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.

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

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)

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.

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.

Squash en français – At the Movies

Un Film de Lionel Bailliu

I’m pretty sure there aren’t many movies featuring squash that have been nominated for an Academy Award. But French director Lionel Bailliu’s Squash is just such a film. Nominated in 2003 in the Best Live Action Short Film category, the action in this 27 minute film takes place entirely on a squash court. Two businessmen, Alexandre (played by Malcolm Conrath) and his boss Charles (Eric Savin), play a squash match. The on-court mood ebbs and flows dramatically as the rules are bent and both players test their opponent’s mental and physical endurance. And not in a nice way!

Boulot et Squash from Fort Mathieu on Vimeo.

Squash and Fair Play

Four years after its initial release, Bailliu expanded Squash into a bitter and nail-biting commentary on the cut-throat nature of office politics in his feature debut Fair Play.

Eric Savin reprised his role as Charles, a shrewd businessman who takes his scheming employees on an ultra-competitive weekend outing. Featuring rowing, jogging, canoeing and rock climbing as well as squash, the weekend is less to do with team-building than the survival of the fittest. And although Charles may be top dog today, ambitious worker Jean-Claude (played by Benoît Magimel) is determined to make his way to the top no matter what the cost.

Check out the Fair Play website, and your French, at:

http://www.tfmdistribution.com/fairplay

The First Nuclear Squash Court

My First Time on Court

I remember it distinctly. A weekday lunchtime in Spring, sometime in the mid-70s. Rather gloomy weather I recall. I’d only just discovered that the game of squash existed never having come into contact with anyone who’d ever played it – or watched it being played, for that matter. But the company I’d recently joined straight from university as a research scientist ran a sports centre, known as the ‘Rec Soc’ or Recreational Society. The Rec Soc building was located just outside the company’s perimeter fence and included a bar, a lecture theatre and four squash courts. I’d watched a couple of squash matches from the balcony and been offered a game by a work colleague. So there I was. Complete with new squash racket, non-marking squash shoes – and not the faintest idea of the rules or how to play the game.

Oh, and one other thing. The company I was working for, and who owned the squash courts, developed nuclear weapons.

The Manhattan Project

Re-wind to World War II. In 1942, American scientists were competing with Nazi Germany in a race to create the physics behind the splitting of the atom. The Manhattan Project was the code name for the US government’s secret project to develop a nuclear bomb. Work on the project was taking place at sites all over the US but needed to be centralised. But where?

Step forward University of Chicago physicist Arthur Holly Compton. A Nobel Prize winner, Compton ran a well-respected laboratory, and had plenty of space to accommodate the scientists – including another Nobel Prize winner, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. So the scientists and their families made their way to Chicago.

The World’s First Atomic Pile

But Fermi and his team (see photo) didn’t just need accommodation. They needed a certain type of space for their experiments. An extremely important space. A space to build an atomic pile which they could use to start – and, hopefully, stop – a sustained nuclear chain reaction in uranium. This was the material which would later be used to build an atomic bomb.

The Chicago Nuclear Pile Team (Enrico Fermi is on the left in the front row)

A squash court, or more probably a rackets court, located under the stands of the recently-closed football stadium seemed like the perfect place for Fermi and his team to build their atomic pile. Known as Chicago Pile 1, it was literally a monolithic construction of graphite bricks and uranium fuel (see picture). On December 2nd, 1942 Fermi and his colleagues gathered on the balcony of the court to test the reactor. The sustained chain reaction took place and the scientists stopped the reaction, without incident, after 28 minutes.

After the experiment, the scientists decamped en masse to Los Alamos in New Mexico where they subsequently developed the world’s first atomic bomb, testing it for the first time in the Nevada Desert. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fermi himself became known as The Father of the Atomic Bomb. In 2009, over 65 years after Fermi’s famous atomic pile experiment, his granddaughter, Olivia Fermi, visited Los Alamos. She was filmed for a local TV station trying her hand at squash on the local YMCA squash court.

“It’s my first time here,” she said. “I’ve wanted to come for a long time.”

Footnote: The Meaning of Squash

After the end of World War II, due to a mistranslation of the word squash, Soviet reports  of Fermi’s experiment claimed that it was carried out in a converted pumpkin field instead of a converted squash court.

But that’s another story.

For a Chicago-centric view of the atomic pile story , read Alex Beam’s 2008 article for Vanity Fair, ‘The Most Important Squash Court, Ever.’

Enlightened Squash – From Dawn Till Dusk

Outdoor Squash Court

I recently came across an article (see picture below from SquashClub.org) about some enterprising chap in the US (where else) building his own outdoor squash court. His main reason for doing it was that he loved squash but hated to be indoors playing the game when the weather outside was warm and sunny. In the winter, of course, Vermont (where the court was built) can get up to ten feet of snow and experience temperatures of 22 degrees Fahrenheit meaning that – well, I suppose, he would have to revert to playing squash indoors like the rest of us.

Squash Court Design

The squash court design was imaginative to say the least, with no roof, a 4 foot high back wall, and a slightly sloping floor allowing rainwater to drain through two holes in the front corners. There was also 5 foot high netting around the court to catch balls hit out of court so players wouldn’t have to scour the surrounding area looking for  them!

Playing Squash in a Farmyard

But it was the fact that the front wall was built facing North – to avoid having to play into the sun – which brought back memories of my own experience playing in unusual lighting conditions. Or, more specifically, memories of when I used to play squash in a farmyard. Well, not in a farmyard exactly but in a purpose built squash court – complete with entrance lobby and viewing gallery – located in a farmyard. Now, I’m not exactly sure whether the farmyard was already there when the court was built or whether the farmyard developed around the court. But it certainly was there (in East Hertfordshire, UK as a matter of fact) and it certainly was playable. With one small limitation.

Squash Court Lighting

There was no electrical supply to the court lighting. However, there was a skylight which was both undamaged and clean enough (on a sunny day) to let in enough light to brighten up the squash court. The challenging playing conditions, of course, demanded flexibility of thought and movement from both players – as well as extremely good eyesight. As the sun moved across the sky or went behind a cloud, the nature of the on-court light could change, sometimes instantaneously, from dazzling brilliance (depending on the time of year) to Stygian gloom.

Squash Shot Improvisation

The changing visibility also provided an incentive for squash players to improvise shots which would be less effective in normal lighting conditions. The lob into the sun, for example. The drop-shot into the shadows which could suddenly appear in one of the front corners. And even the cross-court drive into the darker part of the squash court from the lighter – or vice versa. There was even a slightly damp patch in the back right hand corner which had a somewhat deadening effect on a ball of good length. All of which could even up a match as players of different standards adapted (or indeed didn’t) to fit the unique environment – rather like finches evolving on an island in the Galapagos.

Well, as far as I know, the squash court’s still there although I don’t know whether a new breed of squash players in the area has colonised, it or even whether the power supply’s been restored. But whatever the situation, I suspect that nobody who’s ever played on it would have any problem adapting to life on an outdoor squash court with no roof.