Well, that was something. How great was it to be back in Grand Central watching squash? I counted up about eight hundred and thirty days between the end of the 2020 Tournament of Champions and the start of the 2022 edition.
Some much has changed in the meantime. More than once someone said, yes, well the last time we did this we had dinner with thirteen hundred people to celebrate SEA. That was about eight weeks before the pandemic hit the U.S. It could have been the ultimate squash super-spreader.
It was a different ToC for sure. The flood of matches early on (ten one day). The utter joy on Timmy Brownell’s face as he kept winning matches. The masking in the stands. The absence behind the front wall of Steve Line, who missed his first ToC since 1995, I think. The food hall across the way in Vanderbilt standing empty, a casualty of the pandemic (a new vendor is moving in before the next ToC in January), so no hanging out there. And the lack of coaches, especially in between games. A couple of players told me they miss that traditional part of the game, but a few others said that going without a coach had forced them to think critically and cogently, to figure out what was going on in the match on their own and that newfound self-reliance was helpful.
Still, the same hugs and conversations, the catching-up on how we’ve survived the past 2.5 years, divorces, deaths, births, marriages. The same referees: Sheldon Anderson telling bad fishing jokes.
And the same players: James Willstrop was back for his eighteenth ToC—he’s been at it in Grand Central for so long that in his first appearance in late February 2003 the matches weren’t even streamed online. That year Jimbo had to qualify (remember those?) by beating Ali Walker and then Shahier Razik (in five). Then he beat Karim Darwish in the opening round in five before lasting forty minutes on court with Peter Nicol, then world No.1 and the eventual champion that year. It goes without saying that not a single other player in the draw that year is still on the PSA World Tour.
Including qualies, James Willstrops’s career record at the ToC is a remarkable 40-17, three finals, one title. We all hope he’ll come back in January 2023. The all-time ToC win record is forty-one career victories: Nick Matthew went 41-14 and Greg Gaultier went 41-13.