By James Zug
Photos by Steve Line/SquashPics.com
Five years ago, squash in the Caymans was on life support. Hurricane Ivan swept through the Cayman Islands in September 2004. Ivan, lest you forgot Katrina, was one of the top ten most intense Atlantic hurricanes in history and the sixth most damaging in US history. It hammered the South Sound Squash Club, the seven-court, member-owned key club outside George Town on Grand Cayman Island.
Founded in 1976, SSSC had a proud history as one of the dominant locales for Caribbean squash. Now it was all but gone: roof wrecked, ankle-deep water in each court, walls missing, debris scattered about like a fraternity party gone bad. You can glimpse the sea from the second-floor window near the bar, but the club is calmly nestled between a rugby pitch and tennis courts and it is hard, today, to imagine the 165mph winds or the waves surging over palm trees.
Mark Chaloner, former No. 7 in the world, was on holiday in the Caymans and huddled in the second floor of a friend’s apartment while the first floor almost got washed away. He missed the US Open that year, unable to get a flight out.
Less than five years later, the courts are rebuilt, the bar is thriving (especially when the Charlie’s Angels outfit play on weekend afternoons), and this winter the club hosted six college teams (Dartmouth, Brown, George Washington, Tufts, etc) on winter-break. Part of the upsurge stems from the incredibly attractive location: the Cayman’s famous seven miles of resort-lined, west-facing, water-lapping beach, the scuba diving, the swimming with stingrays, the history, the sun. But other Caribbean nations have tried to link squash and tourism, most notably with the Sharif Khan Festival a decade ago in Barbados. The unique setup in the Caymans is the difference: a vibrant club with seven courts, direct flights from across the States and a burgeoning corporate community eager to help with sponsorship.
The key component was one man, Dan Kneipp. The brother and former coach of Joe Kneipp, Dan moved from Amsterdam to the Caymans in April 2007 (Joe soon sailed after him and is now a pro in the British Virgin Islands—it makes it easy for their mum to visit from Australia). “Dan could sell second-hand coffins,” said one longtime SSSC member. Dan’s goal was to give universal SSSC squash care for every Caymanian youngster—free membership, free equipment, free lessons and free transport.
The solution: a major squash tournament. Natalie Grainger and Chaloner (who ended up living on the Caymans for a couple of years) organized an exhibition in April 2008. It went well and Kneipp, even though he and his wife, Steph, had a baby in late February, then organized the Cayman Open for May 2009.
The highest quality pro tournament in Caribbean history, the Cayman Open featured two distinct draws. The $37.500 women’s draw featured seven of the top ten ranked players in the world, including world champion, Nicol David, and US No. 1, Natalie Grainger. It was Grainger who had ended David’s 17-month unbeaten run in March in David’s home country of Malaysia and everyone hoped that they would meet again in the Caymans. They did in the finals, with David laying down the hammer 11-8, 11-6, 11-5.
Exhibiting WISPA’s global strength, the tournament’s 26 players represented 17 nations (it would have been 18 if Amneya Abdel Kawy of Egypt had not pulled out three days before it started with an abductor injury). I spent one afternoon having a friendly match against Karen Meakins, who had lost in the qualies. A Brit who moved to Barbados nine years ago to work as a squash pro at a three-court facility, Meakins toyed with me, winning easily in five. Afterwards, in a puddle of sweat with sneakers on, I learned her secret: she has no air-conditioning at her house, so she’s grown impervious to heat and humidity.
As I was leaving the Caymans, I got a particularly global ride on the early-morning shuttle van from the hotel to the club. The driver, Colin Ricketts, was Jamaican (the Caymans were a part of Jamaica until 1962); the passengers included Andrew Shelley (the Englishman who runs WISPA) and two people speaking an unfamiliar language. It was Irina Assal, the five-time Russian national champion, and her coach, Zoltan Kompis, a Hungarian who lives in Moscow. I happened to have in my hand a book I’d written to give to Kneipp as a present, so I found the page with a map of Russia and asked Kompis to show me the village near the Urals where Assal grew up. He then marveled and said, “We are here exactly half way around the world from there. Squash is amazing.”
For many, the Caymans is in their backyard. The four referees were from the Caribbean, though one, Alwyn Callender, lives in New York and is the coach at Columbia University. Nicolette Fernandes, the 25-year-old Guyana-born, Tottenham, London-based player, was pleased to be back in the Caymans. She had competed at the SSSC as a junior. Formerly ranked No. 28 in the world, Fernandes had been out of the game for two years recovering from a series of left knee surgeries. In the second round of the qualifier, she won her first game against Latasha Khan and then failed to convert seven game balls in the second, going on to lose a heart-breaker in four.
To further drum up local support, Kneipp also ran a eight-man Caribbean men’s invitational. It included current Caribbean champion, Gavin Cumberbatch of Barbados, Colin Ramasra of Trinidad & Tobago, who is ranked No. 155 in the world, and Barbados’ Shawn Simpson who is a tremendous-looking squashman: 6’7” and whippet thin, he is probably the world’s only person with this on his CV: high-caliber squash player (current Southern Caribbean champion); star volleyball player (on the national Barbados team, ranked 34 in the world; and accountant (PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Simpson looked to win the draw (and $1,000 Caymanian in prize money), but SSSC coach Dean Watson upset him 3-1 in the finals.
Next season, SSSC will host a junior tournament open to U.S. players, more colleges will come down to train, and Kneipp’s dreams of funding his island-wide squash program will come to fruition.
Moreover, the Cayman Open will go glass. Following in the footsteps of Bermuda a few years ago and taking it one step further, Kneipp has secured a spectacular waterside site at Camana Bay. A new mixed-use planned town outside the capital George Town, Camana Bay has been developed by the Dart family, which invented and is still the largest manufacturer of styrofoam cups. It is a massive project (500 acres), but what is fascinating is how they are developing it. The first things to open were a new campus for Cayman International School, a six-screen cinema, shops and a well-stocked bookstore. The condos and hotels will come later. The place is pedestrian-friendly and already crowded with people (many of the islands’ offshore businesses have relocated from capital George Town).
Scheduled for next April, the 2010 Cayman Open will be played on the Crescent, a palm-tree shaded spot right on the Camana Bay harbor. It will make Ivan recede so completely that one day, a visitor will arrive at the South Sound Squash Club, look up at the champions board, and inquire who was that person with that funny name (who names their daughter “Hurricane”?) who swept all the club tournaments in 2004.