Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Squash Gods, They Work in Mysterious Ways

The dream didn't die it just changed. 17 years ago my son and I stepped onto a squash court and played a match for the first time. Over the years it was his dream, and maybe more mine, that he become a professional squash player. He never wanted to play collegiate squash and instead wanted to become a pro player. Little did we know what exactly that entailed and what we were getting ourselves into. Our good friend Jim Masland provided the best advice, "better have deep pockets." I dismissed this because being completely self made, there's never been any doubt that I could make anything happen. You have to live that way when you're in the process of making yourself into someone other than what economics or upbringing would do. It was our dream -- we lived and breathed it. We were up 5 am every morning to head over for training at LA Fitness in Lake Success, 10 minutes from where we lived. It wasn't easy rousing a slumbering kid who was up late surfing the net and playing video games: and the sub-zero temperatures didn't help. We'd stop off at Bagelman for coffee and some bagels, talk about the likes of whatever pro player caught our attention; and I was always defending and heightening the good old days, the likes of Jahnsher and Jahangir against my son's Nicol and Power. We seemed to challenge each other, like sons do with their fathers, with squash as the basis. "But you never saw the likes of Chris Ditmar or Rodney Martin..." He'd be so frustrated with me, because time and history were on my side. He hadn't yet achieved that history. but as he matured he studied the "good old days" like he would an important school assignment. He studied every detail of a player, the racket they played with, the strings they used; their technique was deconstructed. Eventually, it was I who was learning from him and he was teaching me how to watch squash, but transferring that into playing squash...well, that was another story. We drilled and drilled and we loved it. We were sort of like the Sanford and Son of squash, we became competitive and often to many observer very entertaining to watch and listen to. We would annoy each other, but it disguised an underlying closeness and love that only a father and son can have -- I could never have imagined this because my father was never there when I was growing up. We found a common ground where we were equal and where we could stand in the court with it's white walls and simple, but emphatic boundaries. For me, it was a place apart from all the stress of raising children as a single parent and working in pressure cooker technology jobs...and for him, I think it was where he stood, with his dad, where he wasn't judged by his peers, his teachers, his friends and enemies, he was just someone who loved this game more than anything and had this dream. I was fortunate I was able to send him to camps and employ some really excellent coaches. Some were good others were really great. Mike Way was probably the greatest influence on my son. They both have similar squash minds. We ran into Mr. Way at last year's Tournament of Champions and talked at length. I am my son's father in almost every facet of his life, but Mr. Way became my son's squash father. I watched them talk; they hadn't seen each other in a long time. You had the sense they just picked up where they left off when my son was a junior player. And then the harsh reality, that squash in the US is really a very elitist sport, it's expensive to get really good, and extremely expensive if you want to go on the pro tour. We went to India for a year, thinking that it would be better to be there and short flights to a lot of smaller professional tournaments. But stuck in Bangalore, India, we were just barely able to play squash and train let alone launch a pro career. There were no good players, but we would not be deterred. We devised drills to simulate match play, and we discovered climbing stairs. We lived in a ten story apartment building and we trained on the stairs. The results were astounding, my son became so incredibly fit. That squash dream would not die, we trained very hard. He had no idea how, with a torn meniscus, I could drill him. With enough Advil, I was mobile enough to pressure him beyond his ability and fitness. We came back to the US and the lack of match play was evident. My son was in college, there was no squash at his school, so he played and coached out of various clubs in the City. We kept pushing and pushing, there had to be a way, and yes, "deep pockets" indeed were mandatory. The pressure to make a mark in tournments and open up some doors was tremendous. It was a tough time, financially and personally, the collapse in 2008 had an immense impact on a lot of people, including myself; the worst part was that reality began to set in that pro squash just might not happen. My son tried playing the PST and went to the UK to train with Steve Townsend. He pushed hard for matches, to make some inroads, but it just wasn't happening. It was becoming more and more evident, that money reality; his Egyptian coach spelled it out, yes, it comes down to money, simply money, 100,000 USD each year for a couple of years to launch a pro squash career. And that seemed to be the truth. We talked about mortgaging everything to make that happen, working two jobs, even three, which I did for a while. But then, it happened. M son decided law school was more important than pro squash. I know he struggled with this, he was a good student and had some lofty legal ambitions and didn't know if he could get those high entrance exam scores. but this is where squash provided a blueprint for some other successes in his life. He saw himself go from a chubby kid into a fine athelete and realized what it took for him to accomplish that. He went and did exactly for law school what he did for squash and knowing the expense of law school (as expensive as a prof squash career launching), he studied like a man possessed. He scored high on his entrance exams and won a prestigious full scholarship at a renowned law school. So that was what it was all about? I'm not religious, but They do work in mysterious ways. My son and I are lucky enough to have an early morning game here and there. I often stop between points and egg him on with a comment about this pro or that pro and the banter is like familiar music from the past, it's special, it takes you back to a really great time. In my minds eye, I see that chubby kid on the court, with great hands and a squash IQ through the roof, now an aspiring attorney who talks about nothing but law and his work. When we talk about squash, it's usually a text here and there suggesting we watch this match or that match and even the text that cancels our match brings a smile to my face, hey, he's living the dream, doing what he loves. When we get off court after playing, he invariably says in passing, "Dad, you have no idea how much I miss this game, how much I love it." I want to tell him how much I miss our squash, how much I miss him and that dream we had; but, he's already hit the showers and is off to the library.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Best of the Best in Squash

It's been awhile since I've posted anything. I've been concentrating on other projects. But the other day was thinking about how much I like the "best" lists, as in best squash players, best squash book and the best rally. I started thinking how much fun it was to do the best players of all time and started to compile the best of specific "best" categories. Here goes. Best of the Best ============== Forehand drop volley: without question, Nick Matthew. This is a devastating shot from Matthew, probably one of the best shots ever in the history of the game. Backhand drop volley: have to go with Ramy here, straight or cross a thing of beauty, his hands are the best ever. Forehand kill shot: can anyone dispute David Palmer's forehand kill shot delivered like a gunshot into the front forehand nick? Backhand kill shot: I want to say Shabana has a great one, Ramy too not too sure about this one. Most creative shot: No contest here, Hisham Ashour's the "Mazuki" a hundred time I have tried and still can't do it. Against Anjema hits it and applauds his own shot afterwards. Best footwork: there are some players with great footwork past and present. But Jansher keeps coming to mind; Perfect balance, patience strength and anticipation all are part of being best on your feet. Best racquet skills: Ramy Ashour, literally a magician -- the racquet is his wand. Please stay healthy. The best drop shot: Punishment, punishment and more punishment from Jansher Khan; tightens the srew even more as the match goes on. The best lob: Peter Nicol turned this defensive shot into an offensive shot; I think it was Power who compelled him to develop this short. The best fitness: I'm sure a lot of old timers would argue for Jonah Barrington, Geof hunt or Jahangir Khan, but the nod goes to Nick Matthew, the pace of the game so much faster than in the past requiring explosive quickness, soft hands as well as endurance and sheer determination along with super human training. Training is so much more advanced now than in the past. Deception: toss up between Ramy and Jonathan Power, another wizard with the racquet. Taking the ball early: 5 years ago I would say Peter Nicol, but there's a host of others including Matthew, Shorbagy, Gaultier. Question would any of these players have this success at anytime? Shorbagy and Gaultier would dominate as Nicol did. I'm convinced that Nicol would without a doubt be in the top eschelons if he were coming onto the scene now. Dictating pace: Mohamed El Shorbagy seems to me in this category by himself. Imposing, imposing and just plain imposing -- he will just pound you into submission. Bonus Pick: Best rally - Probably most would consider The John White Greg Gaultier rally from a few years back at the NY TOC, however, go and watch the 110 shot rally between Diego Elias and Alan Clyne recently, game 1 at 6-4. (youtube.com Clyne vs Elias). Best new face on the horizon - Diego Elias, soon he and Shorbagy will be battling it out for top spot. Watch this recently crowned world junior champion, he is the next best.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ramy Ashour -- Keeping The Dream Alive

