For the past two months, squash has returned to its roots. Scanning through social media, it is as if one hundred and fifty years has collapsed and we are back in 1870.
People are playing squash wherever they can: in parking lots, hallways, alleys, bedrooms, basements, rooftop gardens—wherever they can find a wall or two. Social media feeds abound with people on makeshift courts. John Musto has run many such examples in his daily squash show (where I’ve also appeared a dozen times to talk about U.S. Squash Hall of Famers) : https://www.manhattansquash.org
The most elaborately thought-out has perhaps come from Philadelphia, where the Joyce brothers (a keen squash family) took six sheets of plywood, nailed them together, painted them and created a court about the third of the size of a real court.
It strongly reminded me of my January 2018 blog (if it is too hard to scrollL https://squashword.ussquash.com/?p=176632388). In there I discuss a Harrow School alum, Somerville Gibney, who in 1894 talked about squash in the 1860s and 1870s. Just like the Joyce brothers, he and his brother created a squash court, not in a basement but in a loft over a stable. There they played for years. This was typical of the game back then. There were no standards to follow, no regulation court. Squash players then did exactly what we are doing now, figuring it out with what we have.
Gibney wrote: “Give a Harrow boy a wall—if a blank one so much the better—and two others or even one other, at right angles to it, with a clear space between, and the probability is it won’t be long before he is busy at squash.”
The pandemic. Our squash lives are somewhat the same. We can continue to work out on our own, to talk to friends on video conference calls, watch a ton of past matches and to even hit a ball against a wall (amazingly how easy it is to find a usable wall once necessity forces you to look). But one part of the pandemic that is more or less impossible to reproduce these days is getting on court with an opponent.
That means you aren’t bumping into someone, hearing them gasping for breath, seeing their anger at a tin and smelling their sweat. And you aren’t getting hit by your opponent’s errant shot. Being drilled is an inevitable consequence of squash. It has disappeared this spring, along with everything else about live, in-person squash.
Which brings to mind my favorite story about getting hit by a squash ball. It appeared in the New Yorker eighty-seven years ago this month. “Underdog” was a Talk of the Town piece, credited today to D. King Irwin, Walter R. Brooks and Harold Ross. Brooks was the immortal creator of Freddy the Pig; Ross, the great founding editor of the New Yorker; Irwin, who only wrote this one piece for the magazine, was clearly a pseudonym for a member of the Princeton Club of New York who saw it happen.
The piece, published on 8 April 1933, was “a pretty little story of long-deferred vengeance.” It described a Mr. Smith, “a large gentleman,” who went into the Princeton Club’s lounge and announced he had a squash court booked but no one to play with. “The first to reply was a smallish fellow who came out from behind a newspaper and volunteered.” It was a Mr. Jones (both nom de plumes to protect the guilty). They changed and went on court. Turned out they were both pretty good. But within the first few minutes of play, Jones had hit Smith with the ball a half dozen times: “a dull smack and a vicious pain shot through one of his mighty hams.”
Jones “made the remark conventional when such a thing happens,” which back in 1933 was: “Oh—sorry, old man. Hurt you?” Mr. Smith responded, “also observing the etiquette of the courts,” in a similar dismissive manner: “N—no. ‘S nothing.”
As he kept on getting smacked, Smith cycled through the five stages of grief. “Under the astonishingly accurate volleys of his opponent, chagrin at his own clumsiness gave way to bewilderment, then to rage. It became gradually apparent to Smith that it was not chance but demoniac skill that time after time got him into position and then drove that hard black ball from wall to wall and then, plop, against him.”
Rage would have led to something unsportsmanlike, but a small crowd had gathered in the gallery and “before them, the tradition of politeness and good-fellowship must be kept up.” They played on. Jones kept plugging or “soaking” Smith, the ball leaving “each time another round, red, white-centered welt.”
“At last came a tap on the door. Time was up. The opponents shook hands” and thanked each other. Smith, as he headed to the showers, looked “like an enormous pink leopard.”
Why did Jones hit him? Because many years earlier, Smith had been an upperclassman at Princeton and at Joe’s Restaurant had said something deeply humiliating to a first-year Jones. “For years he had waited for revenge, lurking behind newspapers, and becoming one of the best squash-players in the country.”
Smith never remembered him, of course, and even when the piece was published he didn’t know the explanation. I guess that means be careful the next time you get stood up for a match and go into the lounge to recruit a person to play with and a person lowers their newspaper and volunteers.
