Widow for One year

Let’s talk summer reading.

A few years ago I did a piece about racquets sports and film. I tried to cover many of the best examples for tennis, etc. but I hoped it would be thoroughly comprehensive about squash.

There was one movie I missed: The Door in the Floor, the 2004 film with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. There are two brief squash scenes in it. The film has a conceit that his squash court has a trapdoor in the floor. I’ve never seen a court with a trapdoor but I am sure there is one out there like that.

Bridges doesn’t believe in taking lets. His mantra: “Whoever controls the T controls the game.”

The film is based on John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. In it, Ted Coles has a hardball squash court at his home in Sagaponack on Long Island. It is in the loft of a barn. Coles said that the reason it is not regulation—it has a low ceiling and “one wall of the court [is] irregular in shape and offer notably less playing surface than did the opposing wall”—was town ordinances, but actually Coles built it that way on purpose to give himself a home-court advantage. The court has no HVAC so it is “ferociously hot” in the summer and in the winter the balls has “little more bounce than a stone.” And there is a dead spot on the front wall (in the film it is in the floor by the back wall) that Coles sneakily has marked with colored chalk.

Not only did Coles deliberately build an idiosyncratic court but he chooses weaker opponents, mostly tennis players new to squash.

Later in the novel, Coles’ daughter Ruth hits alone for hours on the court. She never makes errors. She says to herself that there are “only four good shots in squash” and practices those. When she plays against a boyfriend, she deliberately tins the ball a lot in the warmup, so that when they play he’ll be surprised she doesn’t make errors. (She beats him 15-8, 15-6, 15-9, 15-5, 15-1.)

In the classic parent-child match, Ruth beats Ted 18-16, 12-15, 16-18, 15-9, 15-4. It’s her first official win over her father after twenty years of trying. Later, in the ultimate revenge on her father, Ruth returns to Sagaponack and turns the squash court into her office.

Irving knows enough about squash to mention one of the core propositions of the game: “The terrific thing about hitting a ball that hard, and for that long, was that when she was done, she had absolutely nothing on her mind.”

Meadow Mill

In a few hours Meadow Mill Athletic Club will close its doors.

It has been a great run. The landmark club in Baltimore opened on 2 November 1992 and it closes today 30 July 2021. That is 10,497 days (or exactly fifteen hundred weeks) of squash.

Fourteen singles courts, two doubles courts and everything else you’d need: spinning, yoga, child-care. For a long, long time it was proof that a giant squash commercial club could survive and thrive. I did a story on Meadow Mill for their twenty-fifty anniversary nearly four years ago:

In the last week, there has been many gatherings and a Close the House party; and today the courts are booked solid, especially the doubles courts which were perhaps the heart of the club.

“There’s not a big financial return for a squash-centric club like Meadow Mill,” said founder and owner Nancy Cushman, “but there’s a great return in every other way. I will miss all the friendships, the conversations after a match. Seeing all the kids learn the game, all the success with SquashWise. It is the people: that has been the best part. And with the opening of the Arlen Specter US Squash Center in Philadelphia the same exact month we close, there is a real passing of the torch for large public squash clubs in America.”

Cushman, an inveterate leader and builder, is now looking for a place in Baltimore to put up a doubles court. One door closes and perhaps another door opens.

The Last Hardball Court

I’ve been doing this blog for so long that things like this can happen. Don Rumsfeld died yesterday at age eighty-eight.

There was a time two decades ago when Rumseld, then Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, was known (and unknown) as the most prominent person in America who played squash.

In 2007, in my second-ever blog, I penned a long entry about Rumsfeld and squash. I dilated at length about Rummy’s squash game, metaphors and mullets. And I dwelled on the interesting fact that the very last eighteen-and-a-half-foot squash court built in the world was built by Rumsfeld in 2004.

Donald Rumsfeld

Manitoba Squash

Recently I was brought into a wonderful part of North American squash history when I was sent a twenty-seven page history of squash in the Canadian province of Manitoba, written in 1988 by Andrew McCullough/

The first courts were built in 1909 at the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club on Donald Street near Broadway. It cost 10¢ to rent a racquet and 35¢ to rent a ball, indicating the scarcity of balls not bats; an annual membership cost $12.50 and included two squash balls. Women were allowed to play from the start, but there were women-only hours because to reach the women’s locker room or the squash courts women had to walk through the men’s locker room.

In 1923 Winnipeg started an annual match with Minneapolis & St. Paul’s, a notorious event called the Roy Milner Shield that lasted into the 1970s. In 1938 the province’s first doubles court was built at the Winnipeg Winter Club on Smith Street. In the early 1970s Manitoban players began switching to softball and in 1976 the first softball courts were built in Winnipeg, with four courts at the Court Sports club on Taylor Street. It appears the first time the Canadian Nationals were held in Winnipeg was in 1980, a year after the U.S. went west with its first National Singles in Portland.

The best story of the history came in February 1987 at the Manitoba Open. In the semis Mark Talbott was thoroughly beating Bill Turk. After winning the first two games, Talbott went to get some water. Turk’s twin brother Gene appeared and exchanged shirts with Bill and went on court. Talbott didn’t notice and had a tight third game with Gene before winning the match. Afterwards he said how well Bill had recovered in the third game after struggling so much in the first two.

Board games

During the pandemic, our family has gotten even more into board games. Two have struck our fancy.

Boast & Drive is a real joy. Joe Russell and Mark Anderson, the creators, had fun creating it. Their brilliant motto in emblazoned on the top of their website:

Hands Down, the World’s Best* Squash Card Game

*only

(They also donate a portion of every sale to SEA, the global squash network.)

The game itself works pretty well. Each rally can go quickly. Sometimes it is hard to either get started with a serve or get a winner card to end the point. Our sons loved the Taxi card, a wild card that replaced almost any other card, and the Broken String card, where your opponent’s turn is skipped. He wondered, though, at the Corkscrew shot, which in our family is still called by its traditional North American term, the Philadelphia Shot.

The other racquet-sport board game we’ve gotten hooked on is Reste. It is a game for fans of court tennis (or real tennis). The game was also made by an Englishman and name comes from a British term for rally, as in “good reste.” Like with Boast & Drive, rallies in Reste are short as you inch towards finishing games and eventually a full set. Our sons liked the tambours, the punishment for hitting the ball on the penthouse and the rare chance for a chase off.

Both Boast & Drive and Reste have entranced our family on those all-too-rare afternoons when the world for a moment is held at bay and we can just play a game.

310 days

Earlier this month, after another PSA press release, I was a part of an email discussion of what exactly is the oldest professional squash event still being contested: the British Open or the Tournament of Champions?

It is the Tournament of Champions. The inaugural Tournament of Champions, then called the National Professional Squash Racquets Championship, was held in Boston in February 1930.

With a leisurely pace, the event began on Saturday 1 February with six opening-round matches. One four-game match involved Jack Summers of MIT squaring off with Steve Gregory of the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York. Gregory, the New York Times reported the next day, “had a baffling service which kept Summers in continual trouble but he managed to weather the storm.” Another four-gamer was Don Martella of Wilmington Country Club versus Eddie Thompson of the University Club of Boston. “Martella hit some excellent corner shots which Thompson was unable to handle,” the Times wrote.

In one semi, played on Monday the 3rd, Harry Thompson defeated Eddie Stapleton. On Tuesday the 4th in the other semi, Summers topped Martella 17-16, 15-6, 16-18, 15-11,

On Saturday the 8th at the Boston Athletic Association, Summers beat Thompson 17-15, 15-9, 15-10. Summers, the Times declared, “was the aggressor throughout.” Summers, who had come to the U.S. in 1911, had been a longtime pro at the Union Boat Club before moving across the river to coach at MIT from 1930 to 1957. Summers went on to win three more ToC titles. He died in December 1988 at the age of ninety-five.

The British Open is ten months younger—three hundred and ten days to be precise—than the Tournament of Champions. The inaugural British Open was played in December 1930 in London. Don Butcher topped Charles Read in a best-of-three matches format: 9-6, 9-5, 9-5 at Queen’s Club on Sunday 7 December where Read was a pro; and then 9-3, 9-5, 9-3 at the Conservative Club on Monday 15 December where Butcher was the pro. Butcher earned £67, Read £33. Butcher won the title once more. In 1957 he emigrated to Melbourne.