Much will be said and written about what just took place in the finals of the Qatar PSA World Championships. I would like to say when I am left speechless it's when I have the most to say. The finals match between Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy was one of the most incredible matches I've ever seen. Great matches usually have a subtext of drama associated with them. And this match had its share. Ashour coming back after months of inactivity due to injury. Watching him fight his way back to get back to that "zone", as his brother, Hisham, says -- to where he is arguably one of the greatest players ever to play squash. But this game is often bigger than the game itself, this game can inspire you in anything and everything related or not related to squash. You watch this incredible athlete struggle with the "demons", which we saw in the Borja Golan match, through sheer will and determination wrest control from the "demons" and come out victorious -- all of this makes a truly great champion for the ages. I once asked the Egyptian national coach what makes Ramy so special and he simply said, "courage...he has the heart of a lion." What does this mean in the greater scheme of things? I'm not sure. To Egyptians who have struggled and have been near the brink of civil war, it means some kind of respite from the uncertainty about their great state and culture. But even to some young player coming off an injury it means more than anything to now have in their head Ramy's post match interview, "you have no idea how hard I worked to come back, you have no idea what I put myself through." These are words that should echo in anyone's head who is faced with adversity, it's an inspiration, as my son said this morning, when he hit the courts for a training session. "Ramy has inspired me." My son himself is coming back from a devastating ankle injury. And he has struggled mightily in coming back, in fighting the "demons" of fear of injury again. When we hit the courts this morning there was a difference. I knew he was inspired I saw it in his step, in his love for hitting the ball and moving diagonally across the court. He was relaxed like I haven't seen him since before his injury and surgery. I often times in the last months thought the dream we had so long ago might be dying if not dead. Reality is always at odds with the dream. But then there's Ramy who in his magnificent comeback at the Qatar Open, seemed to say he'd go to the ends of the earth, he'd battle any "demons" just to do what he loves to do -- and that is play squash. But that's not just what makes him great. He spoke most of the post match interview in Arabic so "his people" could understand what he was saying. He seemed to be most proud of being Egyptian than in being Ramy, he seemed to say that Egypt too can come back and be great again. It's perhaps easy to read so much more into a great match, but in this case there was so much going on at so many different levels. While he made Egypt proud, made his family proud, made squash proud, he made me proud of my own son who drew upon that finals match and the eloquent words afterwards to come out and keep a dream alive which we've both shared through our own trials and tribulations. No one knows what will sustain us and where it will all lead and for how long, but it's a dream, it's a dream within the moment itself of every point, every shot played. I hope someday I can hear my son say "you have no idea what I put myself through to keep our dream alive."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Future's Present - Ramy Ashour And The Front Of The Court

Years back I found the Egyptian Squash invasion, well an invasion. I didn't like it. It wasn't what I was used to. They were brash, irreverent, and seemed to come at you from every angle on the way creating even angles never before seen. I found them disconcerting they threatened the iconic British and Australian way of life, they seemed to stomp on the Pakistan traditions of the Khans. Who were these squash Huns? Ten years later from the ashes of Barada and not so far removed from Shabana, the phoenix has risen in all its glory really ushering in not only a new age, but ushering in the very survival of squash. As we see the zenith of Australian and British squash (by Dave Pearson's own admission there's no one on the British horizon of squash) the Egyptians are not only the future but they are the future's present. I watched the El Gouna Open tournament this year as closely as I've watched any tournament. I watched this because this was an Egyptian showcase of the best squash talent on the planet. In the end I was treated to an amazing semifinal match between Mohamed ElShorbagy and Greg Gaultier 113 minutes of amazing squash. I watched these two battle it out a few months back in the semis of this year’s tournament of champion, you walked away from that Gaultier victory realizing only a matter of time, the time is now, not as many predicted a year or two years away. I chastised Gaultier in that match for giving