|SquashTalk>Columns>"Clio's Corner": James Zug> Atlantic City Club Closes Doors|
|Playing through the Night: The Story of Squash in Atlantic City|
By James Zug.
July 1, 2001. © 2001
On July 1, 2001 the two-three-one combination lock on the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Racquet Club in Atlantic City worked its magic no more, and the famous, or rather infamous, squash courts on the fifteenth floor went forever dark.
Sentimentality, as Oscar Wilde quipped, is merely the Bank Holiday of cynicism. But this final shovel-full of dirt on the casket of hardball squash must give us a moment, however brief, to pause and remember. The oldest hardball singles tournament is gone.
In 1929 two Quaker families, the Leeds and the Lippincotts (the latter from the sailing rather than publishing Lippincotts, as evidenced by the hotel insignia that had three sailboats on it), erected two hotels side by side on the boardwalk at the small summer resort town of Atlantic City.
The fifteenth floor at Haddon Hall was strangely left unused, so Bob Leeds and Jack Lippincott, the sons of the owners, convinced their fathers that they should put in two squash courts. The courts were placed back to back, cramped by the space and only one of the four side walls had enough room for regulation boundary markings. But they were the only courts, until the 1990s, on the Jersey Shore.
"In the beginning the people in town weren't exactly sure what to make of squash," says Doris Lippincott, the elegant and charming widow of Jack Lippincott. "They thought of it as some sort of Quaker game we had brought in from Philadelphia." But it soon took hold. For many years it had over a hundred active members (some of whom played in Philadelphia leagues), and club tournaments, including a handicapped draw, were well-stocked. As was the bar in the club room on the 15 and one-half floor, which always had a keg on tap. One of the great pleasures of the club was drawing a pint of beer after playing and sitting in a comfortable chair looking out over the gray Atlantic surf.
Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, though, became famous for it annual tournament, the Atlantic Coast Championships. Usually, held in late January or early February, the ACC was on par with the Gold Racquets, the Harry Cowles and the William White as one of the most competitive tournaments leading up to the national singles.
The tournament was very hard to win. Looking at the list of winners, one sees some interesting results: Donny Strachan winning his fifth title in 1948; Henri Salaun never winning the tournament; 1964, 1976 and 1978 when brothers played each other in the finals; and Diehl Mateer
eaching the finals at age forty in 1969 after being down two-love and six-love in the third in the quarters to Charlie Ufford---Mateer then went up 14-11 in the fifth against Tom Poor in the finals before a series of controversial lets and Mateer tins, including a flubbed backhand volley at 14-all, no-set, ended his brief comeback from a decade-long retirement.
No tournament matched the ACC for lubricity, late nights and salacious good fun. The weekend was entirely gratis: the tournament, rooms at the hotel, food, cocktails-everything but tips. Because there were only two courts and a sixty-four men's draw (as well as, at different times, a pro draw, consolation draw, a women's draw, a veterans draw and a seniors draw), the ACC was memorable for its around-the-clock matches.
Play commenced Friday afternoon and was continuous through Saturday evening. Very often you'd have a three am match. Players found themselves in an amusingly rigorous rotation of playing squash, eating meals, drinking
through the wee hours and catching quick naps all weekend. Wives and players knocked out of the squash played paddle tennis on the court outside in the courtyard of Chalfonte; in the 1960s Howard Davis, an ACC stalwart, started a paddle tournament and provided prizes for the finalists.
Saturday evening was, naturally, a black-tie dinner dance. Sunday, after the finals, everyone poured themselves into their cars or train compartments and limped home, drained and dazed.
"I first played in the Atlantic Coasts my freshman year at Yale," says Treddy Ketcham, the long-time tournament director of the Gold Racquets. "I came down on Friday, played and enjoyed the whole atmosphere. When I got back to New Haven, I was so exhausted that I went out and lost five challenge matches in a row and almost found myself off the team." The weekend was such a whirlwind that one player, still very much alive, brought two dates to the weekend, gave each a room and, aftera calm and steady cycle
between the rooms and the club, managed to escape detection.
Each hotel room had four faucets at the sink, two of which brought forth hot or cold salt water. More than one late-night reveler tried to quench their thirst out of the wrong faucet.
The apogee of these halcyon days was the U.S. Open, held at the club on 6 and 7 January 1962. In the quarters Azam Khan smacked his nephew Mohilbullah just above the eye with his racquet, forcing a default at 15-11, 15-17, 15-13, 10-5. He then beat Ben Heckscher in the semis and in the finals his cousin Roshan Khan. After seven failed attempts to take the Open, four of which saw him lose in the finals, it was sweet revenge for the Pakistani.
Chalfonte-Haddon Hall also hosted the 1971 U.S. Professionals (today it is called the Tournament of Champions), where Sharif Khan beat hard-luck Mo Khan 7-15, 15-8, 12-15, 15-4, 15-10 and Hashim Khan easily took the veterans. In 1991 it held the second annual Copa Wadsworth (U.S. v. Mexico) which was the first to be played in the U.S.
After gambling came to Atlantic
City, the old hotels began to disappear.
Merv Griffen bought Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, tore down Haddon Hall and renamed Chalfonte Resorts. The club rolled with the times. They put in a mirror above the bar with "Merv Griffen's Resorts" splashed across it. The gambling certainly made the tournament even more attractive, but it also made the space tempting for the resort owners. When America switched to softball, the club's days were numbered. The Atlantic City Country Club attracted newer players (but it closed last year), and more recently the new Shore Racquet and Fitness Club in Somers Point, about six miles down the coast from the city, has easily outdone Chalfonte with its state-of-the-art facility that boasts two new doubles courts.
At the 59th Atlantic Coast Championships in January 2001, the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Racquet Club could claim it was the oldest hardball tournament in the world. But was also the last. This spring the hotel changed ownership. The new owners of Resorts, Colony, are demolishing the club and renovating the top floor of the casino into suits for high rollers.
The button on the elevator no longer says "Squash Court" but " Fifteen.
"We are all pretty sad about losing the old lady," says Bill Sykes, a director of the club and long-time chairman of the ACC. "There's a lot of great history and great memories that are being lost. But we're going to switch the tournament to the Shore Club and play hardball in the softball courts. I'm excited about it. Maybe we'll add a doubles draw, even a softball draw. But it won't ever be the same as having the tournament at the hotel. That was something special."
Like all those good nights with a three am match, it had to come to an end.
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