London Squash: The In & Out

Dating from 1927, the oldest private squash court in London has a remarkable history. Situated on the top floor of a mews building attached to No.4 St. James’s Square, the court was built by The Army and Navy Club which had outgrown its premises on the corner of Pall Mall and George Street. After 3 years of development the new mews building provided chambers, bed-sitting-rooms, bedrooms, a ladies’ drawing-room, a dining-room and ground floor shop premises in addition to the squash court.

The Army and Navy Club

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The Army and Navy Club had been founded in 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the Throne. It had been formed to meet the needs of the many army officers wanting to join a Service Club, most of which were already full. Its first president was Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, who accepted the post on condition that membership was also open to officers of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.

The In & Out

By 1862, London boasted three Service Clubs: the United Service Club, the Junior United Service Club and The Army and Navy Club, all of which were at full capacity. To meet demand, a fourth club, The Naval and Military Club, was founded in March 1862 by a party of officers who at that time were quartered at the Tower of London.

94 Piccadilly

After several changes of premises, The Naval and Military Club moved, in 1866, to 94 Piccadilly, also known as Cambridge House. There, it came to be known as “The In & Out” from the prominent signs on the building’s separate vehicle entrance and exit gates. In 1996, having failed to agree terms for a new lease in Piccadilly, the club purchased the freehold of 4 St. James’s Square and finally moved into its new home on 1st February, 1999.

The Squash Court

In And Out Squash Court

As part of its freehold, The In & Out gained access to the squash court formerly used by The Army and Navy Club. Now in its 90th year of use, access to the court is a key part of the club’s fitness and leisure programme.

Evidence of the historical use of the court can be seen in the form of an honours board in the clubhouse where the winners of a Squash Challenge Cup for the years 1936-56 are listed. The competition was not contested for the years 1939-47.

Squash Honours Board

The Naval and Military Club is now advertised as a St James’s private members club for ladies and gentlemen, and officers of the Armed Forces.

4 St. James’s Square History

4 St. James’s Square was built in 1726–28 during the reigns of George I and George II. Amongst its distinguished occupants were Waldorf and Nancy Astor who made it their London residence from 1912-42. American-born Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit as a United Kingdom Member of Parliament in 1919, later becoming Viscountess Astor.

In 1942, the house was requisitioned by the government and was used as the London headquarters of the Free French Forces led by General Charles de Gaulle.

In April 1984, St. James’s Square became the centre of world attention as the setting for the 11-day long Libyan Embassy siege triggered by the fatal shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. The Libyan Embassy occupied 5 St. James’s Square.

Sources

The websites of The Army and Navy Club, The Naval and Military Club and British History Online. Thanks to Wikipedia as always.

An Open And Closed Case

This year’s Women’s final at the British Open Squash Championship in Hull was the first in twenty-six years to feature two English players, namely Laura Massaro – from Manchester via Great Yarmouth – and Sarah-Jane Perry from Birmingham. Coincidentally, the match was a re-run of the British National Championships final held in Manchester earlier in the year with the same outcome, namely Massaro beating Perry to take the title.

Open

But what of the 1991 final and its participants? Where are they now and what are they doing?

Lisa Opie

Held at the Wembley Conference Centre in London, Guernsey’s Lisa Opie beat Kent’s Sue Wright to take her first and only British Open title. She was the first British woman to win the title for thirty years and it wasn’t through want of trying. Opie had previously reached four finals in five years (in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’86*), all of which she had lost to Antipodean opponents, Australia’s Vicky Cardwell winning the first two and New Zealand’s Susan Devoy the last two.

*Footage from the 1986 final between Lisa Opie and Susan Devoy is shown below.

Lisa Opie was never to reach the final again.

Nine years later, however, Sue Wright did reach the final again, losing to New Zealand’s Leilani Joyce. This time, it was to be her final appearance.

Closed

Sue Wright with 1998 National trophy

During her career, Lisa Opie also won three British National Championships (‘81, ’86 and ’87). After retiring from the sport, she was awarded an MBE in 1995 for services to squash and now works as an osteopath in West London specialising in sports injury rehabilitation.

Sue Wright also gained success in the British National Championships winning four titles (in ’92, ’97, ’98* and 2001). The latter stages of her career were plagued by viral pneumonia, which left her with ear problems preventing her from flying to tournaments held outside the United Kingdom.

*Footage from the 1998 final against Cassie Jackman is shown below.

