Somerville Gibney

Last year I did a lot of research for the essay “The History of Squash in 10 1/2 Chapters” and a history timeline, both of which are at the World Squash Federation’s website: http://www.worldsquash.org.

At the time, I came across a fleeting mention of an article on squash in The Boy’s Own Paper. After much sleuthing, I tracked down the article. Boy’s Own Paper was a major British literary magazine aimed at teenage boys. The article “Squash Racquets” was published on 9 June 1894 and is one of the earliest mentions of the game in print.

The author was Somerville Gibney. He and his brother Gerald had attended Harrow from 1865 to 1867 (in Head Master’s House). Their father was a reverend in Lincoln in the East Midlands and a founder of the Lincoln College of Art (he died in 1875 when he fell through a skylight at the school into the model room).

Somerville Gibney was a popular playwright and novelist: he produced shows for the West End and the Spectator said of his 1891 novel, The Trial of Parson Finch: “It is certainly a well-told, healthy, and by no means uninteresting story.”

Gibney’s article on squash had a proselytizing streak, as it mostly was about persuading readers to build their own courts. He runs through the squash customs at Harrow, the  rules and the required equipment (a new racquet for ten shillings, a second-hand one for five shillings; and new balls for four pence, although Gibney sometimes would go back to Harrow and buy eight or ten used balls from students for six pence).

He said that when he and his brother were at Harrow, “we were both devoted to squash” so when they returned to Lincoln they created a court in a high-roofed loft over a disused stables. Their father cut a wall out, put a door on the spiral staircase that led to the loft and added, ironically, a skylight. The floor was plaster, uneven and at least a hundred years old; the side walls were rough and an oak beam ran over the court. Both the brothers and their father played many games there for years to come.

Gibney’s experience was commonplace: squash in the late nineteenth century, was unstandardized, inexpensive and makeshift. And fun.

Squash, Gibney declared, is “a capital game, which, without requiring any large expenditure of pocket-money or amount of apparatus, can be played almost anywhere where there are walls. 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.”

Qatar Classic

Last month I had the huge pleasure of attending the Qatar Classic. It was an amazing event, one of the best run and best promoted pro tournaments I’ve ever worked at.

In some ways it was just another event for me—watching and talking with the same players, eating meals with the same media folks—but there was often a slight difference. I noticed there wasn’t any alcohol on-site, something totally unusual in the West.

Directly next to the main entrance into the stadium, with its built-in glass court and permanent seating, was a large room. Throughout the event, I’d see pairs of shoes left near the door to the room. Sometimes just three or four pairs, sometimes a couple of dozen. Sandals, sneakers, dress shoes, flip-flops. It was the designated prayer room. Those shoes were a powerful symbol for me.

Everyone was very friendly in Qatar and would ask if this was my first time in Doha. I always had to say that no, technically, it was not, that I had come to Doha two years earlier but only saw the airport.

On assignment for Town & Country, I participated in one of those odd junket for journalists that you hear about. My editor asked me on a Friday if I wanted to go on a trip on the following Monday.

It was almost literally a whirlwind: I got to JFK airport that Monday afternoon and flew on Qatar Airways to Doha; spent six hours in the airport; and then flew back to the States, landing on a Wednesday morning. Here’s the result:

http://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/travel-guide/news/a6835/doha-airport-squash-court/

I don’t say in the article, but I was supposed to interview Stewart Boswell during my six-hour sojourn. After a lot of emailing, we thought he might come to the airport so I could interview him in person about Aspire Academy, the boarding school in Doha where he’s developing future champions. But there was a security issue that day and the airport was closed to all people who weren’t flying: I couldn’t get out of the security zone and he couldn’t get in it.

So one day at the Qatar Classic last month, I went out to Aspire and finally got that interview, with Boswell and his fellow coaches Jonathan Kemp and Geoff Hunt.

 

Monaghan

Last month Paul Monaghan, Jr. died. He was eighty-nine years old.

Squash, as we know it, would not exist without Monaghan. A squash-playing architect, he literally opened up the game. In 1968 he installed the world’s first entirely full-length glass wall—it was the back wall on the first back court at the Ringe Courts at Penn. It was a revolutionary move: for the first time you could see what was going on. All the innovations in the past fifty years—like the portable glass court in front of the Great Pyramids or in Grand Central—can be traced to that moment.

Not content with one revolution, Monaghan also pioneered the commercial squash club. In 1973 he opened the first public, pay-to-play club in the U.S., Berwyn Squash & Fitness. He added two more clubs, building the first squash club empire in the country. The last time I saw Monaghan was four years ago at the U.S. Open when we celebrated Berwyn’s fortieth anniversary.

