2007 ToC

The tenth annual Grand Central squashslamajamarama was, as always, the biggest scene of the U.S. squash season. When the Tournament of Champions does finally depart from Grand Central, as it surely must some sad day in the hopefully far future, we will look back on our late winter sojourns in Vanderbilt Hall with great wistfulness. We’ll probably never have it so good again. 

On the surface not much was new at the 2007 Tournament of Champions. The video screens were tucked inside the patron lounge; a few oversized posters of players dotted the walls; everyone sported giveaway Dunlop baseball hats; three hundred and thirty players from the U.S. Skill Levels floated around; and, to fulfill the latest request of the Grand Central security folks, blue and white netting spiderwebbed the sides and top of the glass court, so that balls did not ricochet out into the mewling masses.

But a lot of the home-cooked excitement, unusually, bubbled up on court in the early rounds. Julian Illingworth, our national champion, finally produced the PSA breakthrough Americans have been waiting for. In the qualies he overcame his sometime coach, Chris Walker in seventy-six minutes, 4-11, 11-10 (2-0),11-8, 6-11, 11-10 (2-0), before going down in ninety-three hard-fought minutes to Stacy Ross 11-7, 11-8, 8-11, -11, 11-9.

However, LJ Anjema had to back out and as a lucky loser, Illingworth took his place in the main draw. After a rest day, he played another marathon match, this time against former world number five Dan Jenson. Down 2-0 and then down 4-1 in the fifth, he kept his composure to win the first U.S. victory in a Super Series tournament in years. The last time we have had such a historic win was twenty years ago, in the 1986 U.S. Open in Houston when both Mark Talbott and Ned Edwards won first-round matches by beating guys ranked at the time in the top ten in the world.

The twenty-three year-old by way of Yale lost in the second round to David Palmer, but his result helped propel him to his third straight national title a fortnight later in Portland and it helped push him ahead of Marty Clark’s best ranking of 59, leaving him free to assault Bill Andruss’ 34, the highest pro softball ranking ever for an American.

Illingworth’s chief competitor in that climb is Chris Gordon. Ranked a dozen spaces behind Illingworth, Gordon also made it to the main draw, courtesy of a wild card entry offered by tournament director John Nimick and nipped a game off Borja Golan in front of a large crowd. The only one missing was his one hundred and four-year-old grandfather, Al Gordon, who lives on the Upper East Side but was not healthy enough to come down.

The third American story was Natalie Grainger. The Washington-based WISPA star topped Vanessa Atkinson 9-11, 11-7, 11-5, 11-7 to win the four-woman exhibition draw. Just before the ToC began, Grainger was finally able to rightfully place “USA” next to her name. After a process that began in July 2001 and that included the intercession of two U.S. senators, the native Johannesburger took the written, one-hundred question exam and at an eight-am swearing in ceremony became a U.S. citizen. To cap it off, Mark Powden, the husband of Washington squash guru Wendy Lawrence, was able to present Grainger with an American flag that flew over the Capitol that day.

There were so many great matches involving non-Americans, of course, most notably Amr Shabana v. Hisham Ashour, the oft-overlooked older brother of world junior champion Ramy. Down 2-0, Hisham surprised his stablemate and forced it to go five. And Ramy v. James Willstrop was the pipecracker to what could be the rivalry to succeed Power v. Nicol. With a black sweatband oddly on his non-playing wrist, Ramy won and went on to lose, perhaps for the last time in a while, to Shabana.

Speaking of Nicol, Jay Prince at Squash Magazine had asked me to do a write up of the Scot’s career upon his retirement last autumn, but in the editorial flow of the new season, it never happened. The only thing to say now is this: sixty months at #1. How many years will pass before we, in this age of incredible competition, travel and distraction, see that mark reached again?

Nicol always had a great mind for things non-squash-related (re: hiking in the Himalayas three years ago) and so it was a surprise to see him manning a booth in the merchandise midway in Vanderbilt Hall. He was avidly hawking the Power-Plate, a vibrating machine that a company was setting up in new health clubs around London and New York. Nicol credited it with his remarkable final year on the tour.

We talked about staying in touch and he gave me a 917 cell phone number. Turns out, he is living in Brooklyn with his new girlfriend, Jessica Winstanley, the lovely daughter of the lovely Melissa Winstanley. Melissa, operations director at the ToC, has always been the gracious power behind the throne at major PSA events in the U.S. and now with Nicol in the house, you’ve got to think that something synergistic could happen.

Baset; Heart Attacks; Quakers

As many of you know, I have been working for a few years on a book project with Paul Assasiante on the story of Trinity squash, and this season has been the most improbable yet. The arrival of Baset Ashfaq seemed to spell instant doom for the rest of the nation’s top programs  Ashfaq was the best softball player ever to arrive at an American college: he was coached by Rahmat Khan (can anyone say, Jahangir?); he was ranked sixty-one on the PSA tour the summer before he matriculated; and he had won the British Open juniors, thus becoming the first Drysdale Cup winner to come to play collegiate squash since Anil Nayer popped up at Harvard in 1965.

As an incoming freshman, Ashfaq (sometimes you see his last name as Chaudhry) was going to shove everyone down one on the Trinity ladder. But a funny thing happened. Midseason he lost two challenge matches in a row, to Shaun Johnstone, the bullet-biting Zimbabwean, and to Gustave Detter, the Atlas-shrugging Swede who saved three match balls against Princeton’s Yasser El Halaby in the Bantam’s epic 5-4 escape last year. So the greatest recruit ever was playing three.

Why? For one, Killer B, as the Trinity guys have nicknamed him, was having a hard adjustment to the life away from the tour. He grew up in Lahore and he turned twenty-one in January, so it was not a lack of maturity or exposure to Western life or even academics (he earned a 3.8 average first semester), but rather a lack of confidence. He was too good for the provincial American college squash scene, friends on the tour told him; his game would deteriorate. The 2006 U.S. Open in November then fulfilled that prophecy. In the qualies up in Boston, he struggled to beat Preston Quick 3-1, and then went down cheaply to Tom Richards in three quick games. Richards was ranked fifteen spaces below Ashfaq when he came to Trinity and three months later he was losing to him.

At  the 2007 team nationals, sespite a strained tendon in his right ankle, he hammered a previously untouchable Mauricio Sanchez of Princeton in the finals. No one had ever won the finals of the Potter Trophy tournament 9-0, but Ashfaq’s surprising win made that possible. And so Trinity got their ninth straight title and extended their NCAA-record unbeaten streak to 165 matches. His teammates carried him on their shoulders from the court.

Ashfaq, like most of the other Bantams, are rock stars in an individual sport, yet from the moment they put on their yellow jerseys, complete with their names on the back, they buy into the team mentality, the streak, the dynasty. The first thing Ashfaq did when he walked into Assaiante’s office the morning he arrived from Pakistan was ask about the championship rings Assaiante kept in an eyeglass case. Assaiante said there were eight of them, one for each national title. Ashfaq instantly replied, “order four more.”

Last month I went up to Baltimore for the BIDS, their long-running doubles tournament. As usual, it was a great weekend. Patrick Miller was inducted into the Maryland State SRA Hall of Fame  (what district association has a better list of Hall of Famers than MD?) and Margaret Riehl, the pioneer of women’s squash in Baltimore, received the MSSRA’s Achievement Award.

I heard the report on the FitzGerald Cup, the annual DC v. Baltimore match which through attrition has become the oldest continuous inter-city in the country (and world?). Washington leads the series 40-19. This year’s match had a long-overdue innovation, in which a woman played on Baltimore’s 13-person side. And the woman, Lisa Tutrone, bested Hunt Richardson, the veteran DC pro, 10-9 in the fifth.

But another Balty story was the return of Sandy Martin. Last August he collapsed on the upstairs doubles court at the Maryland Club. Andrew Cordova, the MD Club pro, rushed onto the court with a defibillator and restarted Martin’s heart. He was taken to the hospital, came out of unconsciousness after four days and now, six months later has made a full recovery and is back on court. Believe is the motto of Baltimore, and how.

It made me think of the many people who have had heart attacks on the squash court and not made it out alive. The most famous, ironically, is the one who died in a court tennis rather than squash court, Stan Pearson, Sr., winner of six national titles.

Speaking of passing on, I bumped into David Claghorn in the gallery at the Princeton v. Trinity dual match last month. His mother, Marge Claghorn, was one of the unsung heroes of women’s squash in the 1950s and 60s. She helped run the New Jersey States at Pretty Brook, one of the major tournaments of the women’s circuit. She was a delightful person with a lively laugh. And she was a member of Princeton Friends Meeting, where her memorial service was held in January after her death.

Over the holidays, my wife’s cousin, Tom Elkinton, was telling me about Will, a former colleague of his at the American Friends Service Committee . It was Willing Patterson, the 1940 national champion.

There are other members of the Religious Society of Friends, like me, who also play squash. Probably more than anyone would guess. Charlie Ufford comes to mind. Who else? On the surface it might seem strange, but not really, for in true Quaker spirt, you usually say “I am playing with” rather than “I am playing against” when someone asks where you are going with your squash racquet. For squash, more than most other one-on-one sports, has a communal aspect, a give-and-take, a clearing, a subtle search for consensus.

3 Responses to “Baset Ashfaq; Baltimore Heart Attack; Quaker Squash”

  1. guy cipriano Says:
    Jimbo- well written articles. You are always entertaining and very informative. I think that Charlie Ufford would be a good source of information re other Quakers who play squash. To my knowledge, our two Quaker Presidents, Hoover and Nixon, did not play.

    I believe you are correct when you stated that no team has even won the Potter Trophy 9-0 before this year. I checked the yearbooks to verify that statistic and it’s correct.

    Guy Cipriano

  2. Thomas Says:
    Didn’t Jahanghir Khan’s brother die of a heart attack while playing a squash match ?
  3. Rick Kagan Says:
    James –
    Your heart attack query reminded me of why (in my fifties, depite a variety orthopedic and circulatory insults) I am a lifelong squash player. BTW, after half an adult lifetime of dreaming about nationals I finally made it to New York so I could be one of those 330 amateurs roaming around at the TOC this past winter.
    As a young displaced New Yorker working as an investment professional in downtown Chicago almost thirty years ago, I started taking lessons again. Although my freshman roommate and I learned this unfamiliar, yet oddly addictive game from the great, and by then potbellied, John Skillman himself at Yale – we clearly in retrospect had no idea who he was and hadn’t availed ourselves of many training opportunities despite the endless hours we committed to play – for fun, exercise and intramurals at best, I need not make clear. The pro at the University Club there, who was not a young man himself would tell the story of his immediate predecessor who died on the court playing in his eighties (I don’t believe there were portable defibrillators back in the stone age). I don’t remember either’s name now, but the image always stuck with me.
    As an immortal twenty something this immediately went on my list of top three ways to die – most importantly having lasted into my eighties still able to play squash and such! The other two included riding a motorcycle into the Grand Canyon – soon to be dubbed doing a “Thelma and Louise” -and the last, not so unique according to these types of discussions, but probably not for publication in this forum.
    I still have the notion that this lifelong obsession with squash will keep me alive long enough for it to kill me. What a way to go! However, I did wonder how it might make your partner feel….

Donald Rumsfeld

The biggest jolt of media hoopla for the U.S. squash world this fall was certainly about Donald H. Rumsfeld’s game. David Cloud did a big piece on Rummy’s racquetwork in the New York Times on Sunday 24 September and it gave rise to a number of interesting tangents.

Cloud emailed me just after Labor Day. He said he was working on a piece about “Rumsfeld’s squash playing as a vehicle for a sort of mini-profile of him.” We talked on the phone for a half hour and emailed.

Maybe we didn’t talk enough. Cloud’s piece hammered away at the now-former Secretary of Defense’s on-court style, saying that he didn’t clear, that he trash talked. Chris Zimmerman, who works at the Pentagon, took me around the courts there in the spring and played a couple of games with me. Zimmerman was quoted as saying that Rummy “doesn’t play by the rules.” Larry Di Rita, a former sparring partner of Rummy’s, replied in a letter to the editor that Zimmerman didn’t know Rummy at all. Who knows?

