Philly Serves as Historic Home to Squash in U.S.

Article courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer

by Frank Fitzpatrick 

RCOP philly

Players engage in a game of squash at the Racquet Club in Center City. The club was the catalyst for squash in America in the early 1900s. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

 

The Titanic was taking on water when, amid the chaos of that tragic night in 1912, British Col. Archibald Gracie bumped into Frederic Wright, the young American in charge of the doomed luxury liner’s squash court.

“Perhaps,” Gracie suggested to Wright, “we had better cancel our match for tomorrow morning.”

Gracie, who survived to write a book on the iconic maritime disaster, epitomized not just the stiff-upper-lipped British elite but also the fanatical squash player.

“Squash tends to attract eccentric, obsessive people,” said James Zug, a Wilmington resident who has written extensively on the sport.

Beginning Friday, here in the city considered the birthplace of American squash, an odd lot of competitors from around the world will be on display at Drexel University when the weeklong 2013 U.S. Open takes place there.

Sixty-four men and women will vie for $230,000 in prize money, with most of the competition occurring in a portable glass court constructed in the middle of the Daskalakis Athletic Center floor.

That’s not an unusual venue for squash. Its annual Tournament of Champions takes place in Grand Central Station and another prestigious event is held in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids. The artist Frank Stella, a squash buff, once conducted a tournament in a New York disco.

Curiously, while squash’s origins were in mid-19th-century England, it was just a little east of Drexel, in Center City Philadelphia, where the sport took root in America.

“The first courts in the U.S. were up at St. Paul’s [the elite New Hampshire boys’ school] in the 1880s,” said Zug. “But in 1900 the Racquet Club, which was then located at 923 Walnut St., put in a court that was used for squash, and the game organically grew from there.

“Other clubs followed. The first interclub league began there in 1903. The first rules were established there. The first national association, which became U.S. Squash, started there in 1904. Eventually the club moved to South 16th Street, where it remains today. Guys would come to Philadelphia, see the game, and go back to their cities and start playing it. This was the home of the game, the generator, the catalyst for the sport in America.”

Spectators will witness an extremely fast, intense, and intimate sport, one in which two athletes careen around a small box – 32- feet-by-21 feet – like flesh pinballs. There is no net separating them. The rubber ball they furiously swat into a wall becomes a missile. At the 2011 Open, one shot by Australian Cameron Pilley was clocked at 175 m.p.h., 19 m.p.h. faster than any recorded tennis serve.

“It’s a very gladiatorial game,” Zug said. “You’re constantly bumping into one another. Last night I played and my opponent’s sweat got on me. You could hear him breathing. It’s a sport more akin to wrestling in some ways.”

That all sounds very un-gentlemanly for a game that began at England’s famously formal Harrows School.

Back then court tennis – a more claustrophobic forerunner of contemporary tennis – was wildly popular. Soon Englishmen were taking the ball and racquets outside, where the games of “racquets” and “fives” were born in courtyards and alleys.

Harrows had some “fives” courts and it was on one in 1864 that students developed a game they’d soon call “squash.” According to Zug, who has done considerable research at the school, the unusual name derived not, as was widely believed, from the sound of racquet striking ball, but rather from a Harrows sporting ritual.

“They would annually have an election for captain of the cricket team, a prestigious position analogous to the captain of a football team in America,” Zug said. “Students would vote, and after they did they’d be mauled by their classmates in a sort of ritualistic melee. It went on for hours and it came to be called ‘squash.’ It could not be a coincidence that a game started at the same time bore the same name.”

Today, according to U.S. Squash, there are an estimated 20 million squash players in 185 nations worldwide. While 1.2 million of them are American, the best players, for the last 15 years anyway, have been Egyptians. Malaysians, the British, and those from former British colonies like Australia are also consistently among the world’s best.

Among the top male players at Drexel will be France’s Gregory Gaultier, England’s James Willstrop and Nick Matthew, and Egypt’s Karim Darwish, each of whom is rated in the world’s top five.

The three top-ranked females will also be there – Malaysia’s Nicol David (1), England’s Laura Massaro (2), and Egypt’s Raneem El Weleily (3).

The top American contenders at the Open, which has been held since 1954, are 35th-ranked Julian Illingworth and No. 45 Christopher Gordon. The highest-ranked U.S. women will be Amanda Sobhy (No. 23) and Latasha Khan (30).

If there’s a Ruthian figure in the somewhat obscure sport, chances are his or her name is Khan.

That family dynasty began not long after World War II, when a barefoot, 35-year-old Pakistani named Hashim Khan showed up at the British Open, the sport’s Wimbledon. Khan, 99 now and living in Colorado, won that event and he and his children, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, and nephews went on to dominate squash for the remainder of the century.

Twenty-nine U.S. Opens have been won by Khan or his family members. Jahangir Khan, the son of Hashim’s cousin, captured an astounding 555 matches in a row between 1981 and 1986.

U.S. Squash estimates that there are 3,500 squash courts in the United States. Many are located in private schools and elite universities. Country clubs are also common locales, and in 1973 the Berwyn Racquet Club became the nation’s first commercial – open to the public – squash venue.

Philadelphia, New York, and Boston – not surprisingly, given the game’s aristocratic bent – are established squash cities. But the professional version of the sport has not caught on here the way it has in those other two cities, Zug said.

“That’s why it’s so exciting having the Open at Drexel [where it’s been held annually since 2011],” said Zug, “because pro squash hasn’t been a big thing in Philadelphia. We’ve tried to put on something like they have at Grand Central here at 30th Street Station, but we haven’t been able to pull it off yet.”