Berwyn’s 40th Birthday: Public Squash Reaches Milestone

At Monaghan’s funeral service, we sang the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings” which includes the line:

And He will raise you up on eagles’ wings
Bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun
And hold you in the palm of His hand.

Monaghan did shine like the sun and all of us in the game of squash are thankful.

Carter Fergusson

Last week I went to the memorial service for A. Carter Fergusson. It was also a service for his wife Dudy.

Naturally.

They were always together. Carter was the Cal Ripkin of squash, playing in the National Singles an unprecedented sixty-two straight years; and Dudy was the  most loyal spouse in squash history, as she came to fifty-five straight National Singles. She missed a few in the early years, not from disinterest but from parenting.

The best story, one repeated by Ben Heckscher in his eulogy at the service, was about the 1952 National Singles. It was at Yale’s Payne Whitney in New Haven. Carter beat a British doctor in the first round in three; then J. Wyer from New York 16-13 in the fifth. In the quarterfinals on Saturday evening, he outlasted Henri Salaun, the great champion, 15-9 in the fifth—a fantastic result.

He was awakened early Sunday morning by a phone call (Carter told me about trundling down a drafty cold hallway to a phone) from Dudy. She had just given birth to their daughter Margie. In a classic line, Carter asked Dudy, “Well, can I stay for the lunch?”

He then went out and played in the semis. He lost in four to Harry Conlon, the eventual winner. (I suspect he had trouble concentrating.) He stayed for lunch and then took the train back to Philadelphia.

Carter was a great player. A few weeks ago I saw his trophy cabinet. Three times he won the Woodruff-Nee at the University Club of Washington (and was runner-up twice). He had a number of Lockett Cup trophies from winning that tri-city event. He  lost in the finals of the 1948 Gold Racquets to Diehl Mateer and in the finals of the 1959 Harry Cowles to Henri Salaun. In 1951 he won the club championship at Merion Cricket—the hardest club championship in the country—and lost in the finals there in 1950, 1954 and 1957. He lost in the finals of the national 40+ in 1965 to Vic Seixas (his wife Dolly Ann was at the service).

The U.S. Open starts this week and Carter even had a trophy from winning the consolation draw in 1959. Any thoughts to reviving a consolation draw? Wouldn’t that be neat.

One trophy was missing. Carter played in sixty-two straight National Singles. In 1948 in his very first year at the Nationals, he won a national title when he lead the Philadelphia team to victory in the five-man tournament. Oh, if it always was so easy. The following year, the Philly team lost in the finals (Carter had the trophy). And then sixty more years of never winning a second national title. I assumed that would be the most prized possession of all, but it wasn’t.

It was perseverance, resilience, grit that brought Carter Fergusson every winter back to the tournament, year after year after year, not some trophy. And it was something else. It was the people. It was his love of the squash community. It was his friends.

“Well, can I stay for the lunch?”

 

 

 

Rex

Rex Pennington died last weekend. He was ninety-four.

Rex was a classic squash friend. He born in 1923.  First played squash in 1931, at age eight. He got very good. Champion of Rhodes University. As a Rhodes Scholar, he was the champion of Oxford and captained the Blues for two seasons. He was elected to the Jesters Club in 1948, the first South African to be honored that way, and Rex helped found the South African branch a decade later. Later the champion of Western Province.

He and his wife Sarah were a fascinating couple. They had lived for a couple of years in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City. Rex taught at Casady School. They were incredibly hospitable. The first time I met Rex, it was at a small airfield outside Johannesburg. I had called him the day before, asking if I could stay with him for a few days (I was twenty) and that it looked like I had miraculously hitched a ride on a private airplane from Natal to Joburg. We landed at sunset and there, on the tarmac, was Rex.

The next day we played squash. He was sixty-six at the time and he beat me, rather easily. This was May 1989. I had barely played any softball, but still, I was twenty, fit and fresh from a season on the varsity of a top-ten U.S. collegiate program. It just proved, early on to me, how much more of a challenge softball was.

Rex was good, nonetheless—he got to the semis of the 1997 World Masters 65+ division, at the age of seventy-four.

He was a giant in South Africa. He was headmaster of Michaelhouse, one of the country’s leading boarding schools, from 1969 to 1977. Then in the early 1980s he was the founding head of the first private school in Soweto, Pace. Naturally, he installed squash courts, the first in the township.

