Report Card On The US Men's Team

by Rob Dinerman

November 23, 2001  -Still riding the momentum of a competitive and successful Team Trials play-off in mid-August, the U.S. Men's Team optimistically prepared for the mid-October World Team Championships in Melbourne, Australia expecting their best player to be at the top of his formidable game, expecting their renowned coach to be able to provide the blueprint for victory in a number of close matches, expecting to be playing with the regulation 19-inch softball tin with which they had been conducting their practice sessions, expecting to receive at least a reasonably tractable draw and expecting most of all to improve on or at least match the 17th-place finish they had earned when the last World Team event had been held two years earlier in Cairo.

Not a single one of those expectations was able to come to fruition. Reigning U.S. National Champion Damian Walker, who had reasserted his supremacy over his American counterparts by roaring through the Trials without the loss of a single game, incurred an upper-respiratory infection during the lengthy plane flight to Australia which he never was able to shake, and which in fact worsened as the gruelling week of matches progressed, ultimately leaving him so depleted that he couldn't even play in the final match, by which time most of the damage to the American team's aspirations had been done anyway.

Head Coach Paul Assaiante, whose powerhouse Trinity squad has won the NISRA Intercollegiate championship each of the past three years, was forced to undergo back surgery on an injured disc in late September and was prohibited by his physician from making the trip all the way to the other side of the world so soon after a procedure of this magnitude.

The Americans learned only upon their arrival in Melbourne that the matches would be played with the lower 17-inch tin, an adjustment that it must be said had been known by many of the players of the other countries, whose national associations had learned about this fact and gotten the word to their players, thus enabling them to conduct their pre-tournament training sessions accordingly.

Another unwelcome surprise greeting the U.S. contingent once their plane had landed was the news that they had been placed in the only one of the six preliminary four-team pools that contained two teams ranked in the top seven.

In the end, the Americans staggered to a 19th-place finish out of only 24 total teams, a performance that reflected both the cumulative weight of this series of mishaps and, more importantly, the limitations of a national-association approach to world team competitions of this nature that clearly needs major upgrading if the U.S. harbors any realistic plans or hopes of significantly improving their placements either in 2003, when the next World Team Championships are scheduled in Finland, or going forward from there.

For while future such trips will presumably be free from the unforeseen physical maladies that clobbered the head coach and No. 1 player this time around, the prevailing view was that, bottom-line, the Americans had the 19th best team, give or take a spot or two, and therefore finished pretty much exactly where they deserved to.

Certainly it was a jolt for the players to learn shortly before the event began that Coach Assaiante---who had vowed that the operation would not prevent him from going and tried in vain to dramatically compress his rehabilitation schedule until reality hit in the form of both a physical setback and his doctor's edict---would not be present to lend his guidance and considerable wisdom, and it was slightly unnerving as well to find out very shortly before the initial match that the tin would not be the height they had been led to believe it would; such last-minute changes in the playing environment are always a bit disorienting, especially when one also learns that most other countries had known about the tin-height.

But the most telling early blows to the American squad's psyche were administered by the players representing Egypt and France, the sixth- and seventh-ranked countries respectively, who in the first two pool matches early in the week delivered a series of severe on-court thrashings from which the confidence of the American players would never truly recover.

The carry-over effect from these dismaying routs (with only Preston Quick at No. 3 being able to salvage a game against France after a nine games to none wipe-out with Egypt) made its insidious presence most felt in important, challenging but winnable losses the Americans subsequently suffered to New Zealand in the final match of the pool competition and to Hong Kong in the 17-24 bracket playdown. Both of these matches were against teams of comparable vintage and skill level and in each the U.S. had its chances but came out on the short end of a 2-1 decision.

The New Zealand match was especially disheartening for the immense effort a physically sub-par but heroic Walker expended in surmounting his ailment and rallying to a 3-1 victory over veteran professional Paul Steele. Buoyed by a pair of tight mid-match 9-7 and 10-8 wins after a sluggish first game, Walker pressed the advantage of that third-game overtime and sprinted to an exhilarating 9-0 shut-out in the fourth. It was known that New Zealand had excellent depth and that the No. 3 match would be troublesome for the U.S., so the pressure was definitely on No. 2 Richard Chin to defeat Kiwi Daniel Sharplin in a match in which neither player was a clear favorite over the other.

Chin's best game coming into the Sharplin match had been at the beginning of his opening match with Egypt's Amr Shabana, whose tins had helped Chin to a late-game lead. But when that opportunity slipped away to a series of dynamic Shabana winners, Chin never threatened thereafter in that match and was throttled against Frenchman Jean-Michel Arcucci, whose superior firepower limited Richard to only three official points, none in a disastrous third game.

Whether or not Chin suffered flashbacks of the Arcucci nightmare in his match with Sharplin a few days later is subject to speculation. What is known is that, after riding a hot shooting streak to an easy first-game win, Chin became undone by the very strategy that had enabled him to start the match so well, tinning his way to a 9-5 second-game defeat and collapsing in the last two 9-0 games, following which New Zealand did indeed take the No. 3 match and thus the overall team victory.

Then, after a heartening 3-0 American win over Norway that effectively got the U.S. to the semis of the 17-24 portion of the competition, Chin again found himself on the firing line against Hong Kong. A win here would have gotten the Americans to a rematch with New Zealand for 17th place, and the U.S. team would have dearly loved the opportunity both to match their '99 placement and to avenge their defeat to an opponent they viewed as eminently beatable.

This time it was thought that Quick would be able to triumph at No. 3, though it was also known that Walker in his weakened state would be in a very difficult position against Hong Kong star Faheem Khan, a native Pakistani who had been ranked in the world top-15 during the mid-1990's. As a result, in Chin's match at No. 2 with youngster Vincent Cheung it was crucial that he duplicate his performance, also in the lead-off position, the previous day against Norway, when he got the U.S. off to a good start by notching his first win of the competition. But in the latter stages of a tight opening game, the tense lack of confidence that had characterized his game earlier in the week resurfaced, resulting in the loss of that game and spilling over into the second.

Chin regrouped and rode a suddenly hot hand to an easy third-game victory, but the 0-2 hole was too deep to climb completely out of and Cheug sealed the match by winning the fourth, 9-4. When Walker expended an enormous amount of energy attempting to win an epic first game against Khan only to fall agonizingly short in a vital tiebreaker, his chance to salvage an American victory effectively disappeared, making the ease with which Quick scored a straight-set victory in the ensuing "dead rubber" match, if anything, even more painful to absorb.

Though the loss-strewn week concluded with a victory over Austria for 19th place, it was much too little much too late and hopefully didn't occlude the glaring weaknesses that by then had become apparent. Notwithstanding the forceful efforts everyone made to be as ready as possible for this competition and the admirable team camradery that even a week of defeats was unable to undo, it is clear that neither the conditioning level nor the ball-control level nor especially the international match-experience level was high enough for the American contingent to compete on the world stage; indeed, the gap between the U.S. and even the second-echelon squash countries is actually widening rather than closing.

Even with two veteran protagonists like Walker and Chin at the top, this team seemed competitively "green," i. e. lacking the international-tournament experience backlog to provide them with the wherewithal to react to changing challenges posed both from match to match and even in the course of one match, and this deficiency seemed to make its unpleasant presence most noticeably felt in the crunch of tight end-games, the majority of which went to the opposition, packing both a statistical and psychological wallop.

Shadowing any efforts to better prepare teams representing America in future competitions at this level is an awareness that everyone has attained by now that the ideal approach in terms of securing the best possible results --- namely to understand that this is not a two-week event or a two-month event, as the U.S. Committees have always regarded it, but rather in essence a two-YEAR event necessitating that the team members be pretty much determined NOW and spend the next two years practicing and traveling to international tournaments together and completely devoting themselves and their lives to individual and team success in Finland, with a traveling coach accompanying them as well---is so impractical financially and in other ways and so far removed from what the actual reality will be that it is almost a waste of time to discuss and debate the relative merits of the preparations that will actually be undertaken.

Coach Assaiante, now well along in but hardly finished with his post-surgery rehabilitation, will do his utmost to bring his powerhouse Trinity squad its fourth consecutive NISRA title and to provide the same wisdom and tireless dedication as ever to the young charges fortunate enough to develop under his tutelage. Walker and Chin, both of whom have expressed an interest in playing in 2003 and both of whom will almost certainly still have the skill and athleticism to make that U.S. team two years hence, have already returned to their important and demanding head pro positions at the Greenwich Field Club and Harvard Club of New York respectively, where they will play and practice as often as they can in what little free time their coaching and lesson commitments allow them.

Quick, who has also experienced some success on the ISDA Doubles tour, and fellow U.S. team member Tim Wyant, will continue to play in satellite PSA/NA tournaments and to improve their games, as will several other recently graduated college stars whose bid to make the 2001 team fell just short in the trials, such as Dave McNeely, Beau River and current Harvard undergraduate Pete Karlen.

Plans are already underway to form criteria for selection to the American team at the Pan American games scheduled for Ecuador this spring. Getting the correct tin-height shouldn't pose a major obstacle next time, nor should coming up with an equitable set of criteria; in fact, the USSRA was deservedly praised for the fairness of the criteria that it developed for the Melbourne team and the timeliness with which they were disseminated. But producing a U.S. team that is really ready to do some damage in future World team Championships will be a far more daunting proposition.

The only way that might eventually be accomplished is for the current USA Squash concept to undergo a major reconstruction. Any talented junior who spends the four consecutive years of his late teens and early 20's in college, even if he is playing in an elite NISRA program, has effectively thereby ended his prospects of becoming a world-class player, since his contemporaries from many other countries(like players from America and all over the world currently do in tennis) will have spent that same developmentally crucial time period playing international tournaments and building a competitive edge that practically no amount of post-graduation dedication will be able to reverse. It is worth noting in this regard as well that the national squash organizations of most of the other squash-playing countries extensively support their most promising players with coaching, physiotherapy, training camps and travel expenses in a manner that is not remotely reflected in the USSRA's current involvement. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather is simply a statement of empirical fact, one whose sweeping ramifications speak for themselves.

Perhaps an interim step might be for today's top American juniors, like Julian Illingsworth, Michael Gilman and Richard Repetto, to play in as many of the growing number of junior international events as they can, then attend college for a year or two, and then hit the international circuit, delaying their college graduation until their competitive squash careers are over.

Even that plan would represent a major adjustment from the current status quo---but if the Melbourne experience conveyed any message loud and clear to those in America who are committed to the future of international squash in this country, whether on the administrative, coaching or playing fronts, it is that U.S. Squash cannot keep regarding these events as merely a kind of enjoyable and challenging extra-curricular activity unless it is correspondingly prepared to continue to live with the kind of lower-tier results that characterized its disappointing performance in the 2001 World Team Championships last month.

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