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.
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.
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
(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.
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.
—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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
The deep relationship between squash and chess is long-standing. For decades, they’ve sat adjacent in a thousand sentences: squash is physical chess, etc. One of the most cerebral and celebrated articles in Squash Magazine history was the March 2017 essay “Squash & Chess: The Ball, the Brain and a Little Zwischenzug” in which our correspondent John Dewis dilated on the intersections of the two sports.
Two weeks ago Netflix uploaded The Queen’s Gambit, a seven-part mini-series featuring a chess prodigy, Anya Taylor-Joy. In the last episode, Taylor-Joy, and a childhood friend, Moses Ingram, play squash together.
The scene starts off a bit choppily. As you hear a ball hitting a wall, the captioning reads “[racquetball thudding.]”) There are a few anomalies. The two women are playing with wooden racquets which looks right, but they’re on a softball court with a glass back-wall, a gray tin, a very squeezable black ball and an unpainted floor. This just isn’t squash in Kentucky in 1968. (The show was filmed in Ontario, so this is probably a club in Toronto?)
The women’s outfits look relatively authentic (although the non-white shorts would not have been permitted in that all-white clothing era). People magazine, in reviewing the show’s outfits, wrote that they were “obsessed with the headbands they rock while playing squash.”
During play, Taylor-Joy and Ingram rib each other—”I thought you said you can play?” “I said I’m learning.”—and Taylor-Joy laughingly shrieks after whiffing on a forehand. The scene concluded with the two women sitting on the floor, their backs against the front wall, talking. There is a long, lingering wide shot that slowly comes up from the T towards the two women. Brilliant.
One of the most engaging examples of pandemic pivoting in 2020 was the Manhattan Squash Show.
Starting in early April, with the new Manhattan Community Squash Center closed, John Musto, the head pro, collaborated with my former US Squash colleague Laurelle Holley, as well as Cortland Tate and David Heller, to produce a daily video show. They completed seventy-four episodes.
The Manhattan Squash Show was a robust mixture of a vlog, instruction manual, podcast, history lesson and just some fascinating, geeked-out analysis. It was a great midday snack (they were uploaded at noon each day). Usually about five hundred people viewed each episode.
Musto hosted about thirty guests—I appeared on a dozen episodes talking about members of the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame. Other guests of note were Mike Riley, Andrew Shelley, current Team USA stars like Haley Mendez and Chris Hanson and Anil & Jean Nayar. Musto gave lessons on technique, fitness and tactics, mostly from parking spot 454 in his parking garage (with Musto’s wife Laura filming). The core of the show was point analysis. Musto screened, in slow-motion and real-time, a single point from pro matches, dissecting what was happening and why.
At the end of the summer, with Manhattan Squash back at full-tilt and Musto giving lessons all day every day, the show came to a close. Musto promises it will be revived as a weekly show this winter.
One thing I enjoyed was a replication of what was happening with disturbing regularity in my home while I was on Zoom calls: our dog would bark or our cat would come in for an ill-timed visit. Musto’s dogs and cats did the same. In fact, once Musto texted me a shot of Tiger the cat, evidently exhausted after perusing a foundational text for the Manhattan Squash Show: