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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

McManus Assures Me the Pro Squash Tour (PST) Is Alive.

I wrote about the Pro Squash Tour (PST) having passed away quietly in 2014. According to McManus, the PST has a number of tournaments coming up. This is great news since both his Squash E-zine and PST Official site haven't mentioned any news about the 'Tour'. McManus assured me he will update the official PST site with dates and draws in the tournaments coming up. I look forward to the live broadcasts of the matches and the candid on court interviews following. The 'Tour' has given much needed exposure to young aspiring professional squash players who find it difficult to play in the PSA overseas and around the country due to funding. I have always supported this tour, haven't agreed with some of the particulars of it and I am greatly encouraged that he will continue to provide squash at both the lower, unknown levels, as well as the highest, as in the cases of Lincou and Palmer two former PSA number one players who had signed with the PST. I am hoping that the war between the PSA and the PST will stop in the best interests of squash. US Squash has partnered with the PSA to showcase some of the young professional US talent coming out of the colleges as well as some seasoned professionals, those international players, who are not in any of the main draws of the bigger PSA tournaments in the US. I like the PST because of its grass roots origins, promoting professional squash as a viable professional sport. And I hope that he too can take his considerable marketing and promotional talents to continue to do what is great for the professional game, at whatever level. McManus, Gough and Klipstein all have a common enemy and should unite to battle the often indifference towards professional squash in the US. I am greatly encouraged by this notion and the fact that some talented collegiate players have chosen squash professionally, most notably Todd Harrity. Not unlike the PST who introduced the likes of Gustav Detter, one of the great collegiate players ever, into the professional PST ranks. I encourage McManus and Gough to do whatever it takes to lift the ban preventing PSA players from PST events, this is not good for squash. Boxing has numerous governing bodies and boxers are often ranked in different professional organizations. Squash should also, the game, the pros who lack funding and dream of playing professionally are the ones who suffer the most. In my original post, I stated McManus is still good for professional squash, and in reality he is good for this game which needs new ideas and angles to make it thrive and not just survive.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Squash Ghost of 86th Street






For Tom Paige

 

It was difficult when the GM Nate Richardson stopped by Richard’s office and told him the 86th Street Squash Club had been sold to a group of condominium development investors. Richard had been at this club for over 30 years, he couldn't believe it had finally happened. He had heard rumors all winter about this deal but just kept doing his squash lessons, coordinating clinics and planning for a small tournament of professionals and amateurs, something the club hadn't done in a long time. He watched his courts dwindle down to 6 from over 13 20 years ago. And only 5 of those were international courts and the one, old American hardball court was used for storage. No one played hardball at his club or for that matter most any North American squash club.

Nate was from corporate, so he'd be taking a position at some other affiliate club, one of the newbie clubs that emphasized Zumba, yoga, kick boxing and the myriad of other useless fads people cling to in hopes of looking like the stars on the info commercials that endorse them. This club was special; it was in its heyday of 13 North American hardball courts, a Mecca for the best hardball squash players in the world at that time. Richard was never all that attached to people or things and was hardened to the usual sentiments about the glory days of hardball squash or for that matter anything else... He lived in the here and now, but when Nate left his office, his words, their reality, reverberated in his head.

"Business is business, it always is. The company has a couple of clubs in the suburbs mostly catering to juniors, you're welcome to transfer."

"Let me digest this first, if that's okay?"

"You wouldn't be head pro, but it might be good to start over again."

"Like I said, Nate, let me just digest this."

Nate closed the office door behind him. Richard flipped him the bird and muttered, "Asshole, go fuck yourself, starting over, you start over and see where you end up, the same prick, no talent asshole GM of any old sports club.”

*****************************

Richard had finished up his last lesson, a late one, with a tough student, a hardened corporate attorney, who just wanted to be run around and beaten into submission. He'd happily obliged Marc Rose for what had become a few years already, they rarely talked about anything personal, and Marc Rose hadn't become any better at squash than the first day he came for a so called 'lesson'. On occasion he'd offer some advice to Marc, like "change the pace of the ball, you hit the same hard pace every shot --" Marc would cut him off and say just play. Richard knew if Marc just listened and tried to learn the game better he could be really good. But Richard would stop himself and think to himself, if Marc doesn't care why he should?

