Mendez & Lake at ‘Home'
Mendez and Lake Discuss ‘Home’ Windy City Open
For Nathan Lake and Haley Mendez, the upcoming Windy City Open Presented by the Walter Family will be something of a ‘home’ Platinum event for the couple. Since moving to the ‘Windy City’ in September, the pair have become settled at the University Club of Chicago, while Mendez has entered her first year of a two-year MBA programme studying at the The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Since making the move, the pair’s rankings have also been on the rise, with Lake currently sitting at a career-high ranking of No.36, while Mendez is celebrating a fifth successive month in the world’s top 40. We caught up with the soon-to-be married couple to discuss the upcoming tournament and their move to Chicago.
With the Windy City Open nearly upon us, and you both being based in Chicago now, how much are you looking forward to a ‘home’ platinum event?
Haley Mendez: We’re both really excited, the club here has been so welcoming. They made us feel so at home since we moved here last September, especially for me, starting business school and switching gears a little bit.
The club has been a nice home and something familiar for me. The members are super excited. I think they’ve sold out both of our matches on the glass court. So we’re both really looking forward to it. It’ll be fun to get to play in front of what genuinely feels like a home crowd.
Nathan Lake: Yeah, I’d agree with that. They’ve made us feel very welcome. It’s about a five-minute walk from our apartment, which is great.
So I’m looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, eating my own food, that kind of thing. They’ve asked for us to be on the glass. That’s exciting for us, and hopefully there’ll be a good crowd and it’ll be a good atmosphere. And we can try and both pull off some good results.
I bet with the conditions over there and the temperature, you’re pretty happy it’s just the five-minute walk?
NL: It’s amazing how much damage can be done in five minutes, walking in minus 10. I used to think it won’t be that bad, but yesterday we walked about 10 minutes to a restaurant and your face just gets destroyed, your ears feel like they’re going to fall off.
You lose feeling in your ears after about 60 seconds, it’s absolutely horrible. But you get used to it. I bought a Chicago-proof coat as well. That was one of the best investments I’ve ever made. So you do get a little bit used to it. That said, we do park in the same building that our apartment is in, so we very rarely go outside other than walk to the club.
The weather is completely different to Cheltenham, where you were based previously, Nathan, and in Brooklyn where you were, Haley. So, what is it about Chicago? Why did you want to base yourselves there?
NL: It’s one of the best business schools in the world. That’s the reason.
HM: Yes, I started business school here at one of the best schools.
NL: And Giordano’s, the deep-dish pizza. That was a big, big point. But I mean, speaking personally, when Haley got into Chicago, I was pretty nervous because the only downside in Chicago is there’s a severe lack of hitting partners.
So I’ve basically got Haley, Chris Fuller, an English player who’s played on PSA Tour, and then a couple of young boys, they’re under 19 or maybe under 17s. But it’s been brilliant in so many ways, how welcoming everyone has been. It’s great being based permanently in the US because the tour just feels very North America centric.
With the exception of all the events that are going on in Egypt at the moment because of COVID, it’s made me change things up, which has been great. So I’ve had to be more diligent about my physical work. I’ve had to be more inventive with how I train with, all due respect, players that are lower than my standard, so I don’t get the practice matches. So actually, we’ve kind of stumbled across different things that I think has been quite good for our squash.
Outside of Giordano’s, if someone was coming over to Chicago, what are the main bits that you would recommend people check out?
HM: It’s tough to do a tonne of exploring in February, but the art museum is beautiful. The Science and History Museum is down in Hyde Park.
There’s a really vibrant food scene. There are some really good restaurants not in the loop, which is where the club and the tournament happen, but more in the west loop or the River North, Lincoln Park area, there are some really fun restaurants to explore.
NL: You’ve also got the park obviously, which the players will be familiar with. We did quite a bit of ice skating there actually, just before Christmas as a couple of public ice skating tracks, not rinks, they’re more like racecourses, which is disastrous if you’ve got very little control because it’s a short, wide space.
We’re excited to watch a Bulls game after the Windy City Open, we’re going to go and watch a Cubs game when baseball season starts probably in like June when it’s warm. Haley is a big hockey fan, so you’ve got the Blackhawks, you’ve got all those sports teams and we can see Soldier Field from the top of our apartment building, it’s an amazing professional sport to watch. They’ve got professional tennis events as well. If you’re into sports, Chicago is a great place to be. We’ve got the White Sox too.
So it’s a major city, Chicago, but it’s got that Midwestern feel to it and people in America describe Midwesterners as sort of ‘down to earth’. A bit like you describe a northerner in England, pretty welcoming, can stop have a chat. And that’s the biggest thing I like about Chicago. In some other big cities, people don’t want to make eye contact, they’ve got to keep busy, got to make money, whereas Chicago couldn’t be further away from that, people are happy to have a chat and happy to help.
Obviously, it’s not just the city you like, you mentioned how great the club has been, are you able to explain how valuable their support has been since you moved to Chicago?
HM: Yeah, we just can’t speak highly enough about everyone at the club from John [Flanigan] and the management team to Yoni [Ellous] and the coaches giving us access to the club and a crazy nice gym that overlooks Lake Michigan with court access, locker rooms, laundry, massage, physio and the pool, so that’s just been great.
But beyond that, they’ve just been super welcoming and helping us with our squash and our professional lives, introducing us to people in various fields. For me professionally, putting me in touch with various people at various companies has been great. And I think the members are genuinely excited to have some top players based in Chicago. And so everybody wants to stop and chat. Everyone wants to know about our squash.
