By Ben Garner
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
Squash at Baltimore’s Merritt Athletic Club at Canton has come a long way in a short time. The courts were only built three years ago, in a community unfamiliar with the game. Last year the club hosted a $10,000 PSA event before the bar was raised yet again this year. The weekend after Thanksgiving, $25,000 of prize money was up for grabs in the Merritt Properties Open and former world No. 1 John White was there with his eye on the title.
In the weeks preceding the event there had been a buzz around the club, with particular excitement at the prospect of seeing White play in a club unexposed to such world class squash. The anticipation was enhanced by White’s special connection with Merritt Athletic Clubs—he met his wife Susie at another of the Merritt gyms in Baltimore in 1993, and is now based in nearby Philadelphia. The top seed did not disappoint his fans, and he was in scintillating form throughout the week to capture the title, although Laurens Anjema pushed him mightily in an enthralling final.
Whilst on paper the results went pretty much as expected, with only one upset in the main draw, this hides the excitement of the play. The one match that went against seeding was a hugely significant one, as second seed Graham Ryding crashed out in the first round to young English qualifier Chris Simpson. Whilst Ryding may not have been on his best form, he looked to have done enough to subdue an impressive challenge from Simpson when he took a 9-7 lead in the final game. However, the Englishman showed remarkable composure to win the next four points and claim the match. “That was by far the best win of my career,” admitted Simpson.
This long and exciting match on the opening day of the main draw set the tone for the rest of week. The high tin (19 inches as opposed to the PSA standard 17 inches), and unseasonably warm weather resulted in many tough, attritional matches. Indeed three of the four quarterfinals lasted over an hour. Unsurprisingly, Shahier Razik was involved in the longest match of the tournament. The Canadian, who is renowned for his marathon matches, eventually wore down Liam Kenny in five games, but it took him 131 minutes to do so. This match didn’t begin until 9 p.m., and by the time the final point was played the club was shut, the lights were off and the only people left to witness the huge effort put in by both players were the referees, tournament director Beth Fenwick and the cleaning crew!
Razik’s prize for this victory was a place in the semifinals—against White, who had dispatched of Joey Barrington 4,8,4 in just 23 minutes. Barrington had returned to Baltimore expecting much, having won the Baltimore Cup at the Baltimore Country Club the previous month. However, he was overwhelmed by White’s ferocious hitting and powerful shot-making. The crowd was mesmerized by White’s unique brand of attacking squash, and all week the talk around the club was of shots never witnessed before—such as reverse corkscrews and skid boasts. Razik was similarly unable to put up much resistance against the Australian-born Scot who lives in Philadelphia. Razik’s greatest asset is his speed and movement, but with his legs clearly fatigued from his late night finish the previous evening, there was little he could do to counter White’s nick-hitting.
In the bottom half of the draw Eric Galvez had booked a place in the semifinals after defeating giant-killer Simpson in four close games. The Mexican is much improved and has won two PSA titles since September, having added accurate ball control to his superb court coverage. In the semifinals he faced Anjema who recovered to win a bizarre match against Renan Lavigne despite losing the 3rd and 4th games 11-2,11-2.
Although Anjema triumphed in three games against Galvez it was an intriguing match between two players who generate speed around the court in differing ways—Anjema through explosive power and Galvez using rapid leg speed and occasional dives!
So the stage was set for the final between White and Anjema, two of the tallest players on the tour. Although White is ranked significantly higher, it always had the potential to be a close match. The Dutchman has surprised many top-10 players in the last couple of years (including Lee Beachill, Peter Nicol and White himself), and is familiar with White’s style of play, having trained with him at White’s Philadelphia base for two weeks preceding the tournament.
The bleachers were full to see White get off to his customary flying start as he surged to 7-2 with a flurry of nicks and one perfect reverse corkscrew. However, Anjema was not overawed and, having adjusted to the pace, clawed his way back into the game with some breathtaking retrieving and impressive volleying of his own. Having sneaked the first game on a tie-break, 24-year-old Anjema led 10-8 in the second and looked set to take a commanding lead. But White responded to this pressure superbly, four winners helping him to level the score, and by this stage the crowd were fully engrossed in the match, attracting members using the nearby gym equipment to stop their workout to try and get a glimpse of the action.
With the next two games shared, the destination of the title was to be decided by a one game shoot-out. Experience triumphed over youth, as White dominated the T and dispatched hard hit shots into the nick to take the fifth game 11-5, and with it the Merritt Properties Open title. This was the 33-year-old’s second victory in North America in a month, adding to the Motor City Open title he won in Detroit a few weeks previously.
Running alongside the PSA draw was a 40-player amateur event, and the same weekend the Baltimore Junior Open had attracted 80 competitors, whilst October had seen the $10,000 Baltimore Cup at the Baltimore Country Club. With more players sure to be inspired by the charismatic White and his fellow professionals, squash in this part of the world appears to have a healthy future.