Richard sat at his desk, checked his emails, Aditya from rival Sports Club SF wanted to hit tomorrow. Nice, Richard liked that club. Aditya used to work for him at 86th street. Easy match for Richard, he liked toying with Aditya and frustrating him. Todd Binns was in town, the ex-hardballer from his pro past. Richard lost to him in the finals a long time ago; he thought it was the Denver open. Binns wanted to catch up on old times. Richard wasn't in the mood so declined, next time he told him. He then listened to his voicemails mostly requesting lessons, the usual freebie guest passes, Ariadne, that hot Spanish divorcee who fucked his brains out after her second lesson. He wanted to get rid of her, so he pawned her off on his assistant Gul.  He laughed, he liked the idea of Gul "humping" her, a word Gul  used and it was funny the way he said it, he just imagined his grandma's dog "humping" his leg whenever he came to visit. He thought, too funny Gul humping Ariadne's shapely leg just like his grandma's dog humped every visitor’s leg...

Then in an instant he suddenly froze, a look of utter and complete shock and disbelief ran through his body as if a bolt of lightning struck him.

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue tomorrow and hit with you, can you get a court and leave my name at the desk?"

Richard pressed pound on his phone and stood fixated at the receiver. "Shit, Shit, this can't be, what the fuck, it just can't be, haven't heard that message in nearly 15 years!"

He pressed one again to replay the message,

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue..." It's the voice, and the same message Tom used to leave him. He replayed it several more times.  He pressed nine to save the message and quickly gathered his things and headed out. He ran into Ariadne, who must have been lying In wait for him, she wasn't in gym clothes, and was dressed to the nines, she said, "Richard, is Gul upstairs?” She knew full well that Gul worked the afternoons.

He just brushed passed her and heard her cursing him in Spanish as he exited the club, something about how rude he could be sometimes. Worst mistake banging her, he should have known he'd never get rid of her. She was a huge disappointment, he thought she'd be wild and fuck his brains out, but all she did was lie their like a fucking corpse and then her perfunctory "ah, ah, ahhhhh" as she came. And plus, she smoked and he hated that. She'd light up smoke three puffs and extinguish this cigarette right on his night stand; he’d have to scamper to get her a saucer to serve as ashtray.

He needed to get home. He stopped on his way to pick up a fifth of Seagram’s Vodka; it's all he could afford. All those rumors about the club caused a lot of his lessons to cancel their memberships and go to the SF club. He knew SF could never compete with the history of 86th street.  The greats like Stu Goldstein, Sharif Khan, Mark Talbot, Ned Edwards;, the ‘Corsican Brothers’, Soli Mehta, and perhaps the greatest ever Jahangir Khan. And none could ever forget Tom Paige, he stood out among all of them – how many remaining clubs in the City had seen these players? He thought about Tom’s inexplicable voicemail, and how much he admired this man who died so young.

***********************************

Richard woke in the morning, checked his alarm clock it was still 5:23 a.m. He heard a groan and almost leapt out of bed, but there was Ariadne, completely nude, sleeping with dried drool in the corner of her mouth. Her overly applied lipstick was smeared, her mascara was raccoon, and Richard could have died to remember how she ended up at his place and in his bed. He had to get her out of his apartment. The thought of her next to him was pure revulsion, he hated himself, and then, as if the last thing he remembered crept into his memory from the night before, that message, that voicemail, he knew it so well and he thought of that conversation with Nate Richardson -- it all flooded his mind, just then Ariadne let out a snore. God damn how stupid he could be. How the fuck did she end up here!?

Richard went into the kitchen his head ached the room was still spinning, he had to get to the club and coach the Brentwood girls’ team at 630 a.m... He was so nauseous and hung over; he poured some tomato juice and almost a cup of vodka. He popped 4 aspirins and drank the Bloody Mary. He packed his bag, went into the shower and then dressed and left for the club.

He left a note for Ariadne, told her he'd call her later. But he knew he hated seeing her hated having her in his life. He went to the club and when he reached his office he thought the time between the last time he listened to the message and now would set it all straight.

"Hi Richard, thought I'd run up from Park Avenue..."

He hung up, his early lesson was at his door with a c'mon, let's go look.

*****************************

It was late; he had stayed in the office after his last lesson. He was tired and dosing off and on. He then heard out of nowhere the sound of someone hitting the ball on the far end of the courts. "What the fuck, this is really annoying."