We are all a bit stunned this month by the sudden stop to squash around the world. Almost all clubs are closed. Those lucky few who have courts at their home might still be playing, but for most of us, we’ve put down our racquets.
It reminds me of the last time squash more or less stopped: the Second World War. In America, squash limped along. Famously, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the Gold Racquets tournament during the Sunday luncheon before the finals. Ray Chauncey, the tournament director, announced the news to a suddenly somber room.
Many tournaments thereafter were immediately cancelled. Some clubs temporarily shuttered; others remained open with a skeletal staff. Nearly all women’s squash in the U.S. stopped, except for inter-club matches in Philadelphia. US Squash waived dues. NY Squash hosted five tournaments in 1942-43—all entry fees and spectator tickets were donated to the Red Cross and the winners received Red Cross certificates.
The Red Cross sponsored an informal Red Cross National Singles for men in 1943, but no one considered the winner, Sherman Howes, a national champion. US Squash hosted the men’s National Singles in the spring of 1942 and then cancelled theirs until 1946; the U.S. women’s association cancelled theirs after Pearl Harbor and didn’t resume until 1947. For both the men and the women, the war halted marches towards immortality. For the men, Charley Brinton captured the last two titles before the war and the first two after. At the same time, Babe Bowes and Anne Page had taken all the titles from 1936 onwards; Page won in 1947 and Bowes in 1948. If there had been no war, these three U.S. Squash Hall of Famers would almost surely have accumulated many more national championships. You have to feel particularly for Bowes and Page—the six-year gap between National Singles, right when they were in their prime, was just unfair.
Team squash continued on, in fits and spurts. High schools didn’t stop competing. Haverford School, coached by Merion Cricket Club pro Bill White, played a full schedule, including matches against the freshman teams at Yale, Princeton and Penn, Haverford College’s varsity and, amazingly, a match in 1944 against West Point (they won 5-1).
Collegiate squash slowed down. The men’s individual tournament was held in 1942 and 1943 before it was shuttered until 1946; and the team championship was decided in 1942 and 1943 and then now played for again until 1947. Dartmouth played two matches in 1943, losing to Harvard and Yale 5-0, before closing down the team until 1946. Harvard soon stopped fielding a team: Hemingway, their home courts, was converted into a research lab. The Crimson resumed playing in 1946, but its coach, Jack Barnaby, didn’t return from his service until 1947. At Princeton, formal squash stopped in the fall of 1942 and informally in May 1944 when the university’s gym burned down, destroying all the squash courts.
Donald Trump is the only squash-playing U.S. President. He played squash at Fordham for two seasons in the 1960s.
I know. It is a bit of a shock. We’ve had many presidents with a passing knowledge of squash. Both George H.W. and George W. were familiar with squash. H.W’s mother, Dorothy, was a pioneering woman in squash and his father, Prescott, was a serious doubles player in Greenwich in the 1930s and 40s—his name is in gold paint on a number of champions boards.
John Kennedy spent time near a squash court while at Harvard (Winthrop House surely had courts like almost all houses in those days). In 1963 Kennedy welcomed a squash champion—Mohibullah Khan (and Roshan Khan, his distant relative)—at the White House and helped secure a job for Mo at the Harvard Club of Boston. It is one of the more famous images of the game. When I was doing my history of U.S. squash book twenty years ago, I searched high and low for a copy of it and, failing, inserted instead a stern portrait of Mo into the book. A few weeks ago Clive Caldwell kindly scanned the photo—Mo had given him a copy in the 1970s—which hangs on the wall at the Cambridge Club in Toronto.
Curiously, squash has been having a presidential moment, as many White House aspirants in this election cycle have been squash players. John Hickenlooper is an avid doubles player. Bill Weld played regularly while governor of Massachusetts. Deval Patrick ditto. And Kirsten Gillibrand played varsity squash at Dartmouth: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/02/senatorial-squash
The man blocking them, however, is the only President to have actually played in college. He played one year on the Fordham freshman team and one year on the Fordham varsity, the 1964-65 season. Here is a photo from the 1965 Fordham yearbook, taken apparently in the locker room:
The official Fordham squash records from the 1960s are gone. I emailed and spoke with a dozen Fordham squash alums from the 1960s, but, unluckily, no one who was on the team that year.
