The History of Squash in 8½ Chapters

By James Zug

James Zug is a senior writer at Squash Magazine  and is the author of Squash: A History of the Game, published by Scribner in September 2003.

I – FIRST THERE WAS REAL TENNIS …

The origins of squash are in the ancient game of real tennis. In the twelfth century in France boys and girls played ball games in the narrow streets of their villages. They slapped balls along the awnings or roofs that lined the street or into shop and door openings. Rules depended on local geography. In time these street games migrated up to cloistered monasteries. Every Lenten season young brothers strung a fishing net across the middle of their courtyards and patted a ball back and forth with their gloved hands. The balls – a patch of leather with dog hair sewn inside, later cloth stuffed with soil, sawdust, sand or moss-bruised and cut hands. Monks added webbing to the gloves and then extended their hand by picking up a stumpy stick, a branch of a tree, a shepherd’s crook. At the end of the fifteenth century the Dutch invented the racquet.

The game was called tennis and it became the national sport of a dozen European nations. In 1580 the Venetian ambassador to Henri III of France walked around Paris counting tennis courts: he stopped at eighteen hundred. Gambling and violence sadly became the norm (Caravaggio, the Italian painter, killed a man at a tennis court in Rome in 1606) and tennis slowly retreated to royal palaces. Lawn tennis, as played by Hewitt and the Williams sisters, was invented in 1873 in Great Britain as an outdoor version of real tennis.

Tennis begat rackets. In the early eighteenth century, prisoners at the Fleet, London’s notorious debtor’s gaol, created an outdoor version of tennis. It was called rackets, and it involved no more than smacking a ball against one or two walls. The ball, unsqueezable, was made from wound cloth and was similar to a golf ball; the racket was a stretched tennis bat. Soon rackets spread across Great Britain and was a common pastime as workingmen played in tavern yards and alleys and schoolboys played outside their classrooms.

Britons started building rackets courts, as opposed to just playing in a convenient corner. These courts were unadorned affairs, roofless, rustic, usually just one or two stone walls and a paving stone floor. Inclement weather drove players toward a court with a roof. In 1830 the Royal Artillery built the first known covered racket court at their Woolwich depot. The Marylebone Cricket Club, the home of cricket, built one in 1844 next to their tennis court at Lords, and in 1853 Prince’s Club opened its historic doors with seven covered rackets courts. Rackets spread to the colonies. The first covered rackets court in Canada was put in Halifax in the seventeen-seventies; in India in 1821; Australia in 1847. In 1793 Robert Knox, a Scot, put up the first covered court in America on Allen Street, between Hester and Canal, in lower Manhattan. A few years later the Allen Street court had a nearby rival that was called, due to the predominant profession of its membership, the Butcher’s Court.

Accompanying rackets was another socially-lubricated ball and wall game called fives. Named for the five fingers of the hand, this ancient version of handball was more or less the game of rackets without the racket. Many men played both sports in the same court. Fives grew so popular at English public schools that the two leading forms of the game derived their standards entirely from the quirky spots on campus where the boys played. Eton fives, first played amid the mossy drainpipes outside the school chapel at Eton, had a court twenty-five feet and three inches by fourteen with many buttresses and hazards, while Rugby fives, created at Rugby School (where the sport of rugby football also was started), had an unadorned court twenty-eight feet by eighteen, with side walls that sloped towards the back wall and a two and a half foot tin on the front wall.

II THEN THERE WAS FIVES …

The combination of rackets and fives sparked the creation of squash at the Harrow School outside London. Harrow boys were addicted to rackets. The chief place to play at Harrow was in the schoolyard that surrounded Old Schools, the main school building. One special nook of the schoolyard was called “The Corner.” It had two good side walls and a front wall with a buttress which dropped the ball straight down and a waterpipe that might send it anywhere. In 1850 Harrow built two open-air rackets courts. Court time was hard to get for younger boys. They had to be content to play in the tiny, stone-walled yards at their boarding houses or in village alleys. The yards and alleys, like the Corner, boasted peculiar hazards: water pipes, chimneys, ledges, doors, footscrapers, wired windows and fiendishly sloping ground. Split-second decisions and speedy hand-eye coordination were essential. Rackets, with its long, heavy bat and bullet-hard ball, was difficult for an inexperienced boy to learn in such cramped conditions. With typical English flair, the young boys at Harrow invented something new. Rubber had just come into use and Harrow boys grabbed a rubber ball, sawed off the butt of their racquets and played a slower, easier game in their house yards. This bastardised version of racquets was called “baby racquets” or “soft racquets” or “softer.” (In those days the word “racquets” was spelled properly.) Baby rackets was perfect for the Harrow boys. On 20 January 1865 Harrow officially opened a new complex of rackets and fives courts.

