Sports Nut

Imported Squash

Squash is generally thought to be a game for rich, snobby WASPs at Ivy League colleges. But in fact, men’s college squash has changed of late: It’s now a game for rich foreigners of color. Meanwhile, the women’s college game remains as white and as WASPy as ever. Why the disconnect?

First, a primer for the uninitiated: Similar to racquetball, squash is played in a four-walled court, and the ball is smacked against the front wall. But while racquetball uses what look like oversized ping-pong paddles, squash rackets have long, skinny shafts—more like high-tech badminton rackets. You also can’t hit the ball off the ceiling in squash. And squash is less chaotic, since the hollow ball bounces (“squashes”—the derivation of the name) much less and more slowly than the one used in racquetball. Squash is more a thinking person’s game. Pros: careful strategy, amazing workout, cool name. Cons: the aforementioned class connotations.

Invented in England around 1830, squash hit the United States in 1882, at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. Legend says the frigid New Hampshire weather caused the soft ball used in Europe not to bounce. So, Americans changed to a firmer ball (“hardball” is the name for the American game), and to match the new dynamics of this ball, Americans also opted for a narrower court—only 18.5 feet instead of 21 feet. American and international squash became two different games. Harvard coach Satinder Bajwa (a man who has worked with legendary squash master Jansher Khan) likens it to grass-court and clay-court tennis. Hardball is quicker, with less time to think. International squash has longer rallies and more running.

Because the American game was so different, foreigners rarely played at U.S. schools. There were exceptions: A few foreign junior champs came to play hardball from the ‘60s on, looking for a challenge and a change of scenery. But then, in 1994, American universities adapted to the worldwide and professional circuit standard by switching to international rules, with the wider court and softer ball. This had two effects: 1) Everyone had to build new courts (for a few years, before building its new center, Harvard played international squash on American-sized courts); and 2) foreign players, noting the easy transition, flocked to American men’s college squash teams.

Thus, in a Harvard vs. Williams men’s match earlier this year, Harvard players hailed from Bombay, India; Yokohama, Japan; Gurgaon, India; Kingston, Jamaica; and Plymouth, England. Williams countered with Bangkok, Thailand; Haifa, Israel; and Bombay once again. It was a U.N. convention on the courts.

But over on the women’s side were more familiar locales: Greenwich, Newport, Phillips Academy, the Winsor School. The only foreign player on either team came from Canada. Nearly everyone was from a private high school in the Northeast. Coach Bajwa’s explanation for the striking contrast: “It’s a Commonwealth game—India, Pakistan, Egypt, Australia. In most of the countries we’re getting male players from, women are much less encouraged to play sports than they would be here in the States. So we don’t get the same flow of recruits. But it’s changing.”

Indeed, the world’s No. 1 professional women’s player is Leilani Joyce of New Zealand—a Maori who calls herself “The Brown Blur.” Bajwa reckons her success will encourage more women to play the game in places like India and Pakistan. And while the Harvard and Yale women’s teams are still all-American squads, Trinity College’s top seed this year is a South African. There’s a Zimbabwean on the team, too. You can expect a flood of these women soon into our most elitist institutions. College squash is in transition right now: The men’s game is a peek at the future, and the women’s is a throwback to the ‘50s. That won’t last long.