On Monday night I was invited by the brand Boast to spectate at the squash Tournament of Champions, currently underway in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal.
Coming from a Cali-plebian background, I’d never seen the sport played before. I was very intrigued, though, as for a few years I nursed an intense badminton obsession, playing up to five days per week at a full-time club and training under a coach from the Chinese national team. Badminton is little understood and derided here in the US (the “Official Preppy Handbook” extolls squash as the preppiest of sports while taking a crack at badminton) and of course carries no social prestige. I ended up writing a piece for the LA Times Magazine that tried to correct some of the misconceptions, and if you’ve never seen it played at an elite level before, have a look.
I’d heard that squash and badminton were similar, not only for the intensity, but also the footwork and all the lunging. Boast had a box in the front row, and after a couple of hours, with help from company president John Dowling, I went from being totally bewildered by what was happening to the ball to following every shot with anticipation. It was fascinating and the athletes are absolute ironmen.
The sport is not just preppy by chance. It was actually invented at the English boarding school Harrow and first appeared in the US in 1884 at St. Paul’s in New Hampshire. But while there are several Englishmen among the 50 athletes in the Tournament of Champions, there are only a couple Americans, preppy or otherwise. Egypt has the biggest representation in the pool, and the spectators were