The boys loved the new rackets court (it is still in use at Harrow). The fives courts had a mixed reception. The four new Eton fives courts immediately were filled with activity, but the three new Rugby fives courts never saw any fives play. Instead, Harrow boys jumped on and played their new game of baby rackets. And this game became the game of squash.

III SQUASH SOON SPREAD

Squash soon spread. Other public schools, notably Elstree, picked it up. In 1883 the first private court was built by Vernon Harcourt, Harrow class of 1855, at his home along the Cherwell in Oxford. It was thirty-eight by twenty feet, with a tin of thirty inches. They played with a black ball, a red ball and ball with a hole in it. Other early courts ran the gamut. At Lord’s, the squash court was forty-two feet by twenty-four, with a twenty-eight inch tin; at Cambridge they divided a sixty by thirty racquets court into three squash courts, each quite tiny; at the Royal Automobile Club in London there was a court that was exactly thirty-two by eighteen and a half-the size more common in America; Marlborough House, a royal residence, also had an American width until the mid-thirties; at Queen’s Club, one court, built in 1905 and dubbed “the Long Court,” was thirty-five by eighteen. In the 1920s the Bath Club in London became the nursery for squash in England. Lord Desborough built a beautiful court that was noted for its outstanding lighting and launched the Bath Club Cup, a squash league for London clubs. League squash greatly increased enthusiasm for the fledgling sport, and squash in Great Britain owed its success in large part to the Bath Cup competitions of the twenties.

Administratively, squash had a slow start in Great Britain. In April 1907 the Tennis, Rackets & Fives Association was founded at Queen’s and a squash sub-committee was formed. In 1912 this sub-committee issued a preliminary set of rules. Court length and width was considered a matter of local opinion. Cement or stone were preferred to wood for the materials of the court. Two types of balls were the best: “What is required is a fast ball, that bounces well but not too high, and does not fly about: a very small hard solid ball or a medium-size thin rubber hollow ball, without a hole.” As far as the rules of play were concerned, the sub-committee recommended flexibility. Serving could be either one serve or two, courts could have a cut line on the front wall or not and most delightfully, the man returning could have the right of “refusing a service he does not like”. The sub-committee had no power to enforce its recommendations and another eleven years passed without any official standards. In January 1923 the Royal Automobile Club hosted a meeting of delegates from English clubs where squash was played and formed a “Squash Rackets Representative Committee.” The committee chose the slowest of the half dozen different kinds of balls then in vogue as the standard ball and declared the Bath Club court, thirty two by twenty-one feet, as the standard for English squash. In December 1928 the Squash Rackets Association was formed to run squash in Great Britain.

The SRA immediately began slowing the ball down further. While the Bath courts served as the model for English squash, the Bath ball, as large and fast as an American ball, was deemed far too large and fast for English sensibilities. The officials chose the most inert ball available and then in a series of incremental changes, reduced it even more. Between 1930 and 1934 the association cut the standard ball’s speed almost by half.

IV GREAT BRITAIN

By the time Great Britain formally codified their squash standards in 1923, squash in America had been played under a different standard for two decades. The first squash court in North America appeared at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire in 1884. Jay Conover, an avid rackets player, had attended Columbia University in New York with Hyde Clark, a graduate of Harrow, and Clark had told Conover about an enjoyable adaptation of rackets that was popular at his alma mater. Conover’s four squash courts, built outside a building with two rackets courts, were open to the air. Any pupil who annually paid one dollar could use them. In 1900 Alfred Ellis, a Englishman who was the rackets professional at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia, put in a squash court at his club. Built entirely of wood, it was perched high in the rafters of the half story in the three and one-half story clubhouse. It measured thirty-one feet by seventeen and a half. In 1902, Jimmy Potter, a St. Paul’s graduate and president of the club, made a dramatic decision to divide up the south rackets courts into three squash courts. Each court measured thirty-one and a half feet by seventeen and a half and were made of cement, except for a wooden front wall. The total cost was $1,500.

Within months squash dispersed around Philadelphia. Racquet Club members built squash courts at their homes. In 1903 Merion Cricket Club started playing squash on their three courts. Two city cricket clubs, Philadelphia Cricket in Chestnut Hill and Germantown Cricket in Manheim, erected courts at the same time. In 1903 the Racquet Club offered a cup for the winner of an six-club team competition. The league was so successful that the Racquet Club sponsored a “Pennsylvania State Championship.” In 1904 the leaders of the inter-club league, meeting at the Racquet Club, founded the United States Squash Racquets Association, the first national squash body in the world.

The USSRA immediately set the standard squash court measurements at thirty-one and a half feet by sixteen feet three inches, with a twenty-four inch tin. Scoring was originally first-to-fifteen, hand-in, hand-out, like rackets and best two of three games. “Eternal watchfulness is the price of success in squash,” wrote Frederick R. Toombs in a 1904 book on squash published in New York. “Cultivate variety in your style of play. You will thus keep your opponent in an uncertain frame of mind. Mix the strong and weak strokes, according to your adversary’s position. Let the side walls and back wall do their share of the work, and at times you will find a well-placed cut stroke just the feature needed to win the rally. Learn that poetry of motion may be expressed by the squash stroke.” In 1907 the USSRA ran its first men’s national championship In 1911 the USSRA changed the scoring rules to best three out of five, and one could score a point whether serving or not. This rule was adopted by the British until in 1926 when they switched to a nine point, hand-in, hand-out system. In 1920 the USSRA changed its standard to thirty-two feet by eighteen and one-half.

V AROUND THE WORLD

Around the world squash appeared in a tremendous variety of guises. The first bonafide court in Canada was built in 1904 at the St. John’s Tennis Club in Newfoundland. Sir Leonard Outerbridge, whose two brothers were on the club’s building committee, sent the proper dimensions from Marlborough College in England where he was studying. The dimensions were, again, of a fives court, with no back wall. In 1911 three clubs, the Montreal Racquet Club, the Toronto Racquet Club and the Hamilton Squash Racquets Club, formed the Canadian Squash Racquets Association. It soon standardized a thirty-four by nineteen court (with a twenty-two inch tin). In 1921 the CSRA made formal application to the USSRA for affiliation and a year later switched to the American standards. In 1906 the Johannesburg Country Club built an open-air court that was wider than the American size. In 1910 South Africa created a national association and eventually, because of significant heat and altitude in many parts of the country, standardized a wide court and slow ball. The Sudan Club in Khartoum had six courts, all unroofed. Government House in Dar es Salaam boasted a fine, open-air court, with a stone floor. The St. James’s Barracks in Port of Spain, Trinidad had one open-air, concrete-floored court that was American-sized in width. In Kenya the Nairobi Club had two English standard courts made from knotless cedar, but the Muthiaga Club nearby had stone floors and an American width.

In Stockholm the first courts were made with walls of powdered marble. New Zealand played in an English court with an American ball, a combination that was not resolved until the thirties. In France the first courts were at the famous court tennis club Societe Sportive du Jeu de Paume, where in the late nineteen-twenties Pierre Etchebaster turned a rackets court into four tiny squash courts, each with a cement floor. In 1930 Siemens, the electronics company, built four courts at its factory in Berlin.

In 1913 a rackets court at the Melbourne Club was split into two squash courts. In the early 1920s Mr. Bjelke-Petersen, later a uncle of the premier of Queensland, Sir Joe Bjelke-Petersen, built a court in New South Wales. In 1927 the Royal Melbourne Tennis Club built a court that was nearly as big as a rackets court. It was not until 1931 that an Australian championship was inaugurated, and Australia officially went with the English size. In 1934 the Squash Rackets Association of Australia was formed and three years later both Victoria and New South Wales formed their own provincial associations.

VI INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION COMMENCES

Squash reached a tipping point in the twenties. No longer an obscure pastime for schoolboys, it had national championships and league play and standard rules. International play started in 1922 when the Lapham Cup was first contested between the U.S. and Canada. The Lapham is a fifteen-man amateur competition. In 1924 England sent a team to the third Lapham Cup in Philadelphia, inaugurating intercontinental play. Timmy Roberts, a forty-six year-old Army captain, won both the U.S. and Canadian nationals while on tour that year.

