Little America

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 Rocky of Squash: Little America

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: 

https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2009/02/updike-sex-and-ball-scuff

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 Tens

The 2010s are wrapping up and a new decade is about to begin. Almost everything changed. My list of ten changes:

  1. Parity in prize money. Historic, long-overdue and just the beginning. Made everyone in the game rethink and reprioritize.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. The merger of the women’s and men’s pro tours. It has meant growth, equity and strength.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.)

World Champs

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

The Awful Truth

Two years ago I wrote a piece about squash (and other racquet sports) appearing in films: http://squashmagazine.ussquash.com/2017/10/my-hearts-beating-like-a-rabbit-racquet-sports-in-film/

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:

“Hi, Jerry.”

“Hello, Frank.”

“How goes it?”

“Fine.”

“Like to play a little squash?”

“No, thanks.”

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.



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.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash