Schoolboys created the game out of three simple things. They swung crude racquets shaved off at the handle. They hit gray rubber balls, sticky, misshapen, punctured, smelling of brimstone. They battered stone walls stippled with windows, ledges and pipes. Three items were the sole prerequisites, and a century and a half later it is the same: a bat, a ball and a wall.
Squash breeds zealots. People fall in love with the game to the point of obsession. Something about it captures the imagination. Each of the tripartite aspects of squash is so basic and so uncomplicated that the love runs pure and deep. Time does not leaven the passion. Decades later a squash player can instantly retrieve the memory of that first day he connected on the sweet spot of a racquet and drove a squash ball hard into a wall.
The bat, as a racquet used to be called, is the chief tool of the squash tradesman. At first it was a sawed-off bamboo stick. As the game grew in sophistication, it became a hoop of second-growth white ash, bent by steam, strung with gut and red silk cord, with a pillowy calfskin grip at one end and the stern admission on the side: Squash Racquet Not Guaranteed. Prossers. Wright & Ditson. Spalding. Bancroft. Snauwaert. Cragin. Feron. Unsquashable. Manta. Slazenger. Dunlop. Wilson. Head. Prince. Today racquets are made from high modulous graphite, hyper carbon and titanium. They swoosh through the air with oversized heads, with a powerscoop shaft, microfilament, eighteen-gauge nylon Ashaway strings and a cushion-fit faux-leather grip. The bat is long and light, but capable of delivering satisfying force upon the ball.
King Arthur obtained Excalibur from a beautiful woman who stood sentry at the shores of a lake in which the sword was submerged; a squash player's relationship to his weapon is equally shrouded in the mists of romantic myth. It is a scythe you swing in a white field, a rapier that cuts to the quick, a rifle for a soldier, a hammer for a carpenter. You envelop your bat in a fetishistic aura. You pamper it. You kiss it after a lucky shot. You grip and regrip it, winding wafer-thin blue ribbons around the handle, tying them off with a red stick of tape. You bandage the head with protective tape. You tap it against the wall before you serve, like a blind man touching the sidewalk with a cane. It gives your bearings. You string and restring, and you straighten the strings in between points like a master weaver. You are loath to let someone borrow it. You are superstitious and save a magical racquet for crucial matches. You stick it first into your squash bag when you go away for a tournament. When you come back, you stash it head down in your locker. Squash is a tough sport. Racquets split and crack. Players retire. Memories fade into the back corners of the mind. When your racquet finally breaks, you do not throw it away. You bury it in an upstairs closet to be found by a grandchild. What was this, Grandpa? This, you say as you again heft the glorious weight and swing it whistling through the air and ponder a life not guaranteed, this was my squash racquet.
The ball the schoolboys originally swatted was a globe of vulcanized India rubber pierced with a hole. At the turn of the twentieth century, it became a gutta-percha ball, then the Hewitt, the black Seamless, the Cragin green diamond, the revolutionary blue Merco seventy-plus, the Slazenger fuchsia ball, and now the black Dunlop Revelation Pro XX Yellow Dot. The ball has always been small and quick, an effulgent moonrock flashing and floating through the white space of the court. It cruises like a nuclear pinball. It ricochets like bees shaken in a jar. It darts like a scared serpent. And then it dies upon command. Like the faddish board game from the 1970s, squash is the Othello of games: It takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.
The walls were originally made of stone quarried from the earth. They did not enclose as much as draw a line across nature. They were open to the clouds, the spitting rain and golden bars of sunlight. Now squash is inside. The court is a cage. You run on a floor made from northern maple ,with the unpainted boards set on edge for speed. Lights dangle from a fluorescent ceiling. The four walls, constructed of gypsum plaster and concrete or high density composite panel, are incapable of causing distraction or prompting reverie. They are niveous and functional. The only interruptions are a few firehouse-red lines and a piebald, carbon smear pockmarking the walls with the signature fingerprint of squash. The walls are Piet Mondrian in an unhappy mood, meant to be played upon.
Squash saturates the senses. There is the burnt perfume of heated rubber, the tangy admixture of sweat, dust, stale air and wood, the unexpungable odor of ego on display. There is a woolly thirst on the tongue after the most exhausting hour of the day. There is the sight of two people moving so fluidly, in such close proximity and in such a state of ecstasy that it appears they are dancing. There is the Euclidean violence of the dark ball careening from white wall to white wall in combinations only physicists and the gods can explain, and at a speed faster than you can drive a car.
Sound defines the game. The ball makes a schlooping hiss as it comes off hair-thin strings stretched to thirty pounds per ounce. Sneakers squeak on the floor like a disgruntled aviary. Players grunt and gasp and moan at errors. In between points they wipe their hands along the wall as if they are painting with sweat. Above all there is the distinctive phlap of rubber meeting wood. This is squash the ball closing upon itself as it slams into the front wall, then opening again as it rebounds back. It is a stuttering, metronomic incantation, as intimate, steady and comforting as a heartbeat.
Meshed together in the alchemy of squash, the bat, ball and the wall produces beauty and truth. The Holy Grail of the game is perfect length. You try to propel the ball so it glides along the side wall and dies against the back wall. The walls are your enemies. They push your drives back into the center of the court, spin your cross-courts too sharply, kick out your drop shots, repel your advances. You are helplessly in love. Again and again you come back. You aim and hit, hoping the ball will hug the wall, perhaps gently graze it like a lover brushing her lips against your skin. You hit a slow, whispering shot. You hit an electric, ardent shot. It is all the same. No matter how beautiful your stroke, the truth is that you cannot achieve perfect length. You adopt the mien of a monk. You practice alone. You grow pale from the hours spent under artificial lights. You punish yourself with arm-aching drills. You crack one rail after another. You rake a ball that rushes past the side wall like a locomotive on a downhill run and crashes into the back corner, unplayable, stuck to the wall like wallpaper and say, "good length." But you never say, "perfect length." Such a thing does not exist.