A dramatic rise in popularity came after the Second World War. In particular, Australia, in the midst of a boom of commercial squash clubs, started an Antipodal renaissance. In the early 1960s Australian men won every international match in two tours of England, and in London in 1964 Australian women beat Great Britain in their first international match. In January 1967 representatives from seven nations (Australia, Great Britain, Egypt, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and South Africa) met in London and formed the International Squash Rackets Federation. Later that year Australia hosted the first ISRF men’s championships. In 1969 the U.S. and Canada were admitted, despite the different standard of play in North America. Five nations came to the world championships in South Africa in 1973; ten to England in 1975 and fourteen to Australia in 1979. In 1980 the ISRF opened their championships to professionals. In 1980 Sweden hosted the first world junior championships. In 1985 the Women’s International Squash Federation, which was founded in 1976 and had held four world championships, merged into the ISRF. In 1992 the ISRF changed its name to the World Squash Federation.

The WSF was integral to the acceptance of squash as a medal sport in the Commonwealth Games, where it was first played in 1998, as well as the Pan-American Games, where it was first played in 1995, the Asian Games and the All Africa Games. Today the WSF has one hundred and nineteen member nations and is recognized as the governing body for the sport by the International Olympic Committee. The WSF is responsible for the rules of the game, refereeing and coaching standards and specifications for courts and equipment. In addition, the WSF maintains a calendar of world championship events for men, women, juniors and masters players in both singles and doubles. As a major force behind the development and growth of squash, the WSF is at the forefront of the many exciting aspects of the game today and tomorrow. Jahangir Khan, the ten-time British Open champion and six-time World Open champion, is president and Ted Wallbutton is the executive director.

VII THE RISE OF THE PROFESSIONAL GAME

Professionalism has always been the public tip of the squash iceberg. It began in 1904 when the first bonafide professional tournament in the world was held at the Huntingdon Valley Country Club outside Philadelphia. There were six entries, and Alfred Ellis beat John Friel 3-1 in the final. In 1914 Jock Soutar, the world champion in rackets, won a pro round-robin in Montreal. Two years later the USSRA crowned him professional champion of America after he beat Bill Ganley two matches to one in a three-leg, two-city contest. Soutar won $1,000. Ganley won nothing. Four years later Soutar defended his title against Otto Glockler. In 1925 Soutar stepped down from his throne. In 1928 a group of American teaching pros formed the United States Professional Squash Racquets Association. In 1930 the USPSRA organized its first national tournament, held in Boston. Pro squash received a boost in 1954 when the U.S. Open was started in New York. In 1966 it amalgamated with a newer Canadian Open to form the North American Open.

In 1978 the professional hardball association was renamed the World Professional Squash Association. In the 1980s the WPSA had a continent-wide pro tour that reached more than half a million dollars in prize money and visited more than thirty cities. Americans like Mark Talbott and Ned Edwards, Canadians like Michael Desaulniers and Clive Caldwell, Mexicans like Marion Sanchez and the perennial squash giant Pakistani-born, Toronto-based Sharif Khan dominated the tour. Pro squash started England in 1907. Charles Read, the Queen’s pro, beat C. Bannister, the Bath pro, at the Bath Club 15-5, 15-13 and defended his title as English champion three more times until 1928.

In 1930 that the British Open was started and professionals had a more formal stage to present their wares. But it was an amateur, Amr Bey from Egypt, who dominated the early British Opens, winning five and earning another when no one challenged him. After Bey came his compatriot Mahmoud Kerim, the only player to win the British Open when it was both a two-man challenge tournament and a regular open draw. In 1951 Hashim Khan, a thirty-seven year-old Pakistani, came to Great Britain and destroyed Kerim in the finals, 9-5, 9-0, 9-0. Hashim, his brother Azam, cousin Roshan and nephew Mohibullah won twelve Opens in a row.

Jonah Barrington, a six-time British Open champion and the first man since Amr Bey to win both the Open and the British amateur championships, was the first pro to cut himself off from the clubs and earn his entire living from tournaments, exhibitions and clinics. In 1970 he organized a five-man barnstorming tour of Asia that led to the formation of the International Squash Professionals Association in 1973 and the gradual creation of a viable pro tour. The ISPA launched a World Open championship in 1976. Heather McKay and Geoff Hunt, two legendary Australians, won their draws. McKay was famous for not losing a squash match for eighteen straight years, and Hunt, a seven-time British Open champion, was renowned for his amazing physical and mental endurance. Other dominant pros were Australians like Ken Hiscoe, Dean Williams, Rodney and Brett Martin and Chris Dittmar, New Zealand’s Ross Norman and Englishmen like Gawain Briars, now Executive Director of the PSA, and Phil Kenyon. No doubt though, the most exciting group of players came from Pakistan. Following in the footsteps of Hashim Khan were such giants as Hiddy Jahan, Gogi Alauddin and Qamar Zaman (who won the 1975 British Open), and the 1980s were dominated by Jahangir Khan and the 1990s by Jansher Khan. Both Jahangir and Jansher have equal merit in any discussion of the greatest player ever.

In 1993 the WPSA and the ISPA merged to form the Professional Squash Association. In 2002 the PSA held more than fifty events with a total prize money of nearly $2 million. The tour visits its usual spots in Europe, Asia and North America, but it also holds major events in exciting locales around South America, Africa and Dubai and Qatar in the Middle East. Pro women’s squash originated with the American Women’s Squash Association, founded in the mid-1970s. In 1985 the Women’s International Squash Professional Association came into being and built up a viable circuit. The top early players were Susan Devoy of New Zealand and Vicki Hoffman of Australia; Devoy won eight British Opens. In the 1990s Michelle Martin of Australia won six British Opens in a row. In 2002 WSA has a $750,000 tour on all six continents.

VIII SQUASH DOUBLES

Doubles began at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia in 1907 when Fred Tompkins, the tennis and rackets pro at the club, erected a forty-five feet by twenty-five court. In the 1930s dozens of clubs across America built courts and an amateur circuit of tournaments sprung up everywhere from St. Louis to Chicago to Denver to Toronto. In 1933 the U.S. squash association started a men’s and women’s national championship. Pro doubles started with the founding of the Heights Casino Open in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, but it was not until the WPSA tour began in the late 1970s that it took off. In the 1980s the pro doubles circuit included six or eight events with a prize money of around $100,000; in the 1990s this increased to ten or twelve events and $150,000.

In 2000 the tour’s players formed the International Squash Doubles Association. In 2001 the Kellner Cup in New York had a prize money purse of $100,000. In 2002-03 there were twenty ISDA tournaments with a total prize money of $700,000, including the $130,000 Briggs Cup in Rye, New York. Today there are a hundred and twenty-five proper hardball doubles courts in North America. There is one in Tijuana, Mexico and three in Asia at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club in Thailand, the Tanglin Club in Singapore and the Raintree Club in Kuala Lumpur. In 1935 three courts were laid out following USSRA specifications at the St. John’s Wood Squash Club, Prince’s Club and Ladies’ Carlton Club in London and the Edinburgh Sports Club in Scotland. Starting in 1937 the Squash Rackets Association held national doubles tournaments for both amateurs and professionals and England played Scotland in an annual Test match in doubles. The Second World War led to the destruction of the St. John’s Wood and Ladies Carlton courts and Prince’s closed, but Edinburgh still maintains its hardball doubles court.

Today softball doubles is the norm outside North America. In 1988 the Royal Automobile Club constructed two softball doubles courts at their Woodcote Park clubhouse outside London. The courts were thirty-two feet by twenty-five, which was proclaimed the standard softball doubles width. With sliding wall technology made common by the German-based court building company ASB, the inchoate game appeared around the world. In 1997 the first World Softball Doubles Championships were held in Hong Kong. The biggest showcase was the Commonwealth Games. At both Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and Manchester in 2002, men’s, women’s and mixed doubles were medal events.

VIII THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT …

The future of squash has never been brighter. Technology has forever shattered the inherent limitations of this racquet, ball and wall game. Racquets are much lighter and stronger today, making the game more exciting. The ball is now consistent throughout the world. Canada adopted softball standards in the late 1970s and the U.S. and Mexico changed in the early 1990s. The all-glass portable court came into existence in the early 1980s. This greatly expanded gallery size for pro events which helped fuel more sponsorship. Television also became a reality with the glass walls. Because of portable courts, squash tournaments have been staged in stunning locations: in Grand Central Terminal, New York’s famous train station; in Canary Wharf, London’s flashy shopping center; in Royal Albert Hall; at Symphony Hall, the landmark auditorium in Boston; and most famously at the base of the Pyramids at Giza outside Cairo. These high-profile events are the leading edge of the twenty-first century squash juggernaut. The game is global. A company from Washington, D.C. is building courts in St. Petersburg. Most balls were made in Barnsley, Great Britain until the early 2000s when production was moved to the Philippines. Racquets are sold from Denver and London. Germany has gone from a dozen courts in 1973 to six thousand and boasts two million active players. More than twenty nations have players ranked in the top one hundred in the men’s world rankings.

In not quite one hundred and forty years squash has gone from a schoolboy pastime to the most exhilarating, exhausting and explosive game in the world.

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