic had long been the resident tennis director (Walter decided to stay in Detroit). A few years later, Walter and Vic did a squash exhibition at Regency, the fitness club outside of Washington, DC.

They resumed their friendship in February 2021. The death of Tony Trabert, one of Vic’s Davis Cup teammates and a fellow Grand Slam champion, triggered a condolence phone call that Walter placed to Vic. At the end of the call, Vic said, “Let’s talk more.” So a few weeks later Walter called again and soon they were talking regularly, reminiscing about squash and tennis days of yore.

This year Vic’s daughter Victoria invited Walter to come out to San Francisco to celebrate Vic’s 100th birthday at the end of August: two old stalwarts after sixty years of friendship on and off the court.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash