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/

Queen’s Gambit

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.

Manhattan Squash Show

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.

Each show, a bite-sized twenty minutes or so, was uploaded to YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuEPNeeqeiAXEqCVS0te1tA

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:

Tom Seaver

On the last day of last month, Tom Seaver died. The Hall of Fame pitcher was one of the greatest baseball players in history: 311 wins, 2.86 ERA, three Cy Youngs, a World Series ring and still sixth on the all-time strikeout list even though he retired thirty-four years ago.

Tom Terrific was also an avid squash player. From 1970 to 1995 he lived in Greenwich, CT. For a while he and his wife Nancy lived on the grounds of the Greenwich Country Club, and he became an avid squash player at GCC.

Seaver first played a lot of singles. In January 1977, the New York papers ran headlines about a squash incident: “Seaver’s Nose Broken.” Seaver had taken an opponent’s elbow to the face playing squash in Greenwich. He went to the hospital, got an X-ray and went home.

Four days later he informed his team, the New York Mets, of the accident. James Parkes, the Mets’ team doctor, went out to Greenwich to have at the star pitcher. Parkes was unexpectedly an expert on on the un-baseball-like injury of broken noses, having endured four of them while playing football at Dartmouth. He reported that Seaver’s injury was a midline break and no surgery was needed.

“I have a broken nose and a black eye,” Seaver told the press when the story broke. “Doesn’t everyone expect to have a broken nose once in a while. I expect to be perfectly fine in about ten days.”

(The postscript to the broken nose was that it could have been .001% of the reason behind one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. In June the Mets traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in the so-called Midnight Massacre; Seaver went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA that season and the Mets didn’t recover for a decade.)

Seaver’s most public bow on the singles court came in April 1993 at the Lehman Brothers Tournament of Champions at the Winter Garden in downtown Manhattan. Seaver and John McEnroe gave a charity exhibition before the finals. Seaver, the New York Times’ Robin Finn reported, played five times a week; McEnroe once every five years. Mark Talbott and Ned Edwards served as coaches.

Seaver beat McEnroe 2-1. After the match, McEnroe analyzed where he went wrong: “‘Return of serve, same thing that killed me in tennis,’ said McEnroe, who had the same problems with the harsh angles of Seaver’s squash pitch that he has faced in handling today’s power servers in a game that has outgrown finesse.”

Singles wasn’t Seaver’s only game. He picked up doubles and played regularly at GCC and Apawamis. In the late 1980s Seaver & Peer Pedersen, Jr. won the GCC member-guest and the Morris, Apawamis’ member-guest. They also successfully partnered in many New York City tournaments.

“Tom was a very crafty left-wall player,” said Pedersen, “seemingly at odds with his ferocity as a Hall of Fame right-handed fastball pitcher. He could hit the forehand as hard as Gary Waite but needed too much time to turn, coil, load up and let it go. But he moved people out with his huge lower body and took all the loose balls up the middle with that big bear claw forehand. He loved the left wall: short stroke, good eye and always played within himself, never missed an open reverse and rarely made a racquet error. Most of all, no one enjoyed playing hardball squash doubles with pals more than Tom.”

Looking back on a half century of play, Seaver was simply someone who loved squash . “He was a superior athlete,” said Pedersen, “one of the greatest competitors I ever played with and the truest gentleman. And he loved squash—just couldn’t get enough of squash doubles. His loss was a gut shot.”

Ultimate Squash Showdown

As the tennis U.S. Open returns to New York next week, we’ve been following the flood of new thinking about pro tennis. Much like the preliminary moves we’ve seen in the squash world (see: best of three scoring; see: Ramy Ashour’s RAM scoring system), tennis has long pondered ways making the pro game more exciting.

The idea is to make everything faster, more climatic. Cricket serves as a model. T20 cricket was invented less than two decades ago but now it is the most popular way to play world-class cricket. I still love five-day cricket—it is a novel, while T20 is a short story—but there’s no doubt that T20 has revolutionized the game.

For tennis, the pandemic put the discussions into action. This spring Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, created Ultimate Tennis Showdown, an exhibition league in France. The format: no warmups; matches are divided into four ten-minute quarters, played tiebreaker style, with a sudden-death point if tied; fifteen seconds between serves; no net cord lets on the serve; players took care of their own towels; coaching timeouts (where you can listen in); and cards that shake it all up (you can make your opponent have just one; you get three points if you hit a clear winner; your opponent needs to win the point in three shots or less).

