The Last Squash Tennis Player

A chance discovery leads the author to the champion-for-life of a forgotten sport

By James Zug

One evening in the summer of 2000 my girlfriend and I went down to New York's financial district to see a play. This was unusual, because there are no active theaters far south in Manhattan. We arrived at the address, 21 South William Street, and found ourselves at the threshold of a long-defunct men's club. Inside the Tudor-style seven-story building was the performance space for the U.S. premiere of The Designated Mourner, a play by Wallace Shawn that had opened in London in 1996. We walked past a hodgepodge of club debris—heavy dishes stacked on a bar that receded into darkness, stuffed moose heads gazing dully from a reading-room floor—and climbed rickety stairs to the fifth floor. The first half of the play was acted out in a room dominated by an old bed. The audience of thirty sat in moth-eaten velvet armchairs covered by blankets.

For the second act a production assistant led us two floors up to an old squash court. A couch, for the actors, sat in the center of the court, facing thirty folding chairs in two rows along the front wall. Even on the heels of the first act this was an extraordinary atmosphere. The stiff-white-box feeling perfectly matched the vacant ennui and fear that pervaded the play. I had heard that Harold Pinter's debut one-act play, The Room (1957), was first performed in a squash court, so the tableau had a theatrical precedent.

Afterward, as the rest of the audience returned to the fifth floor for wine and cheese and a chat with the actors, my girlfriend and I stayed behind and stared at the court. It was strangely unlike other antediluvian courts. The side walls did not exhibit the telltale smear of ball marks. The court looked too narrow. We paced out the length and width of the court: about thirty-two feet by seventeen. A faint line on the floor marked the middle of the court, but it ran all the way to the chairs at the front wall. No one had ever hit squash balls in here, I realized. This was not a squash court; it was something that I thought no longer existed: a squash tennis court.

Squash tennis was invented, more or less accidentally, in 1883 at St. Paul's School, in New Hampshire. James P. Conover, the St. Paul's master who also introduced ice hockey to the United States, had ordered rackets and balls from England for his new racquets courts (racquets is an older, faster, deadlier version of squash). The customhouse in New York detained the funky-looking equipment, so the boys, anxious to play, carried tennis rackets and tennis balls onto the courts. The schoolboy game they made up, incorporating aspects of both squash and tennis, spread, and before World War I squash tennis was the game of choice for the country's elite in winter. At a time when squash barely had a foothold in America, the National Squash Tennis Association boasted more than fifty member clubs across the country. William C. Whitney, George Jay Gould, and John D. Rockefeller Jr. all had courts at their estates. Players loved the healthy workout, the simplicity of the court, and the chess-like shotmaking strategies. Stephen J. Feron, the squash tennis professional at the Harvard Club in New York, was the game's leader. Aficionados considered his style, full of spinning angled shots and feathery drop shots, the epitome of beauty.

In 1913 Feron ruined the game he had perfected. He contracted with Spalding to develop a new squash tennis ball—smaller and more pressurized, and much livelier. Old-timers felt that Feron's new red-hot ball blasted away the cerebral aspects of the game, and neophytes found classic squash tennis shots like the three-wall fadeaway and the four-wall boast too complicated to untangle at Mach 9 speeds. Within two decades squash tennis had contracted into a peculiar Gotham pastime, found only at the university clubs in Manhattan. After World War II the decline of squash tennis was precipitous. Spalding stopped making balls for the game. There was a brief revival in the 1960s but it didn't take, in part because explosive growth in the popularity of squash and the new game of racquetball sucked away possible players. A Cuban exile in New York named Pedro Bacallao was the national champion and president of the NSTA in the 1970s, but in 1979 he moved to Miami and the game slowly disappeared.

But not entirely. Every year on the Sunday closest to New Year's Day the sports pages of The New York Times list the national champions of the closing year. Year after year, after "squash racquets" and before "steeplechase" comes "squash tennis" and the name Gary Squires. After seeing the Lower Manhattan court, I decided to give Squires a call.

I found him at Apawamis, the country club in Rye, New York, where he works as an assistant tennis and paddle-tennis pro, and he invited me up to play squash tennis. When I arrived, at noon on an autumn weekday, he was in the pro shop stringing a racket. He shook my hand, took me to a squash court, and gave me a junior tennis racket, twenty-six inches long; we started hitting a yellow tennis ball back and forth. Squires, who is forty-four, has a military posture. When he talked, between rallies, he stood still—no twirling of his racket or shifting of his feet. He looked like a country-club tennis pro—the deep tan; the strong, lean legs; the white teeth; the expression molded by countless hours of reassuring socialites that their backhands were improving. After a few hits Squires stopped and talked for a bit. "I've never played on a true squash tennis court," he told me. "I guess that's sort of strange, considering I'm the national champion, that I've won the title a dozen times, but when I started picking up the game, in the early 1980s, there weren't any real courts left. I've never played a tournament on a true court."

Recently there has been a nationwide trend to convert American, 18.5-foot-wide "hardball" squash courts to the international, "softball" width of twenty-one feet. "Yes, you could play squash tennis on a hardball court," Squires told me. "They were close enough—just a foot and a half difference in width. But the softball court is too large: twenty-one feet—no way. So that's one of our problems with squash tennis today. We haven't had any squash tennis courts for decades, and now what we have been using for years as a substitute—American squash courts—are disappearing. Someday there just won't be any sort of court where you can play squash tennis." I asked him when he had last played. "It's been a couple of years," he said.

Squash tennis, I soon learned, was hard. I am proficient at a number of winter racket games, and yet I was playing like a dog on ice skates, my legs and arms flailing in all directions. At first I couldn't sustain a rally. My squash instincts, hard-wired after twenty years of play, failed me. My swing was grossly late. I was afraid of hitting the ball into the middle of the court—a squash no-no, but routine in squash tennis. Often I lumbered toward a back corner, chasing down a whizzing ball, when I should have been dashing up the court to take it after it thundered off the back wall.

We stopped after a couple of comedic points. I commented on my lack of anticipation. "That is why squash tennis, once you learn how to play, is such a good sport," Squires said with a rare smile. "It is all turning, coming around, letting a ball go past you on your backhand and you take it on your forehand. There is a beautiful rhythm in a match—two men, neither moving too much, just waiting for the ball to come back off the back wall. That's why the older guys loved playing. Experience counted, and it wasn't a brutal physical drain, like squash."

Squires spun his racket for the serve and won. I quickly fell behind, and the first game ended 15-4. Squires kept score meticulously. Often he seemed to prolong a point, but barely, just to make me hustle, and every so often he unleashed a sudden blast for a winner. During the second game the points flowed nicely. Three or four times I got hold of an easy ball and crushed it with a satisfying thwop, like someone beating a rug, but each time, my rocket rebounded high off the back wall and was a simple putaway. It was a warm day, and I got a good sweat going. The scores of the next two games were 15-6 and 15-11.

As we left the court, I asked Squires why the sport had died. "Me," he said without hesitation. "I just dropped the ball. I stopped organizing the nationals. I went through a rough divorce about three, four years ago, banged me up pretty good, and at the same time, I lost my job as tennis pro at Greenwich Country Club. Squash tennis got lost in the wash. I was the only guy really interested in carrying on the game. I had to make the phone calls to get guys to come to the nationals, and I didn't. I'm probably not the right guy anyway. I'm not a good salesman. I'm not outgoing. I don't cultivate a network of contacts."

Squires and I drove to his house, around the corner from the club. He took me to the kitchen and brought out a picture frame and two large leather albums stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings. "I got these about twenty years ago, just when I started playing," he said, carefully placing the albums on his breakfast table. "They start in 1916 and run through the 1940s. They are a sort of history in a bottle, all the stories in two books. Pretty neat. And here is the draw of the first nationals I played in—1982. I won it. It was the first tournament I ever played in. I got it framed." The sixteen-man draw showed that Squires had won his four matches with the loss of just two games. He was a natural. On the side of the draw was written, in pencil,

There will be a meeting of the National Squash Tennis Association on Saturday, April 3rd at 5 pm in the second floor lounge of the Yale Club. Please make every effort to attend. We must vote on the proposed rules change to permit hitting the ball into the back wall at anytime.
Drinks will be served.

We went outside to my car, and I asked Squires about the New York Times list. There hasn't been a nationals tournament since 1995, so why is he listed each year as the top player? "The guy from the Times calls me every December," Squires said. "He asks for the champion. I tell him that we haven't held the nationals that year. He says he will stop listing squash tennis as a category if we don't give him a champion, so I just put myself in. I don't want the sport to officially die. It's like I am a condor, an endangered species."

By the time I pulled away, Squires was bare-handedly pruning the rosebushes flanking his front gate. I couldn't help wondering if he and I had just played the last squash tennis match.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/01/the-last-squash-tennis-player/302401/