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.