How it feels to play sport in the world’s most iconic train station – The Guardian

Some railway terminals have a way of tapping into our imagination. They are architecturally rich, hark back to a long lost past and a few of them even end up as tourist attractions in themselves. None more so than Grand Central Terminal in New York City, where John Nimick has fashioned a sensational World Series squash event, the Tournament of Champions, or TOC. Moving the event to Grand Central was an ingenious idea at the time and Nimick has shown remarkable persistence to keep that dream alive over the last two decades.

Not only is Grand Central a magnificent building but its imperfect walls allow incredible sounds to meld together: the hum of busy passengers, the unmistakable announcements over the Tannoy and, when the rubber of the squash ball crashes against glass, it all coalesces together to produce a unique buzz. Once the ebullient New York audience is added to the mix, you have something tantamount to electricity.

For 10 days in January the glass squash court is installed in Vanderbilt Hall, just off the main concourse we all know from those pictures of the sun seeping through the terminal’s windows. The scaffolding used to seat the 500 or so spectators fits snuggly with the court in this recess. Adjacent is a thoroughfare for the 22 million or so passengers who visit the station every year. The small space underneath the temporary seating is taken up by press, physios, referees, commentators, TV crew and stretching players, so it’s cosy.

Nimick now sits on the board of the PSA, the governing association of the professional game, and was its CEO from 1992 until 1999. At the most recent edition of the tournament, earlier this year, I finally sat down with him to find out how the idea came about. “In the 1990s I was running the event at the World Trade Centre. A friend, Zerline Goodman, mentioned the space in Grand Central so I caught the subway, saw the space and it was immediate. I knew it could work for squash.”

Nimick runs two major squash tournaments each year: the TOC and the Netsuite Open in San Francisco, another beauty. He doesn’t hold back there either, installing the court outdoors on the Justin Herman Plaza on the Embarcadero overlooking San Francisco Bay. It’s a dazzling venue that has often made me pinch myself during warm-up. Am I really playing my favourite sport for a living here surrounded by this visual sexiness, dusk settling over the city, in front of a resplendent suspension bridge looking over the bay? Maybe it’s payback time for all those rainy mornings spent on dreary beige squash courts doing repeated rounds of straight drive practice.

Glass courts lighting up the Embarcadero would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. Squash was, regrettably, more exclusive back then, saved for the clubs themselves. But the glass court came along and added glitz, and the iconic venues followed. We have come a long way and Nimick has been the central figure in this development.

San Francisco



The NetSuite Open squash tournament in San Francisco. Photograph: SquashPics.com

His other venues have included the magnificent Symphony Hall in Boston. It’s mind-bending to imagine the amount of red tape he must have to cut through to secure venues like these. Why does he spend time, money and effort jumping through hoops to procure these venues when squash events can be played in far simpler spaces?

“I am very much location-driven and feel the right venues are crucial to further the name of squash. These iconic venues create excitement. In Grand Central, 25,000 people can see this action every day as they walk through the station. That is unprecedented exposure for the sport.”

Nimick has made the TOC accessible to everyone. Prime tickets don’t come cheap as they subsidise the expensive rent, but anyone can stand behind the back wall and watch the action for free. Being in this area and hearing the reactions of people who may be looking at a squash court for the very first time is one of the highlights of the week for those of us inside the sport. There is something incredibly exciting about listening to people who are responding for the first time to the sport that lives in your bones.

“If I go to a ballroom, basketball hall or squash club as a venue for a squash event, I’m presenting the sport in a closet,” says Nimick. “I’m not showing the world that this is a vibrant, all-inclusive and exciting sport. Grand Central is not only visually exciting, but it offers this exposure. I have looked for a room like this all over the world: in London, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco and there isn’t anything like it. They are so hard to find.”

It must be difficult to gain access to a venue like this. Where do you even start?

“From seeing the site for the first time it took a year. I spent time creating a proposal, learning who to talk to and getting through the multiple layers. I was persistent with the MTA and Railroad and I presented to someone who was impressed enough to encourage me to keep pushing. I had great support too, from Marc Tascher, co-founder of New York Sports Clubs, who was the first co-title sponsor together with Lehman Brothers. It was effort and it still is. Every year we think it might get easier and it doesn’t!”

So the health and safety forms cause headaches?

“The compliance issues are rigid. The management of the building need to feel that nothing is a hazard to anyone in the terminal. Imagine what I need to put together to simply install a spinning bike into the area for the players to use!”

The view from the court.



The view from the court. Photograph: Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

So what makes him proudest of his Grand Central creation and what are the moments that make it all worthwhile?

“The roars of approval and amazement after a great rally; the sound that comes out of here like canon fire. It’s extraordinary. I feel that squash players can stand a little taller because this event is here. It is known outside the squash community. The sponsors on board are the best in their field too – we have fabulous relationships with JP Morgan and Lexington Partners currently, so the whole thing is creating a culture of excellence.”

It’s an apt phrase that applies to him and his events. He and his team show consummate attention to detail, which is what makes them the best. They meet at breakfast each morning in the event hotel, meticulously discussing the details of the day ahead and how to make the event catch fire. Whatever else he achieves, he can be proud to have masterminded an unforgettable event that will always be saluted as one of a kind.

“I do have plans for the TOC to grow,” he says. “We hope to double the prize money in five years and I want to expand as a campus, perhaps have two stadia rather than one. There are big spaces opening up nearby which could be very exciting and there are plans to develop the biggest mid-town complex since the Chrysler Building, just next door.”

I want to pay tribute to the TOC. I’ll always love it and reflect with great affection on my times spent there as a squash player: those Friday evenings at rush-hour, darting through crowds of frantic passengers, takeaway lattes and briefcases, dodging those dawdling camera-wavers to reach the court for a match. It’s always been the most surreal way of entering a squash auditorium, an indescribable assault on the senses.

I remember as a youngster coming here the first few times and hearing the sound of the masterful compère Don Goodwin facing off against the whirr of activity in the building. The atmosphere was like nothing else I had experienced and so, so New York.

And when you come out of your sweaty bubble, endorphins irate, having won or lost your little squash match, the adulation or disappointment cossets you for a while until you step out on to that concourse again, where all life is, where all remains as it was, nothing particularly affected by your sporting contest. Everyone walking, rushing, doing, continuing unaffected.

It’s an empty feeling to think that one day I will not be able to step on to that court in Vanderbilt Hall, the famous chandelier crouching elegantly, to lock horns with a fellow competitor. There’s always room for a masters event though, Sir John.

This is an article from James Willstrop’s blog
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