Besides the U.S. Open, there is no other major event on the PSA calendar that was started before the 1970s. These are the two events that have been the global cornerstones of professional squash and they were founded three hundred and ten days apart.

NB:

—The women’s British Open didn’t start until 1974—the previous event, held from 1922 to 1973, was amateur-only.

—The ToC has undergone four more name changes (not including title sponsors) but it has, like the British Open, been continuously held each year. Since 1930 and before the pandemic, there have been nine years when the British Open hasn’t been held, while the ToC has missed seven.

—Both events have been played on courts of differing sizes and with balls of different sizes and bounce. The ball used at the 1930 British Open was almost twice as fast as the one at the 1934 British Open (a bounce of forty-four inches compared to a bounce of thirty inches four years later). One court at Queens was thirty-five feet by eighteen. The ToC, through its long history, has used more than a dozen different balls and three different court sizes.

Anyway, the record is set straight: squash’s longest-running, oldest professional tournament is the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, scheduled to reappear next January.

New Courts

Every year we have a bit of hind und her with squash facilities. Some clubs close and at the same time new clubs open. Squash, like all sports, is held in thrall by larger, often abstract forces that only a macroeconomist can understand, but the bricks-and-mortar reality can give an observer a whiplashing sensation.

With the pandemic, there have been some significant closures. New York has been hit hard. In Brooklyn, Cobble Hill closed after forty-seven years, termites, leaks and a sizable amount of history. Josh Easdon, who was the pro there for the last decade, made this wonderful farewell video:

More recently we’ve heard the news that another borough is losing a classic club: the Princeton Club of New York is closing. A stalwart of Manhattan squash since the Second World War, PCNY had a storied history of great pros including Charlie Costello, Eddie Stapleton, Rick Rescigno and more recently John Musto.

But the great cycle turns. Anchoring the game is the world’s best facility. This spring the Arlen Specter US Squash Center opens in Philadelphia. I got a sneak peak this week (two hours of peeking, in fact, as the seventy-thousand square-foot facility is just enormous) of the twenty courts, classrooms, offices and open spaces.

BUILDING THE WORLD’S FINEST SQUASH CENTER, IN AMERICA – A HOME FOR THE SPORT IN THE U.S.

Also this spring across the country, Access Youth Academy is opening their open-air eight-court facility in southeast San Diego.

Last week Racquet Up Detroit broke ground on their new eight-court facility in northwest Detroit opening next winter. More is coming. A half dozen other urban squash programs around the country are close to building their own facilities.

And regular clubs are coming on line. The most intriguing might be Kinetic Indoor Racquet Club. It is located in Boynton Beach, near Del Ray on Florida’s east coast and just five minutes from Interstate 95. The brainchild of former U.S. Open champion Wael El Hindi, Kinetic is opening in April with a very appealing variety of courts under one roof: four squash, two pickle ball, one tennis and one padel, as well as fitness.

Squash, tennis, pickle and padel: it is a dream come true for any racquet sport aficionado.

Dave Talbott

Last week we got the news of Dave Talbott’s retirement as head coach at Yale. It was sudden in a Fletchian kind of way—we knew it was inevitably happening at some point but it was still unexpected when it finally did occur.

Talbott is sixty-eight and he has now put in a full half century as a coach. For years and years he’d promise that he would step down. Instead, he kept on, clocking thirty-eight seasons at Yale. Since John Skillman arrived at Payne Whitney in 1934, the men’s team has had just three coaches, so this is a seismic moment for one of collegiate squash’s flagship programs.

Talbott was a legend long before he arrived in New Haven. He played for Deerfield Academy for two years. The highlight was a dramatic 18-17 in the fifth victory over Exeter’s Dave Fish in 1969, giving Deerfield an upset 4-3 win. Turning pro at age eighteen, Talbott rose to No.12 on the North American men’s pro hardball tour. People forget now but he was a very good player. “Dave is an outgoing, likable pro whose strength lies in a strong, consistent backhand,” read his player profile in the 1982-83 tour program. “Additionally, he has the ability to execute change-up shots (especially from deep in the court) and to retrieve seemingly unreachable shots.”

