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Squash is racketing up a lot of interest

Some U.S. rules have changed, and fans now include college hopefuls and inner-city youths.

July 16, 2007|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

In a space not much bigger than a hamster cage, longtime squash players David Jung and John Dewis look like human pinballs -- moving in lightning-quick steps, deftly avoiding each other as they change course or screech to a halt, wielding their feather-light squash racquets like overzealous exterminators.

They're a blur of motion and flying sweat as they take turns slamming the ball into the wall, dashing out of the ball's way and positioning themselves for a rapid-fire return.

In the course of their 45-minute game, they will burn more than 700 calories, according to a whopping number compared with most other sports. During the same time period, they would burn less than 500 calories playing tennis and just over 600 calories playing racquetball.

As they bob, weave and lunge around the court, Jung and Dewis will work just about every muscle in their bodies and will finish the game exhausted, looking as if they ran into a mob of kids armed with Super Soakers.

They will be back in a few days because they love it. "It's an amazing workout -- similar to boxing," Jung says. "You have to be light on your feet, well-balanced, and you're using your upper body continually."

Squash, a high-speed indoor racket game that generates as much loyalty as sweat among veteran players such as Jung and Dewis, is attracting a bumper crop of new, young enthusiasts.

There are about half a million squash players in the U.S., and that number is growing, says Kevin Klipstein, chief executive of US Squash, the 10,000-member national governing body for squash leagues and tournaments in the U.S.

In the last two years, membership in the association has grown nearly 20%, and participation in U.S. junior squash tournaments has risen 40%. The association sanctions hundreds of tournaments each year, and that number is up 27% this season alone.

At the tony Los Angeles Athletic Club where Jung and Dewis play, membership of squash players has increased 25% to 160 players during the last two years.

Squash appears to be benefiting from three trends: changes in the way the game is played in the U.S.; loads of good press from urban enrichment programs that combine squash with academic training; and a growing perception among some parents that squash skills could help their children get into a good college.

Squash is an old, international sport played by an estimated 15 million people worldwide. But until the 1980s, the type of squash played in the U.S. was different from that played by the rest of the world.

While everyone else was playing with softer balls on a 21-by-32-foot court, U.S. players were whacking around hard balls on an 18 1/2 -by-32-foot court. The disparity hurt U.S. athletes in international competitions.

With prodding from US Squash, public and private squash sponsors have in the last two decades slowly converted existing courts to international, softball squash dimensions, and today, all new squash facilities in the U.S. are built for the international version.

Conforming to international standards has paid off. "Squash players from all over the world see the U.S. as the new hotbed area of growth," says US Squash chair Jeanne Blasberg. "Where squash may have reached its saturation point in their countries, players see a growth potential in the U.S., so we have a lot of international players over here coaching and playing."

Squash, long associated with elite private clubs, is also filtering into underserved, urban communities through groups such as SquashBusters, a Boston program launched 11 years ago to bring squash to inner-city youths. SquashBusters has been so successful that it has spawned a slew of similar programs nationwide.

One such program is Surf City Squash in San Diego, offered by San Diego Squash for underserved children. The program combines academic tutoring, squash instruction and community service for kids in grades 6 through 8.

Also fueling interest is a growing perception among college-bound students and their parents that high-level squash skills can provide an avenue into college, says Greg Scherman, co-founder of San Diego Squash.

Whereas most colleges have their pick of athletes participating in mainstream sports, collegiate squash teams generally draw players from a much smaller pool.

"Because squash is relatively new here, there are fewer players than in other sports," adds Chris Walker, former No. 4 squash player in the world and San Diego Squash co-founder. "So if you start your kid at 9 or 10 years old or even 11 or 12, and get in four or five good years of squash training, you have a better chance of getting your child noticed by a college they might want to go to."

A good squash player has to be very quick with a racket, nimble of foot and possess good hand-eye coordination. Just as important, the player has to be very physically fit to meet the demands of extended running, while still having a feel for the geometry of the shot as the ball ricochets around the court.

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