By Jonathan Reifler, Metropolitan Squash Racquets Association (MSRA) Treasurer
For 51 weeks a year, Grand Central Terminal serves as New York City’s principal commuting hub, receiving 125,000 commuters and 500,000 visitors each day. But in January, the terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall is also home to a four-walled glass squash court, viewing grandstands and some of the world’s most electrifying squash. The world’s top men’s professional squash players come to New York City each January to compete in the Tournament of Champions (TOC), an event held annually in New York since 1991. While the TOC’s original Manhattan home at the Winter Garden in Battery Park provided a wonderful architectural backdrop, the tournament’s move to Grand Central in 1995 has increased its profile in the city. 2010 TOC winner James Willstrop captured the allure of the tournament best when he said, “It’s not the biggest money event, but it’s the most exciting and the tournament that every player wants to win.”
The TOC is not the only squash tournament taking place that week, as many local clubs and organizations take advantage of the critical mass of squash players and fans coming to New York to stage their own events. In fact, New York is such a hub of squash activity during this period that New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg officially declared Jan 22-28, 2010, “New York City Squash Week.” Three junior tournaments were organized by the CityView Racquet Club, urban program StreetSquash and TOC-organizer Event Engine, but the biggest event taking place that week was the Grand Open. Organized and run since 1994 by the MSRA, New York’s volunteer squash organization, the Grand has grown from a regional event to become one of the largest amateur adult tournaments in the world, and it is part of the U.S. SQUASH Regional Championship Series where winners and finalists of each division earn free entry to the U.S. Squash Skill Level Championships.
The Grand has benefitted and grown since its inception from its link to the TOC—Grand players receive tickets to the early rounds of the professional matches—but it is the diligent work done by the MSRA over the past several years that has brought the event to its current prominence. The 226 participants playing across the 12 men’s and women’s draws in 2010 marked the third year that the tournament has set a record level for participation (including the 2007 event that doubled as the U.S. Squash Skill Level Championships featuring 322 players), with players coming from as far as Florida, Illinois, Virginia and California. And players do not come just for squash; the Grand is held in some of the finest squash venues in the city (including the Harvard, Yale and Princeton Clubs, the New York Sports Club at 86th Street and the Sports Club/LA) and features a large Saturday night player party court-side at the TOC in Grand Central.
While demand by players for the Grand has increased across all skill levels over the years, 2010 saw a large jump in participation by women. Twenty percent more female players showed up to play this year, said Jessica Green and Emily Stieff, the MSRA’s women’s squash committee co-chairs. “While we had initially planned to have three women’s draws at the 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 skill levels,” said Stieff, “the growth in players we saw this year spurred us to add much needed 4.5 and 5.5 skill level draws.”
“The growth in women’s squash in New York has been phenomenal,” said Green. “New players are entering at the beginner and novice levels, women are returning after taking breaks for work and family, and players are continuing to play competitively post-college—all good news for the growth of the sport.”
And it is not just about quantity; the quality has been high. “We were thrilled to see 16-year old Amanda Sobhy take third place in the top men’s 6.0 draw,” says Green, “and talented players like Julie Lilien and Shirin Kaufman, who may have competed in the men’s 5.0 draw in past years, joined a full draw of eight competitive players in the women’s 5.5 draw.”
Grand Open match play began on Friday evening and continued through Sunday afternoon for a full weekend of squash. Great matches were seen throughout the weekend, but two stand as particularly memorable. The men’s 3.5 saw Sunday’s longest main-draw final, with Manish Chopra and Tarit Rao-Chakravorti going back and forth for 80 minutes until Rao-Chakravorti won 14-12 in the fifth game. All spectators shared Rao-Chakravorti’s relief when just after scoring the winning match point, he held his head in his hands and walked slowly to the front of the court.
A similar marathon battle was seen in the women’s 5.5 semifinal between Casey Riley and Gwen Tilghman. Riley, a former No. 24-ranked intercollegiate player at Princeton, was a heavy favorite to advance toward a final match and easily took a 2-0 lead against Tilghman, the local junior and US No. 11 in the Girls U19. Tilghman seemed outmatched against Riley even during the third game, but then fought back to 6-6 on her way to taking game three. With a bit of breathing room to start game four, Tilghman settled down, avoided getting trapped in Riley’s hard-hitting game, and managed a fantastic upset in five to move on to the finals against Juliana Lilien.
The 2010 Grand Open was a crowning moment in an innovative MSRA season. Increased adoption of mobile technology meant that tournament directors and players could update match results on the fly and quickly communicate changes in match times; such that a tournament of 226 players at five venues was run relatively seamlessly. Complete results of the draws and the MSRA’s tournament calendar are available at www.msra.net.