This summer, EastBanc W.D.C Partners, a prominent development company, announced the construction of two residential towers with retail space in the West End of Washington, D.C., not far from George Washington University. Included in the development are plans for multiple squash courts. The squash facility, which will go by the awkward appellation “Squash on Fire,” (it rests on top of an old firehouse) will consist of eight courts totaling some 20,000 square feet. At first glance, the inclusion of such a massive squash facility seems odd; isn’t squash an obscure, musty old game? However, reflecting on the demographic change the region has experienced over the past 15 years, it turns out that squash is in fact the perfect sport for the contemporary D.C. denizen.
Like the Washington milieu, squash is international. Originally conceived by schoolboys attending Eton and Harrow in the mid-nineteenth century, squash flourished throughout the British empire after World War I. British Army officers, having been exposed to the game in their university days, brought the game to Egypt and India. Squash reverberated throughout the dormitories of eastern U.S. preparatory schools and Ivy League colleges. It is believed that the headmaster of St Paul’s School in New Hampshire witnessed a game in Montreal during the early 1880s and, upon his return, ordered a squash complex built to replace the then-popular racquetball games played during the time. In a few decades, squash would be professionalized, with the rules clarified and codified.
Squash is played on a 32x21 foot court. The ball may be hit on any of the four walls of the wood-floored room, but not below a lower red line on the front wall (also called the “tin”), nor above the red front and side wall lines at the top of the court. Two opponents stand abreast, facing the front wall, and try to score points by striking the ball against the walls, with only a single bounce on the floor permitted. After the first serve, squash players participate in a rally until one or the other misses. Games are usually played to either nine or 15 points.
The first thing a novice observes in early games is how dead the ball is. A tennis ball this ain’t. One finds himself running across the court, with sudden stops and pivots to adjust to what appears to be a knuckleball ricocheting off the wall. The advanced games, however, are a thing of beauty. While strength and fitness still play a large role, strategy becomes much more important. To be a good player, the path of least resistance must be charted by anticipating where the ball will land relative to the position of one’s opponent. Players immediately manifest different strengths and strategies, with some leaning on their power serves, and others relying on precision shots—“low brow” players simply look to tire their opponent out. Perhaps the best way to describe squash is to think of what a physical manifestation of chess would look like.
Squash has historically been a social game. While originally played among peers at private clubs, the elitism of the sport has long melted away, with squash players constantly on the lookout for new folks to mingle with (business cards of players looking for new partners litter the walls outside courts). The growth in popularity of the sport in the nation’s capital isn’t surprising: Washington is increasingly seen as the cosmopolitan home for the top international strategic minds. The perennially strong expat community has transformed the city from a transit stop in some bureaucrat’s career to an actual home for global thinkers. After the end of the Cold War, the world did not slip into a Pax Americana like many hoped for, but rather faced an uncertain global order. Donald Rumsfeld, an avid squash player, claims the game helped him think of how to redesign the US military for the 21st century. With the usual levers of power and diplomacy seemingly jammed, it should be no surprise a competitive game that rewards creativity and tests endurance would flourish in the capital of our decision-making elites.
Kevin Telford spent over a decade in the energy industry and is currently founder and CEO of Renascentia Capital, a Washington, D.C., investment firm.
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