After working as a teaching pro at a couple of clubs, including five years at the Detroit Athletic Club, Talbott came to New Haven in 1983. Since then, a tremendous legacy. His teams captured six national championships and more than five hundred dual match victories. In January 2012 his men’s team snapped Trinity’s epic 252-win streak. He helped build the iconic Brady Center in Payne Whitney and hosted more than a hundred junior tournaments there—probably the most of any tournament director in U.S. history.

The loyalty from his Eli players was always startling—almost cult-like in devotion. It stemmed from Talbott’s free spirit attitude, his storytelling and his deep engagement. For many years he scheduled weekly (or more frequently) one-on-one matches with every player on the team. One squash alum told me after hearing the news of the retirement about showing up on campus as a highly-recruited freshman. He was shocked to find that Talbott trained and concentrated as much on the last guy on the ladder as the first. It was one of the reasons Yale often overachieved and beat stronger-on-paper squads.

People loved him dearly. So many players from other Yale sports teams came to dual matches in part because Talbott had befriended them. (He sometimes knew them better than their own coach.) Another squash alum told me that today there are literally hundreds of people out there who think they are Talbott’s closest friend, that they have a unique relationship with their coach. They all do.

It is an end of an era. With Dave Talbott’s retirement, there are no more men’s team coaches who were at their current school during the hardball era (only one original women’s team coach is left either, Wendy Bartlett, who started at Trinity in 1984).

Why did he step down now? Perhaps in part because his mother, Polly Talbott, the Talbott family matriarch, died on Christmas Eve at the age of ninety-two.

Dave and his wife Ann (perhaps the most active and astute squash coach spouse in collegiate history) have one daughter and a thirteen-year-old grandson. Talbott will continue to be a presence at Squash Haven, the urban program in New Haven that he helped found. He’ll walk his eight month old German shepherd. And he’ll gracefully glide into a collegiate eminence grise role that no one, especially him, could have predicted fifty years ago when he graduated from high school and joined the coaching ranks.

Head-Butt

This month’s episode of Outside The Glass, the squash podcast, is about photographs of a particular encounter, during the first round of the 1994 British Open, between Anthony Hill and Mir Zaman Gul. Steve Line took the photos and talks with OTG about what happened that day.

Both players involved were famous and infamous. Hilly was the real deal. He reached world No.5. He lost in the longest final in World Juniors history, 128 minutes and five games to Del Harris in Edinburgh in 1988. And he also had a quirky career for a top-ten player: after a summer of victories in small softball events in the U.S. in the summer of 1989 (on the old Grand Prix circuit), he only captured one more minor pro title in his career before retiring in 2001. Hilly was a talker—during matches he’d mutter and squawk and insult and sledge. I remember watching one match—it was in the qualies of the Canadian Classic Toronto in 2000—and Hilly was winning easily, just crushing it, but he couldn’t help but heap invective upon his opponent. 

Mir Zaman was also very good. He topped out at world No.6. In the early 1990s, after he reached the semis of the U.S. Open and had some other good results. Then he received a twelve-month ban after, as my colleague Richard Eaton delicately described it, “being involved in an incident in which goods went missing from a trader’s display at a tournament in Germany.” When he came back in March 1993, after an eighteen-month absence, he reached the quarters of the Tournament of Champions (back when it was held at the Winter Garden down at the World Trade Center) and the quarters in Hong Kong. 

But at Lamb’s, it all fell apart. They had never played each other before, but the intense rivalry between their two nations and their individual struggles with sportsmanship made for a volatile situation which exploded. Since this was 1994, the early rounds of the event were not recorded or broadcast, so it was sheer luck (or Steve’s innate industriousness) that enabled the world to see the head-butt incident.

The story doesn’t end there. Nineteen months later, in Cairo, Anthony Hill and Mir Zaman Gul played each other again. It was the semis of the 1995 men’s world team championships Australia the no.1 seed against Pakistan the number two. Jansher Khan topped Rod Eyles in four and then Brett Martin overcame Zarak Jahan Khan in a remarkable match: 7-9, 9-10, 9-0, 9-0, 10-8.

