A Clubby Sport Gone Global

Article courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer

by Eric Zillmer

Sports remind us of the laws of the universe in many ways – the predictable flight of a golf ball, the field goal attempt that drifts wide, the geometry celebrated with every pitch of a baseball. And if there is one sport that is defined by the laws of Einstein and Newton, it’s squash.

Squash is a tough game with simple rules. At the elite level, two competitors are confined to a rectangular glass enclosure. With the semisoft squash ball traveling at speeds up to 170 m.p.h., and with all walls and angles in play, it is mesmerizing to watch.

The athletes perform with a beautiful combination of agility and power. Their footwork is as graceful as ballet, and their stamina rivals that of triathletes. With the struggle for points often lasting 20 to 30 rallies, extreme fitness is the price of admission to world-class squash. The winner, however, is often the player who outfoxes his or her rival.

Squash is also a sociological phenomenon. In the United States, the game was once chiefly the province of exclusive clubs. That is no longer the case. Today, squash is played by more than a quarter-million Americans and on 50,000 courts worldwide. Of British origin, it has spread throughout the Commonwealth countries, and the best players in the world now hail from Egypt, Pakistan, India, and Australia.

The top players in squash are as intriguing as any sport’s. The current No. 1 in the world is the 6-foot-5 Englishman James Willstrop, who dominates the game with his physical presence. In contrast, last year’s U.S. Open champion, the Egyptian Amr Shabana, treats squash as physical chess, outmaneuvering his opponents. And then there is squash’s answer to John McEnroe, the Dutch enfant terrible Laurens Jan Anjema, who lists his interests off the court as “guitars and girls.”

Among the top women is the only ranked U.S. player, at No. 20, the former world junior champion Amanda Sohby. There is also the No. 17-ranked Australian model and surfer Donna Urquhart, who just completed a photo shoot for an Australian men’s magazine (on a squash court, of course).

There has been a movement in some major U.S. cities to bring more of the urban melting pot into the sport. In Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Chicago, squash has been coupled with after-school tutoring and introduced to thousands of inner-city kids. The Philadelphia program, called SquashSmarts, boasts a 100 percent high school graduation and college placement rate, and it received a visit from first lady Michelle Obama in July.

Starting this week, Philadelphia is hosting the 2012 U.S. Open Squash Championships. Players from more than 25 countries will descend on the city to compete for the men’s and women’s titles and $250,000 in prize money.

Squash first arrived in the United States in Philadelphia, where the U.S. Squash governing association was founded in 1904. Although the organization later moved to New York, there is still a squash shot named after our city: The wicked “Philadelphia” touches three walls and leaves one’s opponent fit to be tied into a Philly pretzel. The city is further known for its lively high school, college, and club squash scenes, as well as the first doubles court in the nation, at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia.

The principal object in squash is the ball. During a match, it becomes the center of attention. How it behaves – its cosmic order of trajectory and velocity – is the basis of all play. It and the athletes who propel it can do astonishing things that defy intuition, all of which you can now see for yourself.


Eric Zillmer is the athletic director and a professor of psychology at Drexel University, which is hosting the 2012 U.S. Open Squash Championships through Oct. 12.