Good length is a part of the dialogue of squash. You can rehearse for hours, snap off a hundred shots, one after another, videotape a stroke, repetitively groove your swing until your hand twitches in your sleep, but in a match, like in romance, you can only control your half of the flirtation. A match involves two people. As with all the best games, there is no clock, no limit but what you create. To beat an opponent, you might proceed by indirection, as in sailing. You might throw in inspired combinations of tacks when you sense the wind shifting, when your opponent is tiring or becoming exasperated or growing angry. You might proceed by a golflike pattern: long drives followed by chipped wedges, then a short, putting dropshot. You might play basketball and go for a winner from three-point range or dash up for a tomahawk dunk. You might take a technique from crew and try to row through your opponent on the home stretch of the fifth game by exceeding his power output. You might play chess. Squash is a culminative game. You pile up tiny victories, you employ tactics, you hunt for psychological advantages, you retreat with the Sicilian defense. Whatever you do, an opponent answers back. You have to react to him. The conversation is rapid fire, elliptical, maddeningly addictive, improvisational, close to the bone. Unlike tennis, there is no net separating you and your opponent in a squash court. You jostle and bump right up against him. You touch his sweat. You hear his heaving lungs exhaling air. You smell his fear or exultation and, if you are not careful, you might absorb it. Squash is the Stockholm syndrome at a hundred miles per hour.
If squash is literature, it is poetry. Its lines are short but heavy with meaning. It condenses and concentrates, distills and refines. It exposes your character like an X ray exposes your bones. It is madness in an unpadded cell. The term for the spectator bleachers at a squash court is the gallery, and squash, seen from above, is like an Impressionism art show. It is something aesthetically soft and engrossing on display. The bodies blur. The racquets flash. The seismic thumps of the ball seem attractive. But, down on the ground, it is murder in the court.
At heart squash is boxing with sticks and a piece of rubber. The same sweet science of pugilism, minus the neutral corners, controls the game. You have a thousand cubic feet of territory to claim. You come out strong. You probe for weaknesses. You jab with boasts and lobs. You circle in a fight for the center of the court. You clinch with the hand-push when caught going the wrong way. You rope-a-dope with attritional drives to the back corners. You swing haymaker volleys into the nick. You tire. You find a second wind. You slump on a stool in between games, sucking on water, toweling off sweat. You go for the knockout drop at match point in the fifth. You shake hands, you hug and you exit together, bound forever by the crucible of the contest. Outside the winter fugue of snowfall and early darkness is playing but, inside, you are as bright and warm as a fire.
The stories of the history of squash are told in locker rooms, galleries and the club bar the contemporary equivalents of the ancestral campfire. They are passed down from player to player and generation to generation with a focus on the extraordinary. People tell of the three times when the national championship was decided by the slimmest of margins: a winner-take-all point in a tiebreaker in the fifth game. Or when an avatar of softball brilliance arrived on our shores. Or those streak-breaking matches in Boston in 1920, Mexico City in 1975 and Cleveland in 1982. Or that month when a Brooklyn girl swept through a triple crown of the national juniors, national intercollegiates and national singles. Or that Monday in November when one of our own beat the best player in history. People talk of less-obvious legends. They recount the eccentric club upstate, the superstitions of the local champion, rumors of the aging veteran's psychological warfare and the inevitable hilarity of a late tournament weekend evening.
In writing the story of squash in the United States, I have tried to find a narrative equipoise between retelling the legends of the game and explaining the quotidian circumstances from which they rose. Much of what follows necessarily concerns champions. They pushed the game to its highest level of excellence. They represented their club, their city and sometimes their country. I have also tried to recover the biographies of those left at the margins of the historical record weeknight hackers, C players, juniors, tournament directors, the many fanatics who lived off the East Coast seam and, most of all, women. The game of squash has survived and prospered because these rank-and-file, unheralded people logged countless chilly hours in the gallery watching matches, billeted players, picked up officials at the train station and held up the bar after midnight. They form the marvelously obsessive and jovial backbone of the game. Allison Danzig, who wrote the only other history of the game in his magisterial 1930 book The Racquet Game, responded to this bifurcated story by listing the names of men and women who played the game in each city. I trust this is no more clumsy.
In marching to the beat of chronology, I have endeavored to incorporate the sweep of larger issues into the inevitable recapitulation of tournaments and personalities: the ephemeral life of squash tennis, the emergence of intercollegiate squash, the creation of the weekend tournament circuit, the Merion dynasty, the herky-jerky sashay of the game across the country, the commercial club liberation, the rise and fall of the professional tour and the arrival of a single international standard of squash. Only doubles stood outside this narrative and deserved its own separate chapter toward the end of the book. There are a hundred doubles courts in the United States, hardly a blip on the radar screen of singles squash with its four thousand courts. Besides its different court, the four-handed game has its own ball, rules, circuit of tournaments, aura and practitioners.
The unique thing about a squash ball, unlike almost any other sports ball, is that it has no life of its own. It needs to be warmed up. It needs to be hit to have energy. It needs a player. This, in the end, is a biography of the people who have played the game of squash.
Copyright © 2003 by James Zug