But the real metaphor was not the Secretary’s on-court m.o. How many seventy-four year-olds clear especially well? Especially in hardball? CeCe Turner Haydock (who made it to the semis of the 1975 intercollegiates and, like Rummy, is a Princetonian) slapped Rummy in another letter to the editor for his bullying, his bravado and his bragging. I suspect she doesn’t like his political leadership style (nor do I); I assume she has not seen him play squash (he very rarely played outside the Pentagon, though the Pentagon does field teams in the DC squash league), and yet she still declares that “intimidation, willfulness and power plays are his methods for maintaining the upper hand. I would not get near a squash court with him.”

No, the point is what kind of court would you not get near with him and here both Cece and Cloud totally miss the story. What was fascinating about Rumsfeld was that the Pentagon built a hardball court in 2004 (not 2002 as quoted in the article)

That was the news. This is the first new hardball court built in the world since 1989 or 1990. That is huge. Fourteen years go by and then the Pentagon builds a brand-new court of a standard that no longer makes sense. Leave it to the Pentagon to build an obsolete court.

The day I went there, I did see two older guys using the hardball court, but really, it is a waste. And with just one softball court, the Pentagon league teams really struggle to play home matches, since few guys want to wait through three matches to play their own (a schedule, by the way, that is the norm in many countries; then again, in many countries league night=booze-it-up-till-two-am night).

In helping Cloud put the article together, I spent a fair amount of time with Farhana Hossain (another evocative name), who is a graphics editor at the Times. She wanted some sort of illustration that showed the difference between hardball and softball. I pointed out that the Times did a long, prescient article on just that subject, “Softball Edging Hardball Among Squash Partisans” by Liz Hecht on 12 February 1990. In it was a diagram lifted from Heather McKay’s Complete Book of Squash. I don’t own a copy of McKay’s tome, though I list it in my book’s bibliography; it has a nice blurb by Frank Satterthwaite on the cover. It was originally published, by Ballantine in 1979, making it a bit out of date when the Times needed it in 1990. Let alone in 2006.

But Hossain found it and then we tinkered with the text to make it more relevant to the article.

Hecht’s 1990 article had its own interesting antecedents. It featured a picture of Gary Waite, mullet and all, digging out a forehand drop against the tank-like Chris Dittmar. The photographer was Larry Armour/Squash News.

Hecht knew some of the big cats in the squash world. She quoted Penn’s legendary coach Al Molloy; national doubles champ Jon Foster; Darwin Kingsley, still at the moment the executive director of the USSRA (he announced “The growth of softball is inevitable but I doubt it will take over the U.S. game in our lifetime. The investment in hardball courts here is too great,” well, PK is still very much in his lifetime and yet blew this one); Frank Satterthwaite (obviously the go-to guy for quotes on squash ever since his wonderful memoir came out in 1979, The Three-Wall Nick and Other Angles); and a friend of mine, Andy Taylor, who was last seen running a progressive school in Cape Town in the mid-90s.

But she revealed her squash history ignorance with a Charles Arnold quotation at the start of her piece: “The ball is a very vexed question.” She claimed Arnold was the first squash pro in Britain (what about Charles Read?). She states that he “was quoted as saying in the 1920s.” Well, it was actually 1926 and he was writing, not speaking. The sentence comes fromThe Game of Squash Racquets, one of the early books on squash (I got my unbound copy from the ever generous Bob Drake ). She said that Arnold was referring to “the difficulty U.S. hardball players had adapting to the game of softball squash.”

Not so. The quotation appears on page two of his book and Arnold was actually discussing the various English standard balls. In the 1920s the Pommies were constantly tinkering with the standard ball, causing much commotion and discussion. Arnold says in the paragraph Hecht saw that he liked the “Holer Ball” that was commonly used at the Bath Club (where he was head pro) but that in the last amateur championship the RAC ball No.2, ,black on the outside and red on the inside, was used. Nowhere in the passage does Arnold mention U.S. squash standards or balls. The only time the U.S. comes up at all was at the very end of the book, when Arnold ran through some recent international matches and pointed out that American ball was “somewhat slower” than the British balls.

