Anybody who knows me will tell you that one of my big passions is squash – that’s the sport, not the fruit (No, its definitely not a vegetable because it has seeds). They may also tell you that another way I get my kicks is by teasing Americans, usually about sport (well you are all so insecure – who could resist?) an extreme sport in itself you may think, but it’s all in good fun. So last week, as Bear Stearns held their annual Tournament of Champions at New York’s Grand Central Station, I combined the two in a gratifying orgy.
Every year since 1995 America has played host to one of the few sports that they didn’t invent and keep to themselves so that only they could be “world champions” at it. Well, at least we Brits share. We even send you our old footballers (sorry, soccer players)!
Actually, I’m surprised that after so many years the US hasn’t produced any noteworthy squash players. After all, it’s generally agreed to be the toughest sport on the planet – just the kind of challenge Americans tend to rise to. However, moves are afoot and I think that the US has finally got itself behind the game. They have taken on John White an Aussie who plays out of Scotland and now lives in Pennsylvania where he is Director of Squash at Franklin and Marshall College and over the next few years I expect we’ll see Americans emerge among the world top twenty. John is still ranked World No9 on the pro circuit aged 34 and although he’s had some great results on court, his biggest claim to fame might be that he hits the ball harder than anybody else – 172mph hard in fact – and if you have ever been on a squash court with a decent player you’ll have some idea of how fast you have to move to reach a ball travelling at that speed! Anyway, I digress …
This year the big event provided another spectacle for the Big Apple’s daily rail commuters with 32 of the worlds top male players battling it out in a glass court in the foyer of Grand Central Station. There were a couple of Americans in the draw, but they didn’t last long and the final on Sunday ended up being a dual between the English player James Wisltrop and the 20-year-old Egyptian Ramy Ashour, back from a two-month injury time-out. Sadly, James lost, but Ramy is an amazing player with super-fast hands, so the final made for an exciting battle. We could be looking at a very-soon-to-be World Champion there!
In my day, the big battles were between Jahangir Khan and whoever managed to get a chance to tilt at his windmill, but for five years from the age of seventeen he remained unbeaten stringing an amazing 555 consecutive match wins together to set the record for unbroken wins in any sport. He was World Champion six times and won the British Open (the Wimbledon of squash) ten times. At that time North America was developing a similar game using a hard ball, so Jahangir nipped over the pond to play a dozen of their tournaments wining all but one (well he had to get acclimatised!) beating the champion of the game eleven times in the process. Once, when asked how he approached a match he is supposed to have explained that he treated it as though he were locked in a cage for a fight to the death with a deadly enemy. Something to do with his Peshawar warrior roots, I guess. The thing that separated Jahangir from his opponents was the incredible fitness that he had developed at the hands of his brother and trainer Rehmat Khan. He had that in common with the only other person who might challenge Jahangir for the title of squash’s greatest ever player Peter Nicol. Both of them underwent training regimes so punishing that only dedication, of a kind that few of us could imagine, would enable. Which brings me to my real point.
I admire people like these, I admire anybody who is so focused and determined nothing is too much to ask of them in exchange for realisation of their objective. These guys wanted to be the best in the world and they succeeded – OK with some guile and skills, but mostly with bloody hard physical effort and sacrifice. And that’s why I get so pissed off with people in organisations that I come across who want it all and want it now. Maybe its my time of life, perhaps there’s just a rash of this particular malaise right now or maybe its just the circles that I have been mixing in lately, but I seem all too often to hear the excuse “this is too big an ask” in response to the simplest suggestions. It appears that managers the world around think that real success is a matter of luck rather than graft, an idea maybe brought about by the notable recent successes of a few high-profile companies and now-wealthy individuals. Sure there are lucky breaks and we all need them from time to time, but most successful businesses get there the hard way and I was reading the other day that barely any of the world’s most successful companies in the last twenty years have lasted more than a few years, so maybe there’s a sustainability factor there too.
If you want success, I mean really want it, not just fancy being successful, you are going to have to accept that it will hurt, for a while at least – just like the training regimes of Jahangir, Peter and the other great athletes who have made it to the top.
January 23, 2008