USA Down Under
A look at the Men's World Team Championships through American eyes
For American squash players, competing in international competitions is often an exercise in humility. Our competitiveness has improved of late, particularly amongst juniors, but we still have a long way to go before catching up to not only squash powerhouses like England, Egypt, and Australia, but also second-tier countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Ireland. Except for this year's junior women's team, which placed a remarkable fourth at its World Championships, no US team has even come close to winning a world title.
In finishing 19th of 24 teams at the World's in Melbourne, this year's men's team did nothing to change America's standing as a third-tier squash country. Disappointingly, the team's combination of experience and youth—in New York area teaching pros Damian Walker and Richard Chin, and college class of '00 playing pros Preston Quick of Denver and myself from Cincinnati—did not make the positive difference that many hoped it would. But while we did not meet our goal of finishing in the top 16, an accomplishment not attained by a US men's team in more than 10 years, the event was not without its successes, individual and collective, and we learned an important lesson from the competition.
Even before it began, the event got off to a shaky start. September 11th and the ensuing war raised concerns that the team would not go to Melbourne in the first place. In late September, the USSRA men's committee decided for safety reasons that it would not send a team, as previously planned, to the Pan American Federation Championships in El Salvador, which was held in early October. Soon thereafter, the PSA announced the cancellation of the World Individual Championships in Melbourne, the men's pro event scheduled to precede the men's team event.
The PSA gave financial reasons for the cancellation, but many worried that the team tournament, a non-prize money event, would also be called off because of September 11th's ripple effects. While we waited for a decision, Paul Assaiante, our team coach, learned that he would be unable to accompany us in Australia after having unexpected back surgery. Walker, our No. 1, also announced that he would not go, citing personal and professional reasons related to the escalating international crisis.
All was not doomed, however. The team tournament went ahead as planned, Walker ultimately decided to go, and Richard Millman stepped in as our coach. Himself a former US team coach, Millman was in Melbourne playing in the World Masters when he learned the unfortunate news that Assaiante would not make the trip, and he offered to stay the extra two weeks and coach us, along with his wife, Pat, who volunteered to serve as our manager. Throughout the tournament, the two of them provided us with much-needed guidance and support, a great benefit we would have been entirely without had it not been for their remarkable generosity.
When we saw our draw, which evenly split the 24 teams into six pools of four teams, we immediately knew that we had only one winnable pool match. Egypt and France, seeded sixth and seventh, respectively, were simply too good for us. In the six matches that we played against these two teams, we won only one game, which Quick took from France's Gregory Gaultier, last year's under 19 British Open Junior Champion. As it turned out, we weren't the only countries badly beaten by these teams, and they both went on to exceed expectations: France finished fifth, and Egypt lost to Australia in the final.
New Zealand, however, was a different story. A considerably older team than most, none of their players play the tour anymore and they did not have a reserve player, which for a week-long team event can be a significant handicap, as it does not allow anyone a rest day. In spite of New Zealand's proud squash history, we knew that against them we had a good chance.
But while No. 1 Walker's hard-fought and very impressive four game win over Paul Steel—(2), 7, 10-8, 0—gave us hope, it was not to be. Daniel Sharplin, who coincidentally is a teaching pro at Richard Millman's Westchester Squash Club, played a brilliant game against No. 2 Chin and won in four games, (3), 5, 6, 0. George Crosby, No. 3 Quick's opponent, came out with all cylinders firing in the deciding match and never let up, winning in three games, 2, 6, 3. With that, we finished a frustrating fourth in our pool and were placed in the 17-24 playoff.
As if to take the sting out of our disappointment, however, we soon learned that our loss to New Zealand would have no bearing on our eventual result. In accordance with the rules, the top two teams in each pool, along with all but two of the third place teams, advanced to the 1-16 playoff draw. Everyone else was relegated to the 17-24 draw, and New Zealand, having not won enough games off of Egypt and France, was one of those teams. Because we had won even fewer games against the French and the Egyptians, a win over New Zealand would not have secured our place in the top 16 either.
In the first round of the 17-24 draw, we easily beat a weak Norway team (3-0) and advanced to meet Hong Kong. Like New Zealand, Hong Kong was not out of our league, but we played poorly against them and lost 2-1. After Chin fell in four games to Vincent Cheung, an unorthodox but highly skilled player, 6, 1, (2), 4, Walker also lost in three games to the very experienced and fit Faheem Khan, 10-8, 4, 5 making Quick's last mach, which he won in a best-of-three games, irrelevant, 10-9, (6), 2.
All week long Walker had been trying in vain to hold off a cold, and by this time it had gotten the better of him. Barely able to get out of bed, he took himself out of the lineup for the Austria match, our last of the tournament, and the rest of us moved up one place on the ladder. Quick, now playing No. 2, capped off a week of steady play with a decisive, three-game victory over Markus Rossler, 6, 7, 2. The pressure was now on Chin at the top spot. His was not the deciding match, as I would still play at No. 3, but because I hadn't played in the previous six days, there was concern that I would not be match-sharp.
After winning the first two games decisively, Chin lost the third, and things did not look good for him. While the young Gerhard Schedelbauer's remarkable athleticism and speed finally seemed to kick in, Chin, who had struggled all week to find his rhythm and self-confidence, appeared to slow down. The fourth game, the longest of the match, was a ferocious battle in which the momentum switched countless times. But Chin's tenacious determination and attacking style of play were too much for his now exhausted opponent, and he won the fourth by a nail-biting two points, 3, 3, (3), 7. (I went on to lose the “dead rubber” match, 2-1, but I only lost to make Chin's win appear more important—at least that's what I tell him!)
As Chin threw his hands to the sky in a mixed expression of triumph and relief, we knew exactly how he felt. No one back home would be impressed with our 19th place finish, nor were we particularly happy with it. But in seeing first-hand the extremely high level of play in so many of the other countries' teams, we realized that any tough win is a win to be proud of. Austria was no Australia, but they were a good team, and we had beaten them! If we had to endure bringing back to America the bad news that, yet again, we hadn't finished in the top 16, we figured we had the right to relish this win for a little while.