He stormed out of his office, and headed for the court; he heard these bullet sounding shots. These people are so fucking rude he thought. But the sound was from the court used for storage. He stood at the door to the old court, the sound stopped. He was stupefied. There wasn't any room to play on that court it was packed with old equipment and spare parts for the exercise equipment... It was dark, the light from the windows peered through so he could see the court without turning on the main switch. Then he heard the muffled sound of a crowd applauding and he heard, he swore he heard, unless he had gone crazy:

 "Page game 3 15-11, he leads 2 games to 1."

The skin on his body crawled from the tip of his head to the ends of his feet, he shuddered, "Hey Richard, I'd like to run up from Park Avenue..."

Richard stumbled away from the court and gasping for air went back to his office and tried to gather himself, he needed a drink to settle himself; this is weird shit, he thought, what's going on. And then he heard that sound, the ball hitting the front wall, it wasn't how a ball hits now, the softball, but he heard the familiar thud of the 70+ hardball explode with each shot. He just stayed rooted where he was. He was paralyzed with fear. He muttered, “it’s just I had too much to drink, I’m hallucinating, I’m hallucinating.” Isn't anyone just someone in his memory or still better his imagination? Maybe he was losing it over what Nate has said, after all most of his adult life he'd spent at this club. Maybe the news was too much for him, that's it, something snapped. And he was drinking again. But how do you explain the phone message. He racked his brain thinking of someone else he knew from Park Avenue, then it sort of dawned on him, Park Avenue went under years ago, it didn't exist anymore.

He needed to go home, just get hammered and try to forget all this stuff with ghosts and haunting, hopefully pass out and wake up and this will all be forgotten or just a weird dream.  He called Ariadne, she answered, apologized that she couldn't meet up with him. He knew Gul must be with her.  Served him right, he thought, and he turned out the light and left for home.

**************************************************

He woke from a dream, the room was spinning, and he’d had too much to drink and passed out. He looked at the clock 3:21 a.m. shit, he had to be at the club for the girl’s team early and he was still hammered. The dream. Tom Paige had called him and wanted to come up to 86th Street to hit, he jokingly said he must run up from his Park Avenue club like he always did, sort of to tease Richard that  he could run the three miles like nothing and get on court, do some exhaustive drills, and still thrash Richard. Then he was playing Tom in a tournament at 86th street, he was so nervous he had made it to the Quarterfinals for the first time ever beating the likes of Rob Dinnerman and Todd Bins, in the dream. The details of the dream were so real it was as if he was watching a YouTube version of it, but he didn't have a YouTube version -- no one filmed these matches.

In the dream he glanced over at Tom as he came through the back door of the court. The crowd of about two hundred spectators was crammed into the small gallery. Page was loved by so many fans. Even though Richard was an assistant pro at 86th street the crowd was simply there to watch Page. He relived some rallies, real and imagined, but the dream went on and on it was amazing, he felt in the dream like he hadn't felt in years, then he heard in the dream, 15-11, Page leads two games to one. He looked up at the gallery and there was his wife and daughter, like in a photo, she was smiling at him and his little daughter of 3 was squirming in her lap trying to get down. His wife whispered something to his daughter and his little girl abruptly turned and blew him a kiss and smiled.

He was soaked in sweat, and he tried so hard to cry, he wanted to sob, to let go with uncontrollable sobs. He knew why it was that terrible and horrible feeling of having something so precious and wonderful and then losing it. The emptiness was a bottomless pit in his heart. He was so happy in the dream, but that's just it, a dream mixed with some memory and a touch of desire, which he kept in check because he knew he couldn't have what he wanted, he couldn't have it ever again, it was gone. 86th street would be gone too.

*****************************************

Ariadne had called him and left six voicemails. He was avoiding her and just deleted all her voicemails. She then started texting him, he responded with “coaching will talk later…”

She eventually showed up in the evening when he was taking a break before the B level round robin and listening to music and having a sandwich. He was listening to Dylan’s bootleg series and keeping his mind off everything.


“What, Babe, you don’t seem happy to see me.”

“I’m busy –“

“Hey, Richard, I’m not asking for anything you know, but just tell me if there’s something in this for us, we’re adults…”


I don’t know, honestly it’s me you’re great and –“

“If I’m so great why aren’t you hot pursuing me and thinking about me all the time instead of only when you’re drunk and blind to anything?”

