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:
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.
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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
For the past two months, squash has returned to its roots. Scanning through social media, it is as if one hundred and fifty years has collapsed and we are back in 1870.
People are playing squash wherever they can: in parking lots, hallways, alleys, bedrooms, basements, rooftop gardens—wherever they can find a wall or two. Social media feeds abound with people on makeshift courts. John Musto has run many such examples in his daily squash show (where I’ve also appeared a dozen times to talk about U.S. Squash Hall of Famers) : https://www.manhattansquash.org
The most elaborately thought-out has perhaps come from Philadelphia, where the Joyce brothers (a keen squash family) took six sheets of plywood, nailed them together, painted them and created a court about the third of the size of a real court.
It strongly reminded me of my January 2018 blog (if it is too hard to scrollL https://squashword.ussquash.com/?p=176632388). In there I discuss a Harrow School alum, Somerville Gibney, who in 1894 talked about squash in the 1860s and 1870s. Just like the Joyce brothers, he and his brother created a squash court, not in a basement but in a loft over a stable. There they played for years. This was typical of the game back then. There were no standards to follow, no regulation court. Squash players then did exactly what we are doing now, figuring it out with what we have.
Gibney wrote: “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.”
The pandemic. Our squash lives are somewhat the same. We can continue to work out on our own, to talk to friends on video conference calls, watch a ton of past matches and to even hit a ball against a wall (amazingly how easy it is to find a usable wall once necessity forces you to look). But one part of the pandemic that is more or less impossible to reproduce these days is getting on court with an opponent.
That means you aren’t bumping into someone, hearing them gasping for breath, seeing their anger at a tin and smelling their sweat. And you aren’t getting hit by your opponent’s errant shot. Being drilled is an inevitable consequence of squash. It has disappeared this spring, along with everything else about live, in-person squash.
Which brings to mind my favorite story about getting hit by a squash ball. It appeared in the New Yorker eighty-seven years ago this month. “Underdog” was a Talk of the Town piece, credited today to D. King Irwin, Walter R. Brooks and Harold Ross. Brooks was the immortal creator of Freddy the Pig; Ross, the great founding editor of the New Yorker; Irwin, who only wrote this one piece for the magazine, was clearly a pseudonym for a member of the Princeton Club of New York who saw it happen.
The piece, published on 8 April 1933, was “a pretty little story of long-deferred vengeance.” It described a Mr. Smith, “a large gentleman,” who went into the Princeton Club’s lounge and announced he had a squash court booked but no one to play with. “The first to reply was a smallish fellow who came out from behind a newspaper and volunteered.” It was a Mr. Jones (both nom de plumes to protect the guilty). They changed and went on court. Turned out they were both pretty good. But within the first few minutes of play, Jones had hit Smith with the ball a half dozen times: “a dull smack and a vicious pain shot through one of his mighty hams.”
Jones “made the remark conventional when such a thing happens,” which back in 1933 was: “Oh—sorry, old man. Hurt you?” Mr. Smith responded, “also observing the etiquette of the courts,” in a similar dismissive manner: “N—no. ‘S nothing.”
As he kept on getting smacked, Smith cycled through the five stages of grief. “Under the astonishingly accurate volleys of his opponent, chagrin at his own clumsiness gave way to bewilderment, then to rage. It became gradually apparent to Smith that it was not chance but demoniac skill that time after time got him into position and then drove that hard black ball from wall to wall and then, plop, against him.”
Rage would have led to something unsportsmanlike, but a small crowd had gathered in the gallery and “before them, the tradition of politeness and good-fellowship must be kept up.” They played on. Jones kept plugging or “soaking” Smith, the ball leaving “each time another round, red, white-centered welt.”
“At last came a tap on the door. Time was up. The opponents shook hands” and thanked each other. Smith, as he headed to the showers, looked “like an enormous pink leopard.”
Why did Jones hit him? Because many years earlier, Smith had been an upperclassman at Princeton and at Joe’s Restaurant had said something deeply humiliating to a first-year Jones. “For years he had waited for revenge, lurking behind newspapers, and becoming one of the best squash-players in the country.”
Smith never remembered him, of course, and even when the piece was published he didn’t know the explanation. I guess that means be careful the next time you get stood up for a match and go into the lounge to recruit a person to play with and a person lowers their newspaper and volunteers.
We are all a bit stunned this month by the sudden stop to squash around the world. Almost all clubs are closed. Those lucky few who have courts at their home might still be playing, but for most of us, we’ve put down our racquets.
It reminds me of the last time squash more or less stopped: the Second World War. In America, squash limped along. Famously, the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached the Gold Racquets tournament during the Sunday luncheon before the finals. Ray Chauncey, the tournament director, announced the news to a suddenly somber room.
Many tournaments thereafter were immediately cancelled. Some clubs temporarily shuttered; others remained open with a skeletal staff. Nearly all women’s squash in the U.S. stopped, except for inter-club matches in Philadelphia. US Squash waived dues. NY Squash hosted five tournaments in 1942-43—all entry fees and spectator tickets were donated to the Red Cross and the winners received Red Cross certificates.
The Red Cross sponsored an informal Red Cross National Singles for men in 1943, but no one considered the winner, Sherman Howes, a national champion. US Squash hosted the men’s National Singles in the spring of 1942 and then cancelled theirs until 1946; the U.S. women’s association cancelled theirs after Pearl Harbor and didn’t resume until 1947. For both the men and the women, the war halted marches towards immortality. For the men, Charley Brinton captured the last two titles before the war and the first two after. At the same time, Babe Bowes and Anne Page had taken all the titles from 1936 onwards; Page won in 1947 and Bowes in 1948. If there had been no war, these three U.S. Squash Hall of Famers would almost surely have accumulated many more national championships. You have to feel particularly for Bowes and Page—the six-year gap between National Singles, right when they were in their prime, was just unfair.
Team squash continued on, in fits and spurts. High schools didn’t stop competing. Haverford School, coached by Merion Cricket Club pro Bill White, played a full schedule, including matches against the freshman teams at Yale, Princeton and Penn, Haverford College’s varsity and, amazingly, a match in 1944 against West Point (they won 5-1).
Collegiate squash slowed down. The men’s individual tournament was held in 1942 and 1943 before it was shuttered until 1946; and the team championship was decided in 1942 and 1943 and then now played for again until 1947. Dartmouth played two matches in 1943, losing to Harvard and Yale 5-0, before closing down the team until 1946. Harvard soon stopped fielding a team: Hemingway, their home courts, was converted into a research lab. The Crimson resumed playing in 1946, but its coach, Jack Barnaby, didn’t return from his service until 1947. At Princeton, formal squash stopped in the fall of 1942 and informally in May 1944 when the university’s gym burned down, destroying all the squash courts.