I knew Bob Hawthorn, the Fordham coach who was a legend (coached squash at Fordham from 1956 to 2010) but didn’t discover Trump’s squash career until after Hawthorn died in 2011. I emailed with Bob’s son, Bob, Jr. who told me that once he and his father were playing golf at Winged Foot and Trump, driving past, shook hands with the Hawthorns and said hello. Bob, Jr. also said that his father always told people that Trump was a good athlete and low-key off the court.
Gwenda Blair, the author of the 2000 biography, The Trumps, interviewed a couple of Fordham teammates and Trump himself about his squash career. One teammate commented on how well-behaved Trump was: never late, never unsporting. Only one real anecdote from the era survived: on a trip to Washington (to play Georgetown?), Trump parked his car near the Potomac. He pulled out some new golf clubs from his trunk and smacked a half dozen new balls into the river.
Here I am this winter on a freezing, single-digit day talking about presidential squash in front of the U.S. Capitol:
Earlier this month, the squash world, it seemed, gathered in New York for a celebratory weekend. It was the end of the Tournament of Champions, national Century Doubles tournament, a JCT nearby in Connecticut, college matches in the city and the Squash + Education Alliance’s 25th Jubilee.
At that moment, Apple TV+ released an eight-episode show, Little America. Episode Two, “The Jaguar,” is a fictionalized, compressed version of Reyna Pacheco’s experience with Access Youth Academy in San Diego. The timing was amazing: five years earlier at SEA’s 20th Jubilee, Pacheco had been the keynote speaker. For more on Pacheco, listen to her own story in her own words in an Outside The Glass podcast https://soundcloud.com/outsidetheglass/ep23-reyna-pacheco
“The Jaguar” has received glowing reviews around the world:
The half-hour episode features quite a lot of on-court action. “We’re here for the squash… thing?” says the Pacheco character, Marisol, played by Jearnest Corchado, as she walks into the squash club. There are some quirky, if expected inexactitudes. The urban squash movement, particularly Access Youth Academy, is distilled into something called the “Urban Squash League.” (In the epilogue, it says that Reyna is “now on the board of the Urban Squash League” which is true—she’s on the Professionals Board for SEA.) Marisol plays in the “2009 Ivy Squash Classic” (with its $25 entry fee). In the climatic match, the referee has no iPad or clipboard.
Marisol’s coach, the fictionalized Renato Paiva, is played by John Ortiz. He issues brilliant aphorisms. “Hitting hard will not make you win,” he says. “Winning is a series of good decisions….The ball always comes back and when it does, just make a different decision.”
Perhaps the best is his wonderful ode to ball scuff. “No matter where you play, ” Ortiz says, as he shows Marisol the right side wall, “you must know everything about the court, every angle, every wall. Every one of these marks is a different decision. If you listen, you can hear their stories.”
It has been eleven years since I got to blog about ball scuff, so I am thrilled to return to that font of literary genius:
At the same time, the squash in “The Jaguar” is realistic. Corchado might not have smooth strokes but she makes up for it with grit and determination, much as you’d expect from a hungary, novice player. Her main squash rival in the episode, Charlotte, is played by Jamie Pawlik Gore.
Wonder why Gore’s strokes are so good, how she can smack backhands and figure eight with such ease? She grew up in Baltimore, playing squash at Bryn Mawr School and was ranked in the top thirty nationally; then she played varsity squash at Columbia. Gore knows about urban squash: she volunteers at StreetSquash, and her teammate for three years at Columbia was Reyna Pacheco.
The 2010s are wrapping up and a new decade is about to begin. Almost everything changed. My list of ten changes:
Parity in prize money. Historic, long-overdue and just the beginning. Made everyone in the game rethink and reprioritize.
SquashTV. Ten years ago, people still said squash couldn’t be properly broadcast. Now it is the norm: we love the replays, the player reviews, the incredible points, the commentary, the nicknames. And it’s not just at major professional events, but at junior tournaments, the National Singles, the SDA. Streaming is now the norm. Transformative.
US Squash. Staff quadrupled. Tournaments tripled. Club Locker changed how squash players connect to the game. Elite Athlete Program changed how America develops and sustains champions. Squash Magazine became the global leader in squash print.
The merger of the women’s and men’s pro tours. It has meant growth, equity and strength.
Intercollegiate squash. Finally the game, at the core of American squash, got organized with a full-time executive director and an independent board. The level increased to where the best players in the world are playing college squash. Poised for massive growth.
Urban squash. It doubled in size; it went all over the country and all over the world. New facilities. One giant gala in 2015; another next month.
The survival of European squash. Ten years ago it looked very bleak, courts closing, national associations shrinking, tournaments disappearing. But stabilization has occurred. Six of the eight teams in the quarters at the men’s world teams were from Europe. The world’s largest facility is in Europe. Some of the best-run and attended events are in Europe. The associations are recovering. Two dozen nations come to the European Teams and upsets abound. It ain’t over.
Community squash. The idea of a non-profit, public, accessible, mixed-use facility (juniors, middle and high schools, urban and adults) is transforming the way grassroots squash works. Pioneered in Portland, now in Atlanta and in Manhattan and coming soon elsewhere.
The way we communicate and spread squash news: podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Unfathomable a decade ago. Can’t wait for December 2029 to see what time has wrought.
Pro squash and Egypt. Ten year’s ago, in December 2009, according to SquashInfo.com, there were two Egyptian women in the top twenty (Omneya Abdel Kawy at No.7 and Engy Kheirallah at No.14).) Now we have eight of the top twenty, including the top four. (And from that top twenty from a decade ago, only three—Allison Waters, Camille Serme and Annie Au—are still on tour.) The men are the same. There were five Egyptians in the top twenty a decade ago; today there are eleven, including, like the women, the entire top four. (But retirement has been staved off more with the men. Half a dozen of the top twenty from December 2009 are still on tour: Greg Gaultier, James Willstrop, Daryl Selby, Cameron Pilley, Borja Golan and Mohamed ElShorbagy.) (Well, since the last few days, we are down to five, with Cam Pilley stepping down.)
In remembrance of Bill Lyon’s, the great sportswriter who died last weekend, here are some sudden thoughts & second thoughts on last weeks men’s World Championship:
The soundtrack for the video reviews are fabulous, particularly the theme from the Pink Panther and Ghostbusters, rather than just some bass-beat pop music. Am I getting old?
On semifinal night the camera mounted on the top of the front wall was not working. Thus, we didn’t get that brilliant aerial view of the court. It is now essential for video review decisions—did the ball pop out enough to that to be a stroke? The camera shows how accustomed we are to SquashTV’s technological strides—it is much harder for us armchair referees to lean over to our neighbor in the gallery and confidently predict the outcome of an appeal if there is no overhead view.
The crowd at the final was predictably boisterous and loud and wildly in favor of the Egyptian player rather than the New Zealander. They chanted and cheered and gasped and clapped, even during points. As a fan, I found that it was wonderful—a real spectacle, a real entertainment.
This was the first time, on my fourth visit to Doha, where the 2022 FIFA World Cup was noticeable: ads about it on the television on my flight; articles in the local newspapers, video running at the airport, games being played at the new stadiums.
Geoff Hunt. He was on-site, helping coach Abdulla Al Tamimi, the Qatari star, who reached the third round and came within five points of beating the eventual champion Tarek Momen. It was Hunt’s last event as Al Tamimi’s coach, before he returned the day after the tournament to Gold Coast, Australia. As we watched Al Tamimi and Saurav Ghosal train on the afternoon of the finals—his last official coaching session—we laughed about how this would all be different in the States, that there would be enormous on-court fanfare at the U.S. Open for him. We did about two dozen on-court presentations during the Open; most events do just a couple or none beyond the trophy presentation after the finals. The American way.
One on-court presentation in Qatar that no one else has done, I believe, is a laser light show. It came after the confetti cannons had blasted out and after Momen had hoisted the men’s trophy. The show, with massive audio and visual effects and even fog, was pretty exciting, especially for the younger spectators. It was also super-current as it included Tarek Momen’s name as world champion.
There was a lot of talk backstage, because of some recent articles, about the famous 1996 Al Ahram at the Great Pyramids, the event that catalyzed the revival of Egyptian squash. A lot of people onsite in Doha had played in that historic tournament nearly a quarter century ago, including David Evans, Alex Gough, Paul Johnson, Derek Ryan and Amir Wagih (all lost in first round). But interestingly, Omar Mosaad told me that at age eight he was there that week and attended the finals where Jansher Khan topped Ahmed Barada. That match on 22 May, was a dud in a way (15-4, 15-11, 15-8) but it electrified Egypt. Front-page news. Hosni Mubarak driving up. Of course, only about three thousand people were there that evening; just like with Bobby Thomson and the “Shot Heard Round the World” and how so many many more people claimed they were at the Polo Grounds that day, I am sure there are many others who say they saw the Khan v. Barada final, the match that led to Egyptian squash hegemony today.
