Squash's New Crop

Ignored American racquet players may be ready to reap rewards in this heady game.

National Basketball Association players visiting town to abuse the Nuggets prefer to stay at the Westin Hotel downtown, from which they can easily walk to dinner at clubby restaurants such as Morton's and the Denver ChopHouse & Brewery. Professional golfers on tour through Colorado usually pass time between rounds lounging in posh private digs; many are given a luxury car to use while here.

Last week the men's professional squash tour arrived in Denver. A half-dozen of the best players in the country competed this past weekend at the Denver Athletic Club. Most of them will go at it again on April 12-15, in the Berger Funds Squash Championship at the Evergreen Racquet and Fitness Club. Between matches, they will bunk with friends and sympathetic local pros. A handful of restaurants have agreed to donate meal vouchers to help out.

The total prize money at stake for these elite athletes over the two weeks is about $10,000. The winner of each tournament stands to earn a modest $1,400. That's typical. When all of the prize money in all of the world's squash tournaments last year was added together, professional players competed for purses worth a total of $2 million -- the same amount of money that Alex Rodriguez will earn playing shortstop in seven baseball games.

"I play in about thirty to forty tournaments a year, and it's still impossible to make a living at this without doing something else -- teaching or coaching," says Preston Quick, a Lakewood native who is currently ranked third in the country. "It's kind of like being a ski bum."

That's not the image of squash in this country, of course. Envision velvet-lawned country clubs and swell, blue-oxford chaps named Beau, Chad and Chip, and you wouldn't be too far off. "It's definitely the stereotype," agrees Tim Wyant, a recent Harvard grad who moves between No. 2 and No. 4 in the U.S ranking. "And," he adds, "a fairly accurate one."

That's too bad, because of all the racquet sports, squash practiced at its upper reaches is the most elegant, the most beautifully rhythmic and the most demanding of its players. Racquetball, the game's unruly American cousin, is all aggression and noise and rowdiness. Squash is smooth geometry and deliberation, a calculated struggle of attrition -- billiards to racquetball's eight ball, chess to its checkers.

Yet the game is far from effete. A hard-fought match can be more physically punishing than a four-set tennis final. One of the game's all-time greats, the Pakistani Hashim Khan, who built his game and lungs three-quarters of a century ago chasing balls for British military players stationed in the subcontinent (and who now lives in Denver), is considered by many people to have been the greatest athlete ever -- in any sport.

Still, the game's blue-blood pedigree hasn't played well in America, whose finest athletes tend to emerge from cornfields and steel towns and inner cities. Finding a public squash facility in this country is about as easy as finding a blacks-only golf course. "There's one in Newport, Rhode Island, another in Pennsylvania, one in Baltimore and one in Dayton, Ohio," says United States Squash Racquets Association executive director Craig Brand, thinking hard.

The game's elitism has kept it down even among its own. At the collegiate level, the best squash is played at all the predictable places: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Williams. So when the final strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" are absorbed into the ivy, where is the new grad likely to go? Directly to the hottest Wall Street brokerage, or economy class to some health club across the country to spend a weekend competing for $1,400? Last year, Peter Yik, one of the country's best squash prospects, graduated from Princeton and immediately went to work for Lehman Brothers. He reportedly hasn't picked up a racquet since.

The result is not so hard to predict. At the moment, the top-rated American in the world, Jason Jewell, is ranked 82nd, a country mile behind a bevy of hungry Brits, Aussies, Scots, Egyptians, Welsh and Pakistanis. Exactly six U.S. men occupy the ranks of the world's top 175 players.

It's not all the athletes' fault. Much of the blame for U.S. inferiority in squash began a century ago and lies squarely with a do-gooder headmaster who ended up cursing a half-dozen generations of athletes. James Conover, of St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, saw his first game of squash in 1882, while he was traveling through Montreal. Convinced the activity would be a fine way for his boys to tune mind and body, Conover imported the game to St. Paul's. He was particularly impressed by the safe diameters of the game. "Fewer heads are cracked and fewer knees and elbows barked; the danger from being hit by the ball (quite an item among young players) is cancelled," he wrote in an early newsletter.

Conover was not shy about tinkering with the new sport, though. Heated courts were several decades away, and the frigid North Atlantic air conspired to keep the traditional squash ball low and sluggish. The headmaster eventually determined that a hard ball, rather than the squishy, pliable egg of soft rubber used in the rest of the world, worked better in New England, and so a subtle change was made.

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