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Game of Squash Gains in Popularity - 2003-03-19


At the time of the American Civil War, the boys at England's Harrow School made an enduring change to the popular playground game where two players take turns whacking a ball against a wall with a racket. The kids discovered that a punctured ball "squashed" on impact with the wall, and it produced a game that required greater skill and was more fun. Thus was born the game of squash, now played in 100 countries, and more popular today than ever.

"Once a year in New York City in Grand Central Station we see great squash to introduce this game to thousands and thousands of people who file through here. That's one of the things we get the most joy out of," the announcer said.

While squash has been played in America since 1890, the world's best players come from other lands. In this match in New York's Grand Central Station, world number one Peter Nicol from England is beating Australia's Stewart Boswell.

"The second half of the game I thought Peter started to control the tee [the T-shaped marking at the center of the court], and I thought he started to use the height on the front wall and some pace that made Stewart think a little bit more," said Neil Harvey, Peter Nicol's coach. "The squash court is a rectangular shape and you want to hit the four corners."

"Well, you obviously see why Peter is world champion," said Sarah FitzGerald of Australia, watching world number one. "When the rallies were tough, and also in just basic situations, Peter just did not make the errors. Even when he is under pressure, Peter is so good at just keeping the ball in play."

It's a game of speed, subtlety and endurance. A best-of-five game match often lasts 45 minutes. Tommy Wolfe, son of popular American author Tom Wolfe and a highly ranked junior squash player, doubts that Americans are willing to train hard enough to become world champions.

"Americans are more spoiled than Europeans and try to play [finesse] more of their shots instead of [using] basic [shotmaking]," Tommy Wolfe said. "But more Americans are going to European tournaments. They're seeing what kind of level they have to play and the training they have to do in order to get at that level."

Even though worldwide the highest ranked American male is only number 97, sports commentator Martin Bronstein believes squash is set to take off in America.

"A dozen years ago they said soccer will never happen in the United States. Look at it now," he said. "And what people don't realize now is that on the average you've got bigger gates [crowds of paying fans] than they do in England."

"It is just a matter of time," adds Bronstein. "You need just one born champion. They're not made, they're born. You need just one like that to activate the whole American pride, 'hey this guy is a world champion or he could be a world champion.'"

John Nimmick, the organizer of the New York tournament, believes it will be several more years before Americans reach the top ranks of world squash. The game, he says, is not available to a wide enough segment of the population.

"One of the reasons America excels in basketball is that basketball is everywhere," Mr. Nimmick commented. "So if you have a natural talent for handling the ball and passing and shooting and dunking, you're given the chance to see if you're any good at it. And squash is nowhere in that kind of general accessibility."

Unlike in the rest of the world, squash in America has an image problem. It's an intercollegiate sport only in the Ivy League and among a couple dozen other mostly private schools in the northeast. Former Yale coach Dale Walker is pushing street squash, getting the sport into community centers and downtown YMCA's, where racquetball courts are often not being used.

"If this game doesn't get out of the country clubs and the prominent schools, it won't change much," said coach Dale Walker. "Street squash is essential. Public courts are essential. And they're all here in this country. But it's a game we haven't been able to market."

Dale Walker says to get into the main stream, squash has to get into the Olympics and onto television. Until that happens, this fast-moving game is likely to remain on the sidelines and all but invisible on the nation's sports pages.

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