by James Zug
I Wow Times Infinity
It was packed. At the 2016 Delaware Investments United States Open, there were no gimmicks, no free pizza for Drexel students, no bouncy castle radar zones. It was the sporting spectacle itself. Fans came in droves.
The early rounds used to be a bit sparse, a ghostly quiet settling down in the Daskalakis Athletic Center in between matches. Not anymore. A buzz each evening, cheering, autograph lines, excitement. SquashSmarts’ night on Monday anchored the early days. The quarters were packed; club level jammed. The semis were sold out.
A half hour before the finals, a queue snaked outside the doors and halfway to 34th Street. A line to get into a squash match. More than 1,200 people watched the finals, filling every seat, every standing-room-only spot in general admission, every inch in the president’s suite upstairs. People were turned away. It was the largest crowd in U.S. pro squash history, larger than the thousand-plus at the 1985 North American Open finals at Town Hall in New York City.
“That’s wow times infinity,” as Joey Barrington likes to say about a particular magnificent shot.
On the second Friday of the Open, ESPN’s Top 10 Plays included squash. Sandwiched in between number seven—a Dwayne Wade spin-hop-and-roll lay-up—and number five—a Jack Sock backwards, between-the-legs lob—came squash. Raneem El Welily and her casually dazzling, behind-the-back volley nick in the semis was number six.
“What a play for El,” the announcer said, giving the Egyptian a new nickname. “Some trickeration there with the racquet,” said the other.
A Frenchwoman captured the U.S. Open for the first time in its storied history. Camille Serme steamrolled to victory, crunching the top two seeds and a hometown favorite en route.
It was a shock. She was seeded six and had endured a patchy start to her season. She had lost in the quarters of Hong Kong (11-2 in the fourth and final game to Nicol David), breezed through to a win in the lightly-attended European Championships (spending just a total of 112 minutes on court) and then crashed out at the Great Pyramids when she tumbled in the opening round of Al-Ahram in four to Sarah-Jane Perry.
After Cairo, she came home and spent an hour and a half talking with Philippe Signoret, her longtime coach. Should they break up, after nearly twenty years together? They decided no. “But we decided that I have to train like a champion,” Serme said. “I had to make goals for each practice and stick to them. I needed to work harder and more consistently.”
In the final, Serme overcame Nour El Sherbini, who most observers expected to cruise to the title and break the unexplainable twenty-three year jinx for Egyptian women at the Open.
At 1-1, the match turned on a couple of key moments. Down 10-9 in the third, Serme saved a game ball with a lightning-in-a-bottle backhand volley when El Sherbini’s cross-court came too far in the middle.
10-all. El Sherbini made a ghastly error. Serme coughed up a high, soft-floating ball that El Sherbini leapt slightly for and slapped into the tin.
11-10. Serme, on the left side, rifled a serve right at El Sherbini, who hopped out of the way. It nicked on the back wall for an unusual squash ace.
She went on to clinch the title in the fourth game. “I think some people thought that my British Open win [in 2015] was a fluke, that I was lucky,” Serme said after her victory. “This win says no, I deserve it.”
Squash is synonymous with sportsmanship. Not because squash players are inherently nicer as a portion of the population than other athletes, but because of the nature of the game. Unlike most other racquet sports, in squash you play side-by-side, you have to divvy up the same space, you have to give way, you have to share.
So unlike other professional sports, squash still retains a sense of fair play at the highest level. At the Open you saw players stretching together after their match, chatting together the next day. And you saw them call balls down.
In the men’s final, with a fierce, fierce rivalry’s last chapter perhaps being written, both Nick Matthew and Mohamed Elshorbagy called balls down. Up 1-0 and 10-9 in the second, Matthew called a get of his down. The referee didn’t call it down—Matthew could have played on. But he didn’t. A couple of points later, Elshorbagy, up 11-10 with a game ball in his hand, did the same thing: called a get of his down.
The most stunning example of sportsmanship at the Open came in the first round. Wan Adnan was up 2-0, 10-8 against Miguel Rodriguez.
The Malaysian, having battled through qualifying (including coming back from a 2-0 deficit to Charles Sharpe in the first round of the qualifiers) was facing one of biggest moment of his career. Since turning pro in 2004, Adnan had only twice reached the second round of a World Series event. Here was the chance to book his place in another second round and take his first top-ten scalp.
It took thirteen minutes for Adnan to finish the match. He blew his first match ball. At 10-9, the match stalled. Adnan got a stroke call reversed to a let; then another let, with another video review by Rodriguez (denied); another let (after a Rodriguez dive); another let; and another let, with a video review by Adnan(denied). Then Adnan arrowed a forehand straight drop for a winner.
Rodriguez didn’t reach it but even after the referee declared the match over, the Colombian didn’t concede the match, arguing for a let for interference. Rodriguez spoke with Adnan who agreed to replay the point. Astonishing.
Luckily, Adnan quickly finished off the next rally and claimed the match a second time. His coach, Paul Selby, told him afterwards that it was the right thing to do, even though it hadn’t really been a let. Why? Because Rodriguez has a reputation of being a good sport, a fair player.
Alas, Adnan was on the losing end of the stick in the next round, going down 11-9 in the fifth to Steven Coppinger.
Every year things change. This year, US Squash’s Graham Bassett added live streaming to the qualifying matches held at Drexel. More importantly, during the first two days, when matches were going on simultaneously on the ASB Glass Court and downstairs on the Kline & Specter courts, they put the downstairs matches on the upstairs’ Jumbotron during breaks in the action. It was a nice symbolic gesture, showing that the Open is one tournament, even if there are two locations for those initial two days.
Moreover, Drexel extensively renovated the arena. They put AC in the DAC. A permanent air-conditioner made the air less humid and also saved the annual cost to temporarily pipe it in for the Open. There was also a clean, well-lighted entrance hall opening out the north side of the arena onto the parklands (beach volleyball, benches, grass) on that side of Drexel’s campus. Steps to walk up to get into the arena in the old days: forty-five; today: zero.
But the biggest help were the new bathrooms. Having large bathrooms on the same floor was a huge improvement for the audience, who didn’t want to miss all the excitement on court.
VI Catching the Gleam
Since the U.S. Open returned to Philadelphia in 2011 and regained its status, for both men and women, as a World Series event, no American had ever gotten out of the second round.
Until this year. Amanda Sobhy, vinyl banners of her hitting a backhand waving in the autumn breeze across the city, was the talk of Philadelphia. For the first time in a decade an American champion of our national championship was a realistic possibility. The twenty-three year-old New Yorker hammered home three straight exciting wins, including beating the phenom of the moment, Nouran Gohar, in the quarters, before going down to the eventual champion in the semis.
VII The Wolf Walks Away
Up 7-5 in the first game of the final, Nick Matthew pulled his abductor (you could see him clutch at it during the point). He gamely fought through to clinch the first two games in overtime, but then the pain became too much and he retired at 3-0 in the fifth.
In most scenarios, this was the last time Matthew will play at the Open. He’s pointing towards the 2017 World Championships in Manchester and the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia as two final pinnacle events, both of which come after next year’s Open, but neither event might hove into view for him. The Englishman has lately been plagued with injuries: retiring mid-match from El Gouna in 2015 and limping out of the 2016 British Open because of his right ankle and retiring mid-match at the 2016 Windy City because of a pulled glute. Now this at the U.S. Open. And he’s got a chronic problem with bone-on-bone pain in his foot.
The three-time world champion is in his nineteenth season on the pro tour. He is not going to pull a Lleyton Hewitt (who played on for seven years after last reaching the quarters of a tennis Grand Slam). If he’s not able to realistically make finals, he’ll stop. And it looks like his body is telling him to stop.
VIII Ancient Ones
Age was certainly a through-line of the Open fortnight.
American teenagers populated the qualifiers, including the precocious thirteen-year-old Marina Stefanoni, as well as eighteen-year-old Andrew Douglas and nineteen-year-olds Kayley Leonard and Reeham Sedky. Sabrina Sobhy, still nineteen, was the women’s wild card in the main draw.
But hoary thirty-something veterans predominated. The winners of the pre-qualifiers (what makes the Open actually open) were Gina Stoker, thirty-one years-old and Dane Sharp, aged thirty. Nicol David, Laura Massaro and James Willstrop, all age thirty-three, made the quarters, as did thirty-two year-old Alison Waters. Matthew, age thirty-six, topped two fancied up-and-comers in Ali Farag and Karim Abdel Gawad to reach the final.
Forty-somethings were a bit rarer at the Open. Forty-three year-old John White didn’t win a match in the qualifiers like he did last year when he chased Adrian Grant into retirement, but he did nip a game against Campbell Grayson. At some point the Drexel coach will probably stop entering the qualifiers of the tournament on his home courts, if only so he can walk the next day.
Rachael Grinham turns forty in January. She went out in the first round this year but promised that she’d be back next year for another chance at taking her second U.S. Open title.
Very rarely will you see someone struggle as much as Mohamed Elshorbagy did in the opening round and then go on to annex the tournament.
In a scintillating, seventy-seven minute encounter with Cesar Salazar, Elshorbagy was always on the back foot: down 2-1 and then in the fifth down 6-1, 8-5, 9-7. He survived two match balls, a lot of contentious points, conduct warnings, shaky lets, two unbelievably badly timed errors from Salazar and a whole lot of frantic points. At times, as David Feherty would say, Elshorbagy’s swing was like an octopus falling out of a tree, his movement like someone wrestling snakes in a phone booth.
But he won.
“I’m not a robot,” Elshorbagy said after surviving Salazar. “I am hungry to play but my body hasn’t been letting me play the way I need to. Since I was young, I was always loved being a squash warrior on court. I’ve never liked losing. Being the best is not about playing the best every time you go on court. It is about hating to lose more than anyone else on tour. I absolutely hate losing, I absolutely hate losing every point. Today I had to fight and fight and fight. That is what I’ve been doing since I was a kid and I’ll keeping doing until the last point of my life.”
The match was a wake-up call. He got his body squared away and gave up just one more game until the final. He never looked uncomfortable again. With his ravenous eyes and voracious style, Elshorbagy was again the U.S. Open champion.
The Open is about community. From the opening luncheon at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia on the first Thursday to the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame luncheon on the second Friday, the Open provided a space for old-style, eye-to-eye socializing. People were unplugged and present. Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center, in this era of isolating, disconnecting electronic devices, could have stood for Dynamic Actual Conversations.
Some of those conversations happened on court. No other squash tournament in the world has as many on-court presentations. Not a day went by without awards and acknowledgments. It was a manifestation of a main purpose of the event: the Open is an opportunity to get together, to remember the past, to discuss the future, to talk as well as watch.
Savor Each Point
By Vikramaditya Joshi
This fall Bard’s men’s squash practices were never complete without a meticulous analysis of matches on the PSA pro tour. Animated discussions centered on the artistry of Ramy Ashour, the clinical precision of James Willstrop, the ruthlessness of Nick Matthew and the symphonic rallies constructed by the Maestro, Amr Shabana. Paraphrasing the words of Joey Barrington, we always wondered: “How do they do it?”
There was a moment of staggering silence, during one of these discussions, when our coach, Craig Thorpe-Clark, announced that we would be travelling to Philadelphia to watch the 2016 Delaware Investments U.S Open. Every day thereafter there was a round of cheers and applause when we spoke of seeing legends of the modern game.
Our three days at the U.S Open were filled with an extraordinary, constant euphoria. We watched twenty-three hours of play out of a possible twenty-four hours. The hospitality with which US Squash treated us was unparalleled. During the first two rounds, we ended up sitting in every section around the ASB GlassCourt. We also got the chance to venture out onto the court after the players completed their matches.
Most of all we spent time talking to with players, coaches and referees. As the only left-handed player on my team, I loved getting feedback from Shabana about strategy. Camille Serme told us about new fitness and technical drills. We exchanged a Bard Squash shirt with Gregory Gaultier. We had lunch with referee John Massarella where we picked his brain about a variety of hypothetical scenarios. We took notes surreptitiously after bombarding coach David Pearson with questions about volley nicks and the lob. And Gilly Lane, the emcee of the Open, explained the processes and logistics behind the scene.
For the squash itself, I have no words to do justice to what we saw. As we walked out of the venue to return to Bard, we remembered Gaultier’s parting words: “Take each point as it comes, and more importantly, savor each one.” At the U.S Open, we did.