Skis in the Bathtub

Last week was the fifteenth anniversary of the publication of my first book: Squash: A History of the Game. It is still selling well and still the source of much discussion within the game.

Last month, two people that I was close to passed on to the squash court in the sky. One was Charlie  Ufford. I had two long paragraphs in Squash about Charlie. The paragraphs came divided, conveniently or inconveniently for him, by the first eight-page photo insert. So many people, flipping open the book, came to read about Charlie and his remarkable and still unbroken record of reaching at least the quarterfinals of the National Singles fourteen times. He was one of the charter members of the Quaker Squashers, a secret society of Friends who were friendly with a squash racquet (Willing Patterson was another). As the first person to receive the President’s Cup, US Squash’s highest annual award, Ufford was known for his quick wrist, his tremendous sportsmanship and his off-court leadership.

The other Charlie who died was my beloved uncle. He played squash at Andover and at Dartmouth. I remember playing him on Thanksgiving mornings, year after year, on a frigid old hardball court in Boston, desperately trying to finally beat him.

Before he died he showed me a clipping from the winter of 1968, when The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, wrote an article about the freshman squash team. Charlie played No.3 on the team and was unbeaten. The lede, by Ken Field, is brilliant: “Charlie Collier doesn’t look like a squash player. In fact, he complains that he is so skinny he has to wear skis in the bathtub to keep from being washed down the drain.”

The Day the Jaz Stopped

Earlier this month the story of Ajaz Karim finally reached its terrible conclusion. Karim, sixty-three, was sentenced to ten years in jail for indecent assault.

https://www.gazette-news.co.uk/news/national/16409477.private-school-sports-coach-jailed-after-sexually-abusing-six-students/

The assaults happened between 1985 and 1993 at a private school outside London. Karim, of course, was not the first squash coach to be jailed  for preying on his pupils. The saga of James Civello, the Shipley School squash coach caught sleeping with one of his players, has stretched for over seven years now.

Karim was well-known in British squash circles. I first met him when we both worked at a squash camp in Virginia in 1996. The next year we met in New York one day to talk about a squash coaching video he wanted to make. “Jazsquash: The Game for Life” came out in 2000 and featured Vicky Botwright, Daniel Ezra, Paul Johnson and Chris Walker.

He had an interesting backstory: born in Uganda, he had fled with his family after Idi Amin kicked out all Asians in 1972. He landed up in England. After leaving the private school where the assaults occurred, Karim coached squash at top-shelf London-area institutions including Eton College, Queen’s Club and Hurlingham, as well as a health club at Canary Wharf.

 

 

Faces in the Crowd

This month Squash Magazine ran a massive story (our longest ever) on the history of squash in Sports Illustrated’s weekly feature, Faces in the Crowd.

Squash Faces in the Crowd in Sports Illustrated

The article tossed us all right into the past sixty-odd years of squash history. It reminded us of some of the great stories of our game—Joyce Davenport coming back after a four-year absence from the game, playing squash for two months and winning the National Singles—and the more obscure and slightly random players—what ever happened to the young Frank Ward?

There were many more squash Faces than anyone thought. We ran a contest to quantify people’s perception of squash in Faces—guess how many times a squash player has been in it? We got seventeen guesses. Most ranged around seventy or eighty players and the highest was one hundred and thirty, eleven less than the actual number.

The article struck a nerve. We received numerous emails. Many people sent in clippings of SI articles on squash—SI has done more than a couple of dozen feature-length articles on the players—but we did respond to say that we were only talking about Faces.

The best letter came from an old and favorite correspondent of ours, Rick Austin. He enclosed a clip from the 19th Hole of the 22 February 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated.

It was a brilliant letter to the editor of his. Austin focused on the perennial issue of media attention for squash. He calculated that in SI’s first year of existence it had published four pages out of 2,200 on the game of squash. This was about .18%, far less than the supposed 1% of SI’s readers who might know and be interested in squash.

“Unless the Yale squash coach, Johnny Skillman, perfects and builds his court of one-way glass, squash will remain a mystery to many people,” continued Austin. “For a sport to become popular, it must be both seen and played. There are not enough facilities to take care of all the people who wish to play squash, for high court construction costs limit the number of available courts. However, I feel that SI’s few pages devoted to squash has helped to make the sport more widely known and appreciated.”

