Some of squash's best coming to town
One hundred years ago, the Germantown Cricket Club produced scores of national squash champions. It was the place to be if you wanted to excel in this esoteric racquet sport that was largely confined to private clubs and Ivy League schools in the Northeast.
Over time, the sport lost some of its cachet, and participation at the club declined. Then, in 1995, with the arrival of Doug Whittaker as director of squash and the emergence and increasing popularity of softball squash - the so-called international game - squash became a major draw again.
Whittaker, 51, a two-time Canadian national champion, is as enthusiastic about the sport as he is lean and fit. He estimates that 300 club members play squash regularly as well as 90 juniors, many of whom he coaches, along with two other pros - Adam Hamill from Scotland, and Kim Palterman from Zimbabwe. In a recent junior championship tournament at Yale University, five of eight members from Germantown placed in the top 10 in their age divisions, and one won the 13-and-under category.
The Germantown Cricket Club will host qualifying matches for the U.S. Open Squash Championships, which will take place at Drexel University from Oct. 11 to Oct. 18.
"It's quite a spectacle." Whittaker says. "You'll be able to see some of the best players in the game today from all over the world."
There was a time when Pakistanis dominated international squash, but now the Egyptians are supreme. More and more, though, because of the spread of the softball game, both geographically and socioeconomically, and the fact that more people here are beginning to play at earlier ages, Americans are becoming increasingly competitive on the international level. A couple of decades ago, accessibility was a major issue for the game, says Dent Wilkens, vice president of programs and partnerships at U.S. Squash, the sport's governing body. "Now club programs are popping up all around the country."
Commercial squash clubs have proliferated, and at many colleges and universities squash has been elevated from club status to full varsity status. In Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, there are squash programs that introduce the sport to urban youth. An estimated 1.2 million Americans now play, Wilkens says.
Squash courts don't take up much space, and a rigorous game can be played in 45 minutes, during a lunch break. All you need is a partner, rather than a team of 10 guys.
"For overall fitness, from the bottom to the top of the body, there's no better alternative," says Germantown's Whittaker.
Physical benefits of the game include improved hand-eye coordination, cardiovascular health, and flexibility, Whittaker says. Among the mental benefits: focus, determination, and perseverance.
"It's a good game for everyone, especially the lifelong learner. There's endless opportunity for improving technique, and no matter how good you are, you're definitely going to learn how to persist. You take your lumps and keep going."
Whittaker, who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010, typically loses 10 pounds during squash season, which runs from September to March, though many players, especially juniors, hone their skills year-round, practicing at summer camps and traveling to tournaments. To retain his strength and stamina, Whittaker works out twice a week under the tutelage of Thomas Coleman at East Falls Fitness, doing a squash-specific workout of calisthenics with weights.
"It's made all the difference," he says. "If you play twice a week, you should work out in a different way twice a week," he advises. As squash director, Whittaker faces pressure: he must always win; losing to one of his students is not an option.
While doubles squash is still played with a hardball, softball has become prevalent in singles. Softball squash is a more strategic, attritional game, Whittaker says, that requires endurance and involves long strokes and core strength. Hardball is faster, more reactive and instinctual, with wristier reflexive strokes.
For a sport invented at Harrow School in England in the 1830s, squash has come a long way. Foreign players have grabbed many of the top spots on U.S. college teams, such as perennial powerhouse Trinity College. Over the next two weeks, Philadelphians will have a chance to see some of the world's best pros vying for supremacy in the glass-walled show court at Drexel's Daskalakis Athletic Center. Says Whittaker: "It's something not to be missed."
"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column.