Rex

Rex Pennington died last weekend. He was ninety-four.

Rex was a classic squash friend. He born in 1923.  First played squash in 1931, at age eight. He got very good. Champion of Rhodes University. As a Rhodes Scholar, he was the champion of Oxford and captained the Blues for two seasons. He was elected to the Jesters Club in 1948, the first South African to be honored that way, and Rex helped found the South African branch a decade later. Later the champion of Western Province.

He and his wife Sarah were a fascinating couple. They had lived for a couple of years in the early 1950s in Oklahoma City. Rex taught at Casady School. They were incredibly hospitable. The first time I met Rex, it was at a small airfield outside Johannesburg. I had called him the day before, asking if I could stay with him for a few days (I was twenty) and that it looked like I had miraculously hitched a ride on a private airplane from Natal to Joburg. We landed at sunset and there, on the tarmac, was Rex.

The next day we played squash. He was sixty-six at the time and he beat me, rather easily. This was May 1989. I had barely played any softball, but still, I was twenty, fit and fresh from a season on the varsity of a top-ten U.S. collegiate program. It just proved, early on to me, how much more of a challenge softball was.

Rex was good, nonetheless—he got to the semis of the 1997 World Masters 65+ division, at the age of seventy-four.

He was a giant in South Africa. He was headmaster of Michaelhouse, one of the country’s leading boarding schools, from 1969 to 1977. Then in the early 1980s he was the founding head of the first private school in Soweto, Pace. Naturally, he installed squash courts, the first in the township.

Over the years, we spent many delightful evenings together thereafter, at his home in Melville, his farm in the Eastern Transvaal, in New York. He was always generous and kind. When I was staying with him in 2007 and needed a lift to Pretoria, an hour away. No problem. We had a delightful hour chatting, he dropped me off with a wave and headed home. That is how a squash friend is, even at the age of eighty-four.

Sarah and their son Steuart wrote this poem for his seventieth birthday: 

ODE TO A FAMOUS JESTER – REX PENNINGTON

When you warm up I tremble a little

The quality of your service is difficult to return
When you rally I feel I should surrender
When you raise your racquet I quiver with anticipation
Your hand-in makes me squirm with delight
Your hand-out makes me sigh with relief
Your boasting is always well disguised
Your knack for the nick catches me unawares
Your sportsmanship is a legendary essay
 And… as you put it away
You will always be my Sexy Rexy

Eligible

I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s lovely 2016 novel, Eligible.

In it is a small running theme about Jasper. He is a New York journalist working on a story for Sporty, a major sports magazine, on Cincinnati’s squash scene. “Cincinnati is like the world headquarters for squash, right?” Jasper asks the main character Liz. “They send an insane number of kids to play in Ivy League schools every year. But why Cincinnati.”

Jasper tells Liz that he’s giving up a book idea on fly-fishing in Idaho and thinking of one about squash prodigies. “Fly-fishing is more romantic than squash,” Liz said. “Would’t you rather do your reporting standing in a beautiful stream instead of under fluorescent lights?”

Very very good question that we all ask ourselves when the weather is nice. And the leading edge of our discussions about why squash isn’t more popular in tough-weather locales.

Jasper’s piece eventually does come out in Sporty. It is mostly about an eleven-year-old boy, his intense father and his coach. He didn’t answer the question, why Cincinnati, especially because it isn’t the world headquarters, notwithstanding all the good work of Don Mills, Nathan Dugan, the Wyant clan and Neal Tew.

Munden

Last month I finished a six-thousand-word essay and extensive timeline on the history of squash that was posted at the World Squash Federation’s website. in 2002 I had written an earlier version  and it was definitely time to update the piece—so much has changed in the past fifteen years—and add a timeline for accessibility.

In researching the piece, I came across a couple of tidbits that I just couldn’t track down fifteen  years ago in the digitally darker ages of the internet. I was especially interested in the spread of the game beyond Harrow. In the 1880s courts started to appear around England; usually the first to be mentioned is one at Oxford that an old Harrovian built in 1883.

Following up a lead, I contacted Henry Holland-Hibbert. His  great grandparents put up a stand-alone court in the late 1880s at their Herefordshire estate, Munden. He told me that the court was constructed of timber on a solid base with large glass panels in both sides of a pitched roof. It was known as the Racquets Court.

Since there was no standardized court for squash in the 1880s, it isn’t surprising to note that Holland-Hibbert said the court was larger than a regular court today.

The family, interestingly, were not from Harrow but rather Eton. Both his great uncle, Thurstan Holland-Hibbert, and his grandfather, Wilfred Holland-Hibbert, were keeper (captain) of racquets at Eton. So the game, evidently, had spread from Harrow to Eton enough in the 1880s for some old boys to want to build a court.

Growing up, Holland-Hibbert only knew of the court as a dilapidated  garden shed. In the 1990s it was in a very poor state of repair. As both repair or replacement were prohibitively expensive, they demolished it.

He kindly sent me two photos: one from a family album of the outside of the court in 1905 and a current photo. The back wall remains, about a hundred and thirty years after it was built. You can still see the dark blue service line across the white wood.

I believe it must be the oldest remnant of a squash court in the world.

Love is Love is Love

My article in the June issue of Squash Magazine on Jenny Duncalf & Rachael Grinham probably got as much global attention as any feature I have done in the past twenty years.

Love is Love is Love: Jenny Duncalf & Rachael Grinham—Champions On Court, Pioneers Off Court

With the help of Laurelle Holley and Chris McClintick at US Squash, Nathan Clarke at the PSA and Howard Harding at the World Squash Federation, the story went viral. For a couple of days it was trending pretty high in social media: thousands of retweets and likes and shares and impressions.  Jenny and Rachael did interviews. Articles started to appear.

PSA: https://psaworldtour.com/news/view/4768/duncalf-grinham-become-first-openly-gay-professional-squash-players-after-revealing-relationship

Pink News: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/05/26/world-squash-champions-come-out-as-gay-and-reveal-they-are-a-couple/

 

What was most gratifying, saddening and inspiring were two responses from other gay squash players. It was so powerful to read Jonathan MacBride-Young in Edinburgh writing about how long he had waited for a professional player to come out. “I have played squash for twenty-eight years. It’s my sport. I love it. I play, I coach, I referee, I encourage others to play my sport. I didn’t have a role model for me as a gay man in squash. Today I do.”

He also had the best line: “Just like the buses, you wait ages for one to come along and then two come along at once.”

http://leapsports.org/blog/world-squash-a-journey-to-diversity

 

The other response was from Alexia Clonda, the Australian former world No.5:

The Fear of Coming Out: Alexia Clonda reveals the pain she endured on tour

Painted Floors

Last week a package arrived from Sam Howe. Inside were two DVDs: twelve minutes of old 8mm footage from two matches. Black-and-white, no sound. Both were shot from overhead, a reminder of the pre-glass-wall limitations of old.

One video, taken by PJ Smith, was of the finals of the 1964  men’s singles club championship at Merion Cricket Club. In it, Diehl Mateer, clad as usual in his traditional white flannel pants, faced off against Howe. I loved seeing Mateer pause before serving, eyeing the from wall and then the long sweep of his lob serve. They often played each other in the tournament; Howe won it that  year.

The other video was made by Raoul de Villafranca at the finals of the 1970 National Singles at Penn. It was Anil Nayar v. Howe. They had played each other the year before in Rochester—Howe had saved a match point in the fourth game and at 13-all in the fifth, he lost a contact lens and Nayar won the next two points. At Penn, Nayar came back from a 2-0 deficit to win 15-11 in the fifth.

Again, neat to see Nayar and how he choked up, like a softball player, on his racquet. His quickness. Howe’s power. The film includes them shaking hands at the end of the match. Ted Friel, like everyone else in a suit, handed out the trophies afterwards.

Both videos forcibly reminded me of the old custom of painting the floors white. That was the norm in North America up until the late 1980s. It made for slippery surfaces at times (you can see Howe wiping the soles of his sneakers with a towel before the match) but did enable the ball to be seen better.

 

Copa

The twenty-eighth Copa Wadsworth just finished this morning at Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia. It is one of the most special traditions in North American squash.

And unheralded. I left the Copa party last night to head around the corner to the BestShotBall benefit for SquashSmarts at Philadelphia Cricket Club. Perhaps a dozen people, all well-connected, longtime players and coaches, asked me if as in previous years I had played in the games as a part of the SquashSmarts benefit and I said, no, I had played in the Copa Wadsworth at GCC and they said, what is the Copa?

The Copa was founded by and named after George Wadsworth, an American ex-pat who lived in Mexico City for decades. In 1990 in Atlantic City he launched the U.S. v. Mexico match. It is played in Mexico City every even year and in a U.S. city every odd year. (It was in St. Louis in 2015; it will be in San Francisco in 2019.)

Wadsworth was the  ultimate global citizen. He was born in Constantinople; grew up in Bucharest, Cairo, Tehran, Beirut, and Jerusalem; went to Nicols School in Buffalo; was a Princeton ’44; and fought at Iwo Jima. In Mexico he owned a lightbulb factory. When he bought a house that had a squash court, he finally took up the game he had known about for decades.

A couple of stalwarts help oversee the U.S. side. One is Alan Fox, who despite having endured a stroke in January, came (accompanied by the ever-generous Terry Eagle) to Philadelphia. The Copa is similar to the Lapham-Grant, the annual U.S. v. Canada match, and three players—Eagle, Bob Mosier and Peter Susskind—did the North American Double™ and played in the Lapham last weekend in Calgary and the Copa this weekend in Philadelphia. (Susskind actually didn’t play in the Copa; he suffered a fractured elbow in the Lapham but, like so many, loves the Copa and so came anyway.)

The Mexican side, since Wadsworth death in June 2011 at the age of eighty-nine, has been led by Purdy Jordan. Another American ex-pat who grew up and lives in Mexico City, Jordan is a mere eighty-seven. He has a standing doubles game every Saturday morning.

I had a tremendously fun time playing singles and doubles with and against the Mexican side. They were a mix of Copa veterans, like Ricardo Solis who has played in more than half of the Copa’s, and rookies like me. I had a great couple of games with Mike, a twenty-three year-old who had just picked up squash after a dozen years of playing American football. The U.S. team won, in the end, but you wouldn’t have known from the smiles and high-fives after every match.

The Copa is a quiet, but revealing celebration of the long and deep ties the squash communities of our two nations have had over the generations.

Too Late

The news earlier this week that Tom Brady might play for another six or seven years, until he is forty-seven or so, got me thinking. Mittyesque dreams of athletic stardom are finally slipping away for me. It is basically impossible now.

Right now there is no one my age, forty-seven, in any major professional team sport in the U.S. And historically, the late forties is when the very last of the superhuman athletes retire: George Blanda stopped at forty-eight, Martina Navratilova stopped at forty-nine.

Squash? In singles, I think it is too late.  Hashim Khan won the last of his seven British Opens at the age of forty-two; that is the all-time mark for a major pro squash tournament victory that will probably never be broken. In America, the oldest players to ever win the National Singles have been forty-six years-old and it all happened a long, long time ago: Timmy Roberts (1924) and Eleo Sears (1928).

The only glimmer of hope left is doubles. Twice—Joe Hahn in 1955  and Victor Elmaleh in 1969—we’ve had forty-nine year-olds capture the men’s National Doubles and in 1978 Jane Austin Stauffer won her last women’s National Doubles title at the age of fifty.

So it is time to get back out there in the infinitely greater game.

 

Five Parting Thoughts

Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated does this after every Grand Slam tennis tournament: Fifty Parting Thoughts. Well, after the latest Tournament of Champions, here are one-tenth of that:

Five Parting Thoughts

  1. Crowds. It was neat to see the stands full early in the tournament. I was there at noon on the first Thursday, the exact start of play on the glass court and nearly every seat was filled. That is still the gold standard for squash tournaments. It is easy to fill the place for the semis or finals, but can you do it for the first-round on a Thursday afternoon?
  2. Good pub. During the ToC, on Saturday the 14th and then Monday the 16th, the New York Times featured big articles on squash players. Some of this was because of Richard Finn, a veteran New York writer and public relations guru, is now a part of the Event Engine team but also because squash is perhaps again seen as a rich source for story-telling. Finn also got the ToC a little blurb on the front-page of USA Today’s sports section. I picked up a copy at my hotel in the morning and, voila, there is squash.
  3. Hawk-Eye. Speaking of tennis, I asked Lee Beachill at the PSA about the new referee system: two refs, one doing the match, one doing video replay. The video ref can talk to the head ref about things he’s seeing to help adjudicate balls that are down. We got to talking about Hawk-Eye. Their technology has been used to help decide line calls for tennis for over a decade, cricket since 2009 and more recently soccer and badminton. What about squash? This would forever remove discussion about whether balls were out of court, tinned, etc. Lee said, “Not yet.” The cost of getting Hawk-Eye’s half-dozen triangulating cameras and half-dozen staff to each event is—at the moment— prohibitive for SquashTV.
  4. Cover. I wrote the feature story for the ToC’s program, but the best part of the  program might have the brilliant cover. Carlos Williams at Studio DBC designed the cover, as well as the ToC poster, VIP tickets and folders and twentieth-anniversary logo. The cover featured nine past ToC winners, ranging from Sharif Khan in the 1970s, Jahangir Khan and Mark Talbott from the 1980s to last year’s winners. It was a neat way to visually encapsulate the ToC’s eighty-three year history.
  5. Interviews. Before the gala dinner at the ToC, I interviewed two dozen former ToC champions. I did it Sixty Minutes-style in a studio in a forty-ninth floor office at J.P. Morgan. Justin Willet manned the cameras, and I talked and listened for five straight hours. It was an incredible, first-hand crash-course in the last sixty years of squash. Ray Widelski, the 1960 ToC winner, came in first. He got $250 for winning. Now eighty-one, Ray’s been a teaching pro since 1958. Then came was Stu Goldstein talking about practicing with Vic Niederhoffer at 11pm;  Mike Desaulniers mentioning the stress fracture in his right foot that made him miss a year of intercollegiate squash—he lost just one game of one match in the other three years; Jonathon Power describing a thirteen-day, thirteen-city exhibition tour he did with Amr Shabana in 2006 that prompted him to retire; Mohamed ElShorbagy remembering when he lost to Greg Gaultier and Greg was in tears as they hugged because the victory meant that Greg would finally becoming world No.1; and Nick Matthew recalling walking the streets of Manhattan at three in the morning because he couldn’t sleep because his legs were cramping badly after a 12-10 in the fifth win over Shabana in 2011.
  6. Bonus. The conversations made me realize what a historical continuum the ToC champions actually are. Only a few champions  separate ElShorbagy from Jack Summers who won the first ToC in 1930. Mo has played against Shabs who played against Jansher who played against Jahangir who played against Clive Caldwell who played against Sharif who played against Al Chassard who played against Scotty Ramsay who played against Summers in 1930.

Goose

Last month I went to the memorial service for Bill Wilson. Known to many of his old friends as Goose (he lived in a house of bachelors in his twenties; the other housemates were Spider, Grappler and the Whale), Bill was a fine squash player, a very fine athlete and a beloved friend to many in the squash world.

In the 1950s, after graduating from Amherst, he spent two years pitching in the Braves farm system (the parent club was first in Boston and then in Milwaukee): almost all of it in Hagerstown, MD on their single A team. A southpaw, he went 18-12 with a 3.90 ERA. He later played a lot of squash with Phillies outfielder and announcer Richie Ashburn.

At the service, I was struck by how many of Bill’s squash buddies were there: I saw Carter Fergusson, Ben Heckscher, Sam Howe, Darwin Kingsley, etc. But I was also struck what one of them, Charlie Baker, said in his lovely eulogy.

He spoke about a weekly game he had with Bill. For twenty years, Charlie and Bill played every Monday evening. They played at 5pm on courts #7 or #8 at Merion. Neighbors, they alternated on the driving. They played year-round. Bill won more of the matches than Charlie, but Charlie said that was just because he was five years younger. “Even in those fun games,” Charlie told me, “he hated to lose but then so did I.” They only stopped a couple of years ago, when Bill’s medical problems forced him to give up playing.

That is the essence of squash: the standing weekly game. Month in, month out, year in, year out, playing a friend. Fighting hard on court and best of friends off court.

Farewell, Goose. Forever in the bonds.

A.A. Gill

The death last weekend of A.A. Gill struck me hard. He was a stylish, witty writer with the most scathing bon mots.

One of my favorites is one that just came out this year: “We all know what ‘getting our country back’ means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective ‘yesterday’ with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty.”

I immediately went back to when I first read A.A. Gill. It was the mid-1990s. I was living in Cape Town. It was a media desert. I didn’t have a television. There was no internet. No social media. No magazines. The daily papers took about five minutes to read, so bereft of real reporting and real depth. The weekly paper, the Mail & Guardian, was irregularly distributed and very hard to find; I went to outlandish and often unsuccessful lengths to locate copies when it came out on Fridays.

My landlord, Paddy, living further up the hill, had a subscription to the Sunday Times. It was airmailed, at great cost, from London and would arrive five or six days after printing. After reading it, he would drop it by my place on his way to his daily constitutional. It was a massive moment when I heard his rich Irish brogue calling from the garden. Finally, something substantive.

Gill, who had just started writing for the Sunday Times, was the best. I gobbled up his columns, his essays, his reviews. I usually ended up reading them aloud to my friends. I had no idea who Gill was and I didn’t agree with him every time, but he was a delicious glass of cold water in that desert.

He never wrote about squash, as far as I can tell, as least the sport. He did come down hard on Wimbledon. In 2014 he wrote about the Wimbledon and Glastonbury:  “I don’t remember being so struck by how similar these two festivals are, both moulded in the cosy, chintzy, grotesque vernacular of the Establishment. Just as we once yearned for an Englishman—at a pinch, a Scotsman—to win on Centre Court, so now we wonder whether an English, possibly Irish, band will headline on the big stage again. Glasto and Wimbles are both made by bad weather, silly food, horrible cocktails and ghastly people. They are not so much about being there as who can afford to be there, and which foreign celebrities are papped in the crowd. They have been taken over by corporate hospitality and great gouts of cultural nostalgia.”

The Inside Word on the Game of Squash