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How Squash Got Serious

by Guest Nancy Keates

As Competition Grows for Ivy League Teams, Etiquette Suffers






Gordon Lam, 11, and Peter Bloch, 13, play at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

When the U.S. Junior Squash Championships get under way Friday in New Haven, Conn., it might look like the same old laid-back, genteel sport that's been played for almost two centuries.

But as more kids across the U.S. pick up the sport, and as foreign players win more of the coveted roster spots on the teams from Ivy League schools, the competition is accelerating. Parents, coaches and squash officials say that in the last three years, squash has become a lot more like other hyper-competitive junior sports: That is, the pressure is making a lot of people spend more money and behave in a somewhat less than refined manner.

At tournaments, parents pace about, dropping the names of Ivy League coaches and discussing the "academic index"—a calculation of grades and SAT scores that Ivy League admissions offices use for student athletes. Most players at high-level tournaments now arrive with private coaches—some of whom are former world champions who charge up to $25,000 a year per child. Those who can afford it ferry their kids to tournaments all over the country, send them to Europe in the summers for training and build private squash courts at their houses.

Even at lower-level tournaments, the intensity is palpable: Some parents yell at their kids, or at the referees—who can be as young as 9 (in squash the refs are the players who were on the court last).

Some view participation in squash as a way to get into top schools.

This past fall U.S. Squash, the sport's governing body, rolled out a new code of conduct aimed at people who act inappropriately. U.S. Squash CEO Kevin Klipstein said the organization has to send out several reprimand letters every week now. And last month a parent was suspended for a year after an incident in San Diego.

"What I see out there is insanity," says Dominic Hughes, a former multiple national champion who is owner-manager of the Berwyn Squash & Fitness Club in Berwyn, Pa., where kids as young as 12 sometimes take as many as six lessons a week at $110 apiece. "It started out as a social, laid-back, fun sport. Now some kids don't 'play' anymore—they take lessons and do drills, all to get into college."

Shikha Mudgil, a radiologist in Media, Pa., stopped practicing to oversee her daughters, now 13 and 14, who are nationally ranked No. 23 and No. 3 in their respective age divisions. The family belongs to three different clubs so they have access to a variety of coaches. When they aren't traveling on weekend "squashcations," the girls play for about an hour after school and then practice two more hours from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every night after homework and dinner. Mudgil estimates she and her husband, an ophthalmologist, spend $15,000 to $20,000 per child a year on squash. "The competition has increased tremendously," she says.

Sumrin Mudgil, 14, says it can be hard to balance her homework with so much practice, but she loves playing the sport—especially the tournaments, which allow her to make friends across the country.

The number of junior tournament players in the U.S. has almost doubled in six years. There has been a more-than-sixfold increase in junior tournament participation on the West coast in the last three years. And about twice as many U.S. High School teams compete in the national championships than did six years ago.

On the one hand, this change has expanded the opportunity for kids who wouldn't have had a chance to play otherwise: squash is now offered at more public schools, public clubs and non-Ivy League colleges. It has also made American squash players more competitive worldwide. But the growing talent pool comes at a time when U.S. colleges are increasing efforts to recruit internationally, especially for men's teams. This past season, only one of the top nine men's players at Yale was an American, and about half of the players on Cornell's men's team hail from places like New Zealand, India and Canada.

The resulting squeeze has raised the stakes for kids and parents, many of whom see the sport as a ticket to a top school. People have "unrealistic expectations," says David Talbott, the head squash coach at Yale.

Brown men's and women's squash coach Stuart leGassick says in the early 1990s he would get a list of about 25 U.S. players, some of whom "could just about hit a ball and maybe had played in a couple of tournaments."

Now there are almost 200 who have played serious tournament squash, many of whom will email or call to lobby for one of three men's spots a year. "It's definitely much more competitive now," says Mark Devoy, head men's coach at Cornell.

Parents argue that the sport is still a good way to learn discipline, self-confidence and self-reliance. When his twin 16-year-old boys first started playing seriously, Clay Rohrbach, a former partner at Morgan Stanley, built a squash court at his house in Greenwich and hired Australian former World Cup winner Rodney Martin to coach them. It seems to have worked: the boys are both ranked in the top 25 of their age division.

Martin, their coach, now works with about 12 kids, some on Rohrbach's court. One of them is Willy Ezratty, ranked No. 1 in his age division, whose father Ari Ezratty, an interventional cardiologist, is now building a court at their home.

Paul Johnson, a Brit and the former World No. 4 player, runs a similar operation, coaching six kids in Boston and two in Connecticut for about $150 an hour. Johnson says he tries to act as a mentor, or life coach, for his students, helping them handle the off-court stress of trying to cut high enough grades and test scores for an Ivy League college. "Part of my job is to act as a buffer between the parents and the kids, educating them both about how much is too much," he says.

About three years ago, U.S. Squash made a drastic change to its junior ranking system: Instead of being determined by an algorithm that evaluated the probabilities of matches between competitors, they now base rank on the number of points players earn at a tournament. The higher a tournament's level, the more points can be earned.

Since the change, it's harder to game the system: playing a few tournaments and then sitting some out. And since tournament results now expire after 11 months, the new system rewards players who compete more often—which usually means they have to spend more on travel, which, as some say, amounts to "buying" ranking points.

Nevertheless, some people in the squash world say they're optimistic that the sport is becoming less elite. As schools like Boston College, Drexel University and Northeastern add varsity teams, there are more opportunities for talented players. There are also more programs aimed at teaching squash to inner-city kids. "LeBron is going to be playing squash now," says Yale's Talbott.