More than sixty-three years later, all you can say is: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

 

 

 

 

Corey Wynn

Earlier this month I got a letter from a Harvard grad, class of 1959, who had seen a copy of my history of squash book. He mentioned Corey Wynn, his freshman coach.
Corey was also Barnaby’s assistant and the freshman tennis coach at Harvard for decades, as well as the assistant coach in squash and tennis at Radcliffe in the 1970s. In 1968 he went up to Vermont and helped launch Windridge, a new tennis camp founded by Dartmouth squash coach Red Hoehn’s son Ted. Wynn had his one moment in the sun: he coached the women’s tennis varsity at Harvard/Radcliffe in 1976-77, leading them to a 10-7 record.
My friend said that he had first learned of squash while at Belmont Hill School, which had one lonely court with no coach or team; an English teacher had briefly taught him the game. Then as a freshman at Harvard he made the team. “Corey was a remarkable coach who actively played with each one of us—rally and rally and rally—only then to demonstrate his next put-away.”
Wynn died in September 2002 at the age of eighty-five. With him passed the era of the freshman coach—and for top schools like Harvard, the era of converting tennis players to squash players.

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe, who died two days ago, was a great squash parent. While his son Tommy played junior squash and then at Trinity, graduating in 2007, Wolfe was perfect in the gallery: impeccably dressed, of course, but also calm, courteous, never yelling. It was Tommy’s thing not his. Wolfe blended into the crowd in that inexplicable way he always did. The ultimate bystander.

In 2003 Wolfe blurbed my first book, Squash: A History of the Game—”maestros of tight rails and feathery drop shots.”

A few years later, Paul Assaiante and I were struggling with the shape of an inchoate book on mentoring young people. Assaiante left the manuscript with Wolfe after visiting him in the Hamptons. A few days later Wolfe was on the phone, calling literary agents, willing the book into existence.  Wolfe wrote that he “devoured it in job lots.” That is my kind of reader.

Wolfe wrote the foreword for the book, Run to the Roar, when it came out in 2010. In it he praised, in his unique, rollicking way, the fact that squash had luckily proved to be terrible for television: “The absence of the TV eye has largely spared squash from TV sports’ three STDiseased, shanks-akimbo harlots: Cheating, Gambling and Greed.”

This was before SquashTV existed.  With the SquashTV’s continued penetration of television markets around the world and online and the Supreme Court decision this week about gambling, will Wolfe’s  fears soon be realized?

One final note: Tom and his wife Sheila threw an amazing launch party for the book a couple of weeks after it came out. It was held in their drawing room of their Upper East Side apartment, just next to his writing room with a circular desk. There were editors from Sports Illustrated and the Times, writers, publicists, squash influencers, Trinity administrators.

At the party Wolfe was in a white suit, dressed to the nines as always; Assaiante wore a Union Boat Club sweatshirt and sweatpants. Assaiante  told the crowd a funny story about the first time he met Wolfe in New York: he happened to be in coat-and-tie and Wolfe, coming back from working out, was in sweats.

Both told each other the same thing as they shook hands: this will never happen again.

 

 

 

Maryland Hall of Fame

Last weekend I went to Baltimore for a special event. It was the eleventh induction ceremony of the Maryland State Squash Hall of Fame.

The hall of fame was launched twenty years ago and so is one of the oldest and most consistent district association halls of fame in the country.  With the five people inducted on Saturday, they now have thirty-two members. More than a dozen past inductees were present at the ceremony, including Sandy Martin, Nancy Cushman, Doug Rice, Patrick Miller, Andrew Cordova, Lissen Tutrone, Scooter Dorney, Bobby Travers and John Voneiff.

It was an elegant night at the Maryland Club. After warming up by the fire in the enormous, welcoming fireplace near the front door, I had a look at the construction in the back. When it is finished, the club will have three brand-new hardball doubles courts—a first for a club in the U.S.

The place was packed. Abby Markoe came with a couple of SquashWise students. The Cromwell family was in full force for Patrice McConnell Cromwell’s induction:  the group included Patrice’s sister Alicia McConnell (late of Colorado Springs, now of Dublin, Ireland) and David Cromwell (late of Middlebury, now world No.191).

I had the pleasure of introducing one of the inductees, my father. I reminisced about how our family just fell in love with Baltimore when we moved there in the mid-1980s and how I worked as an assistant to the old pro at the Maryland Club, the late Jimmy Taylor . I joked about how in Baltimore my dad would call my mother on a car phone (remember those) on his way home from the club to say that he was running late, that he had spent too much time talking with friends after he had played squash.

I said that running late is exactly why we play the game. This was echoed on the back of gorgeous program John Voneiff produced for the ceremony, where an unofficial mission statement of the Maryland Squash Fall of Fame was printed: “We come together to meet, to talk, to enjoy each other’s company and to compete. We come to do exactly what is best about the great games Americans play, to keep the spirit that is the competitive fire within us engaged in ways that build lasting friendships—friendships that transcend distances and generations, burning on through the years of our lives.”

Blizzard of 1960

Earlier this month, a winter storm hit the National Doubles.

A serious nor’easter slammed into Philadelphia on the Friday of the tournament. The wind was tremendous, the snow cascaded down when it wasn’t raining. Over a foot of snow.  Trees down, power out. About twenty matches were postponed.

