Balls That Go Poof

Earlier this year Andrew Shelley asked me to contribute to a history of the squash ball for the World Squash Library. Typical of Andrew, he collected a mass of amazing advertisements to illustrate the history, producing a twenty-one page tour de force. It is well worth a visit:

https://www.squashlibrary.info/post/squash-balls-from-then-to-now

One section we didn’t put in was an absolute gem of journalism from an absolute gem of a guy.

In January 1968 George Plimpton examined the fraught American squash-ball situation in an article in Sports Illustrated, “The Strange Case of the Balls That Go Poof!” The Seamless, Plimpton wrote: “the standard ball then, made by the Seamless Rubber Company, while adequate enough, tended to heat up during play and take on ‘rabbit’ characteristics. It would bounce so eagerly around the confines of the court that it became very difficult even for top players, particularly against quick retrievers, to put the ball away. Good players were anxious for a change.”

 In 1961 the change came from the most unlikely location, the Craig-Simplex company. Craig was based in Van Buren, a village so deep in northern Maine that it was a five-hour drive to the nearest squash court in the U.S. but just a minute walk from the factory across the St. John River and into Canada. Cragin produced a green diamond ball, quite hard and fast, and then a yellow diamond for summertime play. Cragin’s CEO was Walter Montenegro, who worked out of a tiny office on Varick Street in New York’s Tribeca district.

Soon sanctioned by US Squash, the Cragin balls suffered from inconsistency just like the Seamless—many in a box would break too soon or go mushy after a couple of hard games. And the Cragin green diamond were a touch slower than the Seamless.

A tremendous row ensued, as Plimpton explained: “Mediocre squash players, notably the portly, stood for the Seamless ball, which they liked because it flew around the court long enough for them to get to it. The issue, which is still argued today, of what sort of ball should dominate squash has had its fine moments of drama. Many New York squash players remember Arthur Barker, the onetime head of the Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association, proclaiming solemnly at an official dinner, fighting for control as he gripped the lectern, ‘I do not intend as president of this association to preside over the death of the Seamless ball!’”

Both Cragin and Seamless balls, due to heavy carbon content, left a lot of ball scuff on the walls, the trademark marks of a mid-century squash court. Ball scuff was very much the thing sixty years ago. To learn more about its literary antecedents, I offer this tiny bagatelle from 2009:

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

Anyway, in 1967 Montenegro bravely tinkered with the composition of the ball to reduce the scuff (and slow down John Updike). But his no-mark balls broke almost on the first hit, as Plimpton related in 1968: “Last year’s crop of Cragin-Simplex squash balls (which is more than half the market, the Seamless Rubber Company providing the rest) turned out to consist of balls as fragile as Christmas tree ornaments. In courts across the country the balls have come off the front wall after a few moments of play with an odd plopping sound and have divided in half to roll at the players’ feet like walnut husks. Breakage of squash balls during play is not uncommon, but there has been an epidemic.” 

The only people who liked the new Cragin ball were aging players, wrote Plimpton: “the older members, those up in their 60s, were getting a great kick out of breaking squash balls. It suggested that power and devastation were still a part of their game, and they would come back to the pro shop after a match, just sidling in easily, and after a while hold out the two halves of a smitten ball and say, ‘We really went at it today.’”

Plimpton concluded his article with a long quote from Jack Barnaby, the Hall of Fame coach at Harvard, that laid bare the fundamental issue about inconsistent balls: “It’s an awful mess. The new Cragin ball doesn’t bounce. You might as well pick a crushed stone off a highway project and play with that. If you pound a little life into it, the ball leaps around as if it were shaped like a trapezoid, and then quite soon, mercifully, it breaks. In 1966 Cragin had a fine ball. It bounced, which is a good start, and it wouldn’t get heated up. It reminded me of the Hewitt ball we played with back in the ’20s and ’30s, which lay low even if you pounded it. The older players complained and got the association to speed up the ball. That is when the Seamless people came in and did what was asked of them with their lively and rabbity ball. But the 1966 Cragin ball—well, a slugger could play his game with it, laying the ball dead, and so could the touch artist, with his tweak and drop shots. So it was possible to match two vastly different games in the same court—the bludgeon and the rapier—with neither handicapped by the ball’s qualities. That is squash at its best and most interesting. Nowadays one of the main despairs we coaches have is that the official balls—Cragin and Seamless—are so different, rocks and rabbits. If our team is playing away from home we have to find out well in advance what ball will be used in the match so that we can train with it for as long as possible.”

