Basketball may have flashier shoes and hip-hop, but when the season started three years ago, 15-year-old Willy Clarke decided to dump his hoop dreams to pursue his newfound year-round passion: squash.
Maybe he made the cooler choice. Like racquetball, only with narrower rackets and a softer, smaller ball with less bounce, squash has become all the rage at St. Christopher's School.
But the sport is spilling beyond the private-school set too, says Clarke, who plays for the St. Christopher's squash team. "There are definitely more public-school kids playing in tournaments now than when I started three years ago," he says.
Clarke's teammate, Brenden Doyle, 16, is also riding the sport's wave of popularity. "The growth is dramatic," he says. "Three years ago, when I started playing for the team, we played about six matches. This year we played between 13 and 15 matches and three to four tournaments." Like Clarke, Doyle dumped his previous winter sport, wrestling, because squash "is lively, fast and quick-paced."
Squash is experiencing a major boom in the United States, says Kevin Klipstein, chief executive of US Squash, the national governing body for the sport. Public squash courts are popping up across the country, in cities such as Boston, Baltimore and Los Angeles, Klipstein says, and there's even a plan to build a public court in Richmond in the next few years.
This week, the University of Richmond is host to one of the biggest squash tournaments in the country. Boasting $80,000 in prize money, the 2008 Davenport Professional Squash Championship is attracting 56 of the world's best squash players, including eight of the 10 top-ranked. This is the fifth year of the tournament, which runs from Feb. 25 to March 1. The event was started in Richmond by the Virginia Squash Racquets Association (VSRA), which sponsors eight events in the state each year.
The sport's popularity can be measured best by the youth participation. Urban youth programs such as SquashBusters, which started in Boston in 1996, are now in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. Gus Cook, a squash pro at Country Club of Virginia and board member of the VSRA, says interest from youth is unprecedented.
"Junior-level programs are growing like gangbusters," Cook says. The number of high-school squash teams grew 300 percent last year to 94 teams, says U.S. Squash's Klipstein. At the collegiate level, the sport has grown to 19 teams in the last three years, a 45 percent spike.
Squash, which started 140 years ago in England, is considered a working man's game in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Egypt. U.S. colleges with squash teams do most of their recruiting from countries where the sport is more popular. National collegiate squash champion Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., fields an all-international team that hasn't lost a single squash match in 10 years.
In the United States, squash is still considered something of an elitist sport, associated with Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton, private schools and exclusive clubs such as the Country Club of Virginia.
A squash court was recently installed at Woodberry Forest, for example, a boarding school about 90 minutes from Richmond. The Country Club of Virginia began a program for St. Christopher's and St. Catherine's students this year.
Squash is beginning to venture into the mainstream too, Klipstein says. "More and more private clubs are opening up to school programs for public-school kids," he says. "The demand to have squash more accessible is similar to what tennis went through in the 1970s."
Indeed, squash is taking off in some urban centers. Baltimore's Meadow Mill Athletic Club, with 14 courts, is the largest commercial squash club in the United States.
"Squash opens doors for these kids" says the Meadow Mill's owner, Nancy Cushman, about the club's program for urban middle-schoolers. "It helps their academics, and some of these kids are getting full-ride scholarships to $40,000-a-year boarding schools."
Urban youth programs such as SquashBusters in Boston "foster teamwork, discipline, respect, sportsmanship and structure in conjunction with exposure to other socioeconomic classes," says Greg Zaff, director of National Urban Squash and Education Association.
It's difficult to see the Commonwealth Club opening its doors to inner-city kids just yet, but who knows? Arthur Ashe, after all, became famous for breaking down racial barriers with a slightly bigger racquet. S