A New US Open Champion, and a New World No. 1
In 1954 the first United States Open was played in New York. The USSRA leadership was extremely wary about the idea of professionals and amateurs crossing racquets, and only due to the ceaseless advocacy of Ned Bigelow did the event occur at all. There were 16 players in the draw, hailing from seven countries. In the gallery sat 225 people; all were white men, some with hats, all in suits and ties. The court was all plaster and wood. The players wore all-white clothing. The media ravenously ate up the event, with articles appearing in more than a dozen newspapers and a major feature in the country's leading monthly magazine
A half century later in Boston, some things are better. The court at the 2004 US Open Squash Championships was a portable, glass, nine-ton, sparkling McWil Courtwall product that had the brilliant innovation of an electronic scoreboard imbedded in the tin. (The red flickering numbers directly in the face of the players did not prevent them from their usual catch-a-breath custom of asking the referee to repeat the score; maybe they wanted a manual scoreboard like they use down the street at Fenway?) Instead of a private club on Fifth Avenue, the site was Symphony Hall: iconic, slightly Brahmin but very public. The crowd was three times larger and, reflecting a more egalitarian world, came in both genders, many races and all sartorial styles. The players rarely wore white and their shirts were studiously untucked to reveal their personal website addresses inked on their shirttails. The big social news in 1954 was that both sexes managed to cocktail together at one particular tournament party. In 2004 there was a tournament golf outing at Turner Hill in Ipswich, Massachusetts, that benefited SquashBusters, and any man or woman, wading through the swarm of vendors hawking racquets, DVDs and Germain Glidden's frog cards, could tipple a drink in Symphony's appropriately named Hatch Room.
Other gauges of growth might be less sanguine. Only nine countries had representatives in Boston. The media frenzy of 1954 was missing, though Colleen Turner, the tournament's irrepressible press wrangler, managed to corral some attention in the Boston City Paper. Still, 50 years ago no one thought to televise the matches—the 1954 Open was considered revolutionary because it was the first time an action photograph was taken from the front wall, by remote control and synchronized with flash bulbs rigged in the ceiling. In 2004 the semis and finals were quietly filmed, with an Aussie duo, John White and Anthony Ricketts, providing commentary, the USSRA footing the bill and the Tennis Channel set to air the resulting 90-minute tape in late fall.
Of the 16 players in the inaugural Open, eight are still with us: Ernie Howard, Gavin Hildick-Smith, Charley Brinton, Vic Elmaleh, Diehl Mateer, Doug McLaggen, Hashim Khan and Henri Salaun. Only Salaun, the 1954 champion, attended the golden anniversary Open. The 78-year-old French-American is still keeping fit: he almost daily runs 75 laps around the University Club's track (three miles) and does push-ups in the steam room. Ever attuned to the economics of the game, he concluded an erudite discussion about the last 50 years by saying: “You can't change the world.”
The biggest difference in this year's Open was scoring. At the 1985 US Open in San Francisco, 15-point scoring was used for the first time in a pro softball tournament, and the 2004 Open had the pleasure of being the third pro event and first in North America to use a new scoring system of first to 11, point-per-rally. The main hope was to reduce match time and inject drama earlier into games, both of which make the matches more friendly to spectators and, it is hoped, television sponsors. Match time dropped precipitously: the semis and finals in 2003 lasted an average of 78 minutes, while this year it was 48. The only things not to like about the new scoring was that it eliminated the excruciatingly thrilling double-game and double-match point possibilities.
Anxiety and attack replaced old-style attrition, as a quick spurt could carry a player to an insurmountable lead. In the 16-man qualifying tournament (there was also a 13-man pre-qualifier; eventually there might be a golf US Open-style nation-wide qualifying system?) there were some good quality matches, with Simon Parke outlasting Paul Price and Julian Illingworth providing the best US result by getting a game off Dan Jenson. But the coolest contest was Barrington vs. Zaman. No, this was not Jonah and Qamar reprising their epic 1970s battles, but son Joey and nephew Shahid. The two youngsters produced a flagitious marathon that went to the 10-all, win-by-two tiebreaker in four of the five games. The other news from the qualies was the absence of Mark Chaloner, who was marooned in the Cayman Islands for a week without electricity and running water due to Hurricane Ivan.
With the players still adapting their tactics to the new scoring system, the early main-round matches were wide open. Canada's Graham Ryding did better than his compatriot Jonathon Power for the first time in the Open. Power withdrew from the tournament at the last moment, citing a leg injury, while Ryding took care of World Champion Amr Shabana to make the quarters. Joe Kneipp repeated his 2001 Open (played in January 2002), as he again reached the semis with his Hanover, New Hampshire, fan-club cheering him on. Young Nick Matthew demonstrated a precocious understanding of 11-point scoring and jumped all over Renan Lavigne in the first match of the Open, going up 10-love in the first game and almost goose-egging Lavigne—there was never a 15-0 game score in Open history. Dan Jenson, former number five in the world, returned to the Open for the first time since Peter Nicol beat him in four games in the first round in 1999 and qualified through to the quarters. Jenson and Parke almost ate tanked donuts, swallowing 11-1 match-winning games from John White and Thierry Lincou (dis)respectively. White did have the excuse of his infant twins at home, while Lincou could point to a Parke racquet handle to the ribs that took him to a three a.m. visit to the emergency room for X-rays (negative).
As the draw narrowed to the right, it was clear that a moment of reckoning was on hand. Peter Nicol, the dominant force in pro squash since Jansher Khan departed, was on a collision course with who could be his successor, Lee Beachill. In September 2004 Nicol was ranked number one in the world, as he had been for 59 other months since February 1998. “Another final,” he exulted after a breezy, error-less win over Kneipp in the semis, as if the goal for him was almost to reach the last round rather than to win it. This was Nicol's 67th PSA final. He is 31. Besides Parke, he is the only player from the January 1996 top 10 rankings even playing the pro tour anymore. The cloud of mental fatigue swirling around him, regardless of his recent trek in the Himalayas, was evident.
Beach, as he is unsurprisingly known, made the mistake of going online the morning of the final and figuring out what all the other players already calculated: that if he beat Nicol he would not only take possession of Ned Bigelow's silver platter for US Open champion but become the top-ranked player in the world. “I got quite nervous,” he said. The Yorkshireman with a dirty blond mullet and faraway stare was right to be cautious, since he had endured a shocking series of hospital-demanding misfortunes: salmonella poisoning in Portugal in September 1997; a car accident in December 1997 in which he broke his back twice and doctors said he would never play squash again; a freak accident in October 1998 when a go-cart derailed and crushed his foot; and torn ankle tendons at the 2002 World Open (aggravated at the 2003 Tournament of Champions) which required surgery. Even at the 2003 US Open he ended up disgorging the contents of his stomach before and after his first-round loss to Nicol.
But Beachill never got cynical or frustrated. He climbed back up the rankings, going from 10 a year ago to two,* and had never lost in the new McWil court, winning the Bermuda Open in March. Furthermore, understanding the need for patience and variance of pace against Nicol, he had some historic wins against him like in the 2001 British Open quarterfinals and the 2002 British national finals.
Suffering no mishaps all day, Beachill went out and demolished Nicol 11-6, 11-9, 11-9. In the first game, Nicol committed three errors, more than his previous two matches combined. Beachill galloped to a 7-2 lead, which was too much. In the second Nicol went up 3-0 but, his legs losing jump, began swatting at the ball. He tinned five times, including the last two points of the game. In the third, Beachill, lob-serving in his confident way, hopped to a 7-0 and 8-1 lead. Nicol showed his hickory heart and brought it back to 9-all before tossing a desperation lob out of court and literally into the Boston Symphony Orchestra's organ pipes. Beachill then broke a string on a let, so with a new ball and a new racquet, he attempted to take his match point and best-player-in-the-world status. He did, on a stroke call that disappointed the crowd and gave an anti-climatic gloss to his triumph.
You can't change the world, says the first United States Open champion, Henri Salaun. The latest champion, Lee Beachill, replies, yes, but you can change your luck.
(Appears in the Nov. 2004 edition of Squash Magazine)