James Willstrop made his eleventh World Championship quarterfinal. A remarkable record. He’ll be thirty-seven and a half at the next Worlds—can he make it an even dozen?
There was also a lot of sympathy expressed at the tournament for the Egyptian squash giants Wael Farag and Omneya Abdel Kawy, both of whom lost their very young sons this month.
The next World Championship is scheduled for February 2021 in Chicago—thus, a slight return to the old days when the women’s event was biennial and the men twice had gaps, including the 2000-01 interval, without an event. It means that both Nour El Sherbini and Tarek Momen get to use the moniker “current world champion” for sixteen months, something their sponsors will surely like.
Speaking of timing, Redab Masoud, the media and communications manager for the tournament, had it down perfectly. The World Championships ended on Friday evening, and she gave birth to a baby girl on Sunday morning.
In the back of my head I had recalled one faithful reader of this blog long ago mentioning (back in 2009, it turned out) a Cary Grant film he had just seen on Turner Movie Classics. So, this summer, I tracked down the film. It was The Awful Truth, the 1937 screwball comedy directed by Leo McCarey (Duck Soup, An Affair to Remember; see: Sleepless in Seattle). https://binged.it/34jPf13
The Awful Truth was nominated for six Academy Awards and McCarey won Best Director.
The squash bit comes in the opening scene. It is a locker-room moment at the “Gotham Athletic Club” which is meant to stand in for all the men’s clubs then dotting Manhattan. Grant is on a tanning table and his friend, Robert Allen, strolls in twirling a racquet and practicing his swing. Then a quick patter:
“How goes it?”
“Like to play a little squash?”
They don’t get on the court but The Awful Truth does show that squash then was known enough to serve as a prop in a major film. It was about urbane confidence, like everything else with Cary Grant. “We could admire him for his timing and nonchalance,” Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker in 1975 about Grant. “We didn’t want depth from him; we asked only that he be handsome and silky and make us laugh.” That was squash in the 1930s.
Earlier this month I went to the funeral of T. James Hense, Jr. Jimmy was a longtime player and leader in Baltimore. At the reception, there was a lovely slideshow of photographs from his life. Many were vintage squash pictures, from the 1970s and 1980s.
One was this photo, a total gem, from circa 1979?
The poster says in smaller type: “Women can’t play squash.” At the bottom it looks like something about a women’s squash tournament and the Downtown Athletic Club. Perhaps one of the Bancroft Opens.
So while I was in Hay on Wye last month, I also picked up a copy of Jack Carrington’s Modern Table Tennis. It was originally published in 1938; I got a fourth edition from 1960.
In a chapter on championship play, Carrington briefly mentioned “special U.S.A. rules” about outlawing stonewalling and attritional, defensive play. In the 1920s, it was a big problem in table tennis. Matches took forever, and in 1936 a new rule, the expedite system, was instituted.
With modest changes, it’s still in force today for top-flight ping-pong: if after ten minutes in a game and eighteen points hasn’t been scored (games are to eleven), then the system comes into effect. The expedite rule is that the receiver automatically wins a point if they hit thirteen correct returns, thus putting the onus on the server to play offensively. (The serve switches after each point.) The expedite doesn’t come into effect often but has at some crucial moments, including the final of the 2015 women’s world championship.
Before getting the book, I had never heard of the expedite system. Carrington deliciously adds that in America officials could institute the system not just if not enough points had been scored in a game but “if they consider the style of play uninteresting to spectators or threatens to upset the schedule of other matches.” Holy can of worms, Batman.
The century-old expedite system reminds me of Ramy Ashour’s new RAM scoring system. Ashour has been dreaming up a new system for years, and last spring in a little tournament in New York the recently retired Egyptian launched it. The system, best of five games, consists of timed, three-minute games. Crucially, the clock stops in between points, for hand-wiping, ball-flipping, etc, and the time for points that end in a let are put back on the clock. After three minutes, the player who is ahead needs to win one more point to clinch the game, while the player who is behind needs to tie up the score and then win one final point. If the game is tied when the three-minutes is up, then the winner of the next point takes the game.
Much like with ping-pong’s expedite system, Ashour’s scoring system promises aggressive, offensive play, as well as some fascinating tactical decisions.