by James Zug
A couple of indelible images from the 2016 Windy City Open remain in the squash frontal lobe. The “I don’t believe it, that is a joke, an absolute joke,” sequence at 7-5 in the fourth game of Mathieu Castagnet & Daryl Selby’ s second-round match. If you are a reader of this magazine and yet not among the quarter of a million people who have watched the SquashTV replay on YouTube, it unfolded like this: Selby slapped a trickle boast, Castagnet dove for it in the front left corner and sent up the softest of balls which Selby casually pushed down the right wall, just being nice, not wanting to rub it in. Selby then did a 360 as he watched Castagnet scramble to his feet and gallop back. Castagnet not only reached the ball, but was able to power a rail straight past a disbelieving Selby.
The modern way: the next morning, after the clip went viral on social media, Windy City tournament director John Flanigan’s fifteen-year-old son got a text from a classmate: “Check out ESPN.” He turned on the television. On SportsCenter, the #1 play of the day was the clip. The son texted the father. Always the last to know.
Another image: Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The track-and-field star, six-time Olympic medalist and icon of the icons came to the Windy City for a full day. She was the keynote speaker at the first-annual women’s leadership luncheon at the University Club of Chicago, giving a moving talk and helping honor another Jackie, Jackie Moss, a founder of MetroSquash, Chicago’s urban squash program. Joyner-Kersee then watched four hours of the Windy City, followed by a visiting a practice at MetroSquash. “The crowd loved seeing and listening to her,” said Flanigan. “She was gracious, kind and inspiring.”
Joyner-Kersee was the perfect emblem of the Windy City’s leadership about gender equity. The second World Series squash tournament to offer prize-money parity, the Windy City has been at the forefront of treating women and men the same. Certainly much of the excitement during the tournament came from the distaff draw. Americans did well: Olivia Blatchford put up a hard fight against Omneya Abdel Kawy in the opening round and Amanda Sobhy, as she has for every tournament since finishing college, fulfilled her seeding (or better) by reaching the quarters and then going down in a brilliant 11-9 in the fifth match with Camille Serme.
The right side of the draw saw further jockeying at the top. Nour El Sherbini toppled Nicol David and Laura Massaro, both in three, but in the final Raneem El Welily was in magnificent form and after dropping an opening game, proved too quick, too aggressive and too creative for El Sherbini. It was El Welily’s first tournament win after becoming world No. 1 back in September, ending a skein of five tournaments without a trophy.
For the men, American Dylan Cunningham nipped a game off Greg Lobban in the qualies and Chris Hanson, in his first appearance on SquashTV, worked Nick Matthew hard for thirty-five minutes in their three-game opening-round match. Matthew went on to go all the way to the finals before his ankle, which has been bothering him since El Gouna last April, impaired his movement too much and he retired just after the start of the third game against Mohamed Elshorbagy.
While just one women’s match—Sobhy v. Serme—went to five, nine of the men’s matches did, including a remarkable seven in the opening round (a World Series record). Marwan Elshorbagy was in one of the seven and after a second five-gamer he became the only unseeded player to make the quarters. Marwan’s new shirts said “Elshorbagy Jr” on them, not because he carried the same name as his father Hossam, but to differentiate himself from his older brother. Not a big worry, considering Marwan was ranked in the top ten in the world, but you could see the thinking: Mohamed is the undisputed best player in the world.
Will Mohamed Elshorbagy get close to matching the all-time record of Windy City champions, Mark Talbott, who took twelve titles? Doubtful, but Talbott never got to play in Cathedral Hall. Flanigan, the athletic director at the University Club, has run the Windy City ever since he came to the club in 1999. In 2004 he maneuvered a glass court up into the club’s ninth floor, where its historic Cathedral Hall serves as the club’s main dining room. It is a stunning room, with stained-glass windows and carved wooden emblems.
But the venue for a squash tournament? The Windy City in Cathedral Hall is a marvel of modern engineering. Back in 2004 Flanigan had to cut away four feet of an oak wall in the University Club’s lobby to get the old portable court’s twenty-foot beams around a corner. The tournament ran in Cathedral Hall for four years, lapsed back to a smaller tournament on regular courts and then in 2014, when Guggenheim Partners and EquiTrust Life Insurance came on board, it returned to Cathedral Hall.
Nowadays, the load-in starts at four on a Sunday morning. The glass panels of the McWil court nicely if barely fit in the club’s freight elevator. But to get the long beams that hold the court into the club, Flanigan collapses the revolving door out on Monroe Street and the McWil team manually carry the beams through the club’s main lobby and up to the second floor. There they place the beams on top (yes, on top) of the passenger elevator and slowly carry them up. The elevator stops at the eighth floor, the beams are hauled out at the ninth floor. It takes sixteen trips to get all the beams up to Cathedral Hall. “It’s a lot of logistics, a lot of creativity and engineers and extra laborers working hard all day,” said Flanigan.
The Windy City is now a major event on the pro circuit, one of the eight tournaments in the World Series. The players love the intimate feel of the venue (300 people fit into the stands) and being downtown—unless like last year it was ten below zero during most of the tournament. The connection to MetroSquash is also compelling—this year the Windy City donated $50,000 to MetroSquash, at least ten MetroSquashers were in the stands every day and a couple of them got to guest commentate on SqaushTV one afternoon. And the Windy City is fun. One night after the matches were over, everyone went down to the eighth floor and danced while Flanigan and a half dozen other club members jammed and sang in a band.