Thursday, February 29, 2024

Fergit the log fires, James, y’all come down south and try our chicken wings and beer

American Dream: Dress code and fancy etiquette divides our sport
By JOHN BRANSTON – Squash Mad Guest Columnist

James Willstrop turns on the style against Amr Shabana in Chicago
James Willstrop turns on the style against Amr Shabana in Chicago

Racquet-wielding journalist John Branston is one of a small but determined company of squash devotees in Memphis, Tennessee. He is a big fan of James Willstrop, and is keen to have a chat with him in Richmond about his perceptions of squash in America. James thinks it’s the Land of The Free Nibbles. John paints a different picture of chicken wings, beer and redneck racquetball.


A Reply to James Willstrop on Squash and Racquetball

I have to quibble with James Willstrop and his free nibbles. On his blog this week, he wrote about the Windy City Open in Chicago and gave a shout-out to the growth of squash in the United States.

He wrote: “As well as Chicago, San Francisco in California and Richmond in Virginia both own big events again this year, proving that the rest of the country is catching on to squash. This is despite the fact that when explaining what squash is to an American who doesn’t know, we often resort to the indignity of stating that it is ‘like racquetball.’

“Why they would know racquetball more, I don’t know.”

Ever gracious, Willstrop praised the hosts and the venue, the University Club of Chicago, which he unfortunately called the Chicago Athletic Club.

“Get this: the changing rooms, or locker rooms, have log fires and serve nibbles. The club is frequented by the suited and booted business type and is perhaps a touch male dominated.”

I cringed. I sent the column to a friend who played in the tournament. He reported that he enjoyed the event and club very much, even though he got kicked out of breakfast for wearing jeans, and while waiting in the lobby one morning he was escorted to the “casual” room off by itself where no one could see him because he was wearing tennis shoes.

“A touch male dominated” is right. I notice most of the women’s divisions did not draw any competitors. (I won’t even mention Ramy Ashour being escorted to the courts through the kitchens because his dress code did not match the club’s rules).

Now listen up, y’all. Where we play squash, down south, they got no stinkin’ log fires and no stinkin’ nibbles. And this, I suggest, is one of the reasons that racquetball is better known than squash over here.

Don’t get me wrong. I love James Willstrop. I commend his book and his blog. His tongue-in-cheek column last week about squash and the Winter Olympics was spot-on.

As a writer he would be an asset to any news organization I worked for in 30 years. When I saw him in Richmond last year, he was approachable, humble in victory, gracious in defeat, and faked out Ramy Ashour with one of the sweetest moves ever seen. I plan to shake his hand when I return to Richmond in two weeks.

And he and his countryman Lee Beachill dress like regular guys on the court.

Beachill, as dapper off court as he is scruffy on it, looks like a racquetball player you might see at the YMCA who assembled his outfit from the lost-and-found bin.

On one of my favorite DVDs, with his chopped haircut, plain white T-shirt, and two-day beard he could be – shudder – a handball player.

In its day, racquetball at the amateur and professional level was dominated by eccentrics and players, male and female, who reveled in their toughness, humble backgrounds, willingness to dive for shots, and wipe-the-snot-off-your-face attitudes.

The locker rooms had benches, towels, and hot showers. All were welcome, and the game was easy to play. There were no nibbles, but plenty of pizza, chicken wings and beer after the match.

If squash (like lacrosse) is growing in the USA, then I suspect it is because fancy colleges are growing, along with the prep schools that feed them. Perception is reality. Squash’s beauty and its limitation is that it keeps being squash.

John Branston is a squash player in Memphis.

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Picture by Marian Kraus Photography

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