Slower not faster.

All this points out the truth about how hardball and softball diverged in the 1920s, that it was the Pommies who endlessly fiddled with the ball and slowed it down so severely that the “slow” U.S. ball eventually became much faster. See pages 40-42 in my book for how controversial this move was in London in the 1920s and 30s.

The article said that the USSRA counted 37 softball courts, 120 racquetball converted courts and 3,000 hardball courts. I wonder what the numbers are today?

Like Cloud’s article, Hecht’s inspired a cool letter to the editor. This one appeared five weeks later. It was written by Telford Taylor, who says he went to Harvard Law School in the early 1930s and had learned squash at the Law School’s famous squash facility, Hemenway, under Harry Cowles. He said that the hardball in use in 1990 was much slower and softer than the ball in the 1930s. This is a great point. Like the Brits, Americans also slowed down the ball dramatically; the 70+ was so much slower than the old Seamless and so much faster than the Dunlop/Slazenger ball we use now. This is a great argument to give whenever a hardball nut protests about playing hardball in a softball court—which is a great game and the one true way to “save” hardball. They say, “Oh, you are bastardizing the game” and you say, “what game? Where is the old Wright & Ditson ball, the real hardball before they ruined it with the mushy Seamless?”

Taylor also pointed out that in the 1930s the hardball “boast” or three-wall, which Hecht describes, was in his day what we now call the double boast. “Maybe that can still be done with today’s ball,” he wonderfully concluded, “but not by me.”

The Saints Go Marching In

Earlier this year I suddenly felt like it was 1979 and I was on Lexington and 86th Street. In Washington I had drinks not once but twice with Harry Saint and Nancy Gengler. The Saints were in town to play in a court tennis tournament (they live within fifty feet—or fifty yards, I can’t remember, it could have been fifty meters—of Queen’s Club in London) and to visit family, including Tim Saint, the former Haverford College star, who is now in the Marines at Quantico.

Nancy was a top player in the late seventies. She won the national intercollegiates in 1976 while at Princeton and worked as a pro at Uptown. In 1983 she reached the finals of the women’s nationals in Boston where she played Alicia McConnell. Gengler, described by Jean Strouse in the New Yorker as “a willowy twenty-six-year-old redhead who moves with the lithe grace of a dancer,” almost beat McConnell, who was defending champion. After splitting games, Gengler was up 14-12 in the third. McConnell won the next two points and Gengler, sensing this was her opportunity, went for a third game point by calling no-set. McConnell crushed a backhand cross-court, out of Gengler’s reach. And then won in four. It is a pretty good what if—if Gengler had won the third game and then gone on to win the match. Instead, McConnell rolled out seven straight national titles.

Harry was the brilliant entreprenuer who single-handedly changed the course of U.S. squash history by opening up three public squash clubs in Manhattan. The most famous of which—and the only one that survives, though in a drastically reduced form—was the Uptown Racquet Club on 86th & Lex.

Harry eventually sold the squash clubs and wrote a novel in 1987, Memoirs of an Invisible Man (Atheneum). It was a brilliant book that did very well. Expectations were low, with just a $5,000 advance, but as soon as people read it, there was an explosion of interest. It had a 100,000 first printing and was a huge seller. ”The prose is so elegantly knowing,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said in the New York Times.

The Dell paperback did very well, too; it cost $4.95 (those were the days). For squash fans, it was partially set in a combination of the University and the Racquet & Tennis clubs in New York, and many people enjoyed a parlor game of guessing who he had modeled characters after.

Saint sold the movie rights to Warner Bros. for $1.3 million (the same amount he paid to buy the Uptown building). In 1992 John Carpenter (Halloween, etc.) made it into a film starring Chevy Chase as Nick Hollaway. The film got panned hard. “Where’s the wit? It fades into invisibility while you’re watching it?” said the LA Times. It remains a footnote in film history mostly because Shirley Walker became the first woman to compose an entire Hollywood movie’s music.

The world has been waiting for his second novel. Saint told me that he was working on a couple of projects but nothing was finished.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash