Julian Illingworth: For Love of the Game

Article courtesy of Sports on Earth

by Tim Casey

Julian Illingworth, here in 2008, graduated from Yale in 2006, but he's spent his post-graduate life trying to make squash a viable career. (AP Images)

Julian Illingworth, here in 2008, graduated from Yale in 2006, but he’s spent his post-graduate life trying to make squash a viable career. (AP Images)

PHILADELPHIA — In the bowels of Drexel University’s athletics center on Saturday night, Julian Illingworth sat alone drenched in sweat and clutching his sore legs. He drank a bottle of water, ate an energy bar and recovered after losing in the U.S. Open Squash Championships, an event featuring the world’s best players.

For the fourth consecutive week, Illingworth failed to advance past the first round of a tournament, falling in three consecutive games to German Simon Rosner, who was 12th in the most recent rankings. The streak left the 29-year-old disappointed but also determined. Although he is getting older for a professional and considering retirement in the next few years, Illingworth is not ready to quit just yet. He wants to add to his legacy as the most accomplished American squash player in history, an honor that doesn’t come with many financial rewards or fame.

Never heard of Illingworth? Don’t worry. Outside of the insular squash circles, he is basically anonymous despite dominating the sport in the United States for nearly a decade. And that suits the low-key Illingworth just fine.

Beginning in 2005, during his junior year in college, Illingworth won eight consecutive national titles. The run ended in March when Gilly Lane upset Illingworth in the semifinals. No one besides Illingworth has won more than four consecutive or six overall national championships since the event began in 1907. He also holds the record for the highest world ranking (24th in January 2012) for a man from the United States. He is now 51st, three spots behind Chris Gordon, a Connecticut resident and 2013 national champion who was the only American besides Illingworth good enough to play in this week’s 32-man U.S. Open that was dominated as usual by foreigners. Todd Harrity, a Princeton alum who turned 23 last month, is the next highest ranked U.S. player at 174th in the world.

Illingworth, who graduated from Yale in 2006 with a political science degree, is the rare American-born squash star who pursued a professional career. Nearly all of the top players from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other traditionally dominant squash schools enter banking, trading or other finance-related fields. They do so for two main reasons: They are not good enough to compete against the best from Egypt, England and other countries where the sport is much more popular. And even if they succeed like Illingworth has, they will still struggle to pay their bills, something they don’t have to worry about with the salaries and bonuses that come with a career on Wall Street.

“I don’t know if [turning pro] was the plan all along,” Illingworth said. “At some point when I was in college, I kind of realized, this would be fun. and I think I’m good enough that I can do it so I might as well. I can’t go back and do it later. I might as well give it a go and see how it goes. I can always go back to a normal job later.”

Since 2007, Illingworth has been among the top 25 to 50 players in the world. Still, after paying for his own travel expenses, he said he breaks even or only earns a few thousand dollars in profit each year. He made between $6,500 and $7,000 for winning the first five or six national titles, but he said the winner’s cut dropped to $2,000 a few years ago. And even though he’s captured 11 other professional tournaments, he received a check for only $2,500 or $3,000 per event.

Dunlop provides Illingworth with free rackets and gear, but he must foot the bill for flights, hotels, food and other expenditures. Illingworth, who lives with his wife in Manhattan, usually competes in around 15 tournaments each year. He used to play two-thirds of the events overseas. He now enters as many competitions in the United States as he can to cut down on costs and to be home more often. So far this year, he’s traveled to Hong Kong, Switzerland and Canada. Even within the United States, he usually has to take long flights to cities such as San Francisco, Las Vegas and Houston.

“It’s brutal,” said Dave Talbott, Yale’s squash coach since 1983. “When you’re a kid like Julian, you’ve got a Yale degree, you can do a lot of things to make a living. It’s a tough life. … In some ways, I’m a little surprised he’s still playing, but he just loved the game so much.”

Illingworth supplements his meager squash winnings by sometimes teaching lessons, participating in exhibitions or running clinics. Last year, he was an assistant coach at Columbia. He recently gave up that job because the Lions were looking for a full-time commitment and Illingworth wasn’t willing to stop playing professionally.

When he’s not competing in tournaments, Illingworth works out twice daily, spending up to two hours on the court against other players or in drills and then devoting another two hours to training in the gym. He usually lifts weights and uses the exercise bicycle. He doesn’t run often because of the pounding on his joints, and he needs to remain healthy.

For about six months last winter and spring, Illingworth suffered from a recurrent hamstring injury. Known primarily as a sport for the wealthy and country club crowd, squash is nonetheless physically demanding, more so than almost any other activity. In fact, U.S. Squash’s marketing slogan is titled “Fit For Life.” Matches usually last for at least 45 minutes, and players are always twisting, turning and lunging for the ball, which doesn’t bounce high off the ground. Leg and back injuries are common even for experienced pros.

“After [people] play squash for the first time, they wake up the next day and they’re so soar through their legs and their butt,” Illingworth said. “We call it ‘squash butt.’ Once you play squash and you’re doing all these lunges, it definitely works the legs. Some of the top guys make it look much easier than it actually is in terms of the movement.”

And that includes Illingworth, an all-around athlete whose father introduced him to squash as a kid at the prestigious Multnomah Athletic Club in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. By 14, he was the best in his age group in the United States, yet he continued playing center midfield year-round for his high school and traveling soccer teams. He was also on the track and ski teams as a teenager.

At Yale, Illingworth devoted himself full-time to squash. He was among the top five college players each year, although Princeton’s Yasser El Halaby (a native of Egypt) won all four singles titles. The last time the two played, in February 2009, Illingworth defeated El Halaby in the quarterfinals of a professional tournament in Maryland. Whereas El Halaby no longer plays competitively, Illingworth continues his quest.

“It’s just the determination to keep playing and his love of the sport and kind of seeing how far he can push himself,” said Gilly Lane, Illingworth’s friend who reached as high as number 48 in the world before stopping a full-time squash schedule last year. “I know he’s starting to look at different things in terms of careers, but it’s amazing what he’s been able to accomplish. … Hats off to him for what he’s been able to do.”

Illingworth isn’t sure what the next phase of his life will entail. His wife is finishing up her medical residency and is applying for a two-year fellowship in endocrinology. She will soon find out where she’s assigned, and Illingworth will follow her wherever that may be. He’s also preparing for the world squash championships beginning on Oct. 28 in Manchester, England. He’ll board another flight, stay in another hotel and hopefully win enough money to cover the expenses. It’s a routine he’s accustomed to, and he’s not about to complain about the professional squash career that he’s chosen.

“It’s not like you got signed by the Yankees and you’re in the system and everything’s taken care of,” Illingworth said. “You’re kind of on your own, scrambling a little bit, figuring out your own deals and stuff like that. In some ways, it’s kind of fun.”

He paused.

“Obviously, I’d rather be making Yankees money,” he said, laughing.