At the dinner dance on Saturday, we all swapped transportation tales. Shane Coleman told me about a thirteen-minute drive from Cynwyd to Germantown Cricket took him three hours. Kim Clearkin, a US Squash staffer, spent four hours driving from the Cynwyd to the tournament  hotel, normally a trip that might take twenty minutes in traffic. My go-to story was about my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. They got on an Amtrak train in Boston at 9am Friday morning and arrived in Wilmington at 2:30pm on Saturday.

It vividly reminded me of another epic storm to hit the East Coast on the Friday of a national championship—the 1960 men’s National Singles in Rochester.

Just like this year, a storm swept in on Friday morning. It dumped over twenty inches of snow on upstate New York. The Thruway was shut down. Buses, trucks, cars: all were stranded. For Rochester it was a major storm in the worst winter it has ever had—the city received a record 161.7 inches of snow that winter.

The transportation mishegoss that day in 1960 was even more remarkable than what we saw in Philadelphia earlier this month. Dick Rothschild and Billy Tully were hit from behind by a skidding truck, sent into a gully and waited five hours before a tow truck dragged them back onto the road.

A group of New Yorkers had their flight to Buffalo diverted to Pittsburgh. There they split up. Two (Ned Bigelow and Jack Tappin for those scoring at home) got the last seats on a train heading to Rochester. Joe & Fran Hahn got on a flight to Erie, PA, then another to Buffalo and then a train to Rochester. Stew Brauns and John & Phoebe Weeks flew on an empty plane to Buffalo and then took a train to Rochester, arriving twenty-four hours late. And Treddy Ketcham and Paul Steele chartered a helicopter in Pittsburgh which was canceled when the helicopter was called to rescue stranded motorists.

Two other New Yorkers (Pete Truesdale and Reg Johnson) slept on the cold floor of a gas station. Another player left his luggage, including his squash clothes, on a stranded bus and walked for miles in the blizzard to the nearest town.

A group of Detroiters (Rick Austin and John & Alice Greene) driving via Canada had to bivouac in their car on the side of the road for the night, running the engine for ten minutes every half hour to keep warm.

A trio of Philadelphians (Carter Fergusson, Jimmy Whitmoyer and  Howard Davis) took a flight at dawn on Friday. The plane circled Rochester and then Buffalo for three hours before returning to Philadelphia. They then took a train to New York and then an overnight train to Rochester.

Part of the Buffalo contingent, only ninety minutes away, traveled five hours by car, while another group took the New York Thruway and never made it. One Philadelphian, Ned Madeira, struggled into the Genesee Valley Country Club Sunday morning.

Frank Smith, the head pro at the club, received thirty-two long-distance phone calls on Friday evening. “They were,” wrote Bob Lehman, “mostly to advise ‘where I now am’ whether stuck in car, at wrong airport or waiting for train, and to complain about the scarcity of dog sleds.” The next morning Smith rented a bulldozer to clear access to the Rochester Medical School’s courts where the National Team matches were to be played.

Only seven men ended up not making their first match on Saturday (Steele—that helicopter never materialized; Dave Johnson, Henry Foster, Bill Danforth, H. Sloane, C. Murphy and F. Borden) and defaulting in the main draw and three in the 40+ draw (M. Zimmerman, Mike Solin and, again, the helicoptering Treddy Ketcham). Amazingly, there were apparently no defaults among the thirteen teams in the five-man National Teams.

The other thing of interest, lost in the storm, was that the matches were for the first time in National Singles history broadcast on television. Once Brauns arrived he led the commentary. The broadcast was on closed-circuit television just within the club—Smith felt that the gallery was too small for the expected crowds. Everyone in the gallery was wearing coat-and-tie, including the cameraman. Time for a SquashTV dress code?

 

Sticke

I just received a copy of a new history of the sport of sticke by Nigel a Brassard. It is a delightful game and delightfully obscure: there are just two playable courts in the world.

Basically an indoor version of tennis, sticke was invented in England in the 1870s. It spread around the world (courts in Bermuda, Canada, India, Ireland and South Africa) and at one point there were courts at famous places (Queens Club in London; Buckingham Palace). About thirty-one covered courts were built, largely at English country estates and the last new court appeared in 1922.

Then a decline. Courts were demolished burnt or converted—in 1938 Buckingham Palace’s court became a squash court and a swimming pool. (It was there in 1948 that the Duke of Edinburgh had a game of squash while Queen Elizabeth was in labor delivering their son Charles.)

Today there are two surviving courts. Less than two years ago the author (he wrote this as a masters dissertation) kindly took  me out on one of the two extant courts, Hartham Park in rural Wiltshire, England. It was a magical morning.

Whenever someone complains that squash is inaccessible, arcane and unknown— no one has ever heard of it—you can say that it is hugely popular compared with another racquet sport called sticke.

 

 

 

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.

 

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash