Squash at Symphony Hall shows off world’s top players

Competitors vie for Sharif Khan trophy

Egypt's Ramy Ashour, the world's top-ranked player, triumphed last Wednesday night as the global game of squash made a splash in Boston at Symphony Hall. Dubbed "Showdown@Symphony," the exhibition tournament sought to promote squash in a country where it is but a niche sport. Four of the world's best competed in a single-elimination format on the stage of Symphony Hall for the Sharif Khan Trophy as diners on the orchestra floor and spectators from the balconies took in the action. While the organizers pulled out all the stops to keep the audience entertained with their choice of venue and assorted gimmicks, the game itself needs no embellishment.

Squash, at its highest levels, is so striking to the observer because of the continuity of the play and the kinetic, contested nature of every point. There are no lazy fly balls, no serves that cannot be returned, and no insurmountable leads. As quickly as the players hustle to the front wall and lunge to elevate the ball over the tin (analogous to the "net" in tennis), the ball shoots back over their heads; in turn, they scramble back and play the carom off the back wall. The basic idea is that players must alternate hits off the front wall of a four-walled court; the ball may bounce only once on the ground but can be hit off of any other wall on the way to the front wall. The ball, which is easily "squashed" into different oblong shapes and bounces little from a dead-drop, seems ill-suited to long-lasting rallies. To the novice player, a ball lofted into a corner can be irretrievable. The professionals on hand Wednesday night, however, kept the ball live with acrobatic shots from all parts of the court, often stringing together rallies that lasted for more than fifty shots.

Gregory Gaultier, cast as "the Frenchman" by the emcee, dueled with Amr Shabana in the first semifinal. Gaultier and Shabana were clearly enjoying themselves on stage for the audience, pleading with the audience and playfully interacting with each other over the course of the match. Gaultier's deft, no-look shot into the opposite corner in the midst of a close first game elicited the first of many “oohs” from the crowd. Gaultier let Shabana back into the match at 10-9 after a circus-like sequence in which the players walked in circles around each other, alternating hits to the exact same spot in the deep left corner. Gaultier would take the first game but fell in the second to Shabana. In a quirk of the Showdown's exhibition format, the match was decided by a final, sudden-death point. After forty-one shots on the same point, Shabana inexplicably put an easy shot back into the tin, handing Gaultier a spot in the final.

The second semifinal appeared to be a horrendous mismatch; the young Ramy Ashour, the current world No. 1, against thirty-six year old Jonathan Power, who indicated that he had taken time off from high-level squash. The crowd was quiet through the first twelve points, in which Power made numerous errors that gave Ashour an easy 8-4 lead. Gradually, Power willed himself back into the match, drawing loud cheers from a crowd supporting the underdog and the only North American of the bunch (Power is Canadian). Power came back to win 11-10. In the second game, however, Power couldn't turn the same trick. Ashour didn't relinquish his early lead and evened the match with an 11-4 victory.

The tiebreaker point highlighted an interesting feature of a game in which two players are confined to the same space but must avoid each other in making their shots. If one player gets in the way of his or her opponent, the point can be replayed or else awarded to either of the two players, depending on the judgment of the official. While Power appeared to win the sudden-death tiebreaker, Ashour appealed to the official for a "let," and the official instructed the players to replay the point, much to the dismay of the pro-Power crowd. Ashour won the replayed point, earning a berth in the final.

The theatrics and gimmicks designed to entertain the audience through the semi-finals and the consolation match had faded away by the time the final matchup came around, featuring Gaultier and Ashour. Gaultier dazzled again, hitting between his legs on an intense first point that ultimately went to Ashour. Ashour, who seemed to control each game with his athleticism and creativity, showed his brilliance in winning a point cleanly on a return of serve, a rare feat amidst the long rallies that rule most of the game. Gaultier took the first game by a score of 11-10, but Ashour stormed back with an 11-7 victory in the second game. The final was decided by a full game to eleven instead of a one-point tiebreaker, and, after nearly two matches, Gaultier and Ashour continued to put on a show in the last game. Gaultier's error at 10-9 gave Ashour the match and the championship trophy.

Playing squash at MIT

The Zesiger Center has six squash courts; while often busy on weekday evenings, courts are usually available and can be reserved at the Vassar St. Customer Service Desk. Squash is a great way to fulfill the PE requirement; a beginner-level class is available! A recreational "box" league exists as well; ask around at the courts for more information. If you want to watch squash, you can cheer on MIT's squash team during its winter season.