1 of 2
Ramy Ashour (in front) and Nick Matthew have met in the last three finals of the NAO. Ashour won the first meeting and Mathew the last two. Photos by Patricia Lyons
2 of 2
Richmond is, generously speaking, a Double- or Triple-A city when it comes to spectator sports. Sure, NASCAR vrooms through town twice a year. Shaka Smart's VCU Rams and Chris Mooney's University of Richmond Spiders gave the city an undeniable thrill last March with their impressive runs in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And yes, the Double-A Flying Squirrels and second-division Kickers fill important niches in baseball and soccer, respectively. But for those hoping to see truly world-class athletes ply their trade here, there's a little-known jewel on the local sporting landscape: the $100,000 Davenport North American Open (NAO), hosted by Richmond's Westwood Club the week of Feb. 19-25.
The professional squash tour's best players — 16 of the top 20 from last year — annually make the trek from Europe, the Middle East and Oceania to play in the event. The tournament offers vital ranking points, as well as prize money that places it among the top two North American tournaments.But local squash backer Ted Price — who helped develop the city's first junior and school squash programs, and whose name adorns an annual collegiate invitational tournament, the Price-Bullington Invitational, played at the Country Club of Virginia each October — says there's more to it than that.
"Any city can have a tournament like we do," Price says. "But what draws players is the enthusiasm and appreciation they get from the people here." Another plus: Many players bunk with local families for the week, returning annually to renew friendships forged over the years.
Played with a long, thin-framed racquet and a soft rubber ball not much larger than a Tootsie Pop, squash has an emphasis on athleticism, endurance and quick-twitch muscle movements that attracts its share of intense, type-A athletes from other sports. Former University of Virginia lacrosse player John Street and Westwood tennis pro Sean Steinour are two of the area's top amateurs, and more than 200 local players compete in citywide league play.
The action on court can best be described as akin to hand-to-hand combat: Players race to return balls off the back wall and scoop up feathery drop shots at the front, all while dodging one another. Owing to the tight confines of the court (21 feet wide by 32 feet deep compared to a racquetball court's 20-by-40-foot size), players are somewhat dependent on one another to make room for them to have an unhindered swing at the ball. This blurry line often results in players making passionate appeals for lets, or a replay of the point.
The NAO has been a potent driver for the growth of squash in Central Virginia. A local consortium hopes to break ground on a multicourt squash complex in the West Broad Street corridor within the next 12 to 18 months, and an anonymous donor in Charlottesville is funding a proposed 11-court squash complex at the Boar's Head Inn, with groundbreaking scheduled for early 2012. Currently, Richmond boasts a total of 10 courts: two older hardball courts at the University of Richmond, three at the Country Club of Virginia, two at the Commonwealth Club, one at Westwood and two more at the James River Family YMCA. ACAC is building two additional courts at its new Short Pump-area facility.
Often viewed as solely the province of a moneyed few, the sport has seen impressive growth and growing democratization nationwide — spearheaded by the sport's governing body, U.S. Squash — as well as in the commonwealth, where Virginia Squash sponsors clinics, junior programs and tournaments for players of all ages and skill levels. A grass-roots program, Squash Rocks, now in its third season, provides elementary- and middle-school children from Richmond's Peter Paul Development Center with an opportunity to develop squash skills.
David Hetherington, a St. Christopher's alumnus ('90) and a former collegiate player at Hartford, Conn., squash powerhouse Trinity College, is the current president of Virginia Squash. He has played a vital role in procuring sponsorship dollars for the tournament since its elevation to elite Super Series status in 2008, when the event was held at UR's Millhiser Gymnasium.
Says Hetherington, "Westwood reached out to us, and they had a much better space, locker rooms, on-site catering, better infrastructure opportunities and an enhanced social dimension around the event." The venue takes over terrain usually reserved for indoor tennis and features courtside seating for 550 spectators and standing-room capacity for 300.
Tournament director Gus Cook came to Richmond in 2001 to lead the fledgling squash program at the Country Club of Virginia at the behest of Price and others.
"When I first thought about doing this event, the goal was to raise the profile of the sport here and get people excited about squash," Cook says. "I never imagined that the event would reach this level. We operate quite differently than other events. … We work on a tighter budget, we rely a lot on volunteers and players pick up on the sense that Richmond is really enthusiastic about their being here."
It's an intense but enjoyable week for players who live out of suitcases most of the year. Nick Matthew, the two-time defending champion of the NAO and the top-ranked player in the world, writes from England, "Every time we come to Richmond, it's like we've never left. The squash community in Richmond is very tight-knit, and everyone goes out of their way to make us feel like we are members of this family. Not to mention staying at The Jefferson, which is my favorite hotel on the whole tour."
His rival, third-ranked Gregory Gaultier of France, adds, "The organization looks after the players really well, makes life easy for us and we can just focus on our squash. After all these years coming to Richmond, I have made a lot of friends, and it is always a pleasure to see them."
Ticket prices range from $15 to $20 per session (four matches) in the first round to $80 for the championship. Ticket packages for the whole week are also available. For information, visit naosquash.com .