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In the Executive Ballroom of JP Morgan’s worldwide headquarters in Park Avenue, two blocks from Grand Central Terminal, and against the backdrop of the night lights of the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building and Comcast NBC Universal’s headquarters, old rivals and long-standing friends celebrated the continuing success of the ToC and the joy of being part of the squash community at a gala dinner on Friday, January 13.
There were exclamations of delight, ear-to-ear grins and hugs all around as 250 guests who have been players, influencers, organizers, officials and enthusiasts in the squash community for the past 60 years stepped off the elevator on the 50th floor. The occasion was a celebration of the 20 years that the Tournament of Champions has presented the world’s best squash players competing on the glass court in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. The focal point of the evening was the presence of 21 past ToC titlists whose competitive years spanned six decades of play, from 1960 through 2016.
While the celebration highlighted the ToC’s presence in Grand Central for 20 years, the Tournament of Champions boasts an 87-year history, including its previous years as the World Professional Squash Association Championships and U.S. Pro Squash Championships.
“The who’s who of the squash world are here tonight,” said MC Dean Brown before introducing ToC driving force John Nimick, the former US pro player and former PSA CEO who moved the event to Grand Central in 1995.
Nimick, Tournament Chairman and President of Squash Engine Inc., opened the dinner by introducing each of the past champions in attendance. As each champion walked to the dais, a picture from his or her playing days appeared on the large screens. The Parade of Champions began with those players who were single titleholders:
• Ray Widelski (1960)
• Stuart Goldstein (1978)
• Michael Desaulniers (1981)
• Kenton Jernigan (1991)
• Rodney Eyles (1994)
• Gregory Gaultier (2009)
• James Willstrop (2010)
• Nick Matthew (2012)
• Nicol David (2014)
• Raneem El Welily (2015)
• Nour El Sherbini (2016)
The champions who were the winners of two titles each came next:
• Clive Caldwell (1980 & 82)
• Jahangir Khan (1984 & 85)
• Nancy Gengler (1987 & 88)
• Vanessa Atkinson (2005 & 06)
• Natalie Grainger (2007 & 08)
• Natalie Grinham (2012 & 13)
• Mohamed Elshorbagy (2015 & 16)
Closing out the Parade of Champions were the multiple titleholders:
• Three-time champion Peter Nicol (2001, 3 & 4)
• Four-time champion Jonathon Power (1996, 1999, 2000 & 2002)
• Five-time winner Mark Talbott (1983 & 1987-1990).
A standing ovation from the distinguished guests greeted the introduction of Sharif Khan, the US-based son of the late Hashim Khan and the most dominant player of the hardball squash era, who won the title nine times between 1970 and 1979.
Tournament co-chair and two-time winner Clive Caldwell outlined the history of the championship, opening his presentation by admitting to the guests: “As a competitor years ago I wanted to kill many of you – now I love you all!” He praised Nimick for taking over ownership of the event and moving it to Grand Central – ultimately developing it to become one of the biggest and most popular events on the PSA World Tour.
Nimick recalled the occasion more than two decades ago when Zerline Goodman, who at the time was managing ticket sales, remarked: “Have you seen that big hall in Grand Central – it’s empty!” The promoter went to see the space in Vanderbilt Hall, determined that an all-glass court and seating for 500 spectators could be accommodated, and the rest is history. “Putting a glass court into an iconic location like Grand Central is the way to grow the game,” explained Nimick.
The event’s longest-standing partner Lexington Partners, a ToC sponsor for the 19 years, was given special recognition. “The support of Lexington Partners for nearly two decades has been integral to the success of the ToC,” said Nimick as he presented the award of ‘Honorary ToC Champion’ to the company’s Managing Partner Brent Nicklas.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with the tournament and our role in the tournament,” said Nicklas as he accepted his unique award. “Playing squash has taught me a lot about sportsmanship, a lot about winning – and losing – and a lot about life,” added the Lexington Partners founder.
MC Dean Brown closed out the evening by circulating through the room with a microphone and asking the champions to recall their memories of the tournament and competing against each other. Mark Talbott, the most renowned US player in the game’s hardball era, talked of Jahangir Khan, the record ten-time British Open champion of the same era who was unbeaten for more than five years in the softball game. “Jahangir raised the bar for all of us,” said Talbott. “He had a lot of class. We were all scared to get on court with him – because we knew he could run around for three hours!” Khan responded: “I have wonderful memories of my matches over here with players like Mark and Ned Edwards.”
Briton Peter Nicol and Canadian Jonathon Power – who shared one of the sport’s greatest rivalries more than a decade ago and ended their careers with a 21/20 head-to-head record in favor of Nicol – had the crowd roaring with laughter as they sparred verbally with each other.
When asked to identify the one trait he most admired in in his rival, Nicol said, ”His quickness,” referring to Power’s agility on court as well as his wit, both of which endeared Power to squash audiences, if not the referees, around the world. On a more serious note, Nicol continued, “People think of Jonathon as a shot-maker – and I am not sure they realize just how complete a player he was. He had a remarkable understanding of the game, the strategy and the tactics.”
When Brown turned to Power with the same question, the irrepressible Canadian said, ”There he goes again- playing defense.” The quip master then adopted a more serious tone and said, ”What Peter and I shared for those years is really unique to us- and only we truly knows what it means. And in the last few years, we have a different perspective on that experience.” And then, Power delighted the crowd by offering his one-time rival a mighty hug!
It was Clive Caldwell who brought the Gala Dinner to a close: “This has been perhaps one of the most special nights in the history of our sport. But none of this would have happened without the leadership of my dear friend John Nimick. I invite you to raise your glasses to one of the great men of our sport,” said Caldwell.
“And finally let us toast this wonderful sport that has brought us together tonight.”