By Sarah Odell
What does it mean to be the best? I pondered this recently while studying the lacquered hardwood board at the Greenwich Country Club listing past winners of the North American Open Doubles Tournament. How many winners – spanning more than 50 years – were American? Most. It wasn’t until the last 10-15 years that the names of foreign players appeared on the board.
Does – or should – the nationality of American (or North American) winners matter?
This question is at the center of heated debate right now about one of two key rule changes before the U.S. Doubles Committee (I’m one of 15 members of that committee). One new rule allows professionals to compete on the men’s side (female pros could always compete). The other – more controversial change — would allow only U.S. citizens to compete for the national doubles championship.
I think barring foreign players is a problem – especially for the women’s game.
Yes, doubles squash, unlike softball singles, is a North American game. There are two doubles courts in Scotland. But all other hardball doubles courts are in the U.S. and Canada.
The U.S. Nationals Doubles Championship Committee wants to close the Nationals to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen beginning in 2013. Advocates point out a benefit: this will enable them to use the championships to determine the best American men’s and women’s teams. The rule allowing pros to play in the men’s draw, as well as the women’s draw, will let the same pool of players compete in the US National Doubles Championships as in the US Open Pro Doubles, which will happen in 2013.
The committee has already voted to open up the men’s nationals to professionals. There are, after all, American professional men, like top 10-ranked Preston Quick, who give back to the game and play numerous events. Guys like Preston have been excluded from the US Nationals in the past because of their pro status, but that made little sense to the committee. The thinking: Shouldn’t the best American men be able to play the US Nationals? Sure.
For me, the solution has more to do with our long-range goals. I believe that closing the US Nationals to non-US citizens would be detrimental for doubles – and could even kill the women’s game, which we are trying desperately to grow.
My own player development reflects the problem. I grew up playing squash outside of Philadelphia, often considered the hub of squash in the United States. I had three key coaches between the ages of nine and 14: Wendy Berry (British), Imran Khan (Pakistani) and Dominic Hughes (British). I didn’t have an American coach until I played for Kirk Randall , at Exeter.
Ironically, it is these coaches, who work with juniors day in and day out, for months and years at a time that our governing body, US Squash, works with to promote the game. Historically, the US has not been the birthplace of great squash players. Great players have come from Commonwealth countries. But as the sport’s US profile has grown, in part because kids and parents view it as a gateway to an elite college, players from abroad have come here to coach and train.
When the women’s committee or doubles committee seeks help because women are dropping out of the game after college at alarming rates, who do we turn to for help?
The coaches. These British, Pakistani, Australian, New Zealand and South African players are US Squash’s greatest ambassadors of the game. They not only train athletes, but instill in them a lifelong love of the game. And these pros, especially the female ones, have proven to be invaluable in creating squash communities that keep the game alive once athletes have left college.
Narelle Krizek started the pro women’s doubles tour from nothing—she’s Australian. Suzie Pierrepont coaches the National Championship winning women’s team at Greenwich Academy—she’s British. We use these women to promote the game. Are we really ready to tell them they can’t play in the premier doubles event in the US?
Pros aside, the proposed rule change will effectively kill the effort to get younger players into the game. Many recent grads from Harvard, Trinity, Princeton and Cornell, who have taken up doubles and are traveling to tournaments will now be denied the right to play and win a US National title. These women are not teaching pros, nor are they US citizens—the best players on our American teams are from other countries.
As a volunteer I’ve been working to get these players onto doubles courts and into tournaments. What message so we send in barring them from Nationals? These women don’t play pro events – they work full time. It seems contradictory to have them play other events – but not this one.
Amid this debate, as a US doubles committee member, I keep thinking about what my mentor, Morris Clothier told me to do: “Grow the game of doubles.” He never said to grow it just for women, or Americans, or young people. He just said to grow it.
Closing one of the most prestigious events on the calendar to non-Americans does the opposite, keeping the pool small, and keeping talented (and involved) athletes out of contention. The best players should play this tournament, regardless of citizenship, because the best doubles players are the ones who show up to Apawamis at the end of March, have paid their entry fee, and play the game that will get them into the finals, and onto the plaque commemorating excellence.