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 2008

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

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
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

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. 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. 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

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. 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 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. Gracie appeared as a character played by actor Bernard Fox in the 1997 motion picture Titanic
.
Frederick Wright went down with the ship which employed him as a squash professional. His body was never found.

Wooden Squash Rackets – The Sound of Music

Squash Racket Strings

Well, I’m just about old enough (really!) to remember playing with a wooden squash racket – or at least a squash racket with a laminated wood frame. Not only did it have a frame made from ash but, in common with the guitar I was learning to play at the time, it also had natural gut strings made from animal intestines.

Squash Rackets, Guitars and Scientific Research

Now, at the time, I certainly didn’t want to feel instrumental in causing cruelty to animals purely to help my development either as a squash player or a guitarist. In fact, as a scientist (and consequently someone who’s naturally curious), I did carry out some basic research into what was involved in acquiring gut from the appropriate animal(s) and transforming it into racket strings and guitar strings. Without going into details, I decided to play on, my conscience being clear on the animal welfare front, or at least as clear as it could be at the time…

Squash Racket Repair

The approach to repairing squash rackets in those days seemed to vary from the professional (re-stringing and frame repair by a specialist) to the amateur (involving the use of a mind-boggling variety of adhesives and other materials then in domestic use. I personally remember using Araldite, Evo-stik, paper clips (straightened of course), fuse wire and electrical insulation tape to repair my squash rackets, some of which were contributed by my fellow squash players along with bold claims as to their effectiveness.

Racket Skills

So, when I recently came across some footage from 1976 of a squash match involving eight times British Open Squash Champion, Geoff Hunt, using a wooden racket – the memories came flooding back. Here it is, posted on the internet by Hernan Dubourg, himself a nine times Argentina National Squash Champion.

One feature of the match – between Hunt and Pakistan’s Mohibullah Khan – is the length of the rallies. I’ve seen a longer recording from the match which shows many of these lasting for 50 shots or more. Perhaps the footage shows that the rackets of the time were just as good as those of the modern era (in terms of the power of shot they could be used to generate) but were not as suited to touch play at the front of the court. Who knows? But let me invite you to just listen to the sound when the squash ball is being hit.

I don’t know about you but, as a former wooden squash racket user, it certainly does sound like music to my ears.

The Inner Game of Squash

Holistic Sports Coaching

In the 1970s, American tennis instructor Tim Gallwey wrote The Inner Game of Tennis, a book which described his own novel approach to sports coaching. His approach included aspects of what are now possibly best  known as sports psychology, performance coaching (or life coaching) and meditation. Gallwey proposed that, for each player, their sport is made up of an outer game – played against an opponent – and an inner game, which takes place inside the player’s mind.

Tim Gallwey

Tim Gallwey

Squash in the Mind

The inner game approach requires players to make specific non-judgmental observations about what Gallwey called critical variables associated with playing their sport. Amongst other things, these variables could include the flight or bounce of the ball during rallies, the position of the player’s feet or their squash racket head, or even the sound made when they or their opponent hit the ball. The purpose of making these observations is for the player to become increasingly aware of their playing state, leading their body to automatically adjust and correct itself to achieve the best performance it can. This inner game effectively takes place inside the player’s own mind and is played against lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-criticism. In other words, it’s played against self-imposed obstacles put in the way by players themselves – a problem which will be equally familiar to squash players as to tennis players!

Squash Health

In response to the book’s success, Gallwey followed up with further inner game books on golf, music, skiing, work and, in 2010, stress – possibly written in recognition of the increasing work life challenges faced by many people as a result of global economic uncertainty and changing employment trends. This series of writings has gradually expanded the range of tools and techniques which can be used to coach the inner game in different life contexts – from sport, to work and, increasingly, to health. In fact, the series could be seen as harmonising approaches to coaching the body and coaching the mind.

Squash for the Soul

The idea of harmonisation fits neatly with the concept of a balanced lifestyle or a healthy work life balance – something which many people strive to achieve during their lives and which squash coaches are expected to promote. And one strand of the inner game approach which Tim Gallwey describes at the end of The Inner Game of Tennis
deals directly with this. He talks about “the inner game off the court” and the need for players to realise that the skills they need to achieve their life goals and overcome barriers are the same whatever they are doing. Under the memorable (and very 1970s) heading ‘Unfreakability’ he outlines the need to acquire the ability to see the true nature of what is happening around you – “and to be able to respond appropriately”.

The skills Gallwey is describing are characteristic of meditation or what he calls ‘the art of quieting the mind’. And it’s the ability to concentrate and maintain a state of inner calm off court as well as on court which is a key teaching of the inner game approach.

Squash for the soul, you might say…