Squashed in Philly – watching the U.S. Open Squash Championships

Glass court at the Delaware Investments U.S. Open

The frustrating thing about the first few days of the 2011 Delaware Investments U.S. Open Squash Championships is that you want to watch every match, and if you want to watch both men’s and women’s matches, you have to choose. So sitting in the bleachers at Drexel University on Saturday,  I watched two Australian countrymen, David Palmer vs. Ryan Cuskelly, in the early afternoon, and then I decided to go looking for the women.

The men’s draw was being played in the glass court in the middle of the basketball stadium. The court is lit up like a jewel box, while the bleachers on each side are dim–the better to focus on the action inside the box. Palmer isn’t playing his most consistent squash ever, but he seems more in control of it and on the offensive. He’s a big, solid guy and lots of players look a bit scrawny next to him, including the more slender Cuskelly. Cuskelly has a powerful stroke, however; he makes Palmer work for every point and forces quite a few errors out of him. The games are close and early in the third game (2-0 Palmer) Palmer contests a ‘no let’ call and is pretty unhappy when the ref tells him to play on. The frustration about the call, however, gives him an adrenaline boost and before Cuskelly knows what’s hit him, Palmer is up 8-3. He should contest points more often if this is the result. But just as I think this, Cuskelly stops the onslaught, staunches the blood loss, and forces Palmer to give up point after point, all the way to 9-10. In the end, though, it’s not enough and Palmer wraps up the last two points for 11-9 and the match 3-0.

Chan vs. Urquhart in Women's Qualifying match

The women are still playing thier qualifying round matches, so they’re in one of Drexel’s regular courts – same building, different level. I arrive in the middle of a match between the tall Australian Donna Urquhart and the more compact Joey Chan from Hong Kong. I’m not sure how tall Urquhart is, but she’s a good head taller than Chan and her wingspan is impressive. Chan needs to move the ball to the corners to get it out of Urquhart’s reach. But Urquhart does what she can to not let her do that; she plays a lot of boasts that barely come off the front left wall and Chan cannot seem to get to them effectively, mishitting one too many. Then, early in the 4th game (2-1 Urquhart), Urquhart calls a double bounce and the ref overrides her, which visibly upsets her. And it feels like a repeat of Palmer’s reaction to the ‘no let’ call. Her power volume turns up and she quickly gets the next point, talks back to the ref after another call she doesn’t like and turns it up further. I think of Palmer’s answer to the announcer’s question after his match, that he disagreed with the referee and how that affected him. I didn’t catch his answer word for word but he clearly knew how to make his anger work for him. And so does Ms. Urquhart. She gets the 4th game 11-6.  A 3-1 match for Urquhart.

Admittedly, I don’t know many of the women in the qualifying rounds, so I’m not sure if I’m going to stay for the next match. The warm-up, however, intrigues me. Victoria Lust (England) hits the ball with such determination and deliberativeness; she ducks her head down before almost every shot as if going under water. I am not knocking it, it just has a very unique look. Her opponent, Delia Arnold (Malaysia) has a much smoother stroke in contrast and it appears to take less energy.  I place my bets on Arnold for that very reason, that and nothing seems to fluster her. Even when she has to call let after let when Lust does not clear well enough. Both women are right-handed and they like to hit deep rails down the left wall.  But Lust also prefers to stick as close as she can to her opponent and time and again she just doesn’t get all of her body out of the way of Arnold’s swing. Arnold doesn’t hit her, but it’s clear that she has to stop her backswing. To my mind, she has no option but to call the let.

Lust vs. Arnold in Women's Qualifying match

The officials don’t think that Lust is the only player crowding her opponent, however. Lust also asks for plenty of lets and she gets them as well. She’s a bit more physical about it, however, running into Arnold when it sometimes seems that she would have no chance at the ball. But I can empathize; she’s an athletic player and I’ve already seen many players get to balls that I thought were lost to anyone. It’s also interesting to me when a player makes weak shot after weak shot, barely getting a ball back, and then is either able to put it away or the opponent flubs the weaks shot instead of putting it away. Despite some of these, Arnold gets the second game 11-9 to lead 2-0.

Early in the third game, Delia gets a warning from the ref: “Miss Arnold, please clear your shots.” And as cool as Arnold seems, the warning seems to fluster her a bit. They go shot for shot, 3-3, 3-4, 4-4, 5-4, 5-5, etc. and it’s looking like more of a battle now. I can’t help wincing every time they get too close to one another, as if I’m a backseat driver and am trying to step on the break. I actually find myself ducking a few times…. At 7-6, Arnold starts to pull away, despite her second warning from the ref. She gets to 10-7, match point and then tins again and again and again. Match point slips away and she loses the third game to Lust 12-10.

Two to one game matches are pretty common. Especially when a player is down two love and gets the third. I’ve been there; you know you can do it, win a game, but you don’t always believe you can win a match. Who knows what Lust was thinking, but it’s clear early in the fourth game that Arnold, as cool a player as she is, that she’s also damn determined. She moves the ball around the court a lot more than she did before, speeding up and then slowing the pace, mixing everything up as much as she can. At 9-6 it looks like she might go all the way to eleven without too much trouble, but Lust is not one to give up and it appears as if she may repeat the third game, bringing the score up to 9-10. And then Lust has not one but four lets called against her, until Arnold finally gets the match 11-9. I breathe a sigh of relief. I won’t have to run out in-between games and add money to the Muni-Meter….

In fact, I have enough time to run to the restroom and then catch Ms. Arnold in the hall for a brief chat. I wonder aloud if all the lets Ms. Lust called shook her up at all, even though they didn’t seem to. She quickly dismissed that, suggesting that most women are used to that in pro events. It was the third game that shook her up. Lust had changed the pace and Arnold went along with it, losing her own timing in the process. Her decision before the fourth game was to go back to her own game, focus on every point,  and control the pace herself. It worked. And she also wasn’t going to let more match points go.

I watched more squash after that, but my own timing was off. You can only focus on so many points, even as a fan. We get inspired, but we also get tired. Maybe tomorrow I’ll head back to the glass court. I just wish I didn’t have to choose. . . .

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