Champions and Commuters

What is the biggest event in squash doing so close to the Metro-North ticket counters?
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Someone's going to miss a connection in Stamford.

Photo by David Roth.

Tennis has Wimbledon's whisper-shrouded Centre Court. Golf claims the mossy gentility of Augusta National. Squash has Manhattan's howling, hectic Grand Central Terminal.

A glass court erected in the storied station's Vanderbilt Hall every year for the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions is the sport's signature venue. The 21-foot by 32-foot enclosure, illuminated by 24 brilliantly florescent light panels that starkly contrast with the ornate gold-leafed chandelier hanging from the stone ceiling, sits on the east side of the hall. Grandstands that fit 550 spectators surround the court on three sides. The low roar and frenzy of Grand Central surround all of that.

But even those without tickets can enjoy the spectacle. The front wall of the court faces a corridor through which thousands pass every day. Tournament director John Nimick says more spectators watch the ToC than any other squash event in the world, as 25,000 people walk by per day. One player euphemistically—or perhaps extremely optimistically—cited a figure in the "millions." At any rate, a great deal of pedestrian traffic pounds past the court on which 24 of the world's top 25 players have contested the $115,000 tournament. Some stop to watch the action through the semi-opaque glass. During one first round match, they stand four deep, flinching involuntarily as one when a hard rubber ball flies off a pro's racquet at 100 miles per hour, slams into the glass a few feet from their faces, and bounces back into play.

For reasons obvious and less obvious, the Vanderbilt Hall court creates a unique viewing—and playing—experience. "I love the atmosphere. At the other venues, you don't see anyone come to watch you. Here, there are people watching from noon until the last match," Marwan El Shorbagy, dressed casually in a green Hollister zip-up hoodie and blue sweatpants, says the day after riding the crowd's energy to a first-round upset of former world No. 1 Thierry Lincou.

The environment shares more with the US Open's raucous Arthur Ashe Stadium than with the All England Club's buttoned-up Centre Court. Spectators in the stands double-fist $7 Palm Ale and $9 Dewar's purchased from the Cayman Islands Bar across the hall. Between games, they rush for refills while Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" and Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" blare from Bose speakers. They cheer loudly. The scene is... fun. When crowd favorite Colombian Miguel Angel Rodriguez falls behind two games to one, he ditches his pink shirt in favor of a purple one. Chants of "a la Colombia" explode when he returns wearing his bright new ensemble. (The shirt-change ploy works. Rodriguez wins the final two games and defeats higher ranked Hisham Ashour.)

Nimick, who has overseen the tournament for each of its first 15 years, stumbled across Vanderbilt Hall rather serendipitously. "I was running the WPS Championship in the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center. A good friend asked if I knew the space in Grand Central that used to be the waiting room. I told him, 'No, I'm from Boston,'" the former pro says. "That was 1994, and the space wasn't being used for much. I went to Metro-North, pitched the idea, and God bless them, they said yes."

A decade and a half later, Nimick's vision is seen by spectators of all ages. Patrick Harris, who played the University of Rochester team, shows up both for the party and the talent on display. "I come here every year," he says, sipping a dark cup of Palm during a break in the action on Saturday afternoon. "I see all my college friends. I get to drink and see some great squash."

The players like the venue even more than the people watching. "I still can't believe the sport's come to this level," James Willstrop, the six-foot, four-inch Englishman who won his last 15 matches of the 2011 season and took over the No. 1 spot in the rankings earlier this month, says. "Thirty years ago, pros played on cold courts in smelly squash clubs, so to put it in the most famous railway station in the world is amazing."

The lanky 28-year-old—squash players come in two sizes: long and lanky or short and quick—experienced success at the ToC, winning in 2010. But even players who struggle cherish playing in Vanderbilt Hall. "The tournament is the highlight of the season for me, even though I always play badly," Tarek Momen says after a Thursday morning practice session. Momen predicted his own fate well, as he lost to Germany's Simon Rosner in his opening match. The next day, however, he was wearing street clothes and smiling effusively as he watched No. 3 Greg Gaultier dispatch Spain's Borja Golan in three games. If any of the spectators noticed the 18th ranked player in the world standing in their midst, they didn't let on.

Playing on the court is indeed a strange experience. One day last week, Willstrop and I hit for five minutes. Immediately, Vanderbilt Hall melted away. Only inside the four walls mattered. It was just me, him, and 600 square feet of space.

If there's a word to describe being on the court with the world's best player, it's "Fuck." I played on my college team, but Willstrop, who cites Morrissey as a hero, seems to be playing a different game entirely—one with its own laws of physics and a different and crueler concept of time. I suppose this would be similar to playing basketball with LeBron James, but LeBron at least looks like LeBron. The Englishman was not outwardly significantly more athletic that I am.

He is. When I stepped on the court, Willstrop said he was "knackered" from the practice session he just finished. We played probably 20 points. He took it easy, but even his relaxed strokes were perfectly placed and frequently unhittable. I won a single point with a drop shot my opponent almost certainly could have gotten. Willstrop, for his part, seemed decidedly less knackered than he had been when we started. Besides the one point that I won, I left with a new and painful physical understanding of what "knackered" actually meant.

Between one of the points, I made the mistake of glancing through the blue glass at the front of the court and noticed outlines of two dozen people watching my feeble attempts to retrieve Willstrop's drives. The significance of the space returned. My focus evaporated. It never returned.

These moments of distraction on the court at Grand Central happen to the world's best as well. "Flash photography is banned, but occasionally someone passing by will take a picture," said Wael El Hindi, who reached the quarterfinals as an 18 year old. "It flashes in your eye, and you start recognizing people on the other side of the glass. You start thinking, 'Is that my friend?'"

El Hindi, a transplanted New Yorker, may have some friends in the audience, but most of the people standing just behind the front wall are new to the sport. Steve Syrop and his wife wandered up to Vanderbilt Hall to while waiting for a train that would take them home to Westchester. "I read in the paper that some foreign competitors were playing," he said while checking out the court. "I'm just looking at how the glass is put together. It's kind of neat."

Was he going to keep watching?

"I'm going to stick around until my train comes."

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