Squash on Wall Street

A couple of weeks ago, I posted from the World Series Squash Finals in South West London which had reached the semi-final stage.

Sadly, the final – between England’s Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana of Egypt – was never played, overnight storm damage rendering the venue unsafe. But two weeks later, Matthew and Shabana did meet – in the semi-final of the Tournament of Champions in New York.

And the tournament, staged in the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Station, was sponsored, in true American style, by one of the largest investment banks in the world.

Rescue on Wall Street

In March 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, the US investment bank J P Morgan Chase took over one of its rivals, Bear Stearns, at a startlingly low price. The share price of Bear Stearns, which had until recently been the fifth largest bank on Wall Street, had all but collapsed as a result of its over-exposure to  the mortgage-backed assets that were central to the subprime mortgage crisis.

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall Squash on Wall Street

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall 2008

As part of the takeover deal, J P Morgan not only acquired Bear Stearns’ assets – including its glittering Madison Avenue skyscraper headquarters – but also its sponsorship of a squash tournament. The Tournament of Champions.

The founder of J P Morgan was the eponymous John Pierpoint Morgan (b1837 –d 1913), the  American financier, banker and art collector who dominated the world of corporate finance and industrial consolidation.

John Pierpoint Morgan Squash on Wall Street

John Pierpoint Morgan

Morgan was the leading financier of the so-called Progressive Era, a period of social activism and reform that flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s. His dedication to efficiency and modernisation helped transform American business. Morgan also redefined conservatism in terms of financial prowess coupled with strong commitments to religion and high culture.

Money Never Sleeps

What Morgan would have made of his bank’s sponsorship of a squash tournament is a matter of speculation. But there’s no doubt that the 2011 event has been a money-spinner for its sponsors.

And who knows, perhaps the squash match scene with Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen)in the 1987 movie Wall Street Squash on Wall Street
really was a metaphor for bleeding edge capitalism and the survival of the fittest….and bending the rules….

Well, if so, Nick Matthew – who meets Rami Ashour in the final – is going to have a really challenging time later this evening.

And possibly a very lucrative one.

But I suspect he knows that already.

A Squash Match on the Titanic

On the 14th of April, 1912 RMS Titanic, the largest passenger steamship in the world, was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City.  At 2340hrs, 640km south of the Great Banks of Newfoundland, she struck an iceberg and sank at 0220hrs the following morning with the loss of 1,517 lives. The sinking of the Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, if not world history. But what’s less well-known is that down in the ship’s lower deck, there was a squash court.

The Squash Racquets Court

The Titanic’s squash racquets court was available for use by first class passengers only. Players were charged two shillings each (50 US cents in those days) for the use of the court and playing sessions were limited to one hour if others were waiting.

The Squash Court on the Titanic A Squash Match on the Titanic

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The court was 30ft long and 20ft wide compared to 32ft and 21ft respectively for a modern court. This was due to the structural design of the Titanic which also restricted the height of the court to 15ft 8inches as opposed to today’s 18ft 6inches. Use of the lob was therefore limited. The door into the court was positioned in the left side of the back wall. RMS Titanic Squash Racquets Court View from above A Squash Match on the Titanic The floor of the court was on G deck, with the upper part of the court occupying the space between F and E deck. The court’s viewing gallery was located on F deck. RMS Titanic Squash Racquets Court Side view A Squash Match on the Titanic The court and its position in the ship were to play an important part in the disaster that was to engulf the Titanic.

The Players

The court was under the supervision of Mr Frederick Wright of Great Billing, Northamptonshire in England. Wright was the Titanic’s squash racquet professional. For a wage of £1 per week, Wright not only cleaned the court and ran the booking system but also supplied passengers with squash racquets and balls. He was also available to play as an opponent if required.

