Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ever Onward!

The game of court tennis—also called real tennis, royal tennis, and jeu de paume, depending upon who’s doing the talking—is frozen in time, which for me is a pity since it at least partially explains its rarity.

Court tennis is the mother racket game from which all others have sprung. Historians say that an open-air version of the game was played in the early 12th century, and most likely much earlier. According to United States Court Tennis (see, “a bishop about 1200 was reprimanded for neglecting evensong to play tennis,” a testament to the sinfully addictive nature of the game. Private courts began to be developed, the earliest being at Poitiers in 1230.

The game was originally played by an open hand batting the ball, hence the French name for the sport, ‘jeu de paume’, for ‘game of the palm.’ The innovation of rackets occurred much later, in the early 16th century.

And, pretty much, there things have remained....

The racket that is used is an absurdly heavy hunk of lumber that should probably be endorsed by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, since it has surely left many of the sport’s proponents reeling from tennis elbow or tears of the rotator cuff. The ball that is used looks outwardly like a standard tennis ball but is actually comprised of a cork center on which is hand-sewn a felt cover. Because it is handmade the bounce of a court tennis ball can vary markedly. And the scoring system is famously convoluted, so that it is said that if you truly know how to score you must be one of the top players of the sport.

Court tennis is what happens to a sport that is so obsessed with its history that it gradually relinquishes its right to be considered anything other than a curiosity. Sad, because it happens to be a fun game. The court itself looks a lot like a standard tennis court, but the room in which it is played is festooned with abutments and windows called the dedans, tambour and penthouse, all of which add an extra dimensionality to play. (For a look at a court, see Court Tennis .) The problem is that court tennis has refused to evolve, so that while tennis and squash rackets have grown lighter while increasing in power, their court tennis cousins are still as heavy as ever, scaring away potential players; the balls are still quirky and expensive to obtain; and the arcane scoring system continues to be largely unfathomable and a hindrance.) And the courts themselves are hugely expensive, well into 6-figure investments.

Squash, too, has its history-centric proponents. Here’s one example: I recently overheard a leader in the NY-area squash community say, “I would never lift the restriction to whites-only clothes on court because I respect the traditions of the game too much.” That unfortunately is what the court tennis leaders have said now for a thousand years or so, and look where that attitude got them. The original restriction to white clothing was actually a practical matter: back in the day, colors were likely to run in the wash, so to get around the problem, all clothes were white. Voila, problem solved. But that restriction makes scant sense nowadays, since athletic clothing is color-fast.

All this seems like a minor thing, so why not just keep with tradition? But in an age when the fortunes of the sport of squash are partially weighed against its perceived televisual appeal, it is not a minor thing at all, and proponents of squash shouldn’t avoid experimenting and approving change when change makes sense.

We’ve all read articles about the clothing worn by female tennis players, some of which are designed to be downright sexy as well as athletic. Serena Williams has created a sensation with her skintight tennis outfits, including a catsuit that she wore playing at the U.S. Open as a 17-year-old. She has even taken her passion for design to the next level by developing her own line of clothing called Aneres, her first name spelled backward. And Maria Sharapova often looks like she is dressed for a night on the town rather than a few hours of top-flight tennis.

Stories covering the latest court fashions have received quite a bit of press. Or is press coverage just another change history-centric squash players would like to avoid?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tiger May Be Putting, But Money’s His Driver

The Olympic Committee’s frustrating decision to overlook squash yet again is many things, the most important of which is further confirmation of its focus not on the universality and worthiness of a sport but rather the money the sport might bring into the Olympic fold.

I had high hopes that this time squash would succeed, and I was under the impression that the organized efforts put forth by the squash community were pretty good. But I had a very bad feeling when, during the U.S. PGA championship, just a few days before the Olympic Committee’s decision was due to be handed down, Tiger Woods answered a reporter’s question about Olympic golf. He said that he would love to play in the Olympics, and it would be very important to other top golfers as well. With those words, I feel the sport of squash was effectively sunk. (I also felt it strange that this pronouncement was coming out just hours before the momentous vote, and wondered, was the timing of this planned beforehand, or was this mere happenstance? I suspect, but certainly can’t prove, that the reporter’s question and Tiger’s answer were scripted; the timing was too perfect.)

Tiger Woods, while certainly a huge star and perhaps the greatest golfer ever, doesn’t need a trip to the Olympics, nor does the game of golf. The winner’s check for the U.S. PGA championship, for example, totaled $1.35 million. Golf World estimated that Tiger makes $288,000 a day from endorsements alone, exclusive of winnings. The winners’ checks in golf are so exorbitant, indeed so grotesquely padded, that the stage that the Olympics provides pales by comparison. It also mocks the foundational idea, now thoroughly abandoned, that the Olympics is not about money and professionalism but glory and the brotherhood of sport.

So Tiger utters a few portentous sentences in his colorless, affectless fashion and that’s that. I can’t help but be irritated when I think how he might use some of his obvious clout to help do good in our world. If he were to take a public stand on important political issues, for example, would his words make a difference? I bet they would. But I don’t hear him talking.

Does Tiger Woods need yet another world stage to stand on? No, he does not. What he needs is another accountant…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Racket / Racquet Dichotomy

It used to be we played a sport called 'squash racquets'. Nowadays, you are much more likely to say you play a sport called 'squash,' with the 'racquets' dropped -- as is the case even with the governing body of our sport, which has morphed from the US Squash Racquets Association to US Squash. That's good; it's a modernization that reflects current usage.

But I notice one thing that bugs me, probably because I am an editor and I get paid to be bugged by such things. I still see the word 'racquets' used, although nowadays 'rackets' is much more frequent. Even within the same publication you can still find reference to the game of 'squash racquets' while noting that so-and-so plays with a certain type of 'racket.'

The English language is like a river, ever moving onward. Clearly the old 'racquets' is losing out to 'rackets,' so let's put it out of its misery and drop it completely, right now.


I adamantly believe that sports should be prepared to adapt with changing times and embrace the occasional newfangled idea in order to keep the game fresh. I'll have more to say about this later, particularly on how it relates to the slow ossification of some sports that need not wither away on the vine.

But that's later. For now I simply offer up two new rules, both of which are brilliant and both of which would add a certain je ne c'est quoi to the game:

1. In the event that a player swings and completely misses the ball, a sin that we have all committed at least a few times in our careers, then the opponent is immediately granted two points.

2. If a player, while preparing to serve, drops the ball or bounces it and the ball gets away from him, perhaps by hitting his foot, then a "balk" is declared, and the opponent is granted a point and gets to serve.

Most sports have a few rules that are occasionally toted out to liven things up, and these two rules would add another dimension to the game. Plus it would be fun to occasionally yell, "Balk!" on the squash court.

Adopt these rules now! Thank you!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Synchronized Diving

I sent the following poem to the 'Squash 2016' website several months ago. The poem was inspired by the mystifying site of synchronized diving competitions during the last Olympics. The presence of these laughable 'disciplines', which are in effect grandfathered in under the umbrella of a generalized sport, coupled with the exclusion of perfectly appropriate sports like squash, have together served to erode the image of the Olympics. But here's the poem, written with 11 syllables per line:

‘The Olympics? Humph!’

'Synchronized Diving' is on the tube tonight,

But something about it doesn’t seem so right.

The Olympics are great, no argument there,

All nations together! Believe me, I care.

And yet to me it seems grotesquely unfair,

That the great sport of squash is simply not there!

There’s expert commentary on Synchro’s style,

Beach Volleyball’s tactics, bikinis, and guile.

They’ve got BMX Cycling! Hello, say what?

Must I watch this guy drive around like a nut?

The Speed Walkers will come out shortly, I’m sure…

Another strange sport that I’m forced to endure!

It’s not that these sports are inherently bad

(Although I know they’d be appalled by my dad),

But international? No, sorry, no way,

Not this day, nor that day, nor some other day.

The spotlight’s on some sports that are just too rare.

This quadrennial slight is so hard to bear!

Succinctly put: Guess what, the Games just ain’t fair!

And it bugs me to think that some folks don't care!

In the spirit of things I might wish them well.

But not this time: “Hey divers! Dive straight to hell!


It might surprise some who know me that I would ever undertake writing a blog about anything, as being both opinionated and chatty would seem to be prerequisites for the job. My wife sometimes complains about the paucity of utterances that issue forth from my mouth. I may grab the latest murder mystery I’m reading on a Saturday morning and sit there, reading and occasionally staring off into space, then reading again, pages slowly turning, chapters coming and going, death and dismemberment occurring to a cascade of nice sweet people with all the drama the human species can summon forth. Then, as the mystery is solved and the day fades, I speak the single sentence allotted to me for that day:


Well, I’m not that bad, but still…. My mother was born in Malmö, Sweden, and as anyone who has ever watched an Ingmar Bergman movie knows, Swedes can silently contemplate the pendulum swings of fate better than just about anyone.

But I do talk, and I am opinionated about some things, squash being one of them. Am I a great player whose opinions demand to be heard? No, I am not. I’ve made my share of great shots and had my share of unexpected victories, but I’ve folded miserably against players I should have beaten, suffered brain seizures when a little thought would have gone a long way, and endured excessive ribbing from joyful opponents celebrating my defeat. And I call those guys my friends!

I’ve been in A tournaments but never past the second round. I’ve won one B tournament (many years ago, alas) and been a finalist in a few, but more often I’ve succumbed in the semis, quarters, or earlier (as in the last few years, alas). I’ve been at this sport for 3 decades now, and like a lot of players I know I suffer from the delusion that I can still get better, if only …. [Feel free to fill in the blank.]

But I do have one qualification for this job. I happen to believe that squash is the greatest individual sport known to man. Truly. I can’t think of another sport where physicality and mentality are in such demand, where both body and soul are placed in extremis to such a degree. It is a richly rewarding sport, and I have been and continue to be grateful for having found it.

I’m aware others don’t feel this way. My little Jacques Rogge doll, the one with all the pins in it, reminds me that the unenlightened masses still hold sway over the fortunes of this sport. But the arc of history is a long one, I remind my Rogge doll, at which I forcefully jab another pin in his abdomen. Arrrgh!, my little Belgian nemesis cries, as I laugh maniacally. For a transcendent moment I feel I’ve entered into one of my Saturday mysteries, but no, no, that’s not the case, sorry….

Let it be known that this blog constitutes my own opinions, so get back to me with yours when the spirit moves you. But remember to address it to me,

The Squashist…..