After retiring from squash, Wright founded the Sue Wright Squash Academy establishing a National Squash League Team purely from Academy players, the first time this had been done anywhere in the UK. Amongst other commitments, she’s now a presenter, commentator and interviewer at squash tournaments for the BBC and Sky, as well as being an ambassador for the London 2012 Olympics legacy programme ‘Sport Makers’.

Serendipity

A few months ago, I got to chatting with a dance partner at a local milonga. She told me that she’d recently been having treatment for back pain from a female osteopath specialising in sports injuries.

“She used to be a squash player,” she said. “Didn’t you say you were interested in squash?”

“Yes,” I said. “What’s her name?”

“Lisa,” she said. “Lisa Opie.”

Sources

Wikipedia, YouTube and the LinkedIn profiles of Lisa Opie and Sue Wright.

The Redeemer Of Floridablanca

I have to admit that until recently I’d never heard of the Colombian city of Floridablanca.

True, thirty years ago I probably flew over it en route to a memorable stay in the Colombian capital of Bogota. but, at the time, my attention was focussed on reaching Lima where I was due to join a group destined for Andean adventure, Amazonian exploration and, although I didn’t yet know it, severe food poisoning. Nevertheless, at 928 metres above sea level, Floridablanca had, and presumably still has, something that, at 2640  metres, Bogota noticeably lacked; namely, enough air to breathe whilst playing squash.

In March this year, Floridablanca hosted the inaugural Ciudad de Floridablanca PSA Women’s World Tour tournament, the final rounds of which were played on an open air court located in the city’s Parque el Santisimo. In the final, former World Number 1 Nicole David defeated America’s Olivia Blatchford 11-3 11-4 11-8.

All this might not sound particularly special but the location of the court certainly was, sharing an elevated plaza with the tallest “Christ the Redeemer” statue in South America. At 43 metres, the Floridablanca statue dwarfs its 30 metres tall rival in Rio de Janeiro which, as I recently discovered first-hand, shares its vantage point on top of Corcovado mountain with up to 14,000 visitors a day most of whom spend their time getting in each others’ way and taking photographs of themselves and each other with smart-phones.

The Floridablanca venue joins other iconic squash court locations, including the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal in New York and The Peninsula in Shanghai, in providing an providing an incredible setting for some of the best on-court action.

So the next time you consider visiting Rio for the holiday of a life-time, why not check out ticket availability for the next Ciudad de Floridablanca? You could even fly down to the fascinating city of Bogota for a few days.

But if you do decide to visit Floridablanca, be sure to pack your umbrella. And if you  decide to check out the capital too, you might want to consider an oxygen tank.

Sources

Thanks to Squash Site for its review of the inaugural final and to My Rio Travel Guide for its information on visitors to Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue. Thanks also to Colombia Reports for its article on Floridablanca’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

Manchester by the Canal

With the Oscar-nominated “Manchester by the Sea” still playing in the local cinemas, a return visit to the National Squash Centre seemed appropriate. Located in the Ancoats district of Manchester (England) within spitting distance of the Ashton Canal, the Centre was hosting the finals of the 2017 British National Squash Championships.

The last time I’d been to the finals, in 2011, reigning men’s champion Nick Matthew had been denied a hat-trick of consecutive titles by Essex’s Daryl Selby in a combative five-game affair. Since then, however, top-seeded Matthew had reeled off five titles in a row and was now aiming for his ninth overall, this time against first-time finalist Joe Lee.

In the women’s final another top seed and reigning champion, Laura Massaro, was aiming for her fourth title, her opponent being another first-time finalist Sarah-Jane Perry. On my last visit to the finals, Massaro had won her first title against Jenny Duncalf in another five-game epic.

This time, there were to be no fairy-tale endings for Lee or Perry, both going down 3-0 in entertaining matches.

In the final of the men’s over-45 competition, former two-time men’s champion Peter Marshall lost 3-1 to Manchester’s Nick Taylor whom I’d seen take the over-35 title in 2011. In 1994, Marshall, with his distinctive double-fisted style, had reached the final of the World Open in Barcelona where he’d lost to eight-times winner Jansher Khan.

Before the men’s and women’s finals, I watched the winners and runners-up of the rest of the competitions taking place during the week presented with their medals. I distinctly remembered that during my last visit to the championships, the finalists of the first men’s over-75 competition had been presented with their medals; this year, it was the finalists of the first men’s over-80 competition that were added to the role-call.

