March 4, 2016

Letter to the Editor re 'Women's Matches Too Short to Justify Equal Money'



March 3, 2016

Ted

It must also be true that they practice less too. Seriously though it is one thing to be provocative, at times foolishly so, as you can be. But it is something else entirely to stand on the wrong side of history, uncomprehending of the fact that equality will just look and be different from the unequal and unjust present. I vote for equality and justice Ted. You can too.


 Jim Coddington


January 28, 2016

Critique of American Men's College Squash Off the Mark

by Sasha Cooke

Ted Gross's piece bemoaning the paucity of Americans on top intercollegiate Squash teams misses the point by a wide mark, although this is understandable, given the odd nature of the situation.  He writes,"My guess is this isn’t how the Heights Casino parents, among others, envisioned things playing out when the juniors and colleges switched from hardball to softball, but that’s another story."  In fact, the switch to softball has little to do with the trend toward recruitment of foreign players.  Anil Nayar, Darius Pandole, Cyrus Mehta, Tal Ben-Shakar and others long ago proved that international players could be key contributors to championship teams with the hard ball.  Most tellingly, in the mid-80's the F&M team, with three Indian players in their top four, came within one point of beating Harvard. Why didn't the F& M coach think of recruiting two or three more and winning the thing hands down, as Trinity did just a few years later?  The answer lies, as it so often does, in Deep Throat's admonition, "Follow the money."

For many years the biggest story in collegiate squash has been, of course, the dominance of Trinity. Squash publications and newspapers like the New York Times have described the decision made by the president of Trinity and Paul Assaiante to build a championship squash team.  The purpose of this venture was to associate Trinity with the traditional champions of collegiate squash, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, as part of a broader bid to improve the standard of applicants to the college.  According to articles I've seen in the past few years, this has been successful.  It is well deserved; Trinity is a superb institution which had become temporarily less popular, partly owing to the difficulties Hartford was facing. If Squash has contributed to improving their admissions pool, well done.

The key to the strategy was foreign recruiting.  In 2011 the NY Times reported, "It has been 15 years since that short conversation, at which Dobelle gave Assaiante the go-ahead to canvass the globe for players. "   The question readers should have asked is,"Why did he need a go-ahead?"  Coaches had been recruiting foreign players for a long time, Trinity had numerous foreign students already.  

Schools in NESCAC, (Trinity's athletic conference) and the Ivy League together make up the traditional bulk of collegiate squash, though the game has expanded considerably recently.  These schools do not allow sports scholarships, and by and large they do not offer academic scholarships, though there are exceptions.  Instead they offer financial aid to ALL needy students, regardless of the reasons for which they were given admission- exceptional achievement in academics, sports, community service and so forth.  These schools do their best to be need- blind.  That is to say they do not look at how much aid an applicant will require until AFTER they have accepted them.  (In recent years, as costs have sky-rocketed, some schools have been forced to abandon this laudable goal.)  Sadly, most of these schools, Trinity included (this is clearly stated on the Trinity web site), are NOT need-blind for foreign students.  They simply cannot afford this luxury. They have to factor a foreign student's ability to pay into the equation.

Foreign students almost invariably need financial aid.  U.S. colleges and universities cost up to four times what similar institutions in other countries do.  Some countries have even had currency export restrictions. (I believe India, where so many of the early foreign squash players came from, used to.)  I have known coaches at extremely wealthy schools to be told by Admissions, "You already have one foreign player, we can't afford another."  The only "go-ahead" Dobell could have given Assaiante, who was already free to contact any student he wished,  is something along the lines of, "You find the players, and I'll figure out how to pay for them."

In the early years of Trinity's ascension I was the coach at Wesleyan.  I refused to play Trinity  on the grounds that they were offering de facto sports scholarships.  I argued to my A.D., who at first insisted I honor our contract to play, and to Paul Assaiante, that it's unfair for a school to decide that while they are not need-blind to the ordinary foreign applicant pool, they will be need-blind to foreign Squash players. My decision meant little to Trinity- they'd been thumping us for decades!  

I was never an aggressive recruiter, but I recall one day getting a letter from an overseas applicant who was a superb student and would be an instant number 1 player.  He had friends at Wesleyan and thought it would be the perfect school. I made one of my rare calls to admissions, and virtually the first words out of my contact's mouth were, "Can he pay?"  It's not that I didn't have a fine school to attract this student- I didn't have the money.  Trinity had the money. At the time I thought that was unfair, and I argued that a sensible reading of the NESCAC rules which embraced the spirit of the prohibition on athletic scholarships supported this position.   I thought that it was only because Squash was not an NCAA sport that Trinity could get way with it.  Surely if a Division III team showed up to a cross country meet with five Kenyans the NCAA would question how they payed their tuition fees.

In the two decades since, I've been proved wrong countless times in the court of public opinion, and, apparently, in the discussions of NESCAC  Athletic Directors.  I will mention, though, that 10 or 12 years ago I was at a squash related event in New York City where I heard a former Trinity player expressing his gratitude for what he called a "Squash scholarship," though he was, of course, mistaken.

Whether you call it financial aid or a Squash scholarship, the fact remains that a school that is willing to assume the financial burden can field a powerful team, and more schools are making the decision to do this.  I can't comment on their motivations, but perhaps, as Trinity did, they want to be mentioned in the same breath as the Ivies.  (Of course the Ivies are no longer necessarily the teams that they will need to conquer, and it is certainly no disrespect to Trinity to say that it doesn't carry quite the same cachet to be coupled with them as with Harvard!)  I never for a second bought Assaiante's suggestion that foreign students picked Trinity over other schools because parents trust him more than other coaches to look after their kids. It was always Financial Aid. The increasing numbers who feel safe at other schools these days seem to bear me out.  

Unlike Ted though, I think the influx of foreign players can only be good for U.S. Squash, and good for the schools they attend. As Assaiante has said on many occasions, the players are typically excellent students who feel a deep responsibility to their parents and gratitude to the school, and thus treat the team and their academics as serious enterprises, something not every young American does, (myself a particularly shameful case in point all those years ago!) Trinity's players are notable for their sportsmanship and their presentation. In addition overseas recruiting has made it possible for a variety of schools to compete at the top level, which may in time contribute to diminishing the elitist image of the sport.

Nonetheless, when I read one of those heartwarming stories of poor children from the toughest circumstances making it to an elite educational institution in the U.S. I always wonder how many more could be given that opportunity if the scant financial aid money for foreign students weren't diverted to other purposes. Don't forget that Squash is an expensive sport in most countries, we're not exactly opening doors to the needy. Of course I always used to wonder how people could oppose Affirmative Action, which aims to right an ancient and ongoing horror, but find nothing wrong with giving an admissions boost to a kid who plays a sport of which only the wealthy have even heard.

December 10, 2015

Sasha Cooke Weighs in On Clock Proposal for Women's Pro Squash


Squash players have always been justifiably proud of the sport's grueling nature- they love to tell other athletes how much more suffering goes on in high level squash than in tennis or badminton.  It's hard to make that argument if one top ten woman can beat another in 22 minutes.

I took Ted Gross's running clock piece as satire intended to re-open the tin debate. (After all a clock will not reintroduce drama or hard rallies- if someone is well ahead with a few minutes to play the opponent will have to go for still more short cheap points to have any chance. ) 

I'm astonished at the angry reactions.  People don't seem to be thinking about this from a professional perspective.  If four quarter final matches barely total 2 hours how do you justify ticket prices?  Gross didn't say the women don't work hard or play well- simply that the matches are too damn short.  If they were bad or lazy players, shouldn't we prefer short matches? (Old Punch cartoon ---  First lady: This food is terrible.  Second: Yes, and the portions are too small.)

A month ago in the same week it took the number 1 man 42 minutes to beat a wild card, but only 32 for the number 20 woman to beat the number 1.   That shows a problem not in depth or quality of play, but simply in length.  If pro squash is truly a professional "product", not merely a system of patronage (matronage?), it needs to make that product attractive.  That's why the men changed the scoring and lowered the tin.

The WNBA is having some success selling their product and the women use a ball that's an inch smaller.   Even with the old tin you didn't as often see the women having exchanges of 4 or 5 drops, which fans find very entertaining (as in that viral rally  Ramy and Elshorbagy had in Qatar). This is simply because if a re-drop is really good, the women are seldom quick enough to cover it (Nicole excepted) and if it's bad, the opponent can put it away in the back.  This is a matter of practical reality, not of debate about inadvertent (or vertent) sexism. Women's squash needs to be as compelling as possible if it's to sell tickets.  Most squash fans are players.  They  like long rallies and appreciate the physical battle created by many consecutive long rallies, although most will agree that the faster pace of the modern game is better than the purely attritional matches of the past.  Right now women's matches are arguably too short.   Why is it not fair to make this point?  





July 11, 2015

In Response to Willstrop & Ferez: Tennis Is Vastly More Technically Difficult Than Squash

by Sasha Cooke

To steal a line from Mark Twain's remarks on Fenimore Cooper, it seems to me that it was far from right for Ferez Nallaseth to deliver opinions about tennis without having played some of it.  It would have been more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have played both games.

Tennis is vastly more technically difficult than squash. Period.  This is a simple matter of empirical fact, not subject to Ferez's speculations about cumulative angles or whatnot.  There are MANY tennis players who have taken up squash at University or later and become quite proficient.  I have never encountered nor heard of a single example of the reverse.  Niederhoffer won the junior championship in squash after a couple of month's playing.  Even all those years ago nobody could have done that in tennis.

I have had a number of squash students who could do rudimentary versions of complex squash drills such as boast-drop-drive their first day on the court.  Seldom have I seen a player sustain a decent baseline rally his or her first day on the tennis court.  

In the matter of Sharif, I had a friend who visited the rackets championships and said it was quite obvious that Sharif was the only competitor among the non tennis players who HAD played serious tennis, and, tennis being as difficult as it is, that put Sharif streets ahead of the rest.  The racquetball was, of course, a shoe-in for him.   That gave him two sports in the bag. I don't want to take anything away from Sharif, but it's simply true that a non-tennis player, even one who is at a high level in another racket sport, cannot hit two balls into the court.

At the top level there have always been a few world class athletes in squash, and I think the numbers are growing much deeper. Nonetheless, anyone who even watches sports can tell that the levels of natural and acquired ability run far deeper on the tennis tour than they do on the squash circuit.  How could that not be the case when there are exponentially more tennis players AND exponentially more prize money in the sport?  I admire James Willstrop, but gosh, Ferez, do you really imagine him in the final four at Wimbledon?  When Willstrop would get a win against Ramy he did it by using the side walls to take the athleticism OUT of the game.  You can't do that in modern tennis.

I love squash, and it has the advantage over tennis that it can be great fun for the only moderately proficient.  It also provides far more vigorous exercise until you get to a very high level of tennis.  The enclosed space provides an intensity not felt in all but the very best tennis matches. Let's celebrate squash for what it is without feeling the need to give it an entirely fictitious nod in the area of technical difficulty.





March 12, 2015

Nationals Numbers Should Alarm US Squash Executives

by Ted Gross

A simple comparison of the number of entries in last month's British Nationals and this weekend's US Nationals should alarm everyone associated with promoting the sport in the United States.

Women's Open: 

British: 16 draw with 16 qualifier

US: 8

A total of 8 women enter the national championships!


Men's Open:

British: 32 draw with a 44-man qualifier

US: 16

16 players in your national championship and you are trying to go to the Olympics? 


Men's 35's:

British: 20

US:  4

You can't even set up a draw in the national championship - you are reduced to a round robin!


Women's 35's

British: 8 

US: 0

8 in the British Nationals 35's is dismal as well, but ZERO?



















October 15, 2014

US Squash and the 'Subsequent Transition': What a Bunch of Nonsense

by Ted Gross

Yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer story on the US Open bought into the company line that's been used for the last 25 years to excuse away poor results on the part of American players.

"The subsequent transition, slow and costly, helps explain why at this week's 2014 U.S. Open, being contested at Drexel University's Daskalakis Athletic Center, no U.S. men or women reached the round of 16."

Yes. No American men or women survived the first round of their own national tournament.

No. There are many reasons why American pros as a group continue to perform at a sub-world-class standard, but a 'slow and costly transition' is not one of them.

If that's how US Squash sees it, the American game is in the wrong hands.


July 8, 2014

World Masters Looking Like A Joke

by Ted Gross

If you thought junior matches were abnormally short, you should check out the current World Masters.

Through yesterday's play, representing four days of action and approximately 1,000 matches completed:

I found only 31 matches that lasted longer than 40 minutes, and I found only 2 matches that lasted longer than 1 hour.

This means 97% of all matches played thus far in Hong Kong couldn't break the 40 minute mark, and more than 99% of all matches played could not break the one hour barrier.

Worse, it appears that the majority of matches played did not last half an hour.

And a sizable percentage of those did not even survive the 20 minute mark.

In many cases, the pre-match stretching and warm-up lasted longer than the match!

Masters' players as a whole are not fast enough or fit enough to play competitive squash in its current form.

The UK Racketball version of squash would be much more appropriate for this group, but at the very least a faster ball and better scoring system need to be implemented ASAP to stop the bleeding in what is currently an embarrassing event.