So the match was 1-1 and the last guys on court were Hilly and Mir Zaman. There was a lot of shoving and warnings and conduct strokes. Hilly threw his racquet and pushed Mir Zaman and verbally abused the referee. Hilly won the first two games  10-9, 9-3 and in the third game was up 7-2. Mir Zaman came back and won the game in overtime 10-9 and then the next 9-4. In the fifth, Mir Zaman took it 9-3 to put Pakistan in the finals. England then beat Pakistan, with Mark Chaloner hammering Mir Zaman in three.

Because of his unsportsmanlike behavior, the World Squash Federation and Squash Australia banned him from international team events for three years. This was on top of a three-month ban and £1,400 fine he received for poor behavior at the 1995 World Open in Cyprus.

But wait, there’s more. According to SquashInfo.com, Mir Zaman and Hilly played each other twice more, in Hong Kong in September 1996 and in Karachi in October 1997. In both matches, Hilly won in three tight tense games. Many of us also remember our disappointment in September 1999 at the Men’s World Teams in Cairo. Australia and Pakistan drew each other in pool play. The Aussies didn’t roll out Hilly to face Mir Zaman, but sat him on the bench and put in Paul Price—who thrashed Mir Zaman in three.

 It was the end of something that week: Hilly went out in style in his last World Teams, topping Paul Johnson in five even though Australia lost to England in the third-fourth playoff. Pakistan, at the same time, began its long slide off the pinnacle of squash: they came in first in 1993, second in 1995, sixth in 1997 and then, bam, in 1999 they finished 12th. Mir Zaman didn’t win a match all week.

Tied together in some profound way, both Hilly and Mir Zaman retired in the summer of 2001. Mir Zaman’s last match was when he withdrew in the middle of the second game of his first-round qualies match with John Russell in Peshawar, while Hilly stepped away in Cairo three weeks later after losing a two-hour epic 15-12 in the fifth first-rounder with Martin Heath.

Mir Zaman moved back to Pakistan with brief stints of coaching in Washington DC and Charlotte, North Carolina. He was given a life ban by the World Squash Federation after an incident with another referee at the 2005 Men’s World Teams in Islamabad. Hilly on the other hand moved to Cairo, converted to Islam and coached there for a dozen years (including coaching Hosni Mubarak’s grandson) before returning to Australia.

Atlantic

Many people have asked about the recent Atlantic article and the various responses, so here is a short, if bloody scorecard.

In the November issue of the magazine and online (posted 19 October) was a six-thousand word article on niche sports (fencing, lacrosse, water polo and squash) and the parents who shepherd their children through them in order to gain admittance to selective colleges. Here is the article:

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/files/niche-sports-november-2020.pdf

A massive tempest ensued. Emails, texts and phone calls flew. US Squash and SEA issued a thoughtful, measured joint letter to the Atlantic: https://ussquash.org/2020/10/in-response-to-the-recent-article-in-the-atlantic/

Then holes in the story began to appear. Eric Wemple at the Washington Post pointed out a few critical faults in the article.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/24/ruth-shalit-just-wrote-atlantic-would-readers-know-it-byline/

And a week later, after more Wemple digging:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/30/atlantics-troubled-niche-sports-story/

A discussion of the article came in a popular podcast, Hang Up & Listen:

https://slate.com/podcasts/hang-up-and-listen/2020/10/the-world-series-billy-beane-and-daryl-morey-and-rich-squash-parents-on-hang-up-and-listen

After the Atlantic issued a first editor’s note on 22 October and then a second note on 30 October, Wemple responded a third time: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/31/editors-note-atlantic-claims-deception-by-ruth-shalit-barrett-niche-sports-story/

(Here, for your edification, is even an article about Wemple and the scandal):

The Atlantic ended up issuing a third, more complete editor’s note and retraction of the article:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/squash-lacrosse-niche-sports-ivy-league-admissions/616474/

The New York Times summed it up: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/01/business/media/atlantic-ruth-shalit-barrett.html

Lost in the discussion were the three stunning Pelle Cass images that accompanied the article:

https://pellecass.com/

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash