Watch 32 Women Squash a Rumor

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.

Anyone know more about it?


Expedite

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.

Hawkey

For the third time in the past two decades, I made my way to Hay-on-Wye. It is one of my favorite places: a tiny hamlet on the borderlands between England and Wales that has over thirty used bookstores. In the past, I was able in Hay to discover prized, rare copies of a number of classic squash titles, including Janet Morgan’s 1953 Squash Rackets for Women and Jonah Barrington’s 1982 Murder in the Squash Court.

This summer, the pickings were a bit slimmer (when I was last there in 2002, pre-Internet, Hay boasted over forty bookstores). But I did get, at one of the most famous of Hay’s bookstores (the Hay Cinema Bookshop) two copies of Richard Hawkey’s Beginner’s Guide to Squash.

Hawkey was a leading English referee and longtime World Squash Federation leader; he died in 1991. (Years ago I also got at a used bookstore his 1980 Squash Rules, Marking and Refereeing opus, perhaps the only bonafide book ever published on the subject.)

One of the Beginner’s Guide books was the 1973 hardback, with a rather pedestrian cover. The other was the much rarer 1975 paperback, with one of the greatest squash-book covers I know: the tight, tight shorts, the Fred Perry shirt, a ring on his pinkie and perhaps a Gray’s of Cambridge racquet? Most of all, I love the steely, clenched-jaw look of our player. Ready for anything.

HiHo

Earlier this month I played squash in Moncton, a town in New Brunswick. They had two twenty-five foot-wide softball doubles courts (fresh from the 2015 Pan-Am Games in Toronto). Movable walls.

As we were playing, we Americans in the court quickly found out that the Canadians didn’t follow the usual hardball doubles serving rotation of both teams serving in succession but rather each team had one player serve (you could come in from either side, your choice) and then when that team lost a point, the other team got a server. It was very confusing for us hardball dubs guys.

When we asked about the rule, the Canadians said that they used to play with regular rules but a few years ago the serving rule was changed for professional doubles (at the Commonwealth Games etc) and so the guys in Moncton switched. They didn’t like it much.

It reminded me of a decade ago when the PSA decided to switch from 15 point scoring to 11 point scoring and all amateur play around the world instantly followed suit, discarding 9 point, hand-in, hand-out (HiHo) scoring and lurching, without thought, to 11.

Much like in golf, with the pros hitting off the black tees and mere mortals whacking from tees further up, there is no reason why amateurs, juniors, weekend warriors and every-day hacks have to follow what the pros do and hit from the tips.

For squash, everyone but the pros should be playing to HiHo to 9. Junior matches, high school and college matches—most of the time, the matches run too short. I’ve seen bronze tournament matches start and finish in a dozen minutes, including warm-ups and breaks in between games. Playing to 9 would suitably lengthen matches and, of course, reintroduce all the rich strategy inherent in HiHo squash.

I can hear tournament directors saying, “Nooooooooo” as longer matches might mean longer days and court juggling, but for almost all events it would only mean a bit more court time for each player, which is the point, especially for youngsters. Professional squash is for entertainment—hence Ramy Ashour’s idea about a clock. That is great. But amateur play should make sense for amateurs.


Retirement Day

As the British Open ends today, I wanted to remember last Tuesday, 21 May. It was a unique day in the annals of professional squash. Never before had three top players all retired on the same day.

Within hours of each other, Nicol David, Jenny Duncalf and Laura Massaro all lost their second round matches at the British Open, the final tournament in their careers.

In one fell swoop, a sizable chunk of the women’s tour upper echelon from the past two decades exited stage left. Statistically, this was a major milestone moment. Collectively, they won 115 PSA titles. They spent 116 months at world No.1 and a further sixty-eight months at world no.2. According to SquashInfo.com, they played a total of 2,534 matches: they won 1,880 and lost a mere 654—a winning percentage of 74%.

Harder to calculate the intangibles: sportsmanship, global appeal, leadership on the tour and serving as pioneering role models. Extraordinary women making extraordinary impact.

One thing is for certain. This month there are seven Egyptian women in the top twenty. With David, Duncalf and Massaro retiring, you’ll probably see three more Egyptians there within a few months.


PK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pool & Penn—Making the List

What is official?

The College Squash Association keeps its past champions lists online:

Past Champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southernmost Court

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

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

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

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

Every Court Counts: A History of the Ambassador Tours

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

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

Boast

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

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

Love that: nothing to purpose.

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

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

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

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

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash