Ascending from the subway station at 42nd Street and the Avenue of the Americas still stirs the senses, even if you’ve lived in New York City for decades. Turn one way and it’s the glittery LEDs of Times Square. Turn another and it’s the softer, old-timey glow of Grand Central. In a day or so, I’d be headed that way for the main draws of the Tournament of Champions, but tonight I was only going up one block to 43rd and the Princeton Club. The women’s qualifying matches were there, Harvard Club on 44th, and Yale Club on Vanderbilt. They’re all within a block or so of each other.
At Harvard, you go up seven floors. At Yale, up five. At Princeton, you descend a level, so it feels a bit cave-like when you come off the elevator. Two courts are scooped out on either side of a carpeted lobby. Tonight, thick off-white curtains walled off the small gallery overlooking one of the courts. A man in a dark collared shirt relayed the score as two all. Wow, I said, two all! “No, two OH,” he corrected me. Oh. My girl was losing.
I’d briefly met Reyna Pacheco a few years ago at a doubles tournament. Her personal backstory – including immigrating to the US from Mexico – intrigued me. But clearly tonight wasn’t her night. Cheyna Tucker, a blond South African and a head or so taller than Reyna, was pounding the ball into the back corners where Reyna was having a tough time digging it out. While Reyna had put together eight respectable points in the second game, she could only pull out two in the third and last game.
A young man and woman sitting together in the row behind me looked disappointed. They revealed that they had been classmates with Reyna at Columbia University and had recently graduated. Noureen, her wavy dark hair spilling over a sweatshirt, confessed that she didn’t play squash, but was there to support her friend. Jonah, in a light gray waffle-knit shirt was also a squash player, but he was having a hard time finding a place to play in the city that he could afford. How about here? I asked. Too expensive, he bemoaned, citing college loans. I commiserated.
A few minutes later, the players in the second and last match of the evening came onto the court to warm up. I had wondered why only two matches were scheduled at the club that evening, but as I looked around I began to suspect the cave-like interior. It didn’t help that the front right ceiling light was out. And the view from the gallery misses all the back wall shots — shots that seemed to compromise at least half of the ones in the next match between Welshwoman Deon Saffery and Canadian Nicole Bunyan. Both hit the ball with force, but Saffery seemed to have the more sensitive hands under pressure and made a lot of her winning shots from well-placed drops. The taller, more Bunyan-esqe Nicole got to the ball faster and more confidently as the match continued, but Saffery was tenacious and she didn’t let two game balls for Bunyan shake her resolve. She won the third and final game 14-12.
Within minutes, I was ascending again to the street. Which way to go? Grand Central beckoned. But there are still plenty of nights to take in the chandelier lights and star-studded matches of Vanderbilt Hall, so I turned and headed for Brooklyn and home.