This was my tenth Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions. Every year when I head to my first match I think that this is the year when I will be blasé about it, when I will ho-hum and snigger and, with an apathetic wave of my hand, write it off as a been-there, done-that affair long past its sell-by date.
No way. I’m the only journalist to cover all ten of ToCs since the tournament restarted in Grand Central in 1999; I think the only person besides myself who has donned the ToC media pass each of those years has been the black-clad photographer Steve Line . So it is my job to look for the new and scorn the old. Sure, the ToC is obviously on any serious squasher’s top ten Bucket List of things to see (I ask you: what is on your list?). But ten years in a row?
Absolutely. One thing that is stupendously unique about the ToC is the random passerby. No other tournament I have been to has its proximity to the real world. Most of the time, we are sequestered at a club, private or public; for the rare portable court tournaments, we are usually even more isolated, stuck in parking lots, soulless sports complexes, theatres, nightclubs, ice rinks or more squash clubs. It means that we are shut away from the ebb and flow of humanity. If you aren’t there for the squash, you aren’t there.
Only at the ToC do you get people walking by who don’t know about squash, let alone the tournament. Each day hundreds of thousands gaze at the forty-foot posters in the main hall and pass through Vanderbilt Hall on their way from 42nd Street to the main hall or vice-versa. And many of them stop and linger. I was courtside at 8am last week and a couple of people were staring at the court like it was a UFO and peering at the oversized drawsheet like it was Sanskrit poetry.
One night this year I was talking with Natalie Grainger in the midway and this kind-faced British man was walking through the station. He approached us and asked if this was a squash tournament. I said yes. He said, “Oh, my cousin runs pro tournaments in Europe.” Natalie asked who it was. He said, “oh, you probably haven’t heard of him—Andrew Shelley.”
We cracked up. Shelley, the director of WISPA , does more than run tournaments in Europe—WISPA is famous for its global reach and for playing on the northernmost and southernmost courts in the world (Norway and Argentina, wasn’t it?) and Natalie, as WISPA president, talks with him almost every day. Natalie said, “Oh, Andrew is right over there.” I thought to rush over to Andrew to warn him, so he could come up with an excuse for not telling his cousin that he was going to be in New York, but I hate to get in the middle of family.
The ToC also produces the non-random passerby, which makes for a disconcerting twist to the normal, head-down commuting pose. The ToC is the only tournament I know where there is no clear dividing line between the place where you will probably know no one and the place where you are sure to bump into someone familiar. At other tournaments, it is the parking lot or the front door to the gym. In New York, you normally never run into a friend. But, at ToC time, in swirling, hurly-burly of the subway or on Park Avenue, you serendipitously bump into a squash friend gliding past on his way to the matches.