Squash makes some racquet
Squash, a hard game to play, is gaining a small bounce outside the East Coast.
Head-to-head solo sports produce gladiator-grade drama when the pairing is right. This semifinal match in US Open Squash has the makings of an epic tilt.
The Boston event is also a showcase for a sport honed at Britain's Harrow School around 1860 and now showing potential for growth in America far beyond its East Coast enclaves.
World No. 1 Amr Shabana, an Egyptian with a furrowed brow, faces down the lanky, long-haired Ramy Ashour, world No. 9. Ashour, a fellow countryman, is a fast riser – a force at age 19.
The players compete in a glass-cube court on stage at a Back Bay events center. Shabana stays fluid. One shot snaps from his racket like a marble from a sling. The next gently drops the ball just above the "tin" across the bottom of the front wall. But Ashour seems to teleport to every corner, peeling the ball off the walls.
In the final game Ashour is down 2-10 – play is to 11 – and he claws back to 10-all.
"He's sending a message," whispers spectator Jim Zug, a longtime squash player and author of the authoritative 2003 book "Squash: A History of the Game." "Ramy has been digging and digging," says Mr. Zug. Now the young star refuses to roll over.
Finally, Shabana puts him away, then snaps his own racket with a flourish.
This very international game needs some high-drama "rock stars" to succeed in America as a spectator or participatory sport, Zug and others say, ideally one from the United States.
But US squash has made major inroads in the past five years, its advocates insist, and cracks are appearing in its old elitist veneer. A handful of Western colleges – including Pac-10 conference schools – have formed teams; Stanford added squash great Mark Talbott as coach in 2004 and fielded its first women's varsity team this season.
"It's definitely no longer an East coast-only sport," says Jeanne Blasberg, chair of the US Squash Racquets Association, the sport's governing body. "Some of the big hotbeds are Houston [and other] big international communities. There's squash in L.A. and San Diego, in Denver, Chicago. There's a huge squash community in Seattle."
Ms. Blasberg's organization recently announced it will shift its headquarters from Bala Cynwyd, Pa., to New York City to improve its networking potential, tapping the city's cultural diversity. Its membership grew by 7 percent in 2005 and will jump an estimated 20 percent this year.
Based on equipment sales and court construction, some 300,000 people now play squash in the US, Blasberg estimates.
About 12 years ago, the US game shifted from "hardball" to "softball," beginning with prep schools and universities, she explains, in a bid to conform to the game that the rest of the world plays.
The "soft" ball is considerably smaller and less lively than the ball used in racquetball, but livelier than the old hard ball, which still has some core proponents.
The game's relative difficulty, along with its prep-school origins, contributes to its quirky appeal. (In much of the world, Zug notes, it's very much a "working-class" game.)
"In terms of participation, the 'elite' status will probably work in the sport's favor," says Bruce Watkins, director of the Media Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, who studies the relationship between sports and the mass media and used to play squash.
Other players just love the action.
"The game is 100 times more interesting than racquetball," says David Sterrett, a lawyer for the City of Boston and a tennis player who discovered squash a year and a half ago. He now plays three times a week at his club. "You get these wild, wild shots," he says. "There's so much strategy; it's a thinking person's game."
Mr. Sterrett also cites social aspects. "It's still a small enough community that if you go to a match, you see people you've been playing against," he says. "You feel like you belong."
The community is growing as fitness centers add courts or adapt ones built (about a foot narrower) for racquetball. Qualified teaching pros have begun to crop up at more clubs, too.
"It's exciting because we're now looking at our first generation of players who have played only softball," says Blasberg. "And [players are] becoming more and more competitive on the world stage."
In 2005, she points out, the junior US women's team finished fourth at the World Championships in Belgium. She would like to see the game become an Olympic sport by 2012.
On the high-profile professional men's side, you can still scroll 50-deep on the world-rankings chart today and not find a US pro. (American Christopher Gordon is ranked No. 72.) This fall night in Boston – a crowd of more than 700 call out Egyptian names as Shabana advances to face the winner of a match between players from Australia and France. History's benchmark matches remain ones between the likes of (Canadian) Jonathon Power and (Scotsman) Peter Nicol. Its greatest dynasty remains the decades-long reign of the Kahn family of Pakistan.
In the US, the big hurdle has less to do with players swinging titanium alloy than with the crowd clutching TV remotes.
"In terms of [entertainment] consumers, I don't think it has a chance," says Professor Watkins. One goal of cable was to cover many more sports, he points out. But even hockey has flagged in the land of football and NASCAR. "I think we're [set] with our power and performance sports."
Zug – who rode to this match, he says, in a van with young players "of seven nationalities" – concedes that in the US, at venues like this one, squash needs to generate its own buzz. "The action happens so fast and in such a small space," he says. "It's hard to make it look good on TV."
Want to see this fast, nuanced game played at its highest level before you try it yourself?
North America plays host to its share of sanctioned, professional events. For more detailed information on venues and ticketing, go to www.us-squash.org
Some upcoming matches (dates in parentheses):
Pace Canadian Classic, Toronto (6-7, 8-12)
Windy City Open, Chicago (15-23)
Dayton Open, Dayton, Ohio (24-19)
Oregon Open, Portland, Ore. (5-10)
Tournament of Champions, New York (23-Mar. 2)
Virginia Championships, Richmond, Va. (27-Mar. 3)