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The 2016 final didn’t deliver the result the American squash community was hoping for, but it did give us some spectacular squash and two very deserving champions. The tournament also gave us a snapshot of the elite-level squash world.
At the trophy presentation 10 former ToC champions gathered on court for a photo op. (Missing was Vanessa Atkinson, the 2005 and 2006 winner who had been doing commentary this year for Squash TV and her partner James Willstrop, the 2010 titlist. They were already on a flight back to England, eager to get back to their 2-year-old osn Logan.) .) The group of great players was a reminder of the ToC’s long history, an indication of the tournament’s current status (no other PSA event attracts so many of the game’s dignitaries), and a hint at squash’s potential future.
One of the people on court, Amr Shabana, has quickly transitioned from the pro tour (a year ago he was ranked #3 and the defending ToC champion) to being the Egyptian national coach and, essentially, the Godfather of Egyptian squash. In retirement he remains the most respected men’s player in the world. But two other former champions there for the photo shoot, Peter Nicol and Natalie Grainger, are more emblematic of the most significant trend in squash: the Americanization of the game.
Nicol and Grainger are both now coaching in the greater New York area. (Ramy Ashour, who was with them on court for the picture is also a New Yorker now, but hopefully he has more tournaments left in him before he starts to coach.) Look a little further afield and you’ll find a hall of fame’s worth of great former players coaching in the U.S.–David Palmer, Thierry Lincou, John White, Linda Elriani, Rod Martin, Chris Walker, and Martin Heath are the names I can pull out of my hat right now, and I know there are others that I’m forgetting or not aware of. I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. now has the greatest abundance of high-level coaching talent in the world.
At the same time, the U.S. has taken on a crucial role in the professional game. On the men’s side the PSA has eight top-level tournaments, and for the 2015-16 season half of them are in the U.S. Along with the ToC, the Windy City Open and the U.S. Open are annual major events, and this season the World Championship was in Seattle. The women’s situation is a little muddy at the moment, but all of the annual American tournaments have women’s draws with equal prize money.
The combination of great coaching and great tournaments begs the question, will those two elements converge to produce great American players? At the moment, Amanda Sobhy’s historic ToC performance this year looks more like an anomaly than a trend. Sobhy was an elite junior player; the only other current rising American junior who has come close to matching her success is her sister, Sabrina.
But Amanda’s great play, and the attention it receives, could be the spark that lights a flame under U.S. junior squash. Most squash-playing kids–and their parents who are paying those great coaches–see the game as a path to elite college admissions. Sobhy’s success could make the professional game more alluring. (It’s noteworthy that her appearance in the ToC final garnered the tournament the first coverage that I’ve ever seen in the New York Times.)
Another factor that could lead to a rise in American elite players is the flowering of the urban squash movement, which now has over 20 programs across the country. Bringing a broader range of kids into the game has to up the odds of producing high-level talent.
Great coaches, major tournaments, a role model for success, a bigger pool of young players–those are all great signs for the future of American squash. In sports and in life, things go in phases. Egypt now is the squash juggernaut. It used to be Pakistan. Maybe, some day in the not too distant future, America’s time will come. It would be great to see a few local heroes on the ToC trophy.
— Matt Lombardi