Over the years, we spent many delightful evenings together thereafter, at his home in Melville, his farm in the Eastern Transvaal, in New York. He was always generous and kind. When I was staying with him in 2007 and needed a lift to Pretoria, an hour away. No problem. We had a delightful hour chatting, he dropped me off with a wave and headed home. That is how a squash friend is, even at the age of eighty-four.

Sarah and their son Steuart wrote this poem for his seventieth birthday: 

ODE TO A FAMOUS JESTER – REX PENNINGTON

When you warm up I tremble a little

The quality of your service is difficult to return
When you rally I feel I should surrender
When you raise your racquet I quiver with anticipation
Your hand-in makes me squirm with delight
Your hand-out makes me sigh with relief
Your boasting is always well disguised
Your knack for the nick catches me unawares
Your sportsmanship is a legendary essay
 And… as you put it away
You will always be my Sexy Rexy

Eligible

I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s lovely 2016 novel, Eligible.

In it is a small running theme about Jasper. He is a New York journalist working on a story for Sporty, a major sports magazine, on Cincinnati’s squash scene. “Cincinnati is like the world headquarters for squash, right?” Jasper asks the main character Liz. “They send an insane number of kids to play in Ivy League schools every year. But why Cincinnati.”

Jasper tells Liz that he’s giving up a book idea on fly-fishing in Idaho and thinking of one about squash prodigies. “Fly-fishing is more romantic than squash,” Liz said. “Would’t you rather do your reporting standing in a beautiful stream instead of under fluorescent lights?”

Very very good question that we all ask ourselves when the weather is nice. And the leading edge of our discussions about why squash isn’t more popular in tough-weather locales.

Jasper’s piece eventually does come out in Sporty. It is mostly about an eleven-year-old boy, his intense father and his coach. He didn’t answer the question, why Cincinnati, especially because it isn’t the world headquarters, notwithstanding all the good work of Don Mills, Nathan Dugan, the Wyant clan and Neal Tew.

Munden

Last month I finished a six-thousand-word essay and extensive timeline on the history of squash that was posted at the World Squash Federation’s website. in 2002 I had written an earlier version  and it was definitely time to update the piece—so much has changed in the past fifteen years—and add a timeline for accessibility.

In researching the piece, I came across a couple of tidbits that I just couldn’t track down fifteen  years ago in the digitally darker ages of the internet. I was especially interested in the spread of the game beyond Harrow. In the 1880s courts started to appear around England; usually the first to be mentioned is one at Oxford that an old Harrovian built in 1883.

Following up a lead, I contacted Henry Holland-Hibbert. His  great grandparents put up a stand-alone court in the late 1880s at their Herefordshire estate, Munden. He told me that the court was constructed of timber on a solid base with large glass panels in both sides of a pitched roof. It was known as the Racquets Court.

Since there was no standardized court for squash in the 1880s, it isn’t surprising to note that Holland-Hibbert said the court was larger than a regular court today.

The family, interestingly, were not from Harrow but rather Eton. Both his great uncle, Thurstan Holland-Hibbert, and his grandfather, Wilfred Holland-Hibbert, were keeper (captain) of racquets at Eton. So the game, evidently, had spread from Harrow to Eton enough in the 1880s for some old boys to want to build a court.

Growing up, Holland-Hibbert only knew of the court as a dilapidated  garden shed. In the 1990s it was in a very poor state of repair. As both repair or replacement were prohibitively expensive, they demolished it.

He kindly sent me two photos: one from a family album of the outside of the court in 1905 and a current photo. The back wall remains, about a hundred and thirty years after it was built. You can still see the dark blue service line across the white wood.

I believe it must be the oldest remnant of a squash court in the world.

Love is Love is Love

My article in the June issue of Squash Magazine on Jenny Duncalf & Rachael Grinham probably got as much global attention as any feature I have done in the past twenty years.

Love is Love is Love: Jenny Duncalf & Rachael Grinham—Champions On Court, Pioneers Off Court

With the help of Laurelle Holley and Chris McClintick at US Squash, Nathan Clarke at the PSA and Howard Harding at the World Squash Federation, the story went viral. For a couple of days it was trending pretty high in social media: thousands of retweets and likes and shares and impressions.  Jenny and Rachael did interviews. Articles started to appear.