too much credit to his defeated foe. But he must have seen something happening that I certainly didn't. But now Mohamed Elshorbagy. The other fellow on the court for the El Gouna final with Ramy Ashour. I watched a few of the Ashour matches and realized (again) this squash player is perhaps the best player in the history of the game. I saw Jahnsher many times, he is undoubtedly the greatest, but what made Jahnsher great, one thing was his attacking the front court. They used to say in the first game he attacked the front giving you the opportunity to return it and then as the match went on he tightened the front court like tightening a screw until he eventually broke the likes of Rodney Martin, Chris Ditmar and his own Jahangir Khan. And now there is Ramy, the "Annihilator" he will annihilate you with his front court game. Watch the Simon Rosner quarter final match at El Gouna, the front court attack is simply devastating, annihilating, ushering a very talented player into a void a nothingness of racket and player unable to cover the ball up front. He makes a potentially top 5 player look like a club player in the front court. And Ashour isn't tightening any screws, he's going for the jugular. I saw him first do this a few months back against one of my favorite players Cameron Pilley. It seemed Ashour attacked more to the front, he broke a very game Pilley early on. Ashour seemed different, he changed, and his game was nothing like I've seen except in Jahnsher. I love British squash, Nick Matthew, James Wilstrop, Peter Barker, and Daryl Selby will be no more in a few years. None will replace these absolute golden boys of squash. I am sad, truly saddened by this until I realize we have something entirely new. We have the Egyptians, Ashour, Shorbagy, Mosaad, Momen and many others coming up in the ranks. They are exciting in a different way. I feel a bit guilty in this because I feel like I'm betraying the ultimate squash in Matthew and Wilstrop. these are my heroes, these are the players who have carried the torch of traditional squash, the torch once held by Nicol, Power, Palmer, Ditmar, Robertson, the Martins, and even further back in Hunt and Barrington -- those players who combined attrition squash with beautiful shot making -- a deadly combination. But someone, anyone had to come out of the Pakistani ashes of squash, come out of that tradition steeped in brilliance, temperament and creativity.

11 Squash Commandments

It's been awhile, and I had thought I was done with this stuff. But, I had this dream I was dead on the court. Someone administered CPR it was like I am there, they are there, but I am here. Eventually, the I am here met up with the I am there and i started my squash life again. the dream nearly died, precipitously ever so close to the end. But it's alive again. And every near death experience has a vision, some indication of the past or the future. I am here to share with you what came out fo this near squash death experience. Someone handed me a tablet with 11 commandments. Here goes. First and foremost, in that white light near death I was told to say what i feel and think -- don't mince words. I was told this sport is dying a slow death it's time for depserate measures. I can only hope Alan Thatcher, Barbara Cooper , Hisham Ashour and James Masland not hear the cock crow three times. 1. Squash will help you get into an IVY or top tier school. False, nonsense no basis in reality. If you are academically inclined to the Ivy's squash will not matter and besides what U.S. top under 19 player could even set foot on the court with some of the great overseas players recruited? So if you spend the tens of thousand of dollars most of you will spend it won't matter much unless your child plays squash for the rest of their lives. 2. Hashim Khan was not the greatest. Sorry, as nice as it sounds. If you could teach your brother to win the British Open after 1-2 years of playing squash no doubt the competition is like 3 players total. I would stake my life that no one who has never played squash can win the British Open after two years (barring bribes, injuries to everyone in the main draw, etc). And in their prime Jahangir vs Hashim 11-0,11-0,11-0. That was an era not even comparable to others. Jahangir in his prime versus Nick Mathew, sorry Mr. Mathew maybe a game but not likely. And we didn't even bring into discussion Jansher. 3. Urban Squash, those left behind are still left behind, those ahead always ahead. Not really so funny, but I guess it works it keeps those Ivies probably not really employable elsewhere employed. Don't profit from other's misfortune ( a wise old Turk told me that one). 4. U.S. Squash. Yikes I don't even want to think about this anymore. Let others do the dirty work. 5. Pro Squash tour - after all that was said and done a mere 'tempest in a tea pot.' 6. Coaching - Interesting the top Tennis coaches never really played on the pro tour. They are architects of tennis, they are great students and teachers of tennis. Squash please take heed. The U.S. is overun with carpet-baggers of squash. They are here for the money only and capitalizing on the college squash bubble. Most of them (and unless you are Chris Walker, Rodney Martin, Hisham Ashour) best to check those credentials; but 90% of parents of squashers haven't a clue about who is a good coach or not. If they played the game they would know a lot more. 7. New York squash is dying. Let's face it there are no new courts, courts are closing, the greatest city on the planet has the worst squash. Those that dispute this are basically keeping the lie alive. There are few tournaments, fewer players, and the club models around the City are antiquated models and don't work anymore. There's no consortium out there looking to build a mega facility. Squash is returning to the elitist private clubs. good luck getting into those at 89.00 or 140.00 a month (and they do require sponsorship). 8. Squash and the Olympics. This will only benefit the top players. They're professional, whether on Mt. Olympus or in the Bayou they will be pure gold. Who cares, no one except those who will profit from it. 9. Grand Central -- viewing the squash. I've been there watching; the most, 50 people without tickets most of whom, names withheld, are too cheap to buy tickets so they watch for free. It does NOT bring new players to the game. 10. Finally, if you find any of this offensive, sorry, I love this game and in the end couldn't care less about hurting anyone's feelings. This game is still the greatest game on the planet, the difference is I say make it accessible to anyone and everyone; others would like to keep it restricted. I remember a while back talking to some players who switched clubs. They didn't like my club because the courts were always booked. They went to another club and were ecstatic that they could get courts whenever they wanted. "No one else plays." Phew, that is brain dead squash -- talk about dumb. 11. I am throwing this in there. Be a visionary, think outside the box, don't follow any leaders and as Dylan says 'watch your parking meters."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review of Nick Matthew's "Sweating Blood. My Life in Squash."

On a twenty hour flight to Malaysia recently I settled in with my much anticipated reading of Squash Professional Nick Matthew's autobiography, "Sweating Blood. My Life in Squash." Mr. Matthew graciously sent me a copy for me to review and post to my blog. Dreading that long and tedious flight, once I settled in and began reading this book, I knew, as far as squash books go, this is something special. I also knew that while Matthew and Willstrop (author of "Shot and Ghost") are bitter squash rivalries and competitive in every facet where squash is concerned, their respective books couldn't be any more different (like their style of play). I blocked that comparison out of my head and delved into Matthew’s autobiography, simply reading it as if I picked it up in the airport bookshop. I have read nearly every squash book worth reading and countless other athlete biographies and chronicles. While most of the squash books are instructional and in and of themselves fascinating and worthwhile reads, Matthews book is a bit of everything and reads like biographies of such famous other Athletes, Larry Bird comes immediately to mind . When we read these books we want not only the inside story of the athlete but also the inside story of the sport they played or in Matthews case are playing. Matthew's book delivers on both fronts with each page leaping out at you with very insightful and often intimate details of the professional squash player's life. Matthew proves a keen observer of every detail in a player's life, including their superstitions, their on court antics, and often the tedium of travel, preparation and competing around the world as PSA professionals. You have the sense that while Matthew, by virtue of his monumental squash status as the number 1 player in the world and the greatest British player in the history of the game, could just spotlight his opinions, instead, he ever so humbly and often tongue-in-cheek relates story after story sometimes the rogue, often the innocent bystander, but always the squash player. Matthew portrays himself as a machine on court as well as his off court preparation and training. His approach to squash and his own game are precise, deliberate and executed with a great deal of confidence. He is almost ferocious on court, a fierce competitor whose vocabulary lacks the word quit. By his own admission, he will never ever quit and will battle to the end. Reading this is inspiring even at the club level, how he wills himself to never give up. For a young up and coming professional this book is invaluable -- an important guide or roadmap to doing whatever it takes to win. I found his progression as a player a bit of reality check; his decision to turn professional (giving himself 2 years on tour) and the reality that without deep pockets, his success is largely due to the support from the British sports lottery The lottery provided much needed training and funds to tour. Squash as a profession is a viable profession, something we haven't really embraced here in the US because of the lack of funding available. One of the best thoughts expressed in the whole book is that Matthew, like some here in the US, wants to see an American born player break the top ten. He explains that a high profile American player in the top ten would be huge for squash overall. The likelihood of that achievement without a similar funding system is slim. Having often thought if I had to do it all over again I'd want to, given the opportunity, be a professional squash player, at this point in life I can only live vicariously through the squash life of someone like Matthew who displays a pride and passion for doing what he does -- play professional squash. He didn't come from privilege, but from a middle class background with very supportive parents and friends. He credits much of his success to squash Guru David Pearson, and he shows a deep appreciation for ‘DP’ as he calls Pearson. Like Mathew's brilliant style of play, I hope this book, both insightful and entertaining, will spawn others like Ashour or Gaultier or Palmer to follow suit. The oral history of the game captured in this book’s pages is priceless. The accounts of matches, play, personalities, observations unless written in a book like this are eventually lost to future generations. Professional squash players tend not to dwell or cherish much about the past. I have tried for years to contact and interview some remarkable players of the past, it’s very difficult to do. If they haven’t remained in coaching, they are seemingly gone forever, completely off the squash grid. Those who remain in squash in some capacity don’t much talk about where they were in their twenties versus where they are now. The chasm between touring squash professional and retired player and now coach is immense; like all of us where we’ve been has little or no resemblance to where we are now. It’s only the wisdom, if we’re so lucky, that takes the place of youth and fearlessness. There is much drama in squash, probably like any other sport, except where other marquee sports maintain a myriad of statistics, recollections, books, news articles, magazines, TV specials and documentaries, squash relies on the occasional book like Matthew's book as well as a deeply rich oral history of the game itself. That's why it's not as important to just report the scores of matches, but to report the thoughts, the insights, and the subtle nuances of match play. Treat yourself to this book, you won't regret it. Even if you have little or no interest in professional squash, you'll find it a great read coming from someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in his profession and still maintains this awe and a deep sense of gratitude that he was so privileged to have been part of something he truly has a passion for.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Has The Torch Been Passed? Matthew and El Shorbagy in Richmond, Virginia

Has a torch been pass├ęd? On a cold March night in Richmond, Virginia Mohammed ElShorbagy beat Nick Matthew at Nick Matthews game. Twenty or so people of fortunate and dedicated squashers in Richmond, they witnessed something truly special, history has happened. 94 minutes. How do you fathom the importance of this? Matthew played his absolute brilliance and Shorbagy weathered it. You just have to marvel at Matthew at 34 years old that he took it to Shorbagy in game 5, but Shorbagy is the new kid on the block; he is the future of professional squash. His mental toughness, his tactics, mentally and squash-wise are nothing short of pure phenomenon. What Matthew showed in this match is what he will always be remembered for. His legacy is sealed. Like every great athlete who posseses something exceptional you just wish it will last forever. Nick Matthew squash will never be equalled. He will go down as one of the top 5 greatest players to ever play this game. This is about the human condition, this is about excellence and the pursuit of truth and beauty, except it's the body, and the body cannot always do what the mind wants it to. Shorbagy showed a determination and ferocity that only someone who in such harsh conditions was born to achieve; he reached his destination. He has been climbing Everest for quite a while, tonight, Everest is within reach. This young man is so gifted, but I can only imagine if he came on the scene at this level 5 years ago. To Mr. Matthew I hope you understand the historic significance of a night like tonight. Your match tonight will prove pivatol in Shorbagy's career. I watched you ever so closely in that fifth game, honestly hoping that you would come back that you would hit a series of miraculous forehand volley drops. But that kid, 11 years your junior was there, on every shot. You pushed him beyond his limits and for that, I think this match will show that this is the match that will in the future make Shorbagy a great champion to be reckoned with. Even in defeat, Mr. Matthew, you are remarkable. You brought out the best in someone whose confidence in his best wasn't always there. Just brilliant, simply brilliant, the highest compliment I can pay. the torch has been passed, I think you should be proud you passed a torch with a flame still brilliant lit.