‘Squash has taken so many wrong turns during the 50-year cycle of life I have observed here in North America, one of them being to deliberately exclude the masses’
By BOB KINGSLEY (Squash Mad Correspondent, USA)
Like any useful analysis, only the passage of time can fully illuminate the entirety of history that defines the cycles of life. In this case I will examine the full-circle of the life of the sport of squash from my historic perspective which allows for well more than a half-century of observation.
Although I am USA-based, I think this analysis, in general, is accurate on both side of the Atlantic and around the squash world.
The overwhelming “bad rap” that dogged squash from the beginning was the elitist foundation of the game, a criticism rightly deserved. The British Empire put courts all over the world in the territories which they occupied and North Americans likewise brought the game with them to the states.
Courts required very specific construction detail, considerable materials, adequate space and protections from the elements while providing nothing more than entertainment for two players and usefulness for nothing more.
As a result of this expensive endeavour, only the wealthier clubs and associations could afford them and because of the restrictive nature of the membership of such, the exclusion of the masses was a built-in reality.
Only when the “fitness revolution” hit the USA in the early 1970s did YMCAs and other public health and sports clubs begin to transition their older and less-often used handball courts into racquetball, and then as the trends changed again into squash.
Racquetball was to squash in the 1970s what pickleball is to squash in the 2020s.
So while the public facilities arguably saved squash for the masses, the problem was greater however than simple access. The problem was how hard the game is to learn and beyond that sizeable hurdle, how really difficult it is to become proficient.
Both racquetball and pickleball offer a much abbreviated learning-curve, almost instant gratification and exercise hiding in an easy-to-play game. Squash demands a certain intensity combined with determination and athletic ability that cannot exist without the added necessity of a sense of sportsmanship unlike any other game. These requirements cull the available pool of participants from few to very few.
Because pickleball often uses existing tennis courts with only the need of a few lines of tape to define the smaller playing surface, instant expansion is possible on any public or private tennis court, of which plenty are available. Additionally, doubles seems to be the game of choice and because the ball is large and bounces easily and the paddles are short and the court is small, even older, non-traditional athlete participants can learn and learn quickly while having fun.
The onset of the Covid epidemic is the typically cited reason for the demise of the participation decline in squash and no doubt that didn’t help any but that said, the decline was already in progress.
Faced with the financial pressures of locked-down sport facilities, obviously zero income resulted in many clubs closing permanently, but prior to Covid, courts were giving way to calls for more density-per-foot of space in order to generate more income.
Around 25 stationary bikes can fit in a squash court. Only two players take up all of that space so doing the math determines how that space gets used when the reality of finance and profit are considered.
In retrospect, had squash made it onto the Olympic venue, certainly awareness would have exploded but even if that had happened, I believe squash would still be in trouble today. Squash courts are scarce and in many cases expensive. The game is difficult and even playing partners can be hard to find in matched skill-levels.
Pickleball is fun, easy to learn and can be played outdoors and indoors anywhere there is a tennis court. Additionally, the social aspects of the sport are attracting lots of people from very diverse backgrounds, better fitting today’s social narrative. In addition to cannibalising tennis courts, some huge pickleball centres are being built across the country with dozens of courts and outstanding social facilities.
Not only that, but another wave of entrepreneurs promoting padel is landing on our shores, sport’s version of The Mayflower, keen to spread the word about another fun and popular racquet sport built around sociable doubles play.
Padel already has two professional tours and now comes with oodles of investment from Qatar, plus court manufacturers from Spain and Sweden desperate to export their businesses to fresh territories having reached saturation point back home.
It’s like the Wild West all over again, this time with prospectors seeking the gold that will accrue from digging into American soil to exploit popular sports and leisure pursuits that are instantly building the relevance and commercial appeal that squash has failed to achieve in most parts of the country. The Padel Haus, New York’s first padel club, has just opened in Brooklyn. Many others will soon follow.
In closing, and to make the point about the full-circle of the life of a sport, squash in North America pre-1970s had been played in a slightly smaller court and with a very different ball than that which was enjoyed in the rest of the squash-world.
Dubbed “hardball squash”, this version of the game could not have been more different than the same game-by-name-only played everywhere else. Ironically, in those salad-days of hardball, the game was widely touted as a pastime for the un-athletic!
Those of us old enough to have experienced that version of the game will attest to the fact that you could play well into advanced years without the physical beating one takes at the hands of the traditional squash game as played today, but alas, hardball is gone forever and for all of the reasons laid out above.
I fear that today’s squash awaits a similar fate, even though for those lucky enough to have learned it, practiced it and actually became proficient in it, it is, without question, one of the most satisfying and maddeningly elegant sports one will ever encounter.
Quite literally, discovering squash made for the majority of the most profound moments and times of my entire life and I’m sad that its time has come.
Related articles by Bob Kingsley
The politics of hardball and softball: How America killed the Olympic dream
Squash and the Olympics: How the hardball politics of US Squash tinned our Olympic bid