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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Will Ramy Roar in Richmond?

Which of the world's best squash professionals will win the next big tournament on US soil, the North American Open next week.  To watch this impressive promo video click HERE
 There are three big Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournaments in the United States every season. The US Open was in Philly at the end of last year and the Tournament of Champions (ToC) just finished in New York. You would expect the third tournament to be in another major squash hub, like Boston, but it is not. It is two hours south of Washington DC, in Virginia.

Next week the 2012 Davenport North American Open kicks off at the Westwood Club in Richmond. The tournament has been held in Richmond, Virginia for nearly a decade now and, like the other two major PSA tournaments held in the US, it attracts all of the world's best professional squash players.

The field of players is generally the same between these three major squash tournaments in the US. The best PSA professionals the world has to offer compete for these titles and for the prize money on offer. In addition to the money, there are valuable tour points up for grabs, so it makes no sense for a top player to miss any of these three tournaments. Only injury prevents players from attending. The line up for next week is evidence of this. It includes seven former world number ones (all from Egypt, England or France) and the number one player from many other nations, e.g. Australia, Botswana, Canada, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Scotland, Switzerland and the USA, amongst others.

USA number one Julian Illingworth will face Olli Tuonimen of Finland in the first round and should Julian win, he faces world number one from England, Nick Matthew, in the second round. A tough draw indeed. Illingworth can definitely win against Tuonimen though. They are ranked twenty six and twenty three in the PSA world rankings, respectively. Illingworth could use your support in his first round match at the event.

The most notable difference between this field and that which played in the US Open and ToC is the reinclusion of talented Egyptian, and former world number one, Ramy Ashour. Ashour has been sidelined with an injury since last October so he has not played in any recent US based competitions. He has struggled with injuries over the years. It is extremely unfortunate for him and for the whole squash world. Egyptian national team coach Amir Wagih recently said of Ashour, "Players like Ramy come along once every ten years, like Jonathon Power, Jahangir Khan and Peter Nicol, he is a gifted player from God." "Ramy just enjoys his squash wherever he plays. He is happy and excited to be playing his trade and watching him is like [listening to] Mozart or Beethoven." The fact that Ramy is healthy again is a huge plus as he is a massive draw for the event.

The players aside, there is another subtle distinction between the NAO and other tournaments that is worth noting. The US Open last year was run by a team of US Squash staff. These young men and women work incredibly hard day and night to keep squash running smoothly across the country. And last year they took on the US Open after it has been run (and sometimes not run) by individuals in prior years who were looking to profit from the event. The team at US Squash runs like a well-oiled machine and, not surprisingly, the tournament they hosted was pretty phenomenal. It will be in Philly again next year, you should go and watch. It is somewhat like going to the US Open tennis at Flushing, with the size of the event and the vendors on display. It is truly impressive.

The Tournament of Champions in New York is put on by a for profit company called Squash Engine Inc., which brings you various high profile squash events in the northeast (through a sister company Event Engine). ToC is held in Grand Central Station and gets a phenomenal amount of publicity. But, how could it not in that location? John Nimick, CEO of both Squash Engine and Event Engine, also got a President's award for his efforts from US Squash.

By way of contrast, the NAO tournament is in Richmond, Virginia. This city is one hundred miles south of Washington DC and is not a traditional hotbed of squash, so organizing a successful squash tournament there is not a given. All of the men and women (about twenty five of them) who spend months preparing for and organizing the event are volunteers. And the leader of the volunteer group is not someone you will see front and center of all the action at the event. He plays a supporting role, always coordinating things in private. He has run the event successfully for nine years, for the love of the game and to help promote squash in Virginia generally.

This man's name is Gus Cook and he is a local squash pro in Richmond. Gus is a former semi-pro player from England. Upon moving to the US he was asked to run professional squash tournaments, like the Motor City Open in Detroit and the Lakeshore Classic in Chicago. Gus moved to Richmond in 2002 to take up the spot as head professional and program director at the Country Club of Virginia. Given that he had previously enjoyed the experience of running tournaments he naturally wanted to do this again. And this would be a fitting way to celebrate the completed construction of three international courts at his new club.

It was a humble beginning and the prize money at the first running of the tournament was only $10,000. In subsequent years the event moved to an all glass court set up at the University of Richmond (2006 - 2010), offering seating for four hundred spectators. Last year the NAO moved to the Westwood Racquet Club with seating for over five hundred people including a VIP skybox and restaurant viewing for several hundred more. The tournament is now one of only ten PSA World Series events held worldwide each year and the NAO purse for 2012 is an impressive $115,000.

Given the expansions and the personal involvement of Gus Cook, many of the best professional players in the world started showing up to play. Gus knows how to give the pros what they expect, in terms of transport, accommodation and entertainment, but he also knows how to run a large team of volunteers and get the best out of each of them. Today the event hosts every one of the world's best players and there is no other like it. Gus has achieved his personal goal of creating a buzz about squash and showcasing the best the PSA has to offer.

And he has achieved so much more for the game itself. So much so that the Governor of Virginia is attending on Wednesday February 22nd and will be proclaiming that day 'Virginia Squash Day'. Squash is growing at every level in Virginia. There are more men, women and juniors playing the game now than ever before by a significant margin. The University of Virginia is only an hour away and they are about to start building a brand new complex with eleven singles courts and two doubles courts. They can do this, in part, because of the success and increased exposure the North American Open has experienced. Ground has been broken on a new public multi sports club in the Far West End that will offer two singles and one hardball doubles court which will attract one hundred players to join even before its opening later this year.

Hopefully in the near future, Virginia will house many more singles and doubles courts and the squash community there will grow even bigger and stronger, and could perhaps even rival the bigger northeast cities in participation in national events. Squash will then inevitably be on the radar of more southern universities and colleges. There are already two high school teams in the Richmond area, with several more keen to get started in the near future and both the University of Richmond and University of Virginia have club team programs. An adult team league competition has over two hundred players and is steadily increasing all the time. This popularity is owing, in part, to the continued success and heightened profile of the North American Open over the years.

If you want to watch the tournament next week, ESPN3 will be broadcasting the semifinals and finals live on Friday February 24th and Saturday February 25th respectively. All the main round matches can be seen live online at Squash TV, the official live and video on demand website of the PSA. Or even better, go there to watch it for yourself. You can buy a ticket to attend the event at NAO website, get a direct flight from NYC on Delta or Continental, and book a stay at one of the many hotels in the Downtown, West End or Short Pump districts of Richmond. You will be glad you did.

It's gonna roar in Richmond again this year. Not just because Ramy Ashour is back from injury, but because of the committed efforts of the unsung heroes who so graciously host this event year after year.

Ramy Ashour gives a victory salute, will he roar back to the podium in Richmond?

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