Frederick Wright A Squash Match on the Titanic

Frederick Wright

One of the passengers who used the court during the voyage was Colonel Archibald Gracie, a 53-year-old amateur historian from Mobile, Alabama in the US, who was travelling alone. Colonel Archibald Gracie A Squash Match on the Titanic During his previous transatlantic trips, it had been Gracie’s custom to take as much exercise as possible to stay in prime physical condition. But, on this trip, he had spent much of his time enjoying  the social (and gastronomic) opportunities  on offer, and reading books from the well-stocked ship’s library.

The Squash Match

On the evening of Saturday, April 13th Gracie decided it was time to cut back on the socialising and start his fitness regimen again. He arranged with his room steward, Charles Cullen, to wake him early on Sunday morning in order to play squash with Frederick Wright, work in the gymnasium with Mr T W McCawley, and swim in the Titanic’s heated swimming pool. All before breakfast. But twenty minutes before midnight, the collision which was to result in the sinking of the Titanic put an end to Gracie’s arrangements. Shortly after midnight, while looking for his friends, Gracie met the racquet professional, Wright, in the stairway of C deck. “Perhaps we had better cancel our match for tomorrow morning, Mr Wright!” he said half jokingly.  Wright concurred but seemed rather concerned, probably because he knew that the court was already filling with water. The match between Gracie and Wright would never be played.

The Viewing Gallery

The watertight bulkheads of the Titanic projected from its keel up to F deck where the squash court’s viewing gallery was located. When the watertight doors were closed, these bulkheads had been designed to contain any water that might get into the Titanic’s hull compartments. The Titanic’s builders, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland had calculated that, even if four compartments were flooded, the ship could still continue. However, as a result of the collision, five were initially flooded. It was known very soon after hitting the iceberg that the ship was doomed. The weight of water in the compartments would gradually tilt the ship and cause it to sink.

RMS Titanic1 A Squash Match on the Titanic

RMS Titanic

As it was located below the Titanic’s bridge, the squash court was a convenient place from which to monitor the rise of the water. These periodic observations were made from the viewing gallery and  duly entered in the ship’s log. At 0220hrs on Sunday, April 15th the Titanic sank.

Survival

As the ship went down, Archibald Gracie was still clinging to the rail of the topmost deck after the wave had passed over him that swept the Titanic before her final plunge. “When the ship plunged down,” he said in one of his first accounts of the tragedy, “I was forced to let go, and I was swirled around and around for what seemed an interminable time. Eventually I came to the surface to find the sea a mass of tangled wreckage. “Luckily, I was unhurt, and, casting about, managed to seize a wooden grating floating nearby. When I had recovered my breath, I discovered a large canvas and cork life-raft which had floated up. A man, whose name I did not learn, was struggling toward it from some wreckage to which he had clung. I cast off and helped him to get onto the raft, and we then began the work of rescuing those who had jumped into the sea and were floundering in the water. “When dawn broke there were thirty of us on the raft, standing knee deep in the icy water and afraid to move lest the cranky craft be overturned. Several unfortunates, benumbed and half dead, besought us to save them and one or two made an effort to reach us, but we had to warn them away. “The hours that elapsed before we were picked up by the Carpathia were the longest and most terrible that I ever spent.”

Epilogue

Gracie wrote an account of the tragedy that was originally published in 1913 as “The Truth About The Titanic”. He never finished proofing his original manuscript. Gracie died on December 4th 1912 at his ancestral home in New York, having never fully recovered from the trauma of that night. Nearly a century after the event, a revised version of his book is still in print under the title, “Titanic”: A Survivor’s Story A Squash Match on the Titanic. Gracie appeared as a character played by actor Bernard Fox in the 1997 motion picture Titanic A Squash Match on the Titanic
.
Frederick Wright went down with the ship which employed him as a squash professional. His body was never found.

Squash in the Pink Bubble

Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.

The Queen’s Club

The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.

DSCF0233 1024x768 Squash in the Pink Bubble

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.

The Finals Experience

Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.

On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!

The Squash

The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.

In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.

In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”

I must try that in my next league match.

Postscript: The Bubble Bursts

Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.

Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!

Squash and the Brigadier

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (b 1905 – d 1989) had the remarkable distinction of winning the British Army’s Squash Racquets and Lawn Tennis championships four times each. At squash, he first became champion in 1931, retaining his title the following year. Further successes came in 1936 and, after several demanding military postings abroad, in 1946. He was once ranked as high as No 2 in the world and, in 1933, was runner-up in the Amateur Squash Championships to the legendary Egyptian player and diplomat Amr Bey, then the reigning British Open squash champion. His tennis achievements, which included competing at Wimbledon six times, are equally impressive given the fact that he regarded his army career as being by far the most important part of his life.

 

Brigadier Oscar Jameson Centre Squash and the Brigadier

Brigadier Oscar Jameson (Centre)

But it’s his skills as a writer that set him apart from most of his sporting contemporaries. And, in particular, a short guide to squash that he wrote in the 1950s.

 

A Short Guide to Squash Rackets

Jameson wrote his guide after playing squash for over a quarter of a century. During that time, he developed a reputation both as an elegant stroke-player and as a resourceful opponent possessing incredible stamina. This is reflected in the first chapter in his book where he says, “Squash should be an easy game. All one needs to become reasonably good is to be able to run hard for a long time and to be able to hit the ball somehow – not necessarily with the strings”. That’s my emboldening of the text, by the way, for reasons which will become obvious!

 

The guide’s coverage and description both of the rules of squash and its basic strokes is not only  comprehensive but could easily have been written today given its clarity and accuracy. The text is supplemented with hand-drawn diagrams showing the court positions from which certain strokes may be played during a rally, the angles at which to hit the ball, and the resulting path of the ball via  the front or side walls.

The text also includes some wry humour which adds to the enjoyment of the book in a historical context.

For example, “The Strokes – Miscellaneous” chapter includes the following entry:

“Apart from the corner [of the court], the other main difficulty one is likely to encounter is the ball which clings to the wall. The intrinsic difficulty of this shot is added to by one’s natural disinclination to break one’s racket.

Or, try this entry in the “Tactics and Positioning” chapter:

“If you are trying to win, and not just out for exercise, the pleasantest way of playing squash is to stand in the middle of the court while your opponent rushes in all directions after your shots.”

Matchplay Tips

 

“Most people,” says Jameson “Have their limitations, and they can often beat someone who is reputedly a better player by intelligence – or matchplay.” He goes on to draw a clear distinction between matchplay and gamesmanship. “On the latter,” he continues, “there are excellent treatises to which the reader can refer (for instruction or amusement), so here we will confine ourselves to matchplay,as applied to playing squash, and will exclude verbal, sartorial or other ruses calculated to lower the morale of one’s opponent.”

One can only wonder what treatises Jameson is referring to and wonder how one could get one’s hands on a copy today!

Gratifyingly, one of Jameson’s matchplay tips turns out to be one of my own favourite ploys over the years. “Your opponent’s temperament, too,” says Jameson, “repays study. If he is impatient to win the point, you may upset him by persistent lobbing. Even if he is of the type that likes to go on forever you may worry him by placidly settling down to play the same game, hitting the ball more slowly and higher than he does.”

In other words, slow, steady – and high – wins the match…

Training

 

“Being prostrated with exhaustion,” writes Jameson, ”is not conducive to enjoyment of the game.”

He goes on to assert that, “The best form of physical training for squash…is to play squash, provided you play it hard.” So much for an easy introduction to the game, then.

 

Jameson also recommends, “moderation in smoking, drinking and eating” as well as participating in other sports such as golf, skiing (another of his passions) and fishing. He follows  this suggestion with, in my humble opinion, one of the best passages of the book.

“Whether you do any other form of actual physical training, such as long distance running, in order to strengthen your legs and lungs for the endurance test of a long squash match, must depend upon your own physical and mental characteristics, and probably on your geographical location. If you live in London, you probably have access to plenty of hard squash, so have little need to run around Clapham Common or Berkeley Square. If you live in the depths of the country, far from any squash courts, you may find it necessary to go for runs, provided you don’t mind being thought eccentric by your friends and can bear the undisguised interest of the passers-by you encounter en route. You can console yourself with the thought of the pleasure you are giving to any stray dogs which join you in your travels.”

