Squash tests body and mind

  • Amir Wagih, left, and Eunice Tan, coaches at Squash on Fire in the District, practice at the company's new $12 million boutique facility. With its pay-to-play model, it hopes to open up the sport to players who don't want to shell out for a gym membership. MUST CREDIT: Tim Van Asselt.

Washington Post
Friday, May 26, 2017

To a casual observer, the game of squash looks easy.

Contested in an enclosed court, players serve the ball toward the back wall and aim to hit the ball before it bounces twice and also make their opponent miss the ball. The first person to 11 points wins.

Pretty simple, right?

But to those who love the game, squash is a rigorous endeavor, both physically and mentally.

Fabien Sarran, a longtime squash player and the coach of Squash Revolution at Sport & Health gyms in the Washington area, said squash is a full cardiovascular and strength workout, akin to high-intensity interval training – minus the burpees.

Squash, a court game in the same vein as other racket sports such as tennis and racquetball, was started in England in the 1830s by children in prep schools. Because it’s squishier than a tennis ball, the squash ball exerts less force as it hits the wall, requiring some quick mental calculations. And there isn’t much room to roam in the squash court (usually 21 feet by 32 feet), so each step is a calculation as well. Playing squash well requires strong racket control, good timing and excellent hand-eye coordination.

Squash is a popular sport in the British Commonwealth countries and throughout Europe but has ebbed and flowed in popularity in other places, particularly in the United States. Sarran said most people have heard of squash but don’t quite know what the game entails.

Those who love squash admit that growing the game has been a challenge.

“It’s a very expensive game and a very unique game,” said Amir Wagih, the head coach at Squash on Fire in Washington.

Sarran said that in the District, the availability of certified squash courts is the ratio of one court to 10,000 squash players. When Squash on Fire opened its doors at Sports Club/LA (which was purchased by Equinox) in 2014, demand for squash courts was off the charts.

“I had 67 bookings for four courts. This has never happened,” Wagih said.

Squash is also perceived as an elite sport. Courts are found in clubs that charge hundreds of dollars for membership. (Also, U.S. Squash, the sport’s national governing body, notes that the median income of players is almost $300,000 and that 98 percent have college degrees.)

Nevertheless, a movement to democratize the game is afoot in the United States. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association found in a recent survey that squash was the 12th-fastest-growing activity in the United States, with 1.7 million participants. Participation has grown 32 percent since 2012, but it is still seen as a niche sport. (By comparison, stand-up paddle-boarding is the fastest-growing sporting activity, with more than 3 million converts.)