Elite pro squash tournament returns to Richmond

ESPN cameras are in Richmond again this week. After capturing last Friday night’s strong showing by the VCU Rams in their push for the NCAA tournament, this Friday night the network will go live in RVA for the semifinals of one of the world’s most important squash championships: the Davenport North American Open.

By Alan Thatcher and Ted Elmore

ESPN cameras are in Richmond again this week. After capturing last Friday night’s strong showing by the VCU Rams in their push for the NCAA tournament, this Friday night (ESPN3; 6pm) the network will go live in RVA for the semifinals of one of the world’s most important squash championships: the Davenport North American Open.

The NAO, hosted by Westwood Club in Richmond’s near West End, is a squash “major” in the Professional Squash Association World Series. Think the PGA Championship in golf or the French Open in tennis. Elite athletes want this title. Badly. As a result, this year’s event has attracted nine of the top ten players in the world rankings and 19 of the top 25. The only squash event in North America that even compares to the one in Richmond is the Tournament of Champions in New York City, played in Grand Central Station’s Vanderbilt Hall.

Picture the top international athletes in a name brand sport in Richmond competing for a major title, staying at our best hotels, shopping in Carytown, dining in the Fan, sipping morning coffee at local shops. That would be Lincolnlike exciting.

Turns out, so is the NAO. Players are here from all over the world including Egypt, England, France, Switzerland, India, Brazil, New Zealand, Australia, and Malaysia.

The top two seeds, James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, are both from England and have developed a simmering rivalry. Matthew, the world champion and world #1, has won the NAO the past two years, beating electric Egyptian superstar and current world #4, Ramy Ashour, on each occasion. Ashour last won the NAO in 2009 and is known for charming the Richmond crowds, if not the officials. Matthew is gunning for a hat trick this year. Or in stateside parlance, with apologies to Pat Riley, an NAO three-peat.

Speaking of Riley, Willstrop is the sport’s King James and is the top seed because he won three events back to back at the end of 2011 to take over as world #1 for the month of January. Matthew bested him in an amazing final in New York last month, which only heightened the pair’s rivalry coming into Richmond.

The pros really enjoy their time in our town and appreciate our warm Richmond welcome. Third ranked Gregory Gaultier of France remarked, “After all these years coming to Richmond, I have made a lot of friends, and it is always a pleasure to see them.”

Matthew echoed that sentiment:

“The whole tournament has a great feel to it. It’s a close-knit community and everybody goes out of their way to look after you.”

— ∮∮∮ —

Squash is an incredibly intense racquet sport played by two players in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball. When you watch the top pros, spectacular kill shots are often followed by an opponent’s incredible dive or lunge to return the ball. The rallies can develop a life of their own, push the audience to their seat’s edge, and their breath to a gasp.

Also short of breath are the players. Unlike racquetball, the squash ball is designed to have very little bounce, dramatically increasing the agility required of the players and the difficulty of the shot-making. Nonetheless, the professional matches feature that ball flying around at speeds up to 175 mph. For comparison, the top speed in the tennis majors is 155 mph.

An average male burns a whopping 517 calories in 30 minutes playing squash. Forbes magazine has rated squash the healthiest sport based on how the extended rallies, and almost constant running, build muscular strength and endurance in the lower body while all the lunges and twists tone and increase flexibility in the core.

Just don’t get hit by your opponent’s racquet. Especially if you are playing Australia’s Cameron Pilley, (15 in current PSA World Rankings), who broke the world record for fastest moving squash ball at the US Open in Philadelphia in October of last year.

Challenging the TSA rule book, Richmond’s Master of Ceremonies, has lugged a radar gun across the Atlantic to see if he can goad Pilley into shattering his mark here in Richmond. On Monday, Pilley pounded one past it at 167 mph with little effort. Stay tuned to see if he can eclipse 175 mph and put Richmond in the record books.

The Davenport North American Open has had an amazing impact on squash in Virginia, with a steady increase in the number of courts and participants. Competitive teams at local schools are grooming the champions of the future.

Also, Virginia Squash has launched an outreach program to underprivileged youth called SquashRocks. The program allows young people to get involved in a fun, healthy sport, stretching their legs and their opportunities.

The second round starts today, with matches from noon to eight. Governor McDonnell plans to attend this evening and is expected to deliver some welcoming remarks. Action intensifies Thursday night and Friday night, culminating in a 5:30pm match on Saturday to crown the North American Champion.

Subject to sellout, tickets are available for $10 – $80 at the door or on the tournament web site. Drinks are available for purchase on site.

Willstrop may have best summed up this premier tournament in Richmond’s proudest fashion:

“The NAO has a great community feel about it. Long may it continue.”

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Ted Elmore

2 comments on Elite pro squash tournament returns to Richmond

  1. The best part of live squash is the cheeky interchange between players and the ref who sits embedded with the fans.

  2. R Day on said:

    Nicely done piece. It is all true, and should not be missed. I defected from racquetball 15 years ago, and never looked back. Despite squash’s elitist stereotype, it is an amazing sport that anyone can play. Once you get to a modest level, you can have seemingly “to the death” ratllies with equally skilled opponants. In short, it is a phenominal workout.

    The more people try it, the more it will grow. Faster than tennis, harder than racquetball, and as smart as chess. But the piece you are trying to move is your opponant.

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