ToC22

Well, that was something. How great was it to be back in Grand Central watching squash? I counted up about eight hundred and thirty days between the end of the 2020 Tournament of Champions and the start of the 2022 edition.

Some much has changed in the meantime. More than once someone said, yes, well the last time we did this we had dinner with thirteen hundred people to celebrate SEA. That was about eight weeks before the pandemic hit the U.S. It could have been the ultimate squash super-spreader.

It was a different ToC for sure. The flood of matches early on (ten one day). The utter joy on Timmy Brownell’s face as he kept winning matches. The masking in the stands. The absence behind the front wall of Steve Line, who missed his first ToC since 1995, I think. The food hall across the way in Vanderbilt standing empty, a casualty of the pandemic (a new vendor is moving in before the next ToC in January), so no hanging out there. And the lack of coaches, especially in between games. A couple of players told me they miss that traditional part of the game, but a few others said that going without a coach had forced them to think critically and cogently, to figure out what was going on in the match on their own and that newfound self-reliance was helpful.

Still, the same hugs and conversations, the catching-up on how we’ve survived the past 2.5 years, divorces, deaths, births, marriages. The same referees: Sheldon Anderson telling bad fishing jokes.

And the same players: James Willstrop was back for his eighteenth ToC—he’s been at it in Grand Central for so long that in his first appearance in late February 2003 the matches weren’t even streamed online. That year Jimbo had to qualify (remember those?) by beating Ali Walker and then Shahier Razik (in five). Then he beat Karim Darwish in the opening round in five before lasting forty minutes on court with Peter Nicol, then world No.1 and the eventual champion that year. It goes without saying that not a single other player in the draw that year is still on the PSA World Tour.

Including qualies, James Willstrops’s career record at the ToC is a remarkable 40-17, three finals, one title. We all hope he’ll come back in January 2023. The all-time ToC win record is forty-one career victories: Nick Matthew went 41-14 and Greg Gaultier went 41-13.

Hall of Fame Opening

Earlier this month, we had the long-awaited opening of the new U.S. Squash Hall of Fame at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center. I’ve attended (and helped run) every induction ceremony we’ve had since we started in April 2000 and this was absolutely spectacular: four hundred people, incredibly touching and thoughtful speeches and videos and a palpable sense of the absolute relevance of history in this community today.

A dozen members of the Hall of Fame attended:

Sam Howe (class of 2002); Ned Edwards (2003); John Nimick (2006); Kenton Jernigan (2008); Hazel White Jones (2010); Tom Jones (2010); Joyce Davenport (2011); Lenny Bernheimer (2012); Tom Poor (2012); Michael Pierce (2015); Ben Hechscher (2017); Maurice Heckscher (2017); Anil Nayar (2018); and Ginny Akabane (2019).

In addition, more than a dozen other Hall of Famers were represented by their children and grandchildren, cousins, friends, pupils and teammates. And one canine attended too: Welker, Tom Poor’s spirited Shih Tzu.

Ukraine

I went to Ukraine in 2018. It was an extraordinary journey. Here is what I wrote about it:

Last Thursday 3 March 2022, I went to the Arlen Specter US Squash Center and interviewed Alina Bushma. The Drexel junior is from Kyiv. During the first days of the war, she traveled to Boston for the National Intercollegiate Team Championships, where she had a most remarkable match.

There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.

That is the quotation—falsely attributed to Lenin—that I keep thinking about, as the news from Ukraine comes spiraling across my screens. The invasion is not even two weeks old and already a decade has happened. A lot has changed for Alina’s family and friends in the past few weeks , as you can hear in this special edition of Outside The Glass.

Collegiate Club Teams

Yesterday I got to see the end of the first-ever Collegiate Club Championships. Officially it was the 2022 College Squash Association National Collegiate Men’s/Co-Ed and Women’s Club Team Championships and someday it will have a neat nickname.

For now it is brimming with possibility. The CSA carved out all the non-varsity programs into their own tranche. It worked well. At one end of 33rd Street at Penn, thirty-three varsity men’s teams competed in the National Collegiate Teams. It was a brilliant weekend overall (with just a few examples of poor sportsmanship and one team having eight members stuck in an elevator for an hour marring an otherwise exciting tournament). Penn v. Harvard in the final was the nail-biting exclamation point: literally one point the other way and Penn could have captured its first men’s national team title.

But up 33rd three blocks at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center and we had twenty-seven club teams duking it out in the Collegiate Club Teams. The enthusiasm and variety was breathtaking. You had five women’s teams and a bunch of co-ed squads. You had almost beginners, players who had only picked up the game a few months ago, and you had some with vast junior experience. You had teams that get literally not a dime from their university and don’t have standard courts and teams with a lot of support and beautiful facilities.

You had schools that also had a varsity team competing at Penn (Cornell and Penn); you had teams from storied Big Five power conference schools (Michigan, Ohio State, UNC, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Indiana). You had perhaps the oldest and most steadfast club team in history, Cal-Berkeley’s right next to some teams that had only been formed in the past couple of years. You had a squad all the way from Arizona State.

And you had classic rivalry match-ups—Lehigh v. Lafayette; Cal v. Stanford, and if Harvard had a women’s club team, there could have been a proper squash Beanpot (with BC, BU and Northeastern all fielding squads).

With hundreds of squash courts at collegiate facilities around the country, getting more clubs teams is a significant proposition. Don’t be surprised if the Collegiate Club Teams doubles in size before the end of the decade.

Milestones 2020 & 2021

Formerly and in the future in Squash Magazine, this is an annual survey of deaths, retirements and new facilities or additions/conversions. With the pandemic, this is a two-year survey for the 2020 and 2021 calendar years.

Deaths

Marwan Mahmoud Abdelnaby died in August 2020 at age twenty-four. The Egyptian had starred at Penn and was getting a masters at Boston University.

Bill Broadbent died in September 2021 at the age of seventy. Broadbent was one of the most visionary philathropists in US Squash history, guiding and supporting squash at the junior, high school, collegiate, urban and national level.

Enzo Corigliano died in December 2020 at age twenty-three. A New Caledonian, Corigliano reached world No.136 and was a leader on the St. Lawrence varsity team. 

Azam Kham, the last of the first generation of the Khan dynasty, died in March 2020 at the age of ninety-five from Covid-19. Having first played at age twenty-six, Khan won four British Opens and one U.S. Open. He coached at the New Grampians Club in London for a half century.

HRH Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh died in April 2021 died at the age of ninety-nine. An active squash player, he was playing squash at Buckingham Palace when Prince Charles was born in 1948. Prince Philip was the patron of England Squash and the Jesters Club. 

Malcolm Willstrop died in May 2021 at age eighty-three. The legendary coach had mentored thousands of players, including former world No.1s like Cassie Jackman, Lee Beachill, Vanessa Atkinson and his son James. 

Retirements

Annie Au retired in March 2020 at age thirty-one. Famously wielding a superb lob, Au reached world No.6 and won seventeen PSA titles. 

Leo Au retired in June 2020 at age thirty. He reached world No.20 and won eleven PSA titles. The Au siblings, from Hong Kong, both captured Asian Games gold medals.

Sam Cornet retired in April 2020 at age twenty-nine. The Canadian captured thirteen PSA titles and reached world No.23. She earned a silver medal in singles at the 2011 Pan Am Games.

Ryan Cuskelly retired in January 2020 at age thirty-two. The southpaw won sixteen PSA titles, reached world No.12. and helped Australia finish third in the 2017 World Teams.

Raneem El Welily retired in June 2020 at age thirty-one. The Egyptian spent twenty-three months atop the world rankings and nine years in the Top Ten. One of the smoothest and craftiest players in history, she won the World Juniors twice and the World Championships in 2017, played on four World Team-winning sides and captured twenty-four PSA titles. She made history in September 2015 by becoming the first Arab woman to become world No.1 in any sport when she dethroned Nicol David after David’s unprecedented nine-year run atop the world rankings.

Gregory Gaultier retired in October 2021 at age thirty-eight. The Frenchman spent twenty months total as world No.1, including a stint as the oldest world No.1 ever at age thirty-five. He won forty-four PSA titles, including the 2015 World Championship in Seattle, an emotional moment after he had lost in the finals of the Worlds four previous times. Gaultier, famous for his off-court workout regimen, led France to two silvers in the World Teams and took a gold at the 2013 World Games.

Campbell Grayson retired in September 2020 at age thirty-four. The New Zealander won fourteen PSA titles and reached world No.24. 

Victoria Lust retired in March 2020 at age thirty. The Englishwoman reached world No.12 and won nine PSA titles. 

Cameron Pilley retired in December 2019 (after the last Milestones) at age thirty-seven. The Australian won thirteen titles, reached world No.11 and captured three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. 

Simon Rosner retired in December 2020 retired at age thirty-three. The German reached world No.3 and won nine titles, most famously the 2018 Tournament of Champions. He took eleven straight German national titles and a gold medal at the 2017 World Games. 

Alison Waters retired in December 2021 at age thirty-seven. The Englishwoman reached world No.3, won ten PSA titles, made a record ten British national singles finals, winning four times and famously clinched England’s victory in the finals of the 2014 World Teams.

New Courts

Access Youth Academy, San Diego, CA: seven singles, one doubles

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH: nine singles

Dexter Southfield, Brookline, MA: six singles

Federal Reserve, Richmon, VA: two singles

Houston Squash Club, Houston, TX: ten singles

Kinetic Indoor Racquet Club, Boynton Beach, FL: four singles

Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, TN: three singles

MSquash Sono, Norwalk, CT: six singles

Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD: one singles, one doubles

Nicol Squash, New York, NY: four singles

Racquet Up, Detroit, MI: eight singles

Arlen Specter US Squash Center, Philadelphia: eighteen singles, two doubles

USJO

The 2021 U.S. Junior Open just concluded at the Arlen Specter US Squash Center. It was exhilarating, particularly during the pandemic, to see such a busy squash facility.

One thing that forcibly struck me as I walked around the Specter Center was how international the atmosphere was. I saw dozens of country colors, tee-shirts and pullovers trumpeting names from around the world. Incredible diversity. The official list was forty nations were represented among the over eight hundred players.

Here is how the nations shook out for the forty players who made the semifinals:

GU11: four Americans; BU11: three Americans, one Egyptian

GU13: one Belgian, one Malaysian, one Egyptian and one American; BU13: four Americans

GU15: two Americans, one Indian and one Egyptian; BU15: three Americans and one Belgian

GU17: one from Hong Kong, one American, one Canadians and one Englishwoman; BU17: two Columbians, one Pakistani and one Egyptian

GU19: three Americans and one Englishwoman; BU19: three Pakistanis and one American

Here is the list, courtesy of my colleague Harry Smith, of the forty nations who sent players to Philadelphia: Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Guatemala, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago, United States and Venezuela.

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.

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash