Yale Club To Lose Its Exhibition Hardball Court
by Rob Dinerman

May 30, 2002
- The main exhibition court at the Yale Club of New York, the site of numerous professional, amateur and age-group tournaments and some extraordinary matches during the more than two decades since its construction in 1981, will be eliminated as part of a substantial summer-long renovation of the club's athletic facilities and locker room areas on the fifth and sixth floors.

For the past four years, this court has been the club's last remaining hardball court, and its 125-seat gallery was filled to capacity many times during hardball's glory days of the 1980's and early 1990's. The athletic facilities were shut down during the Memorial Day weekend and the Executive Council vote that sealed the famous court's fate occurred at a meeting on the evening of May 28th.

With the departure of this court, which hosted tournament play as recently as the 2002 USSRA Nationals this past February, another step was taken in a process that seems destined to leave New York, formerly the mecca of hardball squash, bereft of any hardball courts before too much longer. Of the 1l clubs (Racquet & Tennis, University, Lincoln, Uptown, Heights Casino, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the New York Athletic Club, the City Athletic Club and Fifth Avenue) that entered teams in the MSRA A League in the early 1990's, only the Harvard Club will still have any hardball courts by the time the Yale Club renovation is over.

Further afield, the two fabled courts at the Resorts International Hotel, the site of the annual Atlantic Coast championships for 59 consecutive years, were lost when the hotel was purchased last year by new owners who decided to replace the squash area with additional luxury suites; a bittersweet "Match Point" farewell party was given last June to allow the event's passionately loyal following to say good-by to this unique facility. This change forced the 2002 edition of this storied invitational to relocate to a nearby club and, more importantly, to be played on softball courts, though still as a hardball event, which may be hardball's future, though no one who has to deal with the 80 additional square feet, higher tin or sloping side wall boundary lines would doubt that the hardball game is decidedly ill-suited to softball dimensions.

Other venues of longstanding hardball events have lost hardball courts in recent years as well, from the University Club of Washington D. C., site for more than a half-century of the Woodruff-Nee Invitational, which has had its original four-court allotment cut in half, to the Rockaway Hunting Club in Long Island, where the prestigious Gold Racquets Invitational was held as a hardball event for more than 70 years before the hardball courts were converted to softball in 1999, to the famed Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, for decades the breeding ground for national champions and the host club for the William White invitational and often for the USSRA Nationals, which lost two of its five hardball courts a few years ago.

Though Merion still puts on a somewhat diminished version of the White and has committed to host the2003 Nationals, no one can deny either that the creation of these "facts on the ground" has severely imperiled the survival of the hardball game or that the elimination of the Yale Club's court is another damaging step in that process. This is so because of the major role that court, known for its solid walls, true bounces and intimate character, played in the vitality of the hardball game.

The Yale Club Invitational, which actually began a few years before the exhibition court was constructed, grew during its 20-year run into one of the highlight events on the USSRA schedule and its late-October time slot made it into the first important tourney, the one that often set the tone for the entire season. The World Professional Squash Association (WPSA), the pro hardball association, made the Yale Club an important stop in its schedule as well; both the World Series of Squash and several editions of the U. S. Open were contested there and the WPSA's top two players, Sharif Khan and Michael Desaulniers, played a stirring exhibition match in October 1981 as part of the grand opening festivities of the exhibition court after its construction the previous summer.

There were a number of years when a Yale Club Pro Invitational, usually an eight-man draw composed on New York-based performers, produced such stars as Desaulniers, Ned Edwards and Tom Page among its champions. For the past 32 years, the Eastern States Veterans Invitational, with flights for every age-group beginning with the 40-and-over, has been hosted at the Yale Club in late January, and its results have had an important determinative influence on the seeding for the Nationals several weeks later. In the several years since four of the club's five hardball courts were converted into three softball courts in 1998, the Yale Club has made use of the Harvard Club's courts for this event, but the Yale Club has still been the headquarters for the tournament, and most of its finals have still taken place on the exhibition court, whose glass back wall and excellent sight lines have made for outstanding viewing, as has the manner in which the bleachers run down to a front row that is within two feet of the back wall, creating the Fenway Park-type effect of putting the spectators right on top of the action.

The New York State Open, Metropolitan Open and Junior squash events have also been housed at the Yale Club, which perennially entered teams in MSRA leagues at every level and whose A Team won the league championship seven times in the 11-year period from 1983-93. And the final of the annual Club Championship always took place on the exhibition court as the kick-off event of the annual end-of-season Squash Dinner in the spring.

It would almost be inevitable that a court that hosted so much high-level competition would become the battleground for some of the most compelling hardball matches ever played, and that is exactly what happened. The World Series of Squash in 1982, the final event of that WPSA season, became a forum for Desaulniers to accentuate his No. 1 end-of-season ranking, which he had clinched one month earlier by terminating Sharif's six-year run of North American Open championships. Desaulniers seemed so unstoppable in his final-round straight-set demolition of Gordy Anderson (Sharif's upset conqueror one round prior) that it was difficult to for any of the 150 spectators who jammed the gallery that day to believe that his time at the top would be so ephemeral and that first-round loser Mark Talbott would wind up winning every remaining WPSA event hosted at the Yale Club.

In contrast to the dominant fashion in which Desaulniers ripped through that inaugural pro event, the amateur invitational and club championship competitions often had final rounds that were characterized by incredibly close finishes. The very first invitational in March of '78 was comprised of only 16 players (a modest beginning to a tourney which would later feature more than 80 players and require a second competitive flight) the last two of which, Glenn Greenberg and Edwards, fought to a fifth-game tiebreaker, which went to Greenberg when Edwards sustained an immobilizing leg cramp during the tiebreaker and had to default.

In the final of the '92 event, Rob Dinerman won 15-13 in the fifth from 0-7 and 11-12 against his long-time rival Cyrus Mehta, whom Dinerman would also edge five months later in fourth- and fifth-set tiebreakers in the final of the '93 Yale Club club championship final, which he thereby won for the 14th of his record 16 times.

National champions Tom Page and Kenton Jernigan both were winners of the invitational, as were intercollegiate champions Vic Wagner and Adrian Ezra, while such superstars as John Nimick, Jeff Stanley, John Foster, Greg Zaff and Edwards, WPSA top-tenners all, each fell in their final-round appearances in this event.

Foster reached three consecutive finals from 1989-91, but lost to Page twice and Ezra, while Stanley led Darius Pandole 14-11 in the fourth game in '85 before getting tied and tinning a risky serve-return following his no-set call. And both Gil Mateer (who dropped the first two games of his round-of-16 match with Hollis Russell in '78) and John Winchester (who trailed Chi Chi Ubina, 12-10 in the fifth in their quarter-final in '93) rallied from the brink of early-round defeats to eventually win the entire tournament.

Neither the exhibition court's impressive historical legacy (both in squash and in squash tennis, whose national championships were often held there), nor the enormous efforts of the many club members committed to saving it, nor the host of petitions, motions, threats of legal action and meetings that took place at a frantic pace in recent months were ultimately enough to undo the votes by the Athletics Committee and the House Committee (in both of which the club's squash-playing members are currently badly under-represented) that took place early this spring.

One of these meetings was abruptly canceled by the club president just hours before it was to begin, the Athletics Committee chairman claimed that he couldn't discuss the matter due to a "gag" order imposed on him by the Council after another closed-door meeting and the club manager, reflecting the defensive "herd mentality" that developed among the plan's increasingly beleaguered proponents, actually avoided returning the phone calls of members whom he knew to be opposed to elimination of the hardball court.

This defensive posture was exacerbated when fully two-thirds of the respondents to a poll mailed early this month voted in favor of retaining the hardball court.

This court cannot be converted into a softball court, either presently or probably ever, due to the location of vital water pipes and electrical connections in the immediate area, which would necessitate closing the entire building down for several weeks at a huge cost to the club over and above the expenditure of more than $900,000. As a result, the area currently occupied by the hardball court and gallery will go to expanding the exercise area. The three newly constructed softball courts offer no viewing galleries and all of which at the moment have room for fewer than a dozen people to watch from the narrow walkway that runs behind their back wall.


This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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