PK

Yesterday afternoon was a great example of the strength of squash. First, I attended the memorial service for Darwin P. Kingsley, III.

PK was a legendary leader of the game in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Much of the talk during and after the service was about his integrity, humor and generosity. It was great to see so many family and friends of his, including his brother Charlie (wearing an extremely vintage US Squash necktie—Charlie said that to honor his brother he pulled out the oldest one he could find); Episcopal and Merion colleagues; two of his successors as executive director at US Squash (Craig Brand and Kevin Klipstein); and his longtime co-worker Anne Farrell.

I first got to know PK as a kid. His locker was a couple down from my locker at Merion, and I had short little conversations with him as we each shuttled to and fro, heading to and from the courts. He was always interested in my career and life and what I thought about what was going on in the game.

I last talked with him a few weeks before he died—I called to go over the 1979 merger of the men’s and women’s national associations. He was then, as always, avuncular and helpful.

After the service, I drove over to SquashSmarts’ 2019 BestShotBall gala at Philadelphia Cricket Club. There I saw the direct results of PK’s leadership and vision: hundreds of people playing, watching and supporting squash. Nearly a half million dollars was raised from an incredibly diverse group to sustain a vibrant urban squash program.

PK believed in the power of squash to transform lives. At the BestShotBall you could vividly see where that takes you.

Pool & Penn—Making the List

What is official?

The College Squash Association keeps its past champions lists online:

Past Champions

For years, I have noticed two gaps there. For the men’s singles national individual champion (winner of the Pool Trophy), they have started their list in 1932, where in my history of squash book I started it in 1931. The confusion is over a March 1931 tournament at the University Club of New York. Players from five of the six active varsity collegiate teams (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and Trinity) sent their top players (Penn declined to send players).  After the semis, Eugene Pool hosted a luncheon at his house where a national association—what is now called the CSA—was formed.  In the finals later that afternoon, Eugene’s son Beek of Harvard topped Princeton’s Don Strachan.

We know it counted because at the time people counted it. Allison Danzig, the doyen of squash writers, penned a report on a squash tournament in Long Island in the New York Times in December 1931. The lede: “Beekman Pool of Harvard University, winner of the first intercollegiate squash racquets tournament last Winter, succeeded his brother, J. Lawrence Pool of the Harvard Club, the national champion, as the holder of the Gold Racquet today.” (Danzig went on to write of Pool as the “fair-haired, sturdily-built young Cantabrigian” who mixed “hard alley shots with baffling soft shots to both the front wall and the side wall.”)

The other gap was with the Howe Cup, the women’s team competition. A former US Squash colleague, Sara Kleppinger Fornaciari, told me five years ago that she played on the first women’s team champion in 1972, a year before the CSA’s list begins.

She dug up an article she wrote in the Daily Pennsylvanian the spring of 1972. Penn beat Princeton and a combined Radcliffe & Wellesley team. “I think I’m going to retire,” said Ann Wetzel, the Hall of Fame coach at Penn, after winning the title. It was a five-woman per team competition. Penn had five seniors on the team, including another future Hall of Famer, Barbara Maltby. Princeton, coached by Betty Constable, showed up “dressed to kill” as Fornaciari wrote: “The Tigresses with orange and black golf socks, hair ribbons to match and Princeton ‘P’s’ emblazoned on their warm-up jackets didn’t psych-out the less ostentatious Quakers. It worked in reverse.” Penn beat Princeton 4-1.

Each Penn player received a silver brandy snifter (not the usual trophy for a collegiate tournament). Each was engraved “Howe Cup 1972.” Fornaciari and others on the team still have their trophies.

Like Beek Pool in 1931, it was considered official at the time but because someone left it off the permanent trophy when that was  later created, they got lost in the slipstream of history.

Top Ten

Early this month, Nicol David announced that she’ll retire from the pro tour later this spring. She’s been an incredible role model for two decades, exhibiting great sportsmanship and professionalism, always flashing her famous smile. She set the off-court standard.

