Squash’s Preppy Problem

March 3, 2013 - 6:03pm
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Article originally appears in the New York Times on Jan 18, 2013


I picked up squash when I was 8 because of a divorce — not my parents’ but that of a friend of theirs who stayed with us after being kicked out of his house by his wife. He must have lost his squash partners in the split, because he somehow persuaded my parents, both committed leftists, to do an unconventionally conventional thing — join the Heights Casino, a somewhat elitist, old racket club in Brooklyn Heights.

Illustration by Holly Wales
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Justin Nowell

Ivy Pochoda

The Brooklyn of the Heights Casino was not the bohemian and streetwise borough of Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” or the offbeat intellectual world of Noah Baumbach’s “Squid and the Whale.” In my early days at the Casino, a few women wore elephant lapel pins in solidarity, one told me, “with my husband’s party.” They shopped at Ann Taylor and signed their kids up for ballroom dancing. This was Brooklyn as a true suburb of Manhattan, offering a more casual version of the country-club life of Greenwich or Rye.

It turned out that I was a natural at squash. Its geometry and hairbreadth precision appealed to me right off. Within two years of picking up a racket, I was spending my weekends traveling to tournaments at Ivy League colleges throughout the Northeast.

While my coaches spent hours teaching me how to develop my own strange, recklessly effective style, off the court I was being initiated into a mannered world of etiquette, propriety and convention. When I won my first national junior championship at 12, defeating another player from the Casino in the finals, my parents were discouraged from cheering because it was our club’s tradition that no one cheers when two Casino players compete against each other, not even if your kid is fighting to become the best 12-year-old in the entire nation. Not even then.

Several years later I finally glimpsed a different sort of squash community — at the Tournament of Champions, a professional event held in the Winter Garden, a soaring glass atrium near Manhattan’s financial district. Unlike the prep-school kids I’d played on the American hardball circuit, many of the foreign-born players at the Tournament of Champions were, like me, lively, brutish and without emotional restraint on the court. Their gritty battles, frequently underscored by nationalistic pride, were thrilling. Notorious international incidents included a bloody head-butting and verbal abuse unleashed on referees that made John McEnroe’s outbursts seem like Hallmark greetings.

Here was what I had been missing: color, literally, of skin or of dress. The vibrancy went beyond the on-court activity to the entire panorama — the people cheering in the stands and the passers-by confused by the spectacle of two sweaty men performing high-speed geometry on the fly. Everything I’d been urged to keep inside as a junior player was finally being given room to breathe.

This week, the Tournament of Champions arrives in Grand Central Terminal, where thousands of commuters will pause in front of an enormous glass court, listening to the hollow pop of the ball. Of these thousands, most will move on quickly and few will ever experience squash again.

Squash in America seems encased in amber, a relic regarded by outsiders as something between a quirk and an affectation. For most people in North America it remains the buttoned-up game I played at the Heights Casino, not the magnificently athletic, artistic and brutally competitive sport now played in 185 countries worldwide.

Thankfully, there will be other faces watching in Grand Central: the disadvantaged kids from the city’s two thriving urban squash and education programs. For these kids the tournament is not a curiosity but a singular opportunity to meet the heroes of the game — players whom some of them admire as much as they do the stars of the N.B.A. and M.L.B.

It’s these students, who have come to the game with no knowledge of its old-fashioned conventions and no affiliation with its mannered culture, who are poised to breathe life back into squash in North America. They can translate the magic and tell you how amazingly cool it is to witness these professionals’ skills. I know, because it’s how I felt back at the Winter Garden — watching a vibrant sport, not a stuffy game in need of being sprung from its amber prison.

Ivy Pochoda is a four-time all-American squash player. Her second novel, “Visitation Street,” will be published this summer.