Roll Away the Dew, Dude

One thing that has been happening quite a lot during the pandemic is that many squash players, inspired by Marie Kondo or a nagging spouse, have been going through their closets, attics and basements and digging out all their old gear.

In particular, that inevitable pile of broken racquets. I can’t bear to just toss a battered, no-longer-usable bat. They often have meant something significant to me: eliciting a memory of an important match, a partnership, a weekend, a league title. In my basement, I’ve got a lot of racquets and each, I tell my wife, inspires joy.

Last year Andrew Cordova, the head pro at the Maryland Club in Baltimore, went through his collection and filmed a seventeen-minute, wide-ranging conversation about them. He mentions an infamous chocolate luge, crazy bulldogs, cool cosmetics, unique commemorative frames (2012 and 2014 LA Kings for their Stanley Cup wins; Jervis Finney) and the first Harrow racquet as a tournament favor (2010 National Doubles).

May the four winds blow you home again.

U.S. Open 2021

Sudden thoughts and second thoughts from this year’s United States Open.

—We all loved the new Arlen Specter US Squash Center. Everyone was just blown away. The video screens, the ease of movement, the community coming together after a year and a half in such a stunning space, having two glass courts side by side going at the same, and having four matches at once, all on a swivel: it was awesome.

—Some of the fans I met in the gallery were products of the Specter Center’s intentional accessibility: people who had joined the Specter in the previous few weeks and were now coming to see the Open at their club—very few platinum glass-court events have ever been staged right inside an active public club. (In fact, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any since Wembley and the British Open in the 1980s.) Anyway, a tradition made that clear. Each Open for a decade now I grab the very first person to sit down for the very first match and interview them. This year’s first fan was an example of what the Specter is so important:

2021 U.S. Open First Fan

—PSA protocol was tough. The players were sequestered off, even from their coaches. Once the tournament began, they were unable to work with their players, to talk with them inside the facility or to get on court. I liked how the players, in between games, just sat in their chairs with their thoughts: no coaches, no cell phones, no input. They had to figure out what to do next. Exactly like tennis. But the pre-match, post-match coaching was gone. One coach from Europe told me that instead of sitting together in a hotel room, he was getting up at 5am and crunching video and then sending along snippets, via WhatsApp, for his charges to watch.

—Towels. There was no hand-wiping on the walls in between points, but there was a lot of toweling off, using the towel in the box in the front of the court. It became a little like tennis, players using the excuse of toweling off to catch their breath and regroup. Very much not continuous play.

—The grand opening of the Arlen Specter US Squash Center, on the second day of play at the Open, was amazing. Such a gathering of new and old friends. During the ceremony, I was particularly blown away by the rendition of the national anthem by Cameryn Strickland a local student; the heartfelt letter from President Joe Biden; and an inspiring, forthright speech by Jamie Gauthier, a Philadelphia city council member who was born, raised and now lives in the neighborhood and represents it (including the Specter) on the city council.

—Such a moment of accomplishment. I reminisced about 211 Ford Road in Bala Cynwyd, the headquarters of US Squash from the 1980s until we moved to New York in 2006. It was an ordinary house built in 1890 with the total square-footage of something less than the Champions Deck at the Specter Center, the agora for the building.

U.S. Open Ten years On

Today is the exact ten-year anniversary of the arrival of the U.S. Open at Drexel. It was 30 September 2011 when the Delaware Investments U.S. Open Squash Championships kicked off. It was the first time Drexel hosted the event, bringing the men’s and women’s tournaments together for just the second time.

Going through my notes of that week, I wrote about pipe & cover, as US Squash draped and shaped, rugged and tugged the Daskalaskis Athletic Center’s basketball arena to create a wonderful squash venue; I was disappointed that while the men’s draw boasted thirty-two players the women’s draw had just sixteen (an issue that wasn’t rectified until 2013); I dilated on the advent of the video referee, as the Open was the first major to employ it; and Olli Tuominen told me about his obsession with backgammon (he lost in the first round to birthday boy Peter Barker in a match in which Olli won just fourteen points in three games and yet lasted on court for forty minutes).

Browsing the 2011 matches, it is astonishing to see that the more things change the more they remain the same. Four U.S. women who entered the qualies—Oliver Blatchford Clyne, Olivia Fiechter, Amanda Sobhy and Sabrina Sobhy—are now in the world’s top twenty-five (Amanda, still in high school, won two matches in the qualies before losing to Jenny Duncalf in the first round). And many overseas stars are still going strong, whether quarterfinalist Camille Serve, first-round loser Joelle King, semifinalist James Willstrop, quarterfinalist Mohamed ElShorbagy or first-round exiters Tarek Momen and Chris Gordon.

Many of the 2011 players are now based in the U.S.: there are the gaggle of current college coaches (Niki Clement at Haverford, Gilly Lane at Penn, John White at Drexel, Thierry Lincou at MIT and David Palmer at Cornell, ) and U.S.-based teaching pros and coaches (Madeline Perry, who reached the semis; Ong Beng Hee who lost in the finals of the qualies and is now the U.S. national coach; and a raft of others including Ali Walker, Hesham Ashour, Wael el Hindi and Cameron Pilley).

And I noted that to start his semifinal match with Lincou, Amr Shabana lost the first point, then cracked a service return cross-court into the nick (naturally) and rolled out eleven straight points. Yes, we miss the Prince of Cairo.

Anyway, there is one other thing for certain: the U.S. Open continues to enchant. A decade later, we now get to enter a sparkling new venue about forty yards away to once again see the world’s best play for our national championship.

Widow for One year

Let’s talk summer reading.

A few years ago I did a piece about racquets sports and film. I tried to cover many of the best examples for tennis, etc. but I hoped it would be thoroughly comprehensive about squash.

There was one movie I missed: The Door in the Floor, the 2004 film with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. There are two brief squash scenes in it. The film has a conceit that his squash court has a trapdoor in the floor. I’ve never seen a court with a trapdoor but I am sure there is one out there like that.

Bridges doesn’t believe in taking lets. His mantra: “Whoever controls the T controls the game.”

The film is based on John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. In it, Ted Coles has a hardball squash court at his home in Sagaponack on Long Island. It is in the loft of a barn. Coles said that the reason it is not regulation—it has a low ceiling and “one wall of the court [is] irregular in shape and offer notably less playing surface than did the opposing wall”—was town ordinances, but actually Coles built it that way on purpose to give himself a home-court advantage. The court has no HVAC so it is “ferociously hot” in the summer and in the winter the balls has “little more bounce than a stone.” And there is a dead spot on the front wall (in the film it is in the floor by the back wall) that Coles sneakily has marked with colored chalk.

Not only did Coles deliberately build an idiosyncratic court but he chooses weaker opponents, mostly tennis players new to squash.

Later in the novel, Coles’ daughter Ruth hits alone for hours on the court. She never makes errors. She says to herself that there are “only four good shots in squash” and practices those. When she plays against a boyfriend, she deliberately tins the ball a lot in the warmup, so that when they play he’ll be surprised she doesn’t make errors. (She beats him 15-8, 15-6, 15-9, 15-5, 15-1.)

In the classic parent-child match, Ruth beats Ted 18-16, 12-15, 16-18, 15-9, 15-4. It’s her first official win over her father after twenty years of trying. Later, in the ultimate revenge on her father, Ruth returns to Sagaponack and turns the squash court into her office.

Irving knows enough about squash to mention one of the core propositions of the game: “The terrific thing about hitting a ball that hard, and for that long, was that when she was done, she had absolutely nothing on her mind.”

Meadow Mill

In a few hours Meadow Mill Athletic Club will close its doors.

It has been a great run. The landmark club in Baltimore opened on 2 November 1992 and it closes today 30 July 2021. That is 10,497 days (or exactly fifteen hundred weeks) of squash.

Fourteen singles courts, two doubles courts and everything else you’d need: spinning, yoga, child-care. For a long, long time it was proof that a giant squash commercial club could survive and thrive. I did a story on Meadow Mill for their twenty-fifty anniversary nearly four years ago:

In the last week, there has been many gatherings and a Close the House party; and today the courts are booked solid, especially the doubles courts which were perhaps the heart of the club.

“There’s not a big financial return for a squash-centric club like Meadow Mill,” said founder and owner Nancy Cushman, “but there’s a great return in every other way. I will miss all the friendships, the conversations after a match. Seeing all the kids learn the game, all the success with SquashWise. It is the people: that has been the best part. And with the opening of the Arlen Specter US Squash Center in Philadelphia the same exact month we close, there is a real passing of the torch for large public squash clubs in America.”

