Squash Championship comes to Richmond (the sport, not the food)

In a city starved for professional sports, over the weekend our fair town enjoyed Kobe/LeBron/Federer/Nadal-level talent at the Davenport North American Open Squash Championship.


In a city starved for professional sports, over the weekend our fair town enjoyed Kobe/LeBron/Federer/Nadal-level talent at the Davenport North American Open Squash Championship.

The what? Squash? For the uninitiated, squash is an incredibly intense racquet sport played by two players in a four-walled court with a small, hollow rubber ball. Unlike racquetball, the 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 170 mph. For those who compare workouts, an average male burns approximately 450 calories in 30 minutes playing squash. By contrast, the foursome of name stars mentioned above each hit shots at around 300 calories per half hour. The athleticism and sport demonstrated by these pros was unmatched.

The exciting week concluded with a thrilling five game final on Saturday that had the standing room only crowd on the edge of their seats (or their toes for those without seats). World #4 Ramy Ashour outlasted #9 Nick Matthew in a 91-minute marathon, 11-8, 13-11, 10-12, 5-11, 11-8 to claim the title of North American Champion. Ashour had defeated world #1 and fellow countryman, Karim Darwish, in one semifinal and Matthew had upset world #3 Greg Gaultier of France Friday night. The finale featured the contrasting styles of the Egyptian and the Englishman in a dream matchup of two young men at their peak, each demonstrating impossible kill shots and never say die attitudes. Many in the know called it one of the top three matches they have ever witnessed.

The tournament took place inside a glass-enclosed court at UR’s Millhiser Gymnasium all last week, attracted 56 players from 18 different countries and drew nine of the top 10 professional squash players in the current world rankings. The unique setting adds to the environment. The all glass court stands in stark contrast to the classic architecture of this grand old building erected in 1921. Spectators surround the court on all four sides for differing views of the action and unlike the big name sports, the matches are enjoyed in an intimate environment with around 400 spectators.

Ashour’s success succeeded his Namath-like prediction from last year’s tournament when he promised to return to Richmond and not leave without the trophy. One of the game’s young stars, the brash 21-year old overflows with a personality and sincerity to match his game on and off the court, at one point in the final literally tackling Matthew into the glass wall trying to chase a shot, followed by a wide smile (Matthew was not smiling) and a number of humorous exchanges with the crowd and referee, even blowing a kiss to the official in response to a call he liked. Matthew also managed to inject some levity into the intense match, responding to a ball abuse penalty with a reference to the tackle, exclaiming, “What about player abuse?… The ball can cope..”

Due in part to the popularity of the Davenport, squash has surged in the river city with competitive ladders and leagues in several clubs and teams competing at local high schools. Given the level of exercise and excitement, the sport’s popularity looks to continue to crest in the United States and around the world, with squash officials aiming earnestly at the 2016 Olympics. The heads of both the U.S. and world squash tournament governing bodies were in town for the event and wowed by Richmond’s leadership in the sport.

The Davenport North American Open is indisputably a top professional squash tournament in the world and bested in the United States only by the Tournament of Champions in New York City. One of the many world-class happenings in the RVA, if you happen to look around.

I was fortunate enough to enjoy dinner out in The Fan last week with some of the players and others involved with the tournament. After dinner, the excited chef came out to say hello and asked, “So, who is the Tiger of squash?” The answer happened to be standing right next to us. Oh yeah, Phil, Sergio, Vijay and Ogilvy were all there too. Five of the top nine athletes in an elite sport all out sharing a post-match meal and a lot of laughs together. Pretty cool for Richmond. Or anywhere.

(Photos courtesy of Patricia Lyons Photography)

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Ted Elmore

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