 

Suitable Equipment and Clothing

Jameson’s observations on squash equipment and clothing are notable by their focus on value for money.

“The equipment required for squash,” he writes, “is not expensive. As the racket is not subjected, as a tennis racket is, to the hazards of damp grass, rain and the grit of a hard court, the strings should last for years. And, a squash ball being light and soft, the frame should last for many more years. That is, of course, provided you don’t hit the wall or your opponent too hard with it.

And so far as expense is concerned squash has a great advantage over, say, tennis and golf, in the longevity of the ball. Admittedly, whereas a ramble on the golf course may reward the keen eyed searcher with enough balls to last several rounds, a ramble in the squash courts is unlikely to yield a rich harvest in lost squash balls. But one squash ball lasts a very long time.”

Nor is any great outlay required on clothing for squash. It might, however, here be mentioned that, though almost any clothing, such as dirty rugger shorts, is usually accepted as adequate for a friendly game, the correct wear for a match is white. This is not due to excessive dandiness on the part of the framers of the rules, but is to prevent the possibility of your opponent losing sight of the black ball against the background of your dark clothing.”

American Squash and Englishmen

 

At the time Jameson’s book was written, the English and American versions of squash were not only  different but showed little sign of merging to create a truly globalised sport. In the last section of his book, Jameson discusses the two forms of the game, and presents a range of suggestions about how to play them.

“Many Americans are capable of playing delicate angle shots,” he writes, “but on the whole their game is dominated by the hard hitter. In my opinion the tactics and finesse which are possible in English Squash make it incomparably more interesting, and I think this opinion is shared by the majority of Englishmen who have played both games.”

Interestingly, there is no mention of what Jameson thinks the majority of American men might think about his opinion but then it’s probably safe to assume that he wrote his book for a predominantly English, male and indeed English Squash-playing audience.

Jameson certainly appears to be writing from experience when he describes a typical outcome for an English Squash player using an American Squash racket and squash ball for the first time:

“The result, in the Englishman’s first game in America, is apt to be a series of air shots, amusing for the spectators but humiliating for the Englishman.” This observation clearly relates to the heavier American Squash ball which “necessitates a heavier racket, which is not so easy to wield.”

“An English racket” writes Jameson, “would not last long with an American ball. So if you are going on a visit to the United States or Canada, and intend to play squash, get your host to lend you a racket. Or, better still, take an English ball with you and lure him into playing you with it. He will probably miss it, but at least he shouldn’t break his racket.”

Playing Conditions

Jameson goes on to describe another “slight handicap” under which, in his opinion, English players then operated in America.

 

“The superiority of American central heating is well known, but one is apt at first to experience some discomfort in playing in a court whose temperature (before the match) is about 80 degrees, as it sometimes is. I think this is preferable, though, to playing in an “outside” unheated court in an American or Canadian winter. At a temperature around zero the limbs are reluctant to move, and the ball still goes very fast, in this case apparently straight along the ground.”

From personal experience, I’d disagree with the Brigadier’s assertion that a squash ball “still goes very fast” on an unheated court in winter, even in the comparatively tropical (compared to North America) English climate.

But then I’ve never won the British Army’s Squash Racquets Championship. Well, not yet  anyway.

Postscript

 

Jameson revised his book in 1973 but, apart from some observations relating to a change in the squash rules relating to obstruction made few alterations. After retiring from the army, he continued to play county squash for Kent for many years, and was a member of the Jesters Club, an international racquets association. Even in his eighties he was still playing squash and tennis despite having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

Jameson was a born leader, who was a superb example of his own theory that success depends largely on one’s own effort and willpower. His greatest pride was not his own spectacular games career, but the achievements of the soldiers he trained.

His book, A Short Guide to Squash Rackets, is a valuable document of a bygone era of sporting excellence written by a gifted amateur.

Enjoy it and remember him. We’ll never see his like again.