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Volume 77, Number 18 | October 3 - 9, 2007

Villager Arts & Lifestyles / Sports

Squash hopes to get a bounce in interest in N.Y.C.

By Judith Stiles

Winning the $120,000 cash prize would be nice, but winning the 2007 U.S. Open Squash Championship is not just about money, glory and bragging rights. Playing squash at the world’s highest level is more about striving to be the best athlete in a precision sport that is surprisingly akin to chess, in which acumen and strategy are absolutely necessary to win this physically demanding game.

“Squash has a deep mental aspect and often reminds me of a chess match that requires a similar intensity of concentration,” said Brad Burke, a New York City squash referee and player.

Under the watchful eye of Burke and fellow referee Michael Riley of the World Squash Federation, 32 of the world’s most accomplished squash players competed over the weekend in the qualifying round for the U.S. Open Squash Championship, right here in Greenwich Village at the Printing House Fitness Club on Hudson St.

Before the games began, some players relaxed on the benches tying and retying their shoelaces, while 24-year-old Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, who won the British Open Squash Championship in September, attached a gadget with wires to his calves to stimulate his muscles as he rested. Other players, who had traveled from Australia, Egypt, England, France, Malaysia, Holland, Spain and Finland, warmed up in the 21-foot-wide premier squash courts, as spectators filled the stands in awe of these athletes with lightning speed and superb reflexes.

On Saturday, Gaultier, the first Frenchman to win the British Open Squash title in its 77-year history, beat Cameron Pilley of Australia in 71 minutes with a score of 11-6, 9-11, 11-7, 11-8 in a best-of-five-game match. His hope was to eventually meet up with Amr Shabana, the number-one seed and the number-one-ranked player in the world. Ramy Ashour, who shot up to the number-two spot in 2006, is also a contender and is nipping at Shabana’s heels for the title.

With international tournaments, a rich international history to the game, cash prizes and fast-paced action, why isn’t squash a more popular sport in this country with a wider following?

Sean Gibbon, the tournament director and head squash pro at the Printing House, said with a wry smile, “Nobody really knows squash here in New York, not yet anyway.”

He added with pride that The Printing House is the first public squash club in New York City that does not have typical Ivy League restrictions at the gate. Gibbons attributes the sport’s narrow fan base here to the fact that it has a limited player pool, born out of private clubs and a more elite development system. Athletes from England and former British colonies tend to be more involved in squash, while Egypt currently dominates the world stage with the best players. The top U.S. player, Julian Illingworth, ranked 52nd in the world, is known for being graceful and light on his feet, yet mentally tough. A lighthearted glimpse of this Yale graduate can be caught on youtube.com on a clip called “King Julian.”

Although squash largely originated in England in the 1800s, the British way of playing soon morphed into new styles as the game migrated to other countries. According to the World Squash Federation, the game is played in roughly 153 nations, where players from different countries tend to be identified with certain styles. For example, Wael El Hindi, of Cairo, who sports a roguish diamond stud embedded in one of his front teeth, observed with a glittery smile that the British tend to play a basic, steadier game, while Egyptians are known to be shot-makers with a soft touch. This contrast was highlighted in a qualifying match when Egypt’s Mohammed Abbas beat England’s Joey Barrington with several soft, tricky shots that ricocheted gently like a whisper in unexpected directions, catching Barrington off guard.

For eight years, the U.S. squash championship was held in Boston, until squash enthusiast Gibbon almost single-handedly brought it to New York City. The current tournament’s day sessions were held at the Printing House from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, and the play continues through Wed., Oct. 4, at Roseland Ballroom, 239 W. 52nd St. Novices and seasoned squash nuts alike can find out more about the international squash scene at www.usopen-squash.com or visit worldsquash.org. 

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