Sunday, November 29, 2009

You Should Have Been a Physical Therapist

This blog has been relatively quiet of late, and the reason is that yours truly has been distracted by a handful of pokings and proddings by our nation's medical personnel. After having regrouped from a disconcerting rotator cuff tear over the summer, for which I visited a physical therapist, this latest series of mishaps has been disheartening.

Most importantly, I have had an occasionally severe pain in my left ankle. From the start, I thought I knew what caused it. About a decade ago I was playing a fair amount of doubles squash, and had become pretty good at it (if I say so myself....). In one fairly intense match, I, a right-waller, found it necessary to run at full gallop up to the front left wall to snare a nice drop. I got it, but on pushing off with my left ankle felt an unmistakable twinge. Later I went to an orthopedist who, upon fondling my foot for awhile, declared that I probably had a subchondral defect, a gouging out of cartilage, but that in the short term it would be okay. The long-term story was not so good, however: the bit of floating cartilage would gradually accrete material and become larger, rendering surgery likely, oh, in about a decade or so.

Well, right on cue my ankle had started bugging me to the point where it was obvious I had to deal with the problem. The podiatrist who saw me found additionally that the synovial fluid in the talar ankle joint was also seeping into the porous bone, causing additional pain. So it's under the knife I go, hopefully before Christmas. Then a week on crutches, a week in a soft cast, and then physical therapy. I'm hoping to get back on the court late in January.

But that wasn't all. Because my gait was alterred from the bad ankle, I have also developed chondromalacia patellae in my right knee, which is caused by a defect in the tracking of the patella as it glides atop the knee. Although I have no arthritis in either knee, thankfully, there is a chance that the ailment has been aggravated by arthritis under the kneecap. This problem also resolves with physical therapy, and should also be corrected by the time my left ankle is back in fighting trim.

I hope! In the meantime, my squash game will be more a theoretical construct than a diversion based on reality. The big winner is my PT; he loves this!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

US Amateur Squash: A Status Check

Not long ago I received an email from a respected member of the squash community, a man who has played the game for over 30 years, no doubt a hardball expert who probably plays a mean game of hardball doubles. He made several observations about the game in the US today and asked me to address some of them in a blog.

Briefly put, here are his observations:

1. The junior game is exploding in popularity. Some of these kids will play the game in college, with a few playing for the top squash college teams, although many of these spots will be taken over by gifted foreign players.

2. Upon graduation, however, the players drop off significantly in participation. Women players after college become rare birds indeed. He posits that the college teams may be so athletically demanding that the players are frustrated upon graduation as they see their performance on court necessarily drop.

3. Men's amateur weekend tournaments, usually plentiful on both coasts, have similarly plummeted. The social nature of these meetings, a glue that kept the squash community strong, has therefore suffered.

4. League play in historically strong squash centers like New York City has also plummeted.

He adds an observation: the Racquet and Tennis Club in New York recently held their Silver Racquets tournament, with 32 teams battling in a hotly contested doubles tournament, which occurred alongside big draws in the club's court tennis and racquets competitions. Yet he says that there was no singles squash draw at all.

So, here are my comments, which are delivered in two ways. First, personal observations, and second, data culled from the US Squash association.

Personally, I'm a bad person to ask these questions, so I apologize from the start. I rarely attended tournaments and league matches simply because my work and, later, family life rendered such luxuries onerous. So I don't have a very good base with which to compare these things.

I can make a few comments, though. I have noted before, in an earlier blog, that I have observed that there seem to be more women playing the game post-college than before. (Women in Squash). At the club where I play, seeing a women on the court used to be as rare as seeing an eagle come swooping by my window. Now, on any given evening, women are playing at the club, and some of them are damned good! (I also might add that eagles are making a comeback as well.) In addition, my club has always had a healthy roster of players, numbering about 500 active players 10 years ago. I recently read that my club's roster now lists 600 players, a significant advance. Because of the large number of in-house players, my club has never been too active in league play since you can always get so many players at your level right there under the same roof.

But to adequately address these comments, which on the whole refer to the numbers of both players and tournaments, one has to consult the game's association. US Squash (USS) notes the following:

1. Women squash players made up 14% of the USS membership just 4 years ago, a percentage that now stands at a healthy 25%. Not enough, perhaps, but a trend in a very positive direction.

2. Membership in USS itself is up 50% in that time. While membership in USS overall is small compared to the overall squash playing public, a phenomenon against which I have also ranted in the past (USS Membership), this too is an excellent trend.

3. In re the transition from college to citizen squash, USS is extending memberships to graduates for 3 years in order to maintain contact with these young adults. In addition, USS partners with the College Squash Association in supporting their league.

4. As for leagues, the numbers don't lie. There are now more active leagues in the US than at any other time, ever. New York City has about 70 teams, up fully 25% from last year. My club with its mob of racket-wielding enthusiasts has even begun fielding one league team -- a women's team.

5. There are more USS-sanctioned tournaments than ever before. I am not sure if there are more sanctioned and unsanctioned tourneys now, but the trend is to get these tournaments sanctioned, which is good for ratings.

6. A very important element in increasing competition has just been introduced by the USS. PLAY SQUASH is a free program that offers online software tools to organize ladders, box leagues, club rankings, and club championships, allowing results to be used for official rankings. Member clubs can even obtain free sanctioning of their club championships, which will make club rankings much more accurate. Players can use these accurate rankings to set up matches anywhere in the company, through a USS 'Find a Match' feature. What's more, the USS office tells me that the PLAY SQUASH program will be expanded to cover hardball doubles in 2010. This is analogous to golfing's handicap system, and if it catches on -- which I very much hope it does -- it will revolutionize how we play squash in this country.

I have no idea why the Racquet & Tennis club did not set up a singles tournament, by the way, but it may involve indifference by the pro, the demographics of the club in question, or a scheduling problem. Out of curiosity I'd like to hear from someone about that.

So, given these facts, it could be that the perception has not kept pace with the reality of the game as it exists today. I think the writer who brought up these points may look back on the social interaction of the old amateur tours with affection, but today there is not just one such 'tour.' (It should be noted that the very popular INSILCO B/C/D tour, dating back to the 1980s, was actually a softball tour.) Maybe the greater opportunities to play in tournaments that one has today have served to diminish the social interaction that came with the game. If so, that's a problem that I herewith punt to tournament organizers who might consider more or varied social events during the tournaments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Quiet Storm

Several years ago I had a regular weekly evening game with a guy I'll call, for the purposes of this blog, Carlos. Carlos is a great guy, and big, about 6 feet 2 inches, and quite stocky for a squash player. I'm nearly 2 inches taller than that, but a bit more wiry, so the two of us on one court could get mighty crowded mighty quickly.

We liked to play physically, trash talking was encouraged, bumping around the T was considered normal, and every other match or so someone would end up on the ground as the other guy would go flying across the diagonal to reach a shot and crash into the unsuspecting lout.

I'd normally beat Carlos, often just barely, but about 10% of the time he'd find some inner mental strength to play a very tactical game that would beat me and leave me wondering if this were the same Carlos I had been successfully playing.

One day, years ago, Carlos and I began our weekly match, and from the start there was something unusual about his focus. He liked to take shots early and hit hard, very much the type of player who played to the back walls nearly all of the time, but that day he was holding most of his shots, hitting unusual drop shots, and hitting them well. He took an early lead in the first game and won it, eventually, after a long battle.

The second game was more of the same, but I stepped up my own game to meet the challenge and became inexorably focused on his slightly weaker backhand. My legs got warmed up so that I was getting to his frequent drop shots, which were still hitting their mark, and I won the game.

The third game was such a long drawn-out torture session that it seemed like it went on forever, and it was in this game that Carlos, running to get a nicely played drop by me, ran straight into me and landed hard on the floor. I was rocked and my neck felt like it had whiplash. Carlos weighed a little more than 200 lbs, and I a little under, so the collision was significant.

Carlos just smiled, asked if I were OK, and on hearing yes, said 'let's go.' I could tell the focus was still there, as was his joy in the game that, while always under the surface, seemed to have effervesced and was seeping through his pores. The guy was loving every second of this, even when he lost the third game in overtime.

We were already nearly an hour into this match, and were both drenched with sweat. I changed my shirt before the 4th game started but Carlos seemed to love the fact that his shirt was completely drenched. You know you are in a good match when while steadying your hands to serve you see sweat dripping onto the court from your arms....

The fourth game was his, as my strength and focus seemed to fail me and he seemed unusually energized. There was a bit of manic zeal to the guy that defeated me from the start.

The fifth and deciding game was very psychological, as I decided to hold my shots a long time and place them in diametrically opposed positions to get him to run twice for the same ball. I'd position my body for a soft drop up front, hold, and pop it to the back, and he with his high energy would run up, stop short, then run back. He in turn had upped his shot-making, hitting a high percentage of low-percentage shots. I remember winning the final game in overtime, and thinking that god himself had blessed me with a special favor for which I would have to do years of penance.

Carlos shook my hand, smiled, and left the court. On the benches outside we were both breathing heavily for a few minutes, dripping sweat on the floor, and quiet, unwilling to speak.

Carlos put his head in a towel and rubbed it all around, then fully enshrouded himself in it, staying still for several minutes. I tried to catch my breath and stretched, albeit feebly.

"Nice match," Carlos whispered.

"I'll say, you played great."

"Thanks. It's great to...."

His voice trailed off, and a moment passed, and his attitude seemed to change. I sensed there was something more than squash on his mind.

He rubbed his enshrouded head with the towel. "You know," he said, "the fact is I'm beat right now."

"What do you mean by that?" I asked.

"My business is in a freaking tailspin, which has caused a lot of financial worries, and my wife is completely unhappy and lets me know it -- mostly because I'm always at work. Plus I have an odd blood test
result that my doctor told me needs to be explored."

I stared at him. His face was still sweaty, but he had removed the towel and, although looking down, I could tell that his eyes had filled with tears. He was despondent, his face grim.

I didn't know what to say at first. I sat there as Carlos' tears welled up, though he hid it by lowering his head and taking his towel and covering his face. I saw his upper body shake once or twice, realizing he was on the verge of sobbing.

I felt panicked. "Well," I ventured, "that's a lot to worry about." I told some quick, feeble story about how financial distress had hit my family and how we cut back to the bone and managed to get through it.

"Yeah," he said, "I'm doing that now. It should be okay. But I tell you, this match today was the best thing that has happened to me in months, it was great. My squash is the one thing in my life that is working for me right now. It's an escape. More than you know.... I can rely on it, on you, and on this game."

He pulled himself together, we talked a while longer, and off we went, agreeing to meet again at the usual time next week.

And next week came, and he told me that the medical concern had been proved unremarkable, and that the company he worked for had just hit on a big contract. And a few weeks later, he mentioned in passing that he and his wife were 'good,' and going off on a vacation together.

A quiet storm had passed, right there on the squash court. 

Yet another quiet storm....

Sunday, November 15, 2009

SquashZAG Up and Zagging

Hatched in the beautiful Canadian city of Vancouver, is now out of beta testing and attracting readers the world over. Indeed, according to SquashZAG's founder, Shawn Patton, the site already boasts viewers from 87 different countries, so the site is truly international.

The idea behind SquashZAG is to present an active website with news, opinions, blogs, a monthly squash magazine, and Facebook-like messaging capabilities all at one super-destination. The site aggregates content from other sources as well as presents its own, and in that spirit it has rebroadcast some of The Squashist's writings about 'la vie en squash.'

There are several very interesting things about the site. One is the variety of opinions you can find there on anything to do with squash, and another is the variety of sources of squash content on the SquashZAG site. As with most open democracies, opinions are sacred on the site; if you feel it then you are free to express it. Patton himself is known to be a bit of an activist when it comes to wanting to reform aspects of the game; injustices that he feels exist in the professional game are for him large pebbles in his squash sneakers that demand correction. But he has also told me that this is neither the point of the site nor will it be a major part of it.

Another praiseworthy aspect of the site is ZAGMAG, a monthly squash magazine that debuted just this month: see ZAGMAG. The magazine boasts editorial from squashinistas the world over as well as stellar graphics, which are the brainchild of Patton's partner in this venture, Erik Zaremba.

And SquashZAG also has the best compilation of videos on squash I've yet come across: check out SquashZAG Videos. You can spend quite a bit of time viewing these videos, reading the magazine and searching SquashZAG Articles for material that interests you.

In just a few months SquashZAG has become a welcome addition to the world of squash. Bookmark it, and zag on.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nicol David, Squash Goddess

I don't think anyone in the entire world dislikes Nicol David, Malaysian squash goddess, who is currently celebrating her 40th month perched atop the women's rankings. How could anyone not love this person??! 

In addition to being one of the all-time great players of the game, she is a relentlessly positive ambassador for squash and by all accounts a terrific person with a stellar personality. 

She proved yet again how great she is during the semifinals of the recent Carol Weymuller US Open in Brooklyn, NY. Jenny Duncalf, who has been on a tear lately and would eventually go on to win the tournament (she also recently won the Soho Squash tournament in Egypt), beat Nicol in 3 games (6, 4, 3), a shock to all in attendance -- no doubt including Duncalf herself.

But true to her natural disposition, Nicol was gracious in defeat. She didn't complain of an injury or a mental lapse or bad officiating, she just praised her opponent: "She didn't let up an inch, and I just had to try and do something, and she just kept on going and went right through!"

She's a champion, a beautiful champion, inside and out.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

To Market, To Market!

I wonder what it is the marketing guys at squash rackets companies are smoking nowadays and how on earth I might get some. Because they sure seem relaxed and unstressed.

Why do I ask? Well, have you ever noticed the perfectly dreadful names that these marketers give their rackets? I have an image of a bunch of guys sitting around a big conference table to decide the names of the newest line of rackets. Someone calls out a perfectly deplorable name, and an old gruff guy says, "Hell, that'll do," and boom, they're on to the next question. Namely, "What's for lunch?"

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

Dunlop has both the ICE Pro and the Hot Melt -- not sure what either name refers to but they seem diametrically opposed to one another -- can that be good?

Head has the Metallix and the Raptor, names that can at least conjure up images, but images which have nothing to do with squash.

Prince has the 03 Black (which, rather oddly, is used by John White).

Wilson, whose rackets I use, has something called the K Factor (the what?), the Sting (not bad..), and the Hyper Hammer, which is evocative of a murderous psycho.

Feather has the Super Hitter and the Heavy Hitter. That certainly explains things, I guess....

Harrow has come up with the Spitfire and the MOJO, the latter of which is not a bad name....

Black Knight has the Magnum Corona, which is a great name for a cigar, and the Bandit-2, which in the context of squash doesn't make sense.

So I thought I'd come up with a few good names for rackets, which I herewith submit and which any racket company is free to pilfer, be my guest:

How about:

* The Weltmaker
* T-King
* StrikeKing
* The Bother Stick
* The Prevailer
* The Major Dude
* The Tenderizer
* The BlisterMaker
* WarAxe
* The Vexer

You get the idea.... My favorite is The Weltmaker, but any of these would at least paint a picture and get the sales numbers up. Splash on some cool graphics and take it to the bank.

All the above being said, I now submit to you the obverse. Sometimes, strangely, marketing gets you nowhere, and sometimes deliberately poor marketing can get you noticed and become a marketing strategy of its own.

There is a takeout place on 45th and 9th avenue in New York City. They quietly opened up one day and the people have been flocking to it ever since. It offers a simple deal: you pay a real low price and you will get a nice piece of chicken with the restaurant's very own special flavoring. The name of the place is to the point:

The name isn't sexy, it's not French, it's not suggestive of anything other than what it delivers, and that's a piece of chicken. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why marketing is such a conundrum.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Urtak X-Tabs

Not too long ago I blogged about the surveying website called Urtak:

Urtak is a very clean, agile way of getting feedback on whatever topic you are interested in, which in this case, of course, is squash. Urtak is the brainchild of Robert Gibralter and his son, Aaron. I contacted the Gibralters, pere et fils, and was so taken with the concept of collaborative surveying that we set up a special Urtak domain, named 'The Squashist's Opinion Emporium.' You will note that the Urtak questions and the Emporium are always available along the right-hand side of this page. Anybody can ask any question they want, so long as it is about squash, so ask away. The more responses, obviously, the better. 

But simply asking a squash question isn't so special. What makes Urtak so interesting is its ability to cross-tabulate the answers from one question to those of another. For example, 75% of respondents said they are 'addicted to squash.' Of those who answered positively, 71% said that their squash arm had grown bigger than their other arm. (Of those saying they were not addicted to squash, only 43% admitted to having a larger squash arm.) That's cool information. (Marketers might even get some valuable tidbits from the site.)

When asked whether they play 3 or more times a week, 70% answered yes. When cross-tabulated with the question, 'Do you throw your racket?', 33% of the frequent players admitted, yes, they hurl the racket from time to time. Only 13% of the non-frequent players admitted to that indiscretion. It seems that the frequent players can be a little tense about their playing, n'est-ce pas?

One more: When asked whether they had hit their own shin with their racket, 83% had experienced the ignominy of this act. Cross-tabulation with the question of whether one is a 'competitive golfer' obtained this interesting statistic: Only 12% of those who hit their shins are competitive golfers, whereas 44% of the non-shin-hitters are competitive golfers. Does that say something about muscular control in golf? Or that golfers are wimps? 

You get the idea. It's data mining for fun. And since I'm at work right now, supposedly being productive, it is also important to point out it is a little addictive, so be careful....