Richmond 2008

Four years ago, there was just one thing that came to mind when you heard the phrase Richmond squash: the Price-Bullington Invitational. The PBI is a classic amateur tournament that features top college kids who are flown in from their campuses to the Country Club of Virginia for the weekend. (Started in 1970, it was originally the Holt Bullington, named in honor of the eponymous Richmond junior who died the year before.) Otherwise the Virginia SRA was molasses-slow world, with not a single twenty-one-foot court in Richmond and barely any league or junior play. Richmond’s main claim to fame was that it was the home of the good reverend, Bob Hetherington, who was a top amateur forty years ago. And then everything changed. 

Ted Price, the Old Dominion squash kingpin who now shares the honors of the PBI name, brought in journeyman teaching pro Gus Cook (France; Lakeshore Athletic in Chicago; Birmingham Athletic in Detroit; Meadow Mill in Baltimore), and Richmond squash blossomed. Cook started five days before Christmas in 2003 and a month later he had organized a pro squash tournament, the Virginia Open. Each winter Cook added a PSA star to the prize money level and increased the budget (from $19,000 in 2004 to $175,000 in 2008). After two years at the Country Club of Virginia, Cook moved the tournament down the road to the home of the Spiders, the University of Richmond. For the next two years, the tournament had a glass court plopped down in the Tyler Haynes Commons, UR’s student union which famously had fifty-foot high windows looking out on the a tree-banked pond.

While this was going on, Richmond squash exploded. The CCV put in three softball court and other clubs began the process of converting or adding courts. One intriguing new club is the Wood n Racket, which is a half hour outside Richmond on the way to Charlottesville. Besides some grass tennis courts, it has one squash doubles court and plans for a second one.

This week the Davenport Open, as the pro tournament is now called, is up the hill from the pond, at UR’s old Millhiser gym. It has a 400-seat capacity, cozy and slightly quaint with the worn brick and wooden rafters. With the huge draw (twelve of the top twenty in the world), it feels like just another big international tournament: The McWil truck (”Glass Court on World Tour”) is sitting outside; Martin Bronstein is interviewing the players as they leave the court after their match; local shutter babe Patricia Lyons is snapping shots; and Jean Delierre is tremendously busy fixing cameras and snaking cable lines for his television filming. Fans from as close as Norfolk and Chapel Hill and as far away as Baltimore and New York are coming into town.

Only at times it is a sleepy scene, like when there was a fifteen-minute gap between matches on the first afternoon, and Ramy and Hesham Ashour got on court to hit. Ramy was about as casual as possible: in his socks, borrowing one of his brother’s racquets and his long sweats dragging underfoot. Yet he still looked, with his flicks and flips, like a magician.

The biggest excitement so far has been the opening round match of Patrick Chifunda v. Cam Pillay. Chifunda is now based at CCV and running junior clinics all over town and got enormous home-crowd ovations—at introductions, after the warmup, after some of his airborne swan dives and after his match.

2008 BIDS


February is the quiet month in American sports. Except for the squash community, when it is nuts, with two or three marquee events each weekend. Living in Washington, one tournament I like to catch is Baltimore’s famous—or rather infamous—BIDS. 

Baltimore has a rich squash history and none more interesting than its fierce, sometimes absurd involvement with hardball doubles. There was the brothers tandem of Joe and Jim Lacy who won numerous state and club championships despite both being left-handed. The city’s first court appeared in 1937 at the now-defunct University Club, but the court was built not at the U Club’s clubhouse on Charles Street but in a hotel around the corner on West Madison Street (it disappeared in 1964). In 1939 the first Baltimore Invitational Doubles was held and it has occurred sporadically ever since; the 2008 edition was called the 65th, but in reality it was more like the 40th (war years; squabbling amongst Baltimore’s clubs; and they like to count the ten times the city has hosted the national doubles).

The highlight of this year’s BIDS was the action at Meadow Mill. Players got to watch an exhibition between Wade Johnstone and John White on Saturday afternoon, followed by dual match between Navy and Franklin & Marshall. This was one of the first (or the first?) on-purpose neutral-site college squash matches. The varsity were followed by Navy’s junior varsity playing against Meadow Mill; half of the JV were women—Navy is planning to add a women’s team in the fall.

The BIDS has a notorious reputation for fun. Players come from around the country. At the Saturday party, I talked to friends from Texas, California, a half dozen East Coast states and even a couple of guys from DC (we have no doubles court here). The BIDS program, compiled by John Voneiff, was packed with gossip, lists and history. Voneiff lovingly recounted a number of classic Southey Miles stories.

Miles, a BIDS bon vivant, was the head referee at the 1960 BIDS and the stress of the match and some of his bad calls led him to head to the bar after the fourth game to fortify himself with one of his trademark cold gin martinis; he never returned and, Voneiff says, no one saw him for five days. Two years later at the BIDS he received, Voneiff colorfully wrote, “a nasty spider bite while mistaking a giant flower arrangement in the foyer for a urinal.” Miles died in 1973 of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Austria at the age of fifty-two. His eponymous award, interestingly enough, has not been given out at the BIDS for nineteen years. Where have the spiders gone?

The 2008 BIDS added two more members to the Maryland State SRA’s squash hall of fame: Joe Fitzpatrick and Geoff Kennedy. They joined fourteen other Maryland greats (as well as four honorary members). Fitz was in rare form, parading around the party with a seven-week-old, perfectly composed, bow-tie clad grandson in his arms. Good to get them locked in early.

Trinity v. Princeton

Last week I spent eight hours in Ferris Athletic Center. Not much in the squash world is going to keep me in one place for that long, but this was no ordinary event. It was Princeton v. Trinity, which in the past couple of seasons has become the marquee squash day in the country. 

Atlas Lives. That was two years ago. The iconic Squash Magazine cover shot, taken by Dick Druckman, of Goose Detter in full Bjorn-Borg knees-to-the-ground exultation, barely summed up the historic nature of Trinity’s victory over Princeton: a freshman saving a match ball against arguably the greatest player in intercollegiate squash history to win a five-gamer and keep Trinity’s win streak alive.

One of the reasons college squash is so absurdly exciting is that this sort of nailbiting (or “down to the fourth knuckle” as Jack Barnaby used to say) 5-4 wins have been relatively commonplace. I spent nearly a whole page (141) in my squash book detailing 5-4 dual matches, everything from Harvard outlasting Princeton in 1953 to Yale breaking Harvard’s streak in 1990. But this 2006 match, given Trinity’s streak, Yasser El Halaby’s stature and the sheer size of the crowd (just how many people were at Hemenway in February 1953?) has to make it the most amazing dual match in history.

This year, 6-3 Trinity and as the matches came in there was never really any doubt about the eventual winner. (Trinity v. Princeton was really twenty-three matches, as both teams played full squads; Trinity won 19-4.) But the scene was pretty rich, with a huge crowd numbering probably around a thousand. Hundreds of texting undergraduates filled the seats. Nervous parents and siblings stood in the balcony. People flew in for the night, people flew in for the day. Much of the Dartmouth men’s team drove down from Hanover. The Yale men’s team, led by coach Dave Talbott, came up from New Haven—they arrived so early that they even slipped onto the courts and hit some. A raft of ex-Trinity players came up from New York.

The size and the energy of the match is unparalleled in American squash. And the level is pretty good. Baset Chaudhry is something special, of course, but so are two 5 foot 7 freshmen, Randy Lim and Parth Sharma, who are not on the team just because its nickname is Bantam. Watching Simbarashe Muhwati track down ball after ball is a delight. And he plays #9. And what team like Princeton right now has had three sets of twins on its roster?

So the Trinity streak is at 176. It is going to be very close to the magic 200 number when Princeton v. Trinity square off in the winter of 2009. With only one senior on each team’s top nine squad, it will probably still be a little bit interesting.