On the court too. The March episode for the Outside The Glass podcast will be about David but here I wanted to mention something that appears in the current issue of Squash Magazine. For many, the best milestone for an athlete is to reach and stay continuously  ranked in the first ten in the world. I remember talking with  the venerable Bud Collins about it—to remain in the Top Ten (Bud always capitalized it) was the most accurate way to judge a player’s career.

Jimmy Connors holds the record for tennis—he stayed in the Top Ten for 788 consecutive weeks—181 months.

For golf, Tiger Woods was in the Top Ten longer than anyone else—860 consecutive weeks—198 months.

Nicol David notched 177 consecutive months in women squash’s Top Ten.

It is remarkable. Month in, month out. Just incredible. David is thirty-five months ahead of the next closest women (her coach Liz Irving and Michelle Martin at 142 months) and twenty-three months ahead of the nearest male, Greg Gaultier, whose streak of 154 months ended when the rankings came out on the first of this month. Only one active player is still pushing in the all-time list. That is Laura Massaro, currently at 129 months.

The Top: All-Time Unbroken Streak Ranked in the World Top Ten

Southernmost Court

 On New Year’s Eve my father, my son and I got the chance to play on the southernmost squash court in the world. We were in Ushuaia, a town in Argentina, just a few yards over the border from Chile, on the Beagle Channel on the tip of Tierra del Fuego. It is at 54.8 degrees south.

There is one squash court in town. It is at Las Hayas, a hotel a dozen minutes outside of town. Las Hayas sits perched on the side of the Martial glacier. The squash court is a part of their luxurious, candle-lit spa in the back of the hotel—two hot tubs with a Bhudda frog meditating in between; a swimming pool; and a gym. The loudest noises came from clients padding along in their slippers and robes as they headed for their massages.

The court, without a gallery, was fine: a dark wooden floor, a handle-less door with a small viewing window and quite playable. Except the low, lob-resistant ceiling. It is just a foot or so above the red line.

I showed the receptionist the then-current issue of Squash Magazine. Inside was a feature article about the ambassador tours that Andrew Shelley has run for two decades.

Every Court Counts: A History of the Ambassador Tours

The table of contents page featured a photo of Nicol David, Sarah Fitz-Gerald and Rachael Grinham at the court at Las Hayas in 2007. They are pictured standing at the back corner with their arms lifted, their racquets touching the ceiling. More than eleven years later we stood in the same spot in the same pose.

In 2006 David and Fitz-Gerald had been squash ambassadors in Norway and played on the world’s northernmost court. It is at a leisure center in Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard, at 78.2 degrees north. After visiting Ushuaia and playing at Las Hayas, they had pulled off the very rarest of squash feats, possibly achieved for the first time: playing on both the northern and southernmost courts in the world.

Boast

Recently a couple of squash friends in Santa Fe emailed about the etymology of the word boast.

My Oxford English Dictionary starts off by listing the ancient spellings of the word, which can be found before the year 1300. “Their mutual relation and origin are unknown,” it says, almost throwing up their hands. “Various conjectures and comparisons may be seen in Wedgwood and E. Muller, but nothing to purpose.”

Love that: nothing to purpose.

The term, squash-wise, originates in court tennis, the ancient game that has been played for a thousand years. But where did tennis get boast? The OED suggests a couple of origins. My favorite is the masonry term boast, which is to pare stone irregularly with a broad chisel and  mallet. In other words, to smooth stone. That feels right, as least as far as my reverse volley double boast used to be concerned.

The other term is one from sculpture, meaning to “shape a block roughly before putting in details.” That might be my trickle boast.

A common origin is thought to be bosse, the French word for swelling or relief or bump, as in the art term ronde bosse or “full relief.” This was an encrusted enameling technique that became popular at the same time that tennis did, in the fourteenth century. Ronde bosse, the OED says with a dismissive nod, “has been suggested but with little apparent fitness.”

Until a word historian puts this to rights, I tend to side with the masons not the enamelers.

Qatar Finals

Last week I went to Doha for the 2018 Qatar Classic. For the first time I was able to make a Qatar Classic final.