NL: Yeah, and that’s the perfect thing about squash clubs, I always say to people that I would coach that you could go anywhere in the world with squash and you immediately have access to 50 plus people that you’ve got a strong connection with. And we’ve experienced that too.
We knew John, Yoni and Chris Fuller and that was about it. But I mean, what’s nice is when we turn up at the club, it’s like going to a mate’s house. Obviously we are there to work and train, but it feels like going to the club in Cheltenham or Brooklyn. We know so many people now, it’s an enjoyable environment to step into, and a privilege to work in. So we feel very lucky.
The Windy City Open has strong links with Metrosquash urban programme, which you’re also hoping to be involved in – are you able to talk me through your plans?
NL: We would like to be more involved, but COVID threw a spanner in the works. But David Kay, who runs Metrosquash, helped us when we expressed a keen interest to do some stuff with them. I’d say that’s a work in progress. So we’re hoping to be involved with the Metrosquash Cup that’s between the World Championship and El Gouna in May. But yeah, we’re both passionate about that line of work.
HM: All of the urban squash programmes in the States, I think, are doing a lot of good for the sport. And coming from New York, where there is StreetSquash and CitySquash and the umbrella parent company [Squash Education Alliance] that helps all the urban programmes throughout the country is based there. We’ve just we’ve been pretty involved with the urban squash initiative throughout the country, so it just felt natural to get involved with Metrosquash when we got here and help out however we can, whether that’s fundraising or Q and A’s with parents and kids or getting on court with some players.
Haley, the US game at the moment is at the strongest it’s ever been, especially on the women’s side, you’ve got three US women in the top 20 and you’re celebrating your fifth consecutive month in the top 40. Just how exciting is it to be part of this revolution on the pro side of the US game?
HM: It’s amazing. It’s hard to believe there are five of us within the top 40. It’s great for the game, it’s funny because the five of us grew up playing junior squash together and to see us all basically go through college squash and then make it to this level is great. It’s exciting for the US and hopefully it’s a sign that squash can continue to grow in the states and just become more of a household name and encourage more people to play, especially more women.
Nathan, you’re at a career high ranking this month of No. 36. You’ve tested the likes of Gregoire Marche and Diego Elias who are right up there in the rankings in recent months. What do you think are the main reasons behind your improvement?
NL: I think a lot of it is moving to Chicago. It’s forced me to change things. I changed my team around me and started working with a new squash coach, a new fitness coach, a new sports psychologist. I think that’s challenged me a lot. I think that working with those three people has pushed me on. Like I said before, I’ve just had to be diligent with physical work because I haven’t got those matches all the time. So yeah, I’m excited to go a bit higher.
So looking ahead to the Windy City Open, have you’ve got any goals you’re working towards? Do you ever have a specific round that you’re aiming to reach at all?
NL: I don’t, I think that’s negative. I don’t want to say second round and then I get there and then what do I do? Do I just put the white flag out?
It’s a bit of a football cliché, but I take it one match at a time and I feel like I’m playing well at the moment, so I feel like I could get stuck into anyone. I’m excited to play [Omar] Mosaad, I’ve never played him before. But the plan is to try and beat whoever is in front of me.
And how about you, Haley? Do you have the same thoughts or are you different?
HM: No, I think very similarly, one match at a time. At this point, I’m just trying to enjoy the squash and enjoy competing and not put pressure on myself, in terms of results or ranking.
I feel like I’ve done that in the past and it’s not been helpful. So my new approach is just really trying to enjoy it and get stuck in.
And for me, there’s so much else going on with school that I can’t think about squash too much. And in a weird way, that’s kind of been nice. It’s taken the pressure off, and squash is now my outlet, away from school. So I’m excited to play and compete. I think it’s done good things for me game.
To finish on a non-squash question, you’re tying the knot later this year, how is the planning going?
NL: It’s much better now, we were meant to get married on New Year’s Eve and New York seemed to be the epicentre of Omicron so it was absolute chaos. And almost within the space of two or three days, things changed drastically and no one was coming out on the street. So we postponed that because we have a lot of people flying in.
If it had happened, then I think it would have been really stressful because I’m guilty in that I was not too forthcoming with helping plan the wedding, Haley was doing the lion’s share of it. She was doing business school, training and planning a wedding. So it was pretty hectic. Whereas we’ve managed to move it to April now, April 10, and the nice thing is that all the planning is done, so we can kind of coast up to it.
HM: Yeah, obviously it was a bummer not to go through with everything how we’d originally planned. But I mean, things just exploded. So we decided to postpone it two weeks beforehand.
“And then within that time, like half of our guests tested positive and said they wouldn’t have been able to make it. The lead singer of the band and the judge that was supposed to marry us both tested positive, so it was all meant to be.
“We were meant to get married in April, apparently. As Nathan said, once we postponed, it’s sort of gone to the back of my mind. Everything’s done planning wise, so we just have to get to April now.”
The Windy City Open Presented by the Walter Family will take place between February 23 – March 2. Squash fans in the Chicago area can purchase their tickets here.
Lake will line up against former World No.3 Omar Mosaad in his first round fixture, while Mendez will go up against Egypt’s San Ibrahim.
Action will also be shown live on SQUASHTV, while the semi finals and finals will be shown by PSA’s broadcast partners. For more information on the Windy City Open, visit the tournament website or follow the event on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.