As many of you know, I have been working for a few years on a book project with Paul Assasiante on the story of Trinity squash, and this season has been the most improbable yet. The arrival of Baset Ashfaq seemed to spell instant doom for the rest of the nation’s top programs Ashfaq was the best softball player ever to arrive at an American college: he was coached by Rahmat Khan (can anyone say, Jahangir?); he was ranked sixty-one on the PSA tour the summer before he matriculated; and he had won the British Open juniors, thus becoming the first Drysdale Cup winner to come to play collegiate squash since Anil Nayer popped up at Harvard in 1965.
As an incoming freshman, Ashfaq (sometimes you see his last name as Chaudhry) was going to shove everyone down one on the Trinity ladder. But a funny thing happened. Midseason he lost two challenge matches in a row, to Shaun Johnstone, the bullet-biting Zimbabwean, and to Gustave Detter, the Atlas-shrugging Swede who saved three match balls against Princeton’s Yasser El Halaby in the Bantam’s epic 5-4 escape last year. So the greatest recruit ever was playing three.
Why? For one, Killer B, as the Trinity guys have nicknamed him, was having a hard adjustment to the life away from the tour. He grew up in Lahore and he turned twenty-one in January, so it was not a lack of maturity or exposure to Western life or even academics (he earned a 3.8 average first semester), but rather a lack of confidence. He was too good for the provincial American college squash scene, friends on the tour told him; his game would deteriorate. The 2006 U.S. Open in November then fulfilled that prophecy. In the qualies up in Boston, he struggled to beat Preston Quick 3-1, and then went down cheaply to Tom Richards in three quick games. Richards was ranked fifteen spaces below Ashfaq when he came to Trinity and three months later he was losing to him.
At the 2007 team nationals, sespite a strained tendon in his right ankle, he hammered a previously untouchable Mauricio Sanchez of Princeton in the finals. No one had ever won the finals of the Potter Trophy tournament 9-0, but Ashfaq’s surprising win made that possible. And so Trinity got their ninth straight title and extended their NCAA-record unbeaten streak to 165 matches. His teammates carried him on their shoulders from the court.
Ashfaq, like most of the other Bantams, are rock stars in an individual sport, yet from the moment they put on their yellow jerseys, complete with their names on the back, they buy into the team mentality, the streak, the dynasty. The first thing Ashfaq did when he walked into Assaiante’s office the morning he arrived from Pakistan was ask about the championship rings Assaiante kept in an eyeglass case. Assaiante said there were eight of them, one for each national title. Ashfaq instantly replied, “order four more.”
BALTIMORE HEART ATTACK
Last month I went up to Baltimore for the BIDS, their long-running doubles tournament. As usual, it was a great weekend. Patrick Miller was inducted into the Maryland State SRA Hall of Fame (what district association has a better list of Hall of Famers than MD?) and Margaret Riehl, the pioneer of women’s squash in Baltimore, received the MSSRA’s Achievement Award.
I heard the report on the FitzGerald Cup, the annual DC v. Baltimore match which through attrition has become the oldest continuous inter-city in the country (and world?). Washington leads the series 40-19. This year’s match had a long-overdue innovation, in which a woman played on Baltimore’s 13-person side. And the woman, Lisa Tutrone, bested Hunt Richardson, the veteran DC pro, 10-9 in the fifth.
But another Balty story was the return of Sandy Martin. Last August he collapsed on the upstairs doubles court at the Maryland Club. Andrew Cordova, the MD Club pro, rushed onto the court with a defibillator and restarted Martin’s heart. He was taken to the hospital, came out of unconsciousness after four days and now, six months later has made a full recovery and is back on court. Believe is the motto of Baltimore, and how.
It made me think of the many people who have had heart attacks on the squash court and not made it out alive. The most famous, ironically, is the one who died in a court tennis rather than squash court, Stan Pearson, Sr., winner of six national titles.
Speaking of passing on, I bumped into David Claghorn in the gallery at the Princeton v. Trinity dual match last month. His mother, Marge Claghorn, was one of the unsung heroes of women’s squash in the 1950s and 60s. She helped run the New Jersey States at Pretty Brook, one of the major tournaments of the women’s circuit. She was a delightful person with a lively laugh. And she was a member of Princeton Friends Meeting, where her memorial service was held in January after her death.
Over the holidays, my wife’s cousin, Tom Elkinton, was telling me about Will, a former colleague of his at the American Friends Service Committee . It was Willing Patterson, the 1940 national champion.
There are other members of the Religious Society of Friends, like me, who also play squash. Probably more than anyone would guess. Charlie Ufford comes to mind. Who else? On the surface it might seem strange, but not really, for in true Quaker spirt, you usually say “I am playing with” rather than “I am playing against” when someone asks where you are going with your squash racquet. For squash, more than most other one-on-one sports, has a communal aspect, a give-and-take, a clearing, a subtle search for consensus.