In the world squash scene, the United States doesn’t even register as a provincial backwater; it is a blip, a minuscule speed bump compared to powerhouse countries like England, Egypt, Australia and Pakistan.
At least that was the reality facing Chris Gordon eight years ago when, as a precocious and promising young American squash player, he decided to abandon his native soil temporarily for the more nurturing training environment of the United Kingdom. He was 14 at the time.
“That was very tough,” Gordon said last week by phone from Vancouver, where he was playing in the Comfort Inn Open. “We share the language, but it’s a completely different culture.
It was a big issue for me. I never really fit in completely there, and then I got some English influence in me and didn’t fit in completely when I came home. I was caught between the two cultures. You kind of lose the structure and the connections that you have in your life”
Home at the time was New York City, where Gordon was born and raised on the Upper East Side. This week, he is returning to his hometown for the 2009 Tournament of Champions, a standout event on the squash calendar that perennially attracts the best players in the world to an all-glass court in Grand Central. The star power and the prize money are off the charts (at least in the squash world, which doesn’t feature much of either compared to other individual sports like tennis or golf).
Now 22, Gordon currently makes his home in Hartford, Conn., where he coaches the squash teams at Trinity College and can find good training partners nearby in Boston.
These days, the United States has the training infrastructure to support a professional. That was hardly the case only a decade ago. Back then, the number of courts was much smaller, and many of those that were available still used old U.S. dimensions, which were narrower than the international standard.
“When I was growing up, there weren’t any American players achieving much on the tour,” Gordon said. “There weren’t any Americans in the top 100. It was hard to see how to get to the next level because there wasn’t anyone who came before you. If I wanted to achieve what I dreamed of, the environment I was in wasn’t the most conducive to reaching that goal.”
Gordon began playing with his father when he was eight years old at The Harvard Club, where he continued training for six years. He always dreamed of being a professional athlete, though playing hockey for the New York Rangers was his first choice. When Gordon suddenly blossomed as a young teenager into one of the best junior players in the country, he made the unconventional choice of moving abroad.
“It wasn’t the most warmly embraced move in the U.S. squash community,” he said. “There was a mixed feeling at the time because I was going off the typical pathway. The pattern at the time was to play junior squash and then go off to an Ivy League school. I was moving against the current. There were some people who were very positive, and there were some who were very negative.”
Gordon settled with his parents in Harrowgate, a city in Yorkshire Country, the squash center of England. He spent most of his time in practice, sometimes scoring training matches against the top British talent. At 16, he turned pro and began playing in local tournaments. Two years after that, buoyed by his experience and extensive training in England, Gordon entered the life of a squash player, traveling to tournaments all over the world—from Colombia to Italy to Greece to India and beyond. In 2004, he shot up the rankings by more than 100 places and achieved his best result to date, a semifinal berth in the Brazil Open.
“It has some real positives and some real downsides to it,” Gordon said of touring. “It’s fantastic in the sense that I get to go all over the world, a lot of places off the beaten track. I have friends in every continent of the world, and I’ve gotten a great education about different cultures. The downside is that you spend a lot of time living out of a suitcase. You’re chasing a goal that’s more for personal satisfaction than for monetary wealth or stability or recognition. When you go through a few bad results, you often end up questioning what you’re doing.”
In 2005, Gordon broke into the top 100 and reached as high as 65. For the past two years, though, he has comfortably settled in the 70s. It’s a ranking that marks him as a formidable opponent, but it is not high enough to guarantee entry to some events. This week, for example, Gordon will have to enter the qualifying draw in order to make the main event of the Tournament of Champions. Last year, he received a wild card entry but lost in the first round to Ramy Ashour, the eventual champion and perhaps the best player in the world.
“It’s been frustrating to be on a plateau right now, but I’m learning all the time and these experiences will add up and help me,” Gordon said.
His most recent experiences hardly inspired confidence. Before Vancouver, Gordon hadn’t played since tearing his hamstring at the Ecuador Open in October. The Comfort Inn Open was his first effort since then, but he lost his opening match to Gilly Lane, a fellow American nine spots back in the rankings. That’s not where Gordon wants to head. He has his sights aimed on catching up with the top American in the world, Julian Illingworth, currently ranked 40th. Together, Lane, Gordon and Illingworth are the young stars of American squash. Gordon would like to be the standard-bearer.
“I’m trying to gain back my confidence and get back to where I was before the injury,” he said.
That journey begins this week. Gordon will have to win two matches to reach the main draw, but he thinks his “very physical, very hardworking” style is up to the challenge.
“I try to make the other person crack before I do,” he said. “I’m not winning rallies from one exceptional shot but from an effort spread over 15 or 20 shots.”
It’s a hardscrabble approach in a city that appreciates tough competitors, and it might just be enough to make an impression.
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