Cushman, an inveterate leader and builder, is now looking for a place in Baltimore to put up a doubles court. One door closes and perhaps another door opens.

The Last Hardball Court

I’ve been doing this blog for so long that things like this can happen. Don Rumsfeld died yesterday at age eighty-eight.

There was a time two decades ago when Rumseld, then Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration, was known (and unknown) as the most prominent person in America who played squash.

In 2007, in my second-ever blog, I penned a long entry about Rumsfeld and squash. I dilated at length about Rummy’s squash game, metaphors and mullets. And I dwelled on the interesting fact that the very last eighteen-and-a-half-foot squash court built in the world was built by Rumsfeld in 2004.

Donald Rumsfeld

Manitoba Squash

Recently I was brought into a wonderful part of North American squash history when I was sent a twenty-seven page history of squash in the Canadian province of Manitoba, written in 1988 by Andrew McCullough/

The first courts were built in 1909 at the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club on Donald Street near Broadway. It cost 10¢ to rent a racquet and 35¢ to rent a ball, indicating the scarcity of balls not bats; an annual membership cost $12.50 and included two squash balls. Women were allowed to play from the start, but there were women-only hours because to reach the women’s locker room or the squash courts women had to walk through the men’s locker room.

In 1923 Winnipeg started an annual match with Minneapolis & St. Paul’s, a notorious event called the Roy Milner Shield that lasted into the 1970s. In 1938 the province’s first doubles court was built at the Winnipeg Winter Club on Smith Street. In the early 1970s Manitoban players began switching to softball and in 1976 the first softball courts were built in Winnipeg, with four courts at the Court Sports club on Taylor Street. It appears the first time the Canadian Nationals were held in Winnipeg was in 1980, a year after the U.S. went west with its first National Singles in Portland.

The best story of the history came in February 1987 at the Manitoba Open. In the semis Mark Talbott was thoroughly beating Bill Turk. After winning the first two games, Talbott went to get some water. Turk’s twin brother Gene appeared and exchanged shirts with Bill and went on court. Talbott didn’t notice and had a tight third game with Gene before winning the match. Afterwards he said how well Bill had recovered in the third game after struggling so much in the first two.

Board games

During the pandemic, our family has gotten even more into board games. Two have struck our fancy.

Boast & Drive is a real joy. Joe Russell and Mark Anderson, the creators, had fun creating it. Their brilliant motto in emblazoned on the top of their website:

Hands Down, the World’s Best* Squash Card Game

*only

(They also donate a portion of every sale to SEA, the global squash network.)

The game itself works pretty well. Each rally can go quickly. Sometimes it is hard to either get started with a serve or get a winner card to end the point. Our sons loved the Taxi card, a wild card that replaced almost any other card, and the Broken String card, where your opponent’s turn is skipped. He wondered, though, at the Corkscrew shot, which in our family is still called by its traditional North American term, the Philadelphia Shot.

The other racquet-sport board game we’ve gotten hooked on is Reste. It is a game for fans of court tennis (or real tennis). The game was also made by an Englishman and name comes from a British term for rally, as in “good reste.” Like with Boast & Drive, rallies in Reste are short as you inch towards finishing games and eventually a full set. Our sons liked the tambours, the punishment for hitting the ball on the penthouse and the rare chance for a chase off.

Both Boast & Drive and Reste have entranced our family on those all-too-rare afternoons when the world for a moment is held at bay and we can just play a game.

310 days

Earlier this month, after another PSA press release, I was a part of an email discussion of what exactly is the oldest professional squash event still being contested: the British Open or the Tournament of Champions?

It is the Tournament of Champions. The inaugural Tournament of Champions, then called the National Professional Squash Racquets Championship, was held in Boston in February 1930.

With a leisurely pace, the event began on Saturday 1 February with six opening-round matches. One four-game match involved Jack Summers of MIT squaring off with Steve Gregory of the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York. Gregory, the New York Times reported the next day, “had a baffling service which kept Summers in continual trouble but he managed to weather the storm.” Another four-gamer was Don Martella of Wilmington Country Club versus Eddie Thompson of the University Club of Boston. “Martella hit some excellent corner shots which Thompson was unable to handle,” the Times wrote.

In one semi, played on Monday the 3rd, Harry Thompson defeated Eddie Stapleton. On Tuesday the 4th in the other semi, Summers topped Martella 17-16, 15-6, 16-18, 15-11,

On Saturday the 8th at the Boston Athletic Association, Summers beat Thompson 17-15, 15-9, 15-10. Summers, the Times declared, “was the aggressor throughout.” Summers, who had come to the U.S. in 1911, had been a longtime pro at the Union Boat Club before moving across the river to coach at MIT from 1930 to 1957. Summers went on to win three more ToC titles. He died in December 1988 at the age of ninety-five.

The British Open is ten months younger—three hundred and ten days to be precise—than the Tournament of Champions. The inaugural British Open was played in December 1930 in London. Don Butcher topped Charles Read in a best-of-three matches format: 9-6, 9-5, 9-5 at Queen’s Club on Sunday 7 December where Read was a pro; and then 9-3, 9-5, 9-3 at the Conservative Club on Monday 15 December where Butcher was the pro. Butcher earned £67, Read £33. Butcher won the title once more. In 1957 he emigrated to Melbourne.

Besides the U.S. Open, there is no other major event on the PSA calendar that was started before the 1970s. These are the two events that have been the global cornerstones of professional squash and they were founded three hundred and ten days apart.

NB:

—The women’s British Open didn’t start until 1974—the previous event, held from 1922 to 1973, was amateur-only.

—The ToC has undergone four more name changes (not including title sponsors) but it has, like the British Open, been continuously held each year. Since 1930 and before the pandemic, there have been nine years when the British Open hasn’t been held, while the ToC has missed seven.

—Both events have been played on courts of differing sizes and with balls of different sizes and bounce. The ball used at the 1930 British Open was almost twice as fast as the one at the 1934 British Open (a bounce of forty-four inches compared to a bounce of thirty inches four years later). One court at Queens was thirty-five feet by eighteen. The ToC, through its long history, has used more than a dozen different balls and three different court sizes.

Anyway, the record is set straight: squash’s longest-running, oldest professional tournament is the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, scheduled to reappear next January.

New Courts

Every year we have a bit of hind und her with squash facilities. Some clubs close and at the same time new clubs open. Squash, like all sports, is held in thrall by larger, often abstract forces that only a macroeconomist can understand, but the bricks-and-mortar reality can give an observer a whiplashing sensation.

With the pandemic, there have been some significant closures. New York has been hit hard. In Brooklyn, Cobble Hill closed after forty-seven years, termites, leaks and a sizable amount of history. Josh Easdon, who was the pro there for the last decade, made this wonderful farewell video:

More recently we’ve heard the news that another borough is losing a classic club: the Princeton Club of New York is closing. A stalwart of Manhattan squash since the Second World War, PCNY had a storied history of great pros including Charlie Costello, Eddie Stapleton, Rick Rescigno and more recently John Musto.

But the great cycle turns. Anchoring the game is the world’s best facility. This spring the Arlen Specter US Squash Center opens in Philadelphia. I got a sneak peak this week (two hours of peeking, in fact, as the seventy-thousand square-foot facility is just enormous) of the twenty courts, classrooms, offices and open spaces.

BUILDING THE WORLD’S FINEST SQUASH CENTER, IN AMERICA – A HOME FOR THE SPORT IN THE U.S.

Also this spring across the country, Access Youth Academy is opening their open-air eight-court facility in southeast San Diego.

Last week Racquet Up Detroit broke ground on their new eight-court facility in northwest Detroit opening next winter. More is coming. A half dozen other urban squash programs around the country are close to building their own facilities.

And regular clubs are coming on line. The most intriguing might be Kinetic Indoor Racquet Club. It is located in Boynton Beach, near Del Ray on Florida’s east coast and just five minutes from Interstate 95. The brainchild of former U.S. Open champion Wael El Hindi, Kinetic is opening in April with a very appealing variety of courts under one roof: four squash, two pickle ball, one tennis and one padel, as well as fitness.

Squash, tennis, pickle and padel: it is a dream come true for any racquet sport aficionado.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash