Squash occupies an interesting place in our household. Our father has been a squash devotee since law school, which has inevitably spilled over into the rest of the family, whether it was Julia picking it up in college, or Squash TV blasting incessantly from the living room. One night Alexandra came storming out of her bedroom to announce that she couldn’t sleep with the sounds of the ball bouncing around. You get the picture.
Squash has been beloved by urban professionals in the U.S. for years, but a new generation of superstar players is expanding the sport’s appeal. At the top of the game is Ramy Ashour, a three-time World Champion who some call the greatest racquet sport player of our time (sorry Federer, Nadal!) Hailing from Egypt, Ramy is to squash what Michael Jordan is to basketball, or Muhammad Ali to boxing: an athlete who transcends technical precision and invents a totally new style of play.
Trying to describe the artfulness of Ramy's game is an art in itself. If David Foster Wallace were alive, he would likely be able to capture the beauty and quirkiness of Ramy's play just as he did in his tennis essay on Roger Federer. Sadly, we don't have Wallace with us anymore, but we do have our squash-crazed father, who has described Ramy as “creative, unconventional, plays with flair, has charisma. His racquet is an épée to the other players' clubs. He also has the heart of a champion." One look at Ramy's game reveals that he has a unique ability to pirouette across the court while hitting hard and taking shots that are often the opposite of what others in that same position would do. He doesn’t lose his cool when he falls behind, and has made many a spectacular comeback. He’s not afraid to take a dive or do whatever it takes for the point.
Even though his shots are so unpredictable, he does have a signature move: over head backhand into the right front nick. These shots appear from a position where he has no back swing. And they happen with such force and feather-light precision. Watching Ramy's Prince racquet cut across the court reminds us of Jimi Hendrix swinging his Stratocaster guitar deep into the stage at Monterey Pop: explosive, unpredictable, but absolutely perfect and performed by someone who knew all along that it would make sense in the end.
We introduced Ramy as a sort of god of squash, but what makes him even more interesting than that is his human fragility, the sort of pervasive delicateness that lurks in the background behind any great athlete or artist. As he seeks his fourth World Championship, this season is especially big for Ramy because he is getting near the end of his prime years and is trying to come back from injuries sustained over several seasons of intense and limit-testing play. This season Ramy is playing against himself as much as he is against many other top players.
The Cathay Hong Kong Open begins today, aka the first major (i.e. World Series) event of the squash season, followed by tournaments at the pyramids of Giza and Grand Central Station. We’ll be watching Ramy, and for all the non-sports fans out there, his infectious smile is reason enough to tune in, too.