The most iconic stage in the heady world of professional squash isn’t found in the racket sport’s native England or in Egypt or Pakistan, countries whose players have mostly dominated the sport for decades.
According to the sport’s former top player, it’s New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, where for 25 years now, the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, or “ToC,” has been staged on a glass-walled court right in the middle of the bustling train station for all to see.
“It’s a bit like Mecca,” former world No. 1 Nick Matthew of England recently told the In Squash podcast. “Anyone who’s a squash fan, you’ve got to do the pilgrimage to the ToC.”The man responsible for creating that Mecca is John Nimick ’81, a member of three championship squash teams at Princeton, including one he helped captain in his graduating year.
“I had the most remarkable time as a Tiger squash player,” recalls Nimick. “It wasn’t perceived as a minor sport. It was perceived as continuing the tradition of great squash at Princeton.”
After Princeton, Nimick just wasn’t cut out for an ordinary job. The Philadelphia native and former national individual intercollegiate squash champion tried his hand at selling cable television door-to-door for Comcast. He lasted just six months before opting to play squash professionally.
After a 10-year career on the pro singles tour, Nimick decided to go behind the scenes of the sport he loved. From 1994 to 1999, Nimick served as executive director of the Professional Squash Association, where he describes working to organize a global tour on a shoestring budget.
In that role, he flew — economy, of course — to all corners of the Earth, from Cairo and Qatar to Hong Kong and South Africa and all across Europe and South America. He noticed that most of the tournaments he oversaw were funded by national federations and governments. Very few were commercial events.
Nimick wanted to move the sport, which in the U.S. has the added baggage of often being associated with private clubs and the Ivy League, beyond “patronage.” He wanted the sport to stand up on its own. He watched as tennis and lacrosse and even bull riding started to flourish. Why not squash?
The sport, for the uninitiated, is akin to tennis in a room, but with players standing on the same side of the court, taking turns whacking a soft rubber ball against the front wall with rackets that are more slender than those used in tennis. The business publication Forbes famously once ranked squash as the “healthiest” sport.
To grow in popularity, however, squash would need more exposure. It also would need corporate investment. A newly available — and rather unexpected — space in Grand Central Terminal appeared to present an opportunity for both.
“Vanderbilt Hall in 1994 was everything that the old New York represented,” says Nimick. “There were homeless people in it. It was dirty. It was gross. There were rats. It was a forgotten space.”
In 1994, Nimick brought the Tournament of Champions, which had previously been held near the World Trade Center at the Winter Garden Atrium, to the recently cleared Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal. The tournament would be held on a glass-walled court with 450 ticketed seats around three sides. The fourth side, the front wall, would be open to the public. That way, passersby — today estimated at 22,000 on a normal business day — would be able to see into the court and potentially have their interest piqued.
Moreover, thought Nimick, what better spot to host a client meeting?
“The location makes it arguably the most convenient sporting tournament in the world,” says Nimick.
Meet a client for golf and that’s practically a daylong commitment. Meet a client for squash at Grand Central and one barely has to alter his or her commute. The space worked.
After a four-year renovation, during which Vanderbilt Hall was unavailable, Nimick again saw an opportunity to bring the ToC to Grand Central in 1999. This time, though, he wanted to make organizing commercial tournaments his full-time job. Nimick left the Professional Squash Association to start his own event creation company. Since then, he has put on the ToC in Grand Central every year except 2021, due to the pandemic. It celebrated 25 years in January.
Nimick has organized commercial squash tournaments elsewhere as well. Since 2013, Nimick has run the annual Oracle NetSuite Open in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Plaza, which is similarly near a high-profile transit hub, the Ferry Building. Other venues include Chicago’s Field Museum and Boston’s Symphony Hall.
But the highlight for players on the pro tour remains New York’s Grand Central, says professional squash player Todd Harrity ’13. His win there in 2019 against Hong Kong’s Tsz Fung Yip, before a rowdy crowd that included several Princeton friends looking on, remains perhaps his favorite squash memory.
“It’s just the atmosphere,” says Harrity. “There’s just a real buzz to it, with New York City and Grand Central and everything. It’s really electric.”