I made a mental note to be around for the first men’s over-85 competition but not necessarily to take part.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on the Ashton Canal, the British National Squash Championships and the World Open Championships.

New Assassin On The Block

If I had a pound – no, let’s make that a 2000 Indian rupee note – for every time I’ve heard a sporting figure described as the ‘new kid on the block’, I’d be rich. Well, richer than I already am, which is ‘not very’. Then there’s the popular soubriquet ‘baby-faced assassin’, used primarily to describe male competitors blessed with youthful features and a measure of sporting success. Again, I can hear the metaphorical cash registers ‘ker-ching’, or at least I could if any still existed.

But then along comes somebody referred to, by the media at least, using both epithets. I refer to Egyptian player Karim Abdel Gawad who recently reached a career-high ranking of World No. 3 after winning the 2016 World Championship and the Qatar Classic in the space of ten days.

Gawad’s successes were presaged two months before the World Championships when he failed to assassinate Ramy Ashour in the final of the 2016 Hong Kong Open. That match went the distance with Ashour eventually winning 3-2. But Gawad had run the former World No. 1 close and, in their next encounter, in the World Championship final, would turn the tables, Ashour retiring injured at 1-2 down. To reach the final, Gawad had beaten another fellow Egyptian, Mohamed El Shorbagy, for the first time ever in a world-ranked tournament. Their semi-final was another titanic struggle, Gawad eventually coming through in 90 minutes.

Eleven days later, in Doha, Gawad did it again, this time beating El Shorbagy 3-0 to take his first ever PSA world-ranked tournament. In the post-match interview, it transpired that they had first played each other at the age of eight.

Where his well-earned success leaves Gawad in terms of his ‘new kid’ and ‘assassin’ nicknames isn’t clear. But, at 25, the same age as his childhood rival Mohamed, it’s unlikely that he’ll hang on to at least one of his current monikers forever.

And that new 2000 Indian rupee note? Well, that’s another story.

Sources

Thanks to Squash TV and Wikipedia.

Brooklyn Nine-Squash

Maybe it’s just my imagination but there doesn’t seem to be any tailing off in the appearance of squash in TV series. In particular, the sport appears to be popular whenever characters are required to display extreme competitive behaviour bordering on psychopathy.

Take a recent (2015) episode (‘The Swedes’) of the US comedy ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ set in the fictional 99th Precinct of the New York Police Department. The programme follows a team of detectives headed by newly appointed Captain Ray Holt and including Charles Boyle, a capable but quirky detective who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

In ‘The Swedes’, Holt enlists Charles to stand in as his squash partner for an annual doubles tournament. Boyle enthusiastically agrees although he confides to a colleague that he’s afraid he’ll let his competitive side out and start eating squash balls like he did in his college days. He begins the tournament trying to keep calm but, after losing the first game of their first match, Holt reveals that he’s picked him purely because of his squash insanity; he knew about Boyle’s crazy college antics and wants that on his team.

“I need you to unleash the beast,” says Holt.

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle responds, loses his calm and proceeds to dominate the competition in his own unique, aggressive and unsettling way. He and Holt win the tournament but are then banned from entering ever again due to the trail of physical and emotional damage they have left behind them.

****

Now cast your mind back, a long long way back, to 1993 and the second ever episode (‘Space Quest’) of the long-running comedy ‘Frasier’. Over no less than eleven seasons radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane and his non-radio psychiatrist brother, Niles, would be portrayed as squash buddies of undisclosed playing ability. Yet, although they periodically appeared wearing squash kit and carrying squash racquets, not one scene was ever set on or near a squash court.

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

In the ‘Space Quest’ episode Frasier engages in conversation with a colleague Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe, a sports talk-show host at Seattle’s so-called KACL radio. The brash, womanising Bulldog is everything Frasier, a culture snob, loathes. After he tells Frasier that sports keep kids from fantasising or committing murder, Frasier mockingly agrees saying: “Yes. If only Jeffrey Dahmer had picked up a squash racquet“. At the time, Dahmer was a convicted American serial killer and sex offender who would be killed in prison thirteen months after ‘Space Quest’ first aired.

****

So, there you have it for Brooklyn, squash, Seattle and, er, psychopathy. Amazing how ideas can come together, isn’t it? That’s TV for you.

Sources

Thanks to ‘Spoiler TV’ for its review of ‘The Swedes’ and to the ‘Frasier Wiki’ for its review of ‘Space Quest.’ Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and ‘Frasier’.

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.