Sunday, November 28, 2010

WikkiLeaks Document #23657.25 Reveals Squash at Center of Rift Between Allies

WikkiLeaks has once again sent the diplomatic world akimbo.

One cable (#23657.25) from 2007, received from H. Pritchard, U.S. Junior Assistant Sub-Associate Charge d’Affaires, revealed a fractious and embarrassing incident in which the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, ridiculed the then-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, to his face, causing an immediate response that was as undiplomatic as was the original Egyptian attack.

As talks dragged on during an Arab League meeting that year, Mubarak, who was seated next to Musharraf,  and who had invited Pritchard and a small coterie of US diplomats to join his delegation as observers, leaned over to Musharraf and said, “Let’s cut this nonsense short and you and I go play some squash. I’ll beat you, guaranteed, despite the age gap.”

Musharraf, struggling to maintain diplomatic niceties, said: “Hosni, my dear fellow, excuse me but I would so kill you in a game that it is not even worth considering. The great genius of Pakistani squash runs deeply through my veins, old friend. Do hush up, I’m listening to the speeches.”

Mubarak, not one to shy away from a challenge, said: “That’s crap, and you know it. I haven’t seen much of the vaunted squash genius from Pakistan lately, you buffoon! Do you know I still play twice a week?”

“So I heard, and I also heard that you play only doubles, and threaten your partner with death if he should lose a game for you. We are not in Egypt now, old pharaoh, so where is your support when you need it?”

“You’ve heard wrong, as usual, just as your intelligence within your sad albeit mightily armed country is giving you a continual stream of faulty advice,” Mubarak said, jabbing his finger at Musharraf. “Use your eyes, use your wits, and you may yet succeed in running that mess of a country you claim to run. It’s like in squash -- eyes, wits and a smidgen of sense are the recipe – but do you have them? I think not!”

Pritchard, seated behind Mubarak, grew uncomfortable, and, squirming in his seat, said, “But …,“ only to have Mubarak swivel immediately and cut him off. “Shush, or you know what will happen!” Pritchard admitted in the cable that he recoiled, eyes agape at the warning….

“I would kill you in a game, Mubarak, and any roomful of Pakistanis would do likewise to a boatload of your best Egyptians, and there is no changing that, so quiet, please, will you?”

“Do not offend me, Musharraf! Do not irritate me to the point of anger, or you will see….” Mubarak growled at Musharraf, eying him stonily, while Musharraf glared icily back.

Pritchard leaned in once again, trying to restore calm: “Gentlemen, please, as allies and friends, could you please…”

“SHUT UP!” both Musharraf and Mubarak yelled, turning to Pritchard head-on, shouting within inches of his face. At that, Pritchard thought it would be wiser to leave, so he stood up, straightened his tie, bowed, and left.

“What a fool…,” grumbled Mubarak.  “Perhaps a racquetball player, eh, Pervez?”

“Heh heh,” softly laughed Musharraf. “Yes, I suspect you’re right, Hosni old friend. Oh well…. Tea? The Darjeeling is nice….”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Run To Your Bookstore

I was given a prepublication copy of a new book by Paul Assaiante, Trinity College's squash coach who happens to be the winningest college coach ever, of any sport, and James Zug, the incomparable writer who, in addition to his historical books, is famous in the squash community for writing "Squash: A History of the Game," which if not already on your bookshelf should be (buy it now and here).

This great duo teamed up to write a book which on the surface is a firsthand account of the 2009 national intercollegiate team championships against Princeton, a match that the Trinity posse would end up, as we all know, winning in a squeaker, 5-4.

I confess that I never had a coach anywhere near as good as Assaiante, and I also confess that before reading this book I had only the thinnest notion of what separates a good coach from a great one. I also had no idea what the phrase "run to the roar" was supposed to mean. 

One of the keys to Assaiante's success is an all-consuming, 24/7 passion for his boys on and off the court. Indeed, he explicitly says as much: "The reason we finally became national champions in 1999 and the reason we haven't lost ever since is not recruiting or luck or better technical knowledge or tactical advice. There is no secret, mysterious formula. The reason is time."

Each chapter nominally looks at each match that was played that day, but the focus in fact is much wider, exploring what it means to be a parent, what it means to love, the importance of living in the now, the measure of character, and the alchemy of control. This book is a much bigger book than simply a squash book, or a book about coaching. That's why I would recommend it without qualification for anyone who is a squash fan, a sports fan, a person interested in the philosophy of life, or a parent. Particularly a parent....

Assaiante pulls no punches, yet most of the punches he inflicts are directed at himself. When a kid loses a match, he wonders how he could have coached that boy to a different result. When a student does well on the court but struggles off, he agonizes how he can help. He is constantly questioning how he can do his job better, and gradually, he does. About the book, he writes: "This is not easy. At times it is tragic, disappointing, painful. I have made horrible mistakes. I have suffered and I have made others suffer. And those moments have taught me as much as the victories."

Assaiante is not content to water down the story in any way, because the story has its ugly aspects, but he seems determined to record his failures straight on without blinking so that others might learn from his missteps. If that's not a coach, what is.... 

And threaded throughout this book is the recurring nightmare of his son's heroin addiction, a torment that tortures him still. 

The voice of the book is first-person singular, with Assaiante doing the speaking, but the presence of Zug, crafting the lines, is ever apparent. This is another great work by Zug, an award-winning author and senior writer for Squash Magazine.

This is a full book, with no circumlocution. Its about two bats and a ball in a box, but it's about a lot more than that.

You can buy the book here. I urge you to do so.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Is The Printing House in Jeopardy?

Please don't let them do it again!

It's a story heard before in the world of squash.... Real estate costs are considerable in a metropolis. Squash courts take up a relatively large chunk of a club's real estate. Wouldn't it make financial sense to convert this real estate into something where more paying customers can fit into that real estate, thereby improving income? Spinning, maybe, or another room of fitness machines?

We've seen this in Australia and the UK, among other places, where clubs of long standing have shortsightedly killed squash programs, even unarguably successful ones, for the pursuit of greater income. I wonder how many clubs have regretted that decision? 

In every squash club where I have been a member over the years, the squash program has attracted squash players who go on to actively use the fitness facilities, attend the social events, and generally speaking enliven the club. Squash players are more fanatical than your average fitness-seeking members, they don't join for a few months and then quit when their fitness craze ebbs, and these ardent players tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and so on, and so on. Squash players help attract members to clubs! They positively affect the club bottom line.

Yet the scuttlebutt is that New York's Printing House, with an active 250 squash players and many years of successful NY/NJ Metro league play, has been purchased by the Equinox chain, which will shutter their 5 courts. I haven't been able to confirm this, but if it is true it will be a real loss for players in lower Manhattan. C'mon, Equinox, reconsider, don't make the same mistake that those other clubs have made.

The Printing House faithful have launched a campaign to get the attention of the management at Equinox.
1) Join and 'like' the campaign's Facebook page
2) leave a message on Equinox's own Facebook page, begging them to keep the courts open; or
3) write a letter to Equinox corporate headquarters, at 895 Broadway, New York, NY, 10003.

You don't have to be a NY-er to take action. We have got to make an impression on management that this move is a bad one! Write them now, please!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Professional Squash in America: Growth, or No?

The Boston Globe's Alex Beam wrote an irritatingly snarky column recently discussing the PSA-PST lawsuit, in which, after poking fun at the sport itself, making the obligatory reference to the vegetable, and generally attempting to dazzle the reader with his wordplay, he quotes PSA board member and lawyer, Richard Bramall:

“We are well established in other parts of the world, but in many ways America is the most important market for the PSA, because we want to grow in the US, and we are continuing to grow in the US.’

So that raises an interesting question, just how much has the PSA grown in the US? If you go onto the PSA's website and click on Calendar, there you will find the facts—all the tournaments and their purses through the years. I went back 5 years, to 2006, and compared the data. I reviewed all the numbers, separating out USA-based matches with those held in the rest of the world.

This tedious exercise proved two things: One, that I apparently have nothing better to do and my life is pathetically boring. And two, that the PSA's efforts in the US have not been particularly impressive. Here are some of the facts:

To be fair, one should keep in mind the economic duress of recent years, but even with that factor, it is hard to argue that the PSA's efforts in the US have been particularly stellar. Another way of looking at the data is to compare US purses with World purses over time:

This analysis shows that the total purse for the rest of the world has grown 48% between 2006 and 2010. During that same time period, the US purse has fallen 14%. The number of tournaments in the US has barely nudged upwards, while the rest of the world has many new tournaments. (The one mathematical oddity is that, with precious few tournaments in the US, the average player purse in the US is higher than the rest of the world. Oh, thanks.)

The stagnant growth in the US is one of the factors that has led to the alternative Pro Squash Tour, to help squash professionals in the US earn a living. They can't do it with the PSA alone, at least not with these numbers.