“I’m sorry, really sorry, it’s me, not you.”
“If there’s nothing going to happen with us I am going to go with Gul, he’s really sweet, I like how he adores me and just appreciates me, but really Richard, I’d die for you if you asked me.”

“No, Ariadne, don’t do that, please.”

“Bye Richard, I won’t be doing lessons with you anymore. And Gul probably hasn’t told you, but he’s taken a job at the new club in Long Island City. I’ll be going there from now on. It was real, Richard.”

She walked away, Richard was relieved, actually happy to be rid of her, he kept thinking he only wanted her when he was stinking drunk and she was just someone , anyone, to keep the darkest urges away, to provide some thin thread like a lifeline to where he was lost.

******************************

As the last of the round robiners bade him good night Richard sat in his office. He knew what he had to do, he didn’t want to and it was leaving a pit in his stomach, he wanted to bolt out of the club and hit his liquor store, buy his fifth of vodka….but not tonight, he had to go and step into the old American court used for storage.

He must have dosed at his desk while surfing the NET. He had been reading Paige’s heartfelt obituary in Squash Talk. It seemed like yesterday, Tom’s death and then a few weeks later the accident. He woke with a start, he heard the rhythmic ball striking the wall, he ran his hand through his hair, tried to get his bearings, damn, he thought, I need a drink badly. He got up and tried shaking his head to and fro as if trying to shake free of something that ensnared him. He went out his office and headed towards the court. The sound of the ball became louder and louder, he heard the crowd, it cheered then settled to a quiet murmur. It seemed the ball rhythmic striking had changed he knew what was happening. Suddenly as he peered through the open door, the court was clear, the lights were bright, the red boundary lines brilliant. He could see Tom as clear as the day that it was. And there he was, Richard, on court sweating profusely, “Page 15-11, he leads 2 games to 1.” H he looked into the gallery, he had to, just like in the dream; he looked into what was once his happiness and his wife, so beautiful and young and his little girl. His wife whispered something in his daughter’s ear and she looked to him, smiled and blew him a kiss. His heart would surely break and just when he thought it would Tom patted him on the backside ever so slightly with his racket and his voice, calm, serene, and clear like a beautiful stream,

“They love you very much, I know, they really love you.” He smiled.

“That’s the kind of love that has real power. You know, Richard, the power there is in love like that. A man can do just about anything with love like that.”

“Tom, I can’t, I just can’t.”

“Sure you can finish up the match you are only down 1-2. You played beautifully, damn Richard, give it your best, don’t give up – by the way, tRichards for this, for coming out and playing like this, it feels great, it’s like pure you know, the stream was fucking muddy for so long, today it is clear, cold, perfect in the afternoon sun, and the meadow in which that clear stream runs -- they love you Richard, they really do. Let’s finish it, make a match of it.”

The match played out in Richard’s head, he put everything he could into it. “Page 21-20, he wins 3 games to 1”.  Richard fell to his knees, he looked up into the gallery, his wife held his daughter in her arms were smiling at him. His wife always gave him a thumbs up when she liked what he said or did or had written.

“I love you. You are my life, my love, both of you, you’re the air I’m gasping for right now.” Tom looked at Richard and smiled and then disappeared out through the narrow short doorway, he ducked his head and was gone. The gallery was dark and quiet.

He was still on his knees until they began to hurt. He was crying he didn’t mind it, he was crying, the years of pain flowed from his hurt. He knew he had to write, write about them, tug on the thread and see where it leads him, that’s all he could ask for or anyone could of him, just tug on the thread and see where it leads him to.

 

*** The people mentioned in this story are fictional characters with a few exceptions, mostly some mention of the great Professional Hardball players. I saw Tom Paige at Manhattan Squash in the Old Grace building many years ago, a stunningly beautiful club. He was playing Gul Khan, the club pro at the time. I had never seen anyone play hardball like that and hit the ball so hard. It was really something. I never forgot that. While I switched to softball soon after that and never looked back, with the announcement that the one time Mecca of NY Squash, 86th Street, will eventually close, I started thinking about my old hardball days. I followed all those great players, it was something special. The eventual loss of 86th Street is like losing one of the few historical monuments to a game once so grand and incredible. James Zug’s phenomenal book, The History of Squash, captures this bygone era far better than I could hope to.