Two Squash Manuals
By James Zug
Tony Griffin is a stalwart. He grew up in New Zealand and started playing squash in the early 1970s. At the time, there was just one full-time coach in the country and, as he writes in The G Spot, “you improved your squash by collecting new ideas from wherever you could and experimented with them.” It was hit and miss, literally. He biked miles to a local squash club. On weekends he hitched to get a game with a former top player. At nineteen he organized a tour of Europe entirely by snail mail (Ray Lindsay of the Cleveland Skating Club and Tony Brettkelly, the former Team USA member, were also on the tour). He stayed on afterwards and landed jobs coaching at clubs in Brussels. For the past quarter century he’s been coaching in Barcelona.
This short, 117-page manual is perfect for the novice player itching to improve his or her game. All the advice and drills come in digestible portions illustrated nicely by pen-and-ink sketches and diagrams. Griffin’s actual G spot is the elusive point where you hit the ball perfectly, more or less when the ball is perpendicular to your shoulder and in line with your racquet arm.
Griffin discourses on the strategic differences between dying length and full length; when to volley a return of serve (always hit the ball at the first opportunity—you never will know if it was the best chance); and the correct angle for the three-wall boast (imagine that the side wall is glass and that you can see an imaginary court next door: aim to hit the opposite front corner of your imaginary court).
There are insightful bits sprinkled throughout the book: He quotes Ross Norman’s maxim that his goal on court was to constantly limit his opponent’s shot options. Ignore the title—it isn’t that kind of book—and jump in.
You might mistakenly be tempted to disregard this book.
Lyons & Burford published Smart Squash: How to Win at Soft Ball in 1995 and that edition was in turn a revision of Francis’ original book, Smart Squash: Using Your Head to Win (J.B. Lippincott, 1977). And despite the “revised and expanded” stamp on the cover, the 2014 edition is almost identical to the 1995 one. The photos are the same (nice mullets, Brett and Gary); and the publisher is sort of the same—Tony Lyons started Skyhorse in 2006.
A lot has changed since 1995, let alone from 1977. It’s as if the last twenty years haven’t happened. Francis refers to the organization as the USSRA—cover blurb from Demer Holleran “USSRA National Women’s Champion.” (He calls the games either “soft ball” and “hardball,” whereas by consensus the common use is “softball.”) Francis gives us present tense quotations from people who are either retired now or even, alas, no longer with us. Much of the book is focused on teaching hardballers how to switch to softball, an admirable effort in 1995 but not so crucial in 2015. Indeed, one of the eleven chapters is about playing softball on a narrow court—now, thankfully, a thing of the past.
That being said, the return of Smart Squash gives us a smashing opportunity to once again delve into one of the most delightful and astute squash manuals in history. Francis, a former leader and player at the Princeton Club of New York, has a great touch with words. He offers good advice: “If you are out of position, you can have the best forehand in town and it won’t do you any good.” He paraphrases I Corinthians 13: “Though I have fitness, technique, strategy, these three, but have not patience, I am nothing.”
And he quotes from some of the great squash minds of that day and this. “Man does not live by depth alone,” says Bob Callahan and no truer words have been spoken. He retells the late Cal MacCracken’s story about the late Jack Summers’ legendary deception. He reveals what Jahangir Khan used to do to avoid hangers-on before matches: he’d disappear into the bathroom and sit on a toilet for ten minutes. And he quotes his first squash coach (Eddie Stapleton?) who taught him to hold the racquet un petit oiseau—a little bird—meaning firmly enough so the racquet doesn’t fly away but lightly enough so you don’t crush it.
There are some gems from the original 1977 book that didn’t make it into the 1995 one or this one—Victor Niederhoffer’s combative introduction, Peter Briggs’ notion that you don’t pick a game plan until after the first game and Francis’ hilarious stand-in for poor sportsmanship, Reggie Dumpshot.
But one section has appeared in all three editions: “Sex Before Squash?” In it Francis interviews one former world-class player who has bravely run tests on himself. His conclusion: forty-eight hours of abstinence before a match. And perhaps that advice, like so much else in Francis’ book, might stand the test of time.