By James Zug
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
Everyone wants Ramy Ashour and James Willstrop to be the next great PSA rivalry. Now that Jonathon Power and Peter Nicol have retired, another mano-a-mano global face-off is considered by many observers as critical to ratcheting up interest in pro men’s squash. Twenty and 24 years old, Ashour and Willstrop are the prime candidates. Together they own the last three World Junior titles. They have friendly demeanors and glitzy finishing abilities and a nice geopolitical balance: Europe v. Middle East, Yorkshireman v. Cairiene.
Perhaps, though, it won’t work. For one thing, their games are a bit similar and for another, neither has JP’s legendary angst-filled patter, which was nicely juxtaposed to Nicol’s flush-cheeked inscrutability. Moreover, right now it is too one-sided. In the past fifteen months, during Ashour’s vertiginous rise up the rankings, Ashour v. Willstrop has occurred three times (twice now in New York). They’ve been good matches, but Ashour has won each one.
The latest was the 2008 Bear Stearns Tournament of Champions. In a full-tilt boogie-woogie thirty-eight minute final, Ashour danced past Willstrop 11-7, 11-10 (3-1), 11-9. Willstrop had a game ball in the second and was up 8-4 in the third, but it is extremely hard to put Ashour away. He makes you scrunch your margin of error thinner and thinner and tins pop out: Willstrop tinned on forehand drops on the game ball in the second and on match ball in the third. Everyone knows that both men will become world champion, but until the past year, it was always assumed that Willstrop will be first. This year’s TOC makes it much more likely that it will be Ashour.
The TOC is a stunning event and no matter who is playing it is a thrill to watch a squash match amidst the commuting bustle of Grand Central. But this year’s draw was, due to happenstance and injury, the weakest in years. Half of the world’s top twenty missed it; the two men on the cover of the tournament program, last year’s finalists Amr Shabana and Anthony Ricketts, were not in the draw.
One player who benefited from the slim draw was Julian Illingworth. For the past ten years, when I have written about the TOC, I have given the best result for an American player. Last year Illingworth gave me something to write about, with his incredible feat of not only qualifying for the main draw, but winning his opening round match. This year at the TOC, with the weak draw and his improving ranking, he didn’t have to qualify. He again won his first round match, topping Olli Touminen in four. A fantastic result, with Touminen ranked 17 in the world.
Illingworth has continued to disprove that long-held mantra that if you really want to make an impact on the pro tour, you can’t go to college but rather must pull a Mark Talbott and turn pro at eighteen. That is no longer true. Instead, the intercollegiate competition (in part because of Trinity’s intensive global recruiting) is definitely good enough. If you don’t succumb to the wiles of the fraternity basement, those four years are not a waste but perhaps a very good way to mature both on and off the court. Illingworth, while winning the national championship three straight years, was never able to win the national intercollegiate title while at Yale. Yet now, a year and a half after graduation, he is 38 in the world (and ahead of his collegiate rival Yasser El Halaby and his American compatriot, Chris Gordon, who did not go to college).
He was not the only Eli man on display at Grand Central. There was the Mayor’s Cup, in which a co-ed, five-person group of Yale and Princeton squash players faced off in an exhibition after Sunday’s quarterfinal matches. It was great fun to see some of the top collegiate players out on the portable court. The only thing better would have been to actually have Mike Bloomberg there to present his trophy. Maybe he was working on his squash game?
Or worrying about global warming. The TOC, according to Juice Energy, an electricity supplier that helped sponsor the tournament, caused the emission of 54 tons of greenhouse gases. That was everything from players’ plane flights to hotel room use to bringing in the McWIL portable court. It sounds bad. It is. It is about the yearly emissions of Montserrat. And sadly it is just a drop in the bucket for the US, which emits 54 tons every couple of minutes.
The TOC is a landmark tournament. Next year’s event will be the 75th TOC—it started in 1930, making it the oldest pro tournament in the world (the British Open began ten months after the TOC). In addition, for the last ten straight winters, it has been spectacularly lodged in Grand Central. Somehow, though, the distaff side of the TOC has never taken hold. Once again, it was a four-woman undercard exhibition. Luckily, it was four of the top ten women, including Washington, DC’s, Natalie Grainger. They played the men’s 11-point-a-rally scoring system, which actually seemed to work well, against conventional wisdom. In the final Grainger topped Shelley Kitchen 11-4, 12-10, 8-11. 8-11, 11-8. Grainger looked poised to close it out in three, as she went up 4-0 in the third, but Kitchen bore down, volleying Grainger into the back corners. In the fifth, Grainger steadied and went up 8-4 and never lost her lead as she and Kitchen inched towards the final points.
Like in many of the previous years, the PSA streamed video and commentary of the matches live on the Internet. Radio earphones, introduced in 2006 as a way for spectators to hear the play-by-play commentary, were again a failure. One night, I forgot mine and asked Beth Rasin, the TOC’s associate director in charge of the media, to borrow hers. But hers didn’t work, either. The next night I used the pair I bought last year. They didn’t work either. They are a fantastically fan-friendly innovation—the squash version of bringing a radio to the baseball game—but a slight tweaking is needed before it becomes truly user-friendly.
The commentary on one match needed all the superlatives in the English language. The quarterfinal match, John White v. Gregory Gaultier, was the best of the week. Gaultier looked singularly unfazed in the first two games and seemed almost casual in his movement. White stepped it up in the third with his trademark blistering low drives and front-corner smashes. In the fourth, White refused to succumb to the seemingly inevitable and saved two match balls to win the game.
It looked hopeless at the end of the fourth. Martin Bronstein, the venerable squash journalist (no, the TOC is older!), actually exited the stands to prepare for his post-match, court-side interview. He had to wait. At 9-10 White survived an epic, leg-crushing rally. A half dozen times he returned to the T after barely getting a ball and doubled over in exhaustion, gasping for air. If he was a dog, he would have been shot. Somehow, with great guts, he won the point. The crowd gave him a roaring, standing ovation. He took the overtime tiebreaker, but didn’t have much left for the fifth game.
For a few minutes, though, the beanpole Scot with the Aussie accent exhibited raw courage. White had spent the weekend shuttling back and forth from New Haven, where his Franklin & Marshall Diplomats were playing squash. It is a tiring life, being a collegiate coach, let alone playing the pro tour at the same time, and White, with his four kids and his 35th birthday looming in June, might call it quits sometime soon. If so, he gave TOC fans a benedictory show to remember.