It was as advertised: one of the most exciting, noisy, celebratory scenes on the pro squash tour. Every seat in the arena at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex was filled. Two rows of standing patrons ringed the walkway above, cheek-by-jowl with the production crews—SquashTV, Sports Data Labs and a large desk for BeIN Sports, with their anchors reporting live.

The atmosphere for the finals was unreal.  Hundreds of kids and adults slapped thunderstix, clapped, cheered and yelled. They held up signs and waved Egyptian flags. They chanted “Ali, Ali” whenever Ali Farag hit a winner. When Farag completed his first-game comeback (down 9-6 to Simon Rosner, he reeled off five straight points), I felt the roof was about to come off.

After the match I asked Farag about the crowd. “I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he said. “It was scary, extremely scary. I had visualized it before the match. I was prepared for it. But when Andy [Taylor, the emcee} announced my name and that wall of noise hit me, it was beyond my imagination.”

I asked Farag about how it compared to intercollegiate squash in the U.S., for a Harvard v. Trinity dual match. “It was even louder than that,” he said. “In college, it’s a bit spread out, it is a team event, there are other matches going on. Here it was just me. It wasn’t until I was halfway through the first game, at 2-6, that I finally relaxed.”

Another reason for nerves was Mohamed Aboutrika. The legendary Egyptian footballer slipped into a front-row seat after the first game, amidst much whispering among the spectators. After the match, Farag shook his hand upon clinching his victory. Then Aboutrika went out on the court and stood for photos with Farag and then tried to leave the arena. A swarm of fans blocked his path and took dozens and dozens of selfies. Aboutrika, hustled along by security, gamely stopped every step or two and smiled for another selfie. (People took numerous selfies of the selfies, a meta-matryoshka moment.) This push-and-pull lasted for about ten minutes before he finally slipped away.

Farag was almost as stunned by Aboutrika’s presence as by the passionate fans at Khalifa. “I almost met him last year in  Manchester when he came to watch some matches,” said Farag, “and to finally talk with him for a moment was amazing,”

In the days after the final, both Farag and Aboutrika tweeted out a photo of the two of them on court with the Qatar Classic trophy. The scale of squash v. soccer was apparent. Seventy people retweeted and three thousand people liked Farag’s tweet (he has five thousand followers). For Aboutrika’s tweet, a thousand retweeted and twenty-two thousand liked it (he has 4.5 million followers).

1968 National Doubles

Late last month I was out in St. Louis for a squash weekend. Two people in attendance, Sam Howe and Ted Simmons, had been in St. Louis a half century earlier for one of the most unusual National Doubles tournaments in history.

It was the Vic & Vic show at the 1968 National Doubles. An  unseeded, unheralded and unlikely duo of a greenhorn twenty-something Victor Niederhoffer and a forty-nine year-old Victor Elmaleh somehow won four straight five-game matches.

Howe told me about as defending champions, he & Bill Danforth tumbled in the quarters in a barnburner with Kit Spahr and my father: 16-14, 12-15, 18-17, 8-15, 15-11.

Simmons told me about his opening-round match at the Racquet Club of St. Louis. He and fellow member Charlie Cella thought they had a winnable match against Vic & Vic. Instead, they lost the first two games 15-11 and 17-16. In the third, the Vics had a match point. Cella hit a lob that bounded out of the court under into the bleachers. The players shook hands. A spectator retrieved the ball and announced that it was broken. (Holy home-court advantage.)

They replayed the point, Simmons & Cella won it and survived the game 17-15. The Vics took the fourth game off, 15-14. But in the fifth, they got leads of 4-0, 6-2 and 10-5. Simmons & Cella crept back to 13-9 and 14-10, but got no further. Niederhoffer hit a front-wall side-wall drop shot for a winner and they moved on.

It took fifty years before another forty-nine year-old man won the National Doubles, this year’s Ed Garno.

Skis in the Bathtub

Last week was the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of my first book: Squash: A History of the Game. It is still selling well and still the source of much discussion within the game.