Amateur squash won’t change—and nor should it—but pro squash could take a closer look at this kind of thinking. Maybe not for our equivalents of Grand Slam events, but for most tournaments we could add some of these ideas. We could have cards for giving a second serve (a major loss when hardball gave way to softball). For speed, we could reduce the warmup before the match and especially in between games and have a serve time-clock (less hand-wiping). Maybe a match tiebreaker—first to win three points or something—instead of a fifth game. And we could get on the clock.

Duel in a Telephone Booth

Remember what it was like the first time you played squash?

Earlier this month US Squash received a kind and large donation of squash magazines from the 1970s. Included in the shipment were a half dozen issues of Squash Racquets USA. The quarterly, the first-ever national squash magazine in the country, was published for a few years in the mid-1970s by Lowell Durham in Salt Lake City. It featured regular columns by Roland Oddy and Doug McLaggan, reports from various governing bodies and tournaments, wonderful artwork, and articles by Hall of Fame luminaries like Hashim Khan and Fred Weymuller.

The Winter 1974 issue of Squash Racquets USA caught my eye. On the cover was a bronze Joe Brown sculpture. The Princeton professor was a legend when I was growing up; most Philadelphians known Brown as the man who created the four giant statues originally outside Veterans Stadium and now outside Citizens Bank Park. He made one famous sculpture of a squash player—I believe a couple of casts exist today.

Inside the issue was a humorous and insightful piece by a regular contributor, Mel Leavitt: “An Open Letter to Future Squash Players.” It is written to players brand new to the game. He describes what happened the first time he played squash. Squash, Leavitt learned, delicately balanced on a cliff between sportsmanship and competition.

“Squash is designed to commemorate a duel that took place in a telephone booth in the late 1800s in Heidelberg between antagonists armed with badminton racquets and golf balls….A more apt analogy would feature two British gentlemen impeccably attired in evening clothes, each with a cup of weak tea in his left hand and a spiked cudgel in his right, swinging at each other’s skulls with animal ferocity, but never spilling a drop of tea, or losing their placid ambiguity of countenance. The game of squash racquets may well be homo sapien’s most magnificent contribution to the fine art of hypocrisy.”

Leavitt hated it. He lost four straight games without winning a point. In the fifth he finally hit a winner, and his opponent asked for a let. But he was addicted. Leavitt concluded, describing might be the essence of the game: “In short, squash is dangerous; squash is maddening; squash is humiliating; squash is pointless; squash is impossible. Heaven help me, I want to play it again.”

Pure Heart

Thirty years ago this week—on 4 June 1990—one of the most memorable pieces on sports was published. It appeared in Sports Illustrated.

William Nack wrote it. In 1973 Nack had covered Secretariat’s glorious run to the Triple Crown and written the definitive biography of the horse. In June 1990 Nack put together a long piece after the horse died the previous autumn. I remember reading it in Baltimore, picking up my dad’s copy in one of those transitory interludes between a term at college in New Hampshire and heading to a job in California. I picked it up because Lenny Dykstra of my beloved Phillies was on the cover and discovered a magical piece.

Some images have always stuck with me. I loved the lede, about how after he died, they discovered that Secretariat’s heart was twice the average size of a thoroughbred. Nack recapitulated the highlights of Secretariat’s career (who still owns, nearly forty years later, the record time for all three Triple Crown races), but it was as much about himself and what he saw and felt back in 1973. Nack talked about near fistfights in press boxes, about how Secretariat playfully grabbed his notebook in the barn stall, about a pigeon feather caught in his whiskers one afternoon.

But what I have always recalled was Nack’s ending. He described being in a hotel in Lexington, Kentucky when he heard the news that Secretariat had died. As someone who was twenty-one, invincible to the world, I was struck hard by Nack’s last sentence: “Now here I was, in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.”

https://vault.si.com/vault/1990/06/04/pure-heart-in-waging-the-most-glorious-triple-crown-campaign-ever-secretariat-made-racing-history-in-the-doing-he-took-the-author-on-an-unforgettably-exhilarating-ride

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash