Grasshopper MegaRallies 2016

I don’t know about you but I do like to watch the odd rally that either: a) involves both players hitting the ball so hard that it appears to occasionally enter (and return from) hyper-space or; b) includes phases where the initiative shifts over time from one player to another, preferably mixed with a).

Here are a couple of rallies from this year’s Grasshopper Cup in Zurich that fit the bill.

The first, involving the reliably hard-hitting Simon Rosner of Germany and Gregoire Marche of France is definitely in category a). I feel tired just watching it.

The second, involving Scotland’s Alan Clyne and Egypt’s Marwan El-Shorbagy is more of a category b) affair with an occasional sprinkling of category a). I lost concentration after counting 60 shots or so but I’m sure there were more.

Of course, I do realise that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever come across any memorable rallies that involve soft-hitting and, say, half a dozen shots.

Although if I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV for posting the clips.

How To Win A Squash Rally

Most squash coaches and sport psychologists have got this one nailed down…haven’t they? Dominate the play from the ‘T’, force your opponent to chase the ball to the four corners of the court, then finish off the rally with a timely, unreachable shot. Piece of cake.

Which is just what Britain’s James Willstrop was in the process of doing during this rally with New Zealander Paul Coll at the recent Canary Wharf Classic. All except the ‘finish off the rally’ bit, that is.

Coll’s ‘never say die’ attitude, willingness to throw his body around (and onto the surface of) the court, and ability to play shots from a horizontal position resulted in Willstrop tinning his ‘winning’ shot due to what I imagine was a combination of gradually increasing incredulity and mirth.

What the response of the spectators was to Coll’s heroics you can hear mirrored in the reaction of the match commentators.

I definitely need to get hold of the Squash New Zealand coaching manual.

Source

Thanks to SquashTV for the clip.

Hanoi Lakes

I met Thin in a café on Le Thai To Street in the south of the Old Quarter. I was studying a street map, working out where I was, tracing where I’d been since leaving my hotel. It was a December Saturday afternoon in Hanoi, overcast and humid, looking like rain.

“Have you seen the turtle?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said. I’d heard that one of Hanoi’s lakes harboured its own giant turtle but hadn’t discovered which; lake or turtle.

“I’ve never seen it,” he said, “but some of my friends have.”

Sacred Turtle

Sacred Turtle

He was in his late thirties wearing a blue open-necked shirt and camel-coloured chinos. On the table in front of him was a glass of sweet Vietnamese coffee sitting in a bowl of hot water. He jerked a thumb over his right shoulder.

“It’s over there,” he said. “Hoan Kiem Lake. It means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword.’ The turtle suns itself on the island in the middle. When it’s not underwater,” he grinned.

He was a tour guide, visiting Hanoi from his home town of Hué to pick up a group arriving from Italy.

“Not much spare time for turtle-spotting, then.”

He told me what I assumed to be the standard turtle story for visitors; the borrowing of a magic sword from a dragon king by a nationalist hero, the driving of the invading Chinese out of the country by said hero, and the return of the sword by said hero to the turtle god who lived in the lake. The incumbent turtle was a symbol of Vietnamese independence and longevity. The Vietnamese obviously didn’t like the Chinese.

Later, I walked around the lake, scanning the murky waters in the hope of spotting the turtle. It started to rain. I paused opposite the turtle-sunning island which Thin had told me about. A three-storey stone pagoda stood in the middle of it. There was no sign of the turtle.

****

Sunday morning was clear and sunny. I guessed it was going to get hot and decided to make an early start on exploring the city. My map showed more lakes to the north-west of the Old Quarter. On the the north shore of one of them stood The Hanoi Club, home to what I guessed were the only squash courts in Hanoi. I set out, sticking to the shade, avoiding stepping into the incessant motor-cycle dominated traffic which swarmed through the streets.

DSCF3512I reached Truc Bach Lake and walked along its shore in an anti-clockwise direction. It was much quieter here than in the heart of the Old Quarter, and I felt more relaxed as I strolled underneath the trees, weaving my way around the parked motor-cycles.

The concrete, glass and steel fascia of The Hanoi Club housed a five-star hotel, high-end residences, restaurants and a sports club. Uniformed staff opened the door to the hotel lobby, served me in the coffee shop and directed me to the sports club’s reception area.

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Mai took me to see the squash courts, two floors up and, disappointingly, unoccupied. Two glass-backed courts stood back-to-back separated by a snooker table.

“They are the only squash courts in Hanoi,” she said proudly.

She didn’t seem to know much about their use but pointed to a dark wooden board on the wall. The board included a series of parallel slots holding white cards bearing the names and telephone numbers of players. It was the Club’s squash ladder. The rules, in English and Vietnamese, were displayed beside it.

****

Three weeks later, I picked up a newspaper in a London cafe. A headline read: ‘Vietnam Mourns Death of Sacred Turtle.” The turtle, “known as Cu Rua or Great-Grandfather Turtle,” said the accompanying article, “weighed an estimated 360 pounds and was believed to have died of natural causes. Its precise age was unknown.”

The article continued: “It would be difficult to overstate Cu Rua’s spiritual and cultural significance in this deeply superstitious and Confucian country, where the news of the turtle’s demise prompted an outpouring of sadness and hand-wringing. And its timing, as a Communist Party congress opened to choose Vietnam’s top leaders for the next five years, was widely interpreted as a bad omen for both the party and the nation.”

Sources

Thanks to the Global Post for its article on the death of the sacred turtle. Details of The Hanoi Club can be found here.

Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Haunted In Philadelphia

I’m not a betting man, but I’m guessing that quite a few visitors to the recent 2015 US Open in Philadelphia will have taken time out to have the bejesus scared out of them.

With a schedule of events stretching from October 8th–17th, competitors and spectators alike would have had ample opportunity to visit an impressive range of ghostly local attractions in the run-up to Halloween. These included The Fright Factory, The Bates Motel and the The Valley of Fear – at least two of which offered visitors the opportunity to participate in (and, hopefully, survive) a zombie apocalypse.

As someone who finds it tough sitting through the ‘previously on’ and opening credit sequences of The Walking Dead, I must say that nothing would induce me to enter enclosed spaces populated by creatures wanting to hunt me down, and from which I am likely to emerge only as an exhausted wreck.

No, I take that back.

I just remembered I play squash.

What Happened On Finals Night

Spot the odd one out.

1.

2.

3.

Sources

Thanks to the Visit Philly website and the US Open Squash 2015 website.

Hot Snow

It has been confirmed that from 2016, every major squash tournament will be held under the blazing desert sun.

The sport’s governing bodies have agreed that all future competitions will be held outdoors in locations such as Qatar, The Sahara, Australia, Death Valley or somewhere equally conducive to working up a good sweat.

A spokesperson said: “Our decision is nothing to do with money and is entirely in line with those of other forward-looking sports governing bodies such as FIFA and the IAAF. All we care about is the infrastructure, the security and the entertainment value that comes from watching competitors collapse from heat stroke.”

“And, of course, the money.”

A bear

A bear

In a separate announcement, the body representing professional squash players has welcomed the news that more than fifty of the world’s top-ranked players are expected to be about to consider re-locating to, or at least continuing to live in, desert countries. A professional squash player spokesperson said: “Squash should never really be played in temperatures of less than 40 degrees Celsius, in case players succumb to frostbite or snow blindness, or get attacked by bears. And it’s really difficult to keep the ball warm.”

A camel

A camel

Far from being unusual, the move to outdoor desert-based squash has a lengthy pedigree. The British Army built outdoor squash courts along India’s North West Frontier as part of a successful strategy to establish a dynasty of Pakistani players who would dominate the world game for half a century. And, up until less than ten years ago, squash was regularly being played on courts constructed next to a desert necropolis near Cairo inhabited largely by tour guides and their camels.

In an interview with leading squash news outlet CNN, rookie college squash player Kyle Stephenson from Rogers Pass, Montana, commented: “I think it’s cool that they’re moving the game en masse to Saudi Arabia or wherever. Maybe the conditions won’t suit everybody but what’s not to like about playing squash outdoors before heading off to the nearest sports bar to pick up girls?”

“It’s so, like, fucking cold in Montana, man. And there’s fucking thousands of bears,” he added.

In a separate development, the International Olympic Committee has also confirmed the award of the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing although most events will be held in the Gobi desert.

A spokesperson for the IOC said: “If you think about it, sand is really just hot snow. Except in the Winter.”

Source

Thanks to the Daily Mash article “All Sport Moved To Desert.”

Sufi Squash Stories

NB. Nasrudin (or Nasreddin) was a Sufi scholar and mystic who is believed to have lived and died during the 13th century in what is now Turkey. He appears in thousands of Middle Eastern “teaching stories” which combine subtle humour with learning. The following three stories re-imagine Nasrudin as a cross between a modern day consultant and a mentor; just the person to advise squash governing bodies, elite players and sport development experts alike.

The Mission Statement

Nasrudin was asked to help the leadership team of a squash governing body with their mission statement.

“What is your fundamental purpose?” he asked.

“To create constantly increasing benefits for our sponsors,” they declared.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they will continue to invest in our organisation,” they replied.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they receive more benefits,” they said, becoming slightly annoyed.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin, nonchalantly.

“So that they invest further and receive even more benefits.”

Nasrudin pondered this for a while, thanked them and invited them to visit his home later in the week to do some more work on the mission statement. When they arrived, they found him in his allotment stuffing oats into his pet donkey.

“What are you doing?” they asked. “You’re giving that poor beast too much food! It will be so bloated it won’t be able to go anywhere.”

“But it isn’t meant to go anywhere,” Nasruddin replied. “Its purpose is to produce manure.”

“To what end?” they asked.

“Because without it, I can’t grow enough oats in my small allotment to feed the greedy animal.”

The Perfect Squash Coach

An elite squash player, the winner of many international tournaments, was having great difficulty looking for a new coach. After much searching, the player could find nobody suitable and, in desperation, turned to Nasrudin.

Over lunch, the player discovered that Nasrudin was not married and asked him whether he had ever come close.

“Yes,” he replied. “When I was young, I was very keen to find the perfect wife. I travelled throughout the world looking for her. In France, I met a beautiful dancer who was joyful and carefree but, alas, she had no sense of the spiritual. In Russia, I met a wealthy businesswoman who was both beautiful and wise but, sadly, we couldn’t communicate. Then finally, in India, I found her. She was beautiful, wise and joyful, and her charm captured the hearts of everybody she met. I felt that I had at last found the perfect wife.”

Nasrudin paused and let out a long sigh.

The player hesitated for a moment before asking: “So did you not marry her, Nasrudin?”

“Alas, no,” sighed Nasrudin. “She was waiting for the perfect husband.”

The Expert Consultant

One day an expert sport development consultant and author asked Nasrudin whether he would be willing to become his mentor.

“There is nothing I can teach you,” said Nasrudin.

“Don’t be so modest,” said the consultant. “I’ve been told that you’d be the perfect teacher for somebody like me who’s already an expert in their field.”

Nasruddin shrugged and invited the consultant to afternoon tea. He carefully laid the table, brought out his best china and warmed the teapot. When the tea was made, he began to pour and kept on pouring until the tea was flowing over the edge of the consultant’s cup and all over the table. Eventually the consultant jumped to his feet and said:

“Stop pouring, you fool! Can’t you see that the cup is too full to have any more tea in it?”

“Well,” said Nasrudin, “I can certainly see that I’ll have to empty the cup before I pour any more in, but cups are a lot easier to empty than expert consultants.”

Sources

These stories are based on anecdotes taken from “The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership” by Peter Hawkins is published by O Books.

Notes From A Windy City

DSCF2031On the Red Line

Evening rush hour in downtown Chicago. It’s cold but dry. I’ve just arrived on the California Zephyr from San Francisco. Now I’m riding the metro’s red line northbound from Washington to Sheridan. Underground at first, then breaking the surface and rising above the streets. North / Clyborn, Fullerton, Belmont. I’m strap-hanging, one hand on my bag, counting off the stops. At Addison, there’s a baseball park right next to the station. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. The next stop’s mine and I head off to find the apartment.

In the Cathedral

Cathedral Hall Stained GlassAt the apartment, my next surprise. John, my host, is a big baseball fan; his team is the St.Louis Cardinals. He’s also an improv comedian playing at The Second City club on North Wells.

John knows that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 but doesn’t know much about squash. He also knows where the University Club of Chicago is; the venue of the Windy City Open. It’s downtown on East Monroe; I can walk there from Monroe station on the red line. During the Open, the show court is set up in the stained-glass splendour of the UCC’s Cathedral Hall, the last word in opulence.

First, though, I decide to check out Chicago’s baseball scene.

At Cellular Field

DSCF2004The Cubs aren’t playing at Wrigley during my stay but the White Sox are playing at lunch-time on Friday at U.S.Cellular Field on the South Side. I travel down to the murder capital of Chicago on the red line. It’s sunny and warm. At Sox / 35th station, there’s a holiday atmosphere and a heavy police presence. But no gun-fire or burning cars – at least en route to the ballpark.

The Sox are playing the Cleveland Indians in a match which gradually grabs my attention, partly due to a recent crash course in the rules of baseball given by a friend in San Francisco. The Indians prevail by 3 to 1 and I join the crowds heading back to the red line.

At The Second City

The Second City

The Second City

Another sunny, warm afternoon. I take in a Second City matinee with John in the cast. It’s a ‘best of’ show featuring the most popular sketches from recent productions. John shines. There are improvised sketches too, around subjects suggested by members of the audience. The relative lack of success of the Cubs is one subject, Mayor Daly (Chicago’s notorious former mayor) another, and gang-crime a third. I’m guessing that squash won’t ever be one. I chat with the regulars and discover that The Second City is the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States. Former members include comedians Jim Belushi, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd and Peter Boyle. John seems to be in good company.

In Union Station

A rainy day and I’m coming to the end of my visit. I’m downtown in the bowels of the majestic Union Station looking for the Amtrak lost property department. Three days after I arrived in the city, I’m hoping that some documents I left at the Amtrak office in San Francisco have turned up. As these include my passport and air ticket home, I’m keen to get hold of them. But the signage isn’t the best I’ve ever seen; plenty of instructions about what not to do but none about where to go.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Eventually, I reach a tiny office manned by two older guys in Amtrak uniforms. They listen to my request in the manner of anthropologists observing a member of a primitive tribe. They seem to understand my non-US accent. One of them beckons me to follow him further into the gloom of his subterranean domain. We reach a store room. He rummages around on a shelf and retrieves a cardboard box which is large enough to contain a bedside table. My name is on a label taped to the top of the box. Inside, we find a mountain of paper packaging and, buried beneath them, my documents. I sign a receipt, thank him and head for what I hope is the exit. After I’ve gone a few yards, he calls out.

“Hey! Give my regards to Doctor Who.”

I turn and smile. Outside, for the first time during my visit, it’s windy.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on The Second City, The Chicago Cubs, The California Zephyr, The Chicago White Sox, University Club of Chicago and Chicago Union Station.

Pathé Squash

It may surprise you to know that in the mid-1930s the soft-ball version of squash appears to have been pretty well established in the US as well as the UK. The evidence comes in the form of three video clips you can view on the website of British Pathé. Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cine-magazines and documentaries in the UK from 1910 until 1970. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era.

The Pathé News archive is today known as “British Pathé” and, in April 2014, the company uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 historic films to its YouTube channel as part of a drive to make the archive more accessible to viewers all over the world.

Hampstead Squash Club 1936

The first video shows two men on court at a “recently opened” facility in Hampstead, North-West London. They wear similar clothing to that worn by many tennis professionals of the era.

One of the players is identified by the commentator as Mr. D.G. Butcher, a “professional champion for five years.” Mr.Butcher demonstrates the serve and plays a rally with Mr. A. Biddle, a “former junior professional champion.” The commentator describes the sport and states that there is an “estimated 50,000 players in England.”

The clip ends with two women, Mrs. Brian Wolfe and a Mrs. MacKechnie, playing a rally.

Squash 1937

The second clip, dated 1937, is somewhat of a novelty item. It shows a rally between two men, one of whom is wearing roller skates “as a handicap.” The skater is revealed as Charlie Arnold, a “famous Bath Club pro” and his opponent as Mr. Arthur Wood, the squash professional at the St. Regis Hotel Club. The whereabouts of the St. Regis Hotel is not identiified although the West Country of England may be a possible location.

The second part of the video shows woman using an exercise bicycle on a squash court. It is electrically powered, so that when she pedals, the seat rises and the handlebars go back and forth providing her with a full body workout! The less said about the commentary accompanying this sequence, the better.

US Squash Rackets Championship 1938

The final clip shows action from the 1938 US National Open Squash Racquets Championship.

The players are identified as Johnny Summers and Ben Pope (in shorts), Summers being revealed by the commentator as being the eventual winner of the title.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé and to Wikipedia.

Hello and Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, I paid a flying visit to a city which has now established itself as a venue for major sporting events. At the time, Doha – the capital of Qatar – had already hosted one World Open squash final (in 1998) in which Canada’s Jonathon Power had beaten Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Just under a year later, I was working in the Gulf and attempting to follow Nicol’s 1999 Word Open progress in Cairo. In the pre-internet era, this involved the combined use of short-wave radio, occasional (and often imaginatively-censored) local newspaper reports and second-hand gossip gleaned by telephone from a number of expatriate Egyptian colleagues who were themselves in direct telephone and text contact with their squash-loving Cairo relatives.

World Open Final 1999

World Open Final 1999

As the tournament progressed, this strategy proved to be highly effective due largely to the continuing presence in the draw of Cairo-born Ahmed Barada who, like Nicol, was again challenging for the title. By the time the semi-final stage had been reached, I had started to make arrangements for following what was looking increasingly like a Nicol – Barada final when I received a call from my local agent, Fatih, another Cairo expatriate and Barada fan.

“Your visa runs out tomorrow,” he announced. “You have to go and get a new one.”
I was somewhat surprised but not immediately terrified at being thrown out of the country on World Squash Open finals day. Fatih’s efforts in managing my work contract to date had drawn on skills which could only be described as Machiavellian. So, I had no doubt that he would have a plan to rectify my imminent visa-less status.

“Where do I go?” I asked, expecting to be directed to an unidentifiable building on an unnamed street where I would experience bureaucratic torture and a limitless wait.

“Doha,” said Fatih. “I’ve booked you on a flight with Gulf Air tomorrow evening. You’ll be back by ten o’clock.” I waited for him to add his usual “Insha’Allah” but none was forthcoming.

I made a quick calculation. Gulf time was two hours on from Cairo time so, with any luck, I’d be touching down when the finalists were knocking up.

The evening was spent sitting in a hotel coffee shop following the semi-finals with two Egyptian colleagues using the telephonic component of the three-pronged strategy I had been using throughout the tournament. As I’d expected, both Nicol and Barada reached the final, Barada beating reigning champion Jonathon Power (who was forced to retire) and Nicol beating fellow Scot, Martin Heath.

The following day, a Friday, I turned up at the Hilton Hotel sports club for my weekly squash round robin session followed by a visit to the coffee shop to peruse the newspapers. As I expected, neither the Gulf News nor the Khaleej Times included any report of the semi-finals but did present selected first and second round results from Monday and Tuesday. Despite this, the letters pages of both newspapers were, as usual, full of entertaining cricket-themed correspondence from expatriate Indians working in the Gulf.

As it was getting dark, I flagged down a taxi and miraculously arrived at the airport without even once feeling that my driver was about to cause, or at least play a leading role in, a serious road accident. The return flight to Doha plus airport terminal waiting time took all of four hours during which time I read several chapters of my book, drank three coffees and acquired another 3 month entry visa.

One slightly more worrying taxi journey later I was sitting in the Forte Grand coffee shop following the 1999 World Open Final – again using the expatriate Egyptian / telephone method.

The final, won by Peter Nicol, was played on a glass court in sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza in front of a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Barada supporters. My Egyptian colleagues were naturally disappointed; no Egyptian had yet won the World Open and Barada was considered to have a great chance of winning the competition.

Since then, Egypt’s World Open fortunes have taken a dramatic upswing with seven of the thirteen tournaments played being won by Egyptian players. Coincidentally, three more World Open tournaments have been held in Doha, the latest of which saw Ramy Ashour beat fellow Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.

Well, you know, one of these days I might actually get a chance to see a World Open tournament live.

But first, I’ve definitely got to leave the airport.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on “World Open (Squash)” and Ahmed Barada. Thanks also to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab for his review of the 1999 World Squash Open final: “Lucky By The Pyramids.”.