Last month, two people that I was close to passed on to the squash court in the sky. One was Charlie  Ufford. I had two long paragraphs in Squash about Charlie. The paragraphs came divided, conveniently or inconveniently for him, by the first eight-page photo insert. So many people, flipping open the book, came to read about Charlie and his remarkable and still unbroken record of reaching at least the quarterfinals of the National Singles fourteen times. He was one of the charter members of the Quaker Squashers, a secret society of Friends who were friendly with a squash racquet (Willing Patterson was another). As the first person to receive the President’s Cup, US Squash’s highest annual award, Ufford was known for his quick wrist, his tremendous sportsmanship and his off-court leadership.

The other Charlie who died was my beloved uncle. He played squash at Andover and at Dartmouth. I remember playing him on Thanksgiving mornings, year after year, on a frigid old hardball court in Boston, desperately trying to finally beat him.

Before he died he showed me a clipping from the winter of 1968, when The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, wrote an article about the freshman squash team. Charlie played No.3 on the team and was unbeaten. The lede, by Ken Field, is brilliant: “Charlie Collier doesn’t look like a squash player. In fact, he complains that he is so skinny he has to wear skis in the bathtub to keep from being washed down the drain.”

The Day the Jaz Stopped

Earlier this month the story of Ajaz Karim finally reached its terrible conclusion. Karim, sixty-three, was sentenced to ten years in jail for indecent assault.

https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/national/16409477.private-school-sports-coach-jailed-after-sexually-abusing-six-students/

The assaults happened between 1985 and 1993 at a private school outside London. Karim, of course, was not the first squash coach to be jailed  for preying on his pupils. The saga of James Civello, the Shipley School squash coach caught sleeping with one of his players, has stretched for over seven years now.

Karim was well-known in British squash circles. I first met him when we both worked at a squash camp in Virginia in 1996. The next year we met in New York one day to talk about a squash coaching video he wanted to make. “Jazsquash: The Game for Life” came out in 2000 and featured Vicky Botwright, Daniel Ezra, Paul Johnson and Chris Walker.

He had an interesting backstory: born in Uganda, he had fled with his family after Idi Amin kicked out all Asians in 1972. He landed up in England. After leaving the private school where the assaults occurred, Karim coached squash at top-shelf London-area institutions including Eton College, Queen’s Club and Hurlingham, as well as a health club at Canary Wharf.

 

 

Faces in the Crowd

This month Squash Magazine ran a massive story (our longest ever) on the history of squash in Sports Illustrated’s weekly feature, Faces in the Crowd.

Squash Faces in the Crowd in Sports Illustrated

The article tossed us all right into the past sixty-odd years of squash history. It reminded us of some of the great stories of our game—Joyce Davenport coming back after a four-year absence from the game, playing squash for two months and winning the National Singles—and the more obscure and slightly random players—what ever happened to the young Frank Ward?

There were many more squash Faces than anyone thought. We ran a contest to quantify people’s perception of squash in Faces—guess how many times a squash player has been in it? We got seventeen guesses. Most ranged around seventy or eighty players and the highest was one hundred and thirty, eleven less than the actual number.

The article struck a nerve. We received numerous emails. Many people sent in clippings of SI articles on squash—SI has done more than a couple of dozen feature-length articles on the players—but we did respond to say that we were only talking about Faces.

The best letter came from an old and favorite correspondent of ours, Rick Austin. He enclosed a clip from the 19th Hole of the 22 February 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated.

It was a brilliant letter to the editor of his. Austin focused on the perennial issue of media attention for squash. He calculated that in SI’s first year of existence it had published four pages out of 2,200 on the game of squash. This was about .18%, far less than the supposed 1% of SI’s readers who might know and be interested in squash.

“Unless the Yale squash coach, Johnny Skillman, perfects and builds his court of one-way glass, squash will remain a mystery to many people,” continued Austin. “For a sport to become popular, it must be both seen and played. There are not enough facilities to take care of all the people who wish to play squash, for high court construction costs limit the number of available courts. However, I feel that SI’s few pages devoted to squash has helped to make the sport more widely known and appreciated.”

More than sixty-three years later, all you can say is: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

 

 

 

 

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash