Four years ago, there was just one thing that came to mind when you heard the phrase Richmond squash: the Price-Bullington Invitational. The PBI is a classic amateur tournament that features top college kids who are flown in from their campuses to the Country Club of Virginia for the weekend. (Started in 1970, it was originally the Holt Bullington, named in honor of the eponymous Richmond junior who died the year before.) Otherwise the Virginia SRA was molasses-slow world, with not a single twenty-one-foot court in Richmond and barely any league or junior play. Richmond’s main claim to fame was that it was the home of the good reverend, Bob Hetherington, who was a top amateur forty years ago. And then everything changed.
Ted Price, the Old Dominion squash kingpin who now shares the honors of the PBI name, brought in journeyman teaching pro Gus Cook (France; Lakeshore Athletic in Chicago; Birmingham Athletic in Detroit; Meadow Mill in Baltimore), and Richmond squash blossomed. Cook started five days before Christmas in 2003 and a month later he had organized a pro squash tournament, the Virginia Open. Each winter Cook added a PSA star to the prize money level and increased the budget (from $19,000 in 2004 to $175,000 in 2008). After two years at the Country Club of Virginia, Cook moved the tournament down the road to the home of the Spiders, the University of Richmond. For the next two years, the tournament had a glass court plopped down in the Tyler Haynes Commons, UR’s student union which famously had fifty-foot high windows looking out on the a tree-banked pond.
While this was going on, Richmond squash exploded. The CCV put in three softball court and other clubs began the process of converting or adding courts. One intriguing new club is the Wood n Racket, which is a half hour outside Richmond on the way to Charlottesville. Besides some grass tennis courts, it has one squash doubles court and plans for a second one.
This week the Davenport Open, as the pro tournament is now called, is up the hill from the pond, at UR’s old Millhiser gym. It has a 400-seat capacity, cozy and slightly quaint with the worn brick and wooden rafters. With the huge draw (twelve of the top twenty in the world), it feels like just another big international tournament: The McWil truck (”Glass Court on World Tour”) is sitting outside; Martin Bronstein is interviewing the players as they leave the court after their match; local shutter babe Patricia Lyons is snapping shots; and Jean Delierre is tremendously busy fixing cameras and snaking cable lines for his television filming. Fans from as close as Norfolk and Chapel Hill and as far away as Baltimore and New York are coming into town.
Only at times it is a sleepy scene, like when there was a fifteen-minute gap between matches on the first afternoon, and Ramy and Hesham Ashour got on court to hit. Ramy was about as casual as possible: in his socks, borrowing one of his brother’s racquets and his long sweats dragging underfoot. Yet he still looked, with his flicks and flips, like a magician.
The biggest excitement so far has been the opening round match of Patrick Chifunda v. Cam Pillay. Chifunda is now based at CCV and running junior clinics all over town and got enormous home-crowd ovations—at introductions, after the warmup, after some of his airborne swan dives and after his match.