PSA: https://psaworldtour.com/news/view/4768/duncalf-grinham-become-first-openly-gay-professional-squash-players-after-revealing-relationship

Pink News: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/05/26/world-squash-champions-come-out-as-gay-and-reveal-they-are-a-couple/

 

What was most gratifying, saddening and inspiring were two responses from other gay squash players. It was so powerful to read Jonathan MacBride-Young in Edinburgh writing about how long he had waited for a professional player to come out. “I have played squash for twenty-eight years. It’s my sport. I love it. I play, I coach, I referee, I encourage others to play my sport. I didn’t have a role model for me as a gay man in squash. Today I do.”

He also had the best line: “Just like the buses, you wait ages for one to come along and then two come along at once.”

http://leapsports.org/blog/world-squash-a-journey-to-diversity

 

The other response was from Alexia Clonda, the Australian former world No.5:

The Fear of Coming Out: Alexia Clonda reveals the pain she endured on tour

Painted Floors

Last week a package arrived from Sam Howe. Inside were two DVDs: twelve minutes of old 8mm footage from two matches. Black-and-white, no sound. Both were shot from overhead, a reminder of the pre-glass-wall limitations of old.

One video, taken by PJ Smith, was of the finals of the 1964  men’s singles club championship at Merion Cricket Club. In it, Diehl Mateer, clad as usual in his traditional white flannel pants, faced off against Howe. I loved seeing Mateer pause before serving, eyeing the from wall and then the long sweep of his lob serve. They often played each other in the tournament; Howe won it that  year.

The other video was made by Raoul de Villafranca at the finals of the 1970 National Singles at Penn. It was Anil Nayar v. Howe. They had played each other the year before in Rochester—Howe had saved a match point in the fourth game and at 13-all in the fifth, he lost a contact lens and Nayar won the next two points. At Penn, Nayar came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 15-11 in the fifth.

Again, neat to see Nayar and how he choked up, like a softball player, on his racquet. His quickness. Howe’s power. The film includes them shaking hands at the end of the match. Ted Friel, like everyone else in a suit, handed out the trophies afterwards.

Both videos forcibly reminded me of the old custom of painting the floors white. That was the norm in North America up until the late 1980s. It made for slippery surfaces at times (you can see Howe wiping the soles of his sneakers with a towel before the match) but did enable the ball to be seen better.

 

Copa

The twenty-eighth Copa Wadsworth just finished this morning at Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. It is one of the most special traditions in North American squash.

And unheralded. I left the Copa party last night to head around the corner to the BestShotBall benefit for SquashSmarts at Philadelphia Cricket Club. Perhaps a dozen people, all well-connected, longtime players and coaches, asked me if as in previous years I had played in the games as a part of the SquashSmarts benefit and I said, no, I had played in the Copa Wadsworth at GCC and they said, what is the Copa?

The Copa was founded by and named after George Wadsworth, an American ex-pat who lived in Mexico City for decades. In 1990 in Atlantic City he launched the U.S. v. Mexico match. It is played in Mexico City every even year and in a U.S. city every odd year. (It was in St. Louis in 2015; it will be in San Francisco in 2019.)

Wadsworth was the  ultimate global citizen. He was born in Constantinople; grew up in Bucharest, Cairo, Tehran, Beirut, and Jerusalem; went to Nicols School in Buffalo; was a Princeton ’44; and fought at Iwo Jima. In Mexico he owned a lightbulb factory. When he bought a house that had a squash court, he finally took up the game he had known about for decades.

A couple of stalwarts help oversee the U.S. side. One is Alan Fox, who despite having endured a stroke in January, came (accompanied by the ever-generous Terry Eagle) to Philadelphia. The Copa is similar to the Lapham-Grant, the annual U.S. v. Canada match, and three players—Eagle, Bob Mosier and Peter Susskind—did the North American Double™ and played in the Lapham last weekend in Calgary and the Copa this weekend in Philadelphia. (Susskind actually didn’t play in the Copa; he suffered a fractured elbow in the Lapham but, like so many, loves the Copa and so came anyway.)

The Mexican side, since Wadsworth death in June 2011 at the age of eighty-nine, has been led by Purdy Jordan. Another American ex-pat who grew up and lives in Mexico City, Jordan is a mere eighty-seven. He has a standing doubles game every Saturday morning.

I had a tremendously fun time playing singles and doubles with and against the Mexican side. They were a mix of Copa veterans, like Ricardo Solis who has played in more than half of the Copa’s, and rookies like me. I had a great couple of games with Mike, a twenty-three year-old who had just picked up squash after a dozen years of playing American football. The U.S. team won, in the end, but you wouldn’t have known from the smiles and high-fives after every match.

The Copa is a quiet, but revealing celebration of the long and deep ties the squash communities of our two nations have had over the generations.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash