For the 17th Time, Squash Comes to Grand Central

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By James Zug

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James Willstrop, former world No. 1, stopped to purchase a train ticket in 2011 in Grand Central’s main concourse under the iconic $20,000,000 opalescent-faced brass clock.

Grand Central Terminal. It is a magical place. It is the monumental building, weighty with history and grandeur. It is the largest rail terminal in the world—terminal not station: Grand Central is a destination. Trains terminate there. It is not a place you simply breeze through.

A total of 275 million people annually come to the Terminal. Every winter I am one of them. My first visit during the JP Morgan Tournament of Champions always seems to occur with me coming down the escalators on the north side. The main concourse slowly emerges into view, and I watch all the people to-and-froing, pausing and looking: a public ballet, hundreds of people crossing paths on their own personal journeys. I see the giant banners on the marble walls announcing the largest spectator squash event in the world.

I play a contest with myself. I try to guess how close I’ll be to the portable glass court in Vanderbilt Hall before the squeak of wheeled luggage and squawk of telephones and the multitude of voices gives way to the familiar slap of the squash ball hit­ting the wall. Every year it is a thrill, amidst all the hubbub of so many people, to hear the game of squash.

One day in April 1994, Zerline Goodman, the promotional director of the Tournament of Champions, walked through Grand Central Terminal. She saw something unexpected. The famous old waiting room, usually packed with rows of long oak benches where dozens of homeless people sprawled, was empty. The staff had removed all the benches. “It’s the perfect spot,” she said to herself.

Later that day, she told John Nimick, the director of the ToC, “You know, John, they just cleared out this giant room at Grand Central. We could put the tournament on there.”

Nimick went up to Grand Central. “Zerline was right. The first time I saw the room I was euphoric. I had never seen a better place for a tournament. This was the ultimate in public accessibility. A gorgeous room, enough for a court and bleach­ers, and good square footage on the other side. I immediately started working on it.”

That week, Nimick was running the ToC down at the Winter Garden. The tournament was first played in February 1930—ten months before the first British Open, making it the oldest annual professional tournament in the world—and in the 1980s had been a Grand Slam event on the hardball singles tour. The first hardball tournament on the continent to use a portable glass court, the 1982 event, called the WPSA Championships, brought about a revolution. It was not at a club but in a ballroom at a hotel in Toronto. No one had ever done such a thing before.

In 1989 the season-ending WPSA Championships moved to a new site: the Winter Garden atrium. Built literally in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers, the atrium had just opened and was a spectacular site. The front wall faced the Hudson River; forty-foot palm trees studded the spacious room that could fit 900 spectators; there were marble floors and a glass-ceiling 120 feet above. Mark Talbott beat Ned Edwards in the 1989 final. In 1992 Nimick, by now running the tournament, shifted it from hardball to softball and bestowed a new name: the Tournament of Champions. “The idea was that the new title reflected that this was a hybrid event,” said Nimick. “I invited the top eight hardball players and the top eight softball players. It was a tournament of the champions of both versions of the game.”

It was wonderful to host a major event in a public space in New York—LaToya Jackson attended matches one year; Tom Seaver played John McEnroe in a celebrity exhibition another year (for the record, Seaver, coached by Edwards, won 12-15, 15-11, 15-12 over a Talbott-coached McEnroe). Later over­shadowed by the years at Grand Central, the ToC at the Winter Garden was pretty awesome. It lasted six years, much longer than most people remember.

But the Winter Garden was problematic. It was very down­town, far away from most of the places that squash-playing New Yorkers lived and worked (Nimick and his staff didn’t even stay down there for the first couple of years, holing up instead at the usual spot of squash visitors to New York, the Loews Hotel in Midtown). The Winter Garden wasn’t in their traffic pattern. The squash clubs in the district were struggling—Broad Street, Park Place and Downtown Athletic were the dominant ones—and some had closed. Sunlight coming through the glass atrium was a disaster for daytime play, and Nimick had to hire a theatrical company to drape black velvet curtains.

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In 2006, four-time champion Jonathon Power was swarmed by young autograph seeking fans after a win in the second round.

And the palm trees, the palm trees, the palm trees. Carving out sight lines for spectators was tricky, and only about 250 of the seats were not partially obstructed by one of the sixteen Washingtonia robusta trees. “Zerline, our box office manager, was a magician,” said Melissa Winstanley, who has served as the operations manager for the event since it was in Toronto in the early 1980s. “I remember the Winter Garden fondly,” Good­man said. “I felt like I knew everyone who attended the ToC back then—and that they were all mad at me for seating them behind a palm tree. The thing was it felt like there were only three seats on the entire back wall that weren’t behind a palm tree.”

As soon as Nimick saw the waiting room at Grand Central, he began working on moving the ToC there. He made a presenta­tion to Metro-North officials who ran the building. “That was the scariest one I’ve ever done,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘they are never going to let us do this and why would they?’” Somehow, despite the fact that Grand Central had never put on a major sporting event before, and it had just barely grasped the potential for the new waiting room space, it accepted the proposal.

Various hiccups led the event to be held in June, not April, of 1995. That caused a problem: it was extremely hot and humid on the first day of the event. Nimick and Winstanley scrambled and found a company that could put a truck on the circumferential viaduct and pump air-conditioning into the upper windows. It worked, to a certain extent. There were growing pains: suppliers who were disorganized. Ticketing was still done by hand. “I have no idea how I kept track of all those tickets,” Goodman said. “I had pages of hand-drawn bleachers, with names filled in each seat, one for each night of the tournament. Mailing out the tickets was the biggest challenge—once they are out of your hands, you can’t get them back. Many all-nighters.”

Back then it was informal in Grand Central. “I remember pushing back a plate on the floor to find all these wires, and I just found a plug and plugged in our equipment,” said Winstanley. They spent a lot of money dimming a couple of the five giant, one-ton chandeliers that grace the hall, trying to give the court some ambience. Security was sometime lax and things, especially patron gifts, sometimes went missing. A lot of homeless people still inhabited the waiting room. This was the opposite of the Winter Garden: at the finals one year, Winstanley went into the bathroom and changed her clothes. An hour later she realized that she had left all her jewelry on the counter in the bathroom. She raced back. It was all still there.

The worst issue might have been the rats. Grand Central didn’t have a well-oiled garbage collection system and it would pile up during the tournament. Which meant Grand Central’s rodents. “I was always the first person there, very early in the morning, everything quiet” said Winstanley, “and I would stand at the entrance and stamp me feet very loudly, and I’d hear all the rats scurrying away from the trash cans.”

What crystalized for Nimick that the move from the Winter Garden to Grand Central was the right one was not the event itself, but a magazine article that came out exactly four months later. In October 1995 Sports Illustrated ran a short article, “A Racket at Rush Hour” about the ToC. Written by former Harvard squash star Jordanna Fraiberg, the article stated the simple truth: “For squash in the U.S., it was a groundbreaking event.”

The only problem was Grand Central was about to undergo a massive, three-year renovation and suddenly there was a gap while Nimick waited for the Main Waiting Room to become Vanderbilt Hall. In October 1996 Nimick and Winstanley et al put the ToC on the indoor tennis court at the Heights Casino in Brooklyn. It was great to continue the event—it had been played annually, except for three years during the Second World War, since 1930—and since it was combined with the Carol Weymuller, it was the first time it was a co-ed event. But after the thrill of Grand Central, it was a bit of a let-down and a step back­ward in going to a private club (only a few of the sponsors fol­lowed). One highlight of the 1996 ToC was that Jonathon Power broke through: he saved match balls in the Monday evening finals to win his first major pro event. Nimick then shut down the tournament.

In January 1999, the ToC returned to Grand Central. Its title sponsor was from a very new thing: the Internet. An online day-trading website, DLJ Direct, had just been launched and they and their successors were the title sponsors for a half dozen years. Then when they went under, Bear Stearns came in at the last minute. The financial crisis of 2008 sunk Bear, and almost sunk the ToC, but JP Morgan, in buying Bear, picked up the sponsorship and has continued to this day.

Putting on a major event at a major train station is extremely tricky. Grand Central closed from 2am to 5am in the early years; before cell phones became ubiquitous, Winstanley had to stand outside on the street in the cold waiting for the truck carrying the glass court to arrive. It is famously cramped in Vanderbilt Hall. People in the stands make bets to see if in between games they can rush out, get beers and get back to their seats in time. The ToC could sell many more of those seats, but there isn’t room.

But the biggest problem has been the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. Grand Central, of course, was not physically affected; if the move north had ever seemed serendipitous, it was on 9-11, when the Winter Garden was severely damaged—all the glass windows shattered. But new procedures were put in place at Grand Central that has dramatically increased the complexity of putting on the ToC. Every detail is now written up, poured over, engineered and discussed. No longer can Winstanley call up a chair company and have some seats delivered or have some guy wielding a dolly full of programs appear courtside. The ToC now pays for fire guards, EMT and security personnel. Every detail is now drawn up.

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In 2009, England’s Laura Massaro (center) and Natalie Grainger spent an afternoon working with local urban squash players with an emphasis on the proper grip.

In one way the ToC is lucky. Post 9-11, it has more or less been grandfathered into Grand Central. There is absolutely no way Nimick could make his presentation like he did twenty years ago and get the ToC. Proof of that is in how there are no other train station or similarly accessible tournaments in America.

Still, New York is a series of small-scale neighborhoods, and the ToC is now a part of the Grand Central village. Every year the ToC staff eats a welcome meal together at Michael Jordan’s Steak House above the main concourse, and every year the waiter is the same, Tudor, a Serbian native. His kids, toddlers when the tradition started, are now adults. Seguin, a friendly guy who worked the graveyard shift in 1995, is now a senior manager. The ToC uses the cozy, wood-paneled Campbell Apartment, the corner office like no other, for after-match parties (look for Campbell’s steel safe ensconced in the fireplace).

And the ToC is a destination event. One person flies in every year from Mexico and buys one of every tournament tee-shirt for sale. The movie stars (Susan Sarandon), the art-world gods (Frank Stella) appear alongside the innocent bystanders who camp out to get a space near the front wall before the finals.

This year, the 2014 JP Morgan Tournament of Champions has a few new twists. Adding a day, it will start on a Friday and end on a Friday. The women’s event is now a major as well, with all the top players coming—Nicol David, for the first time in her storied career, will play in the ToC. “I thought it was essential that David gets to hit a ball in Grand Central,” Nimick said. Red Bull is running a special open house the night before the tournament begins; it includes Karim Darwish and an all-expense trip to see Flugtag in its birthplace of Vienna.

But most of all, the special ambience of Grand Central will again work its magic. See if you can see the slight indentations on the marble floor in Vanderbilt Hall—they come from where people planted their feet next to the wooden benches. And if the timing is right, you might feel the rumble of a train under­neath you. Below Vanderbilt Hall is where trains turn around. It is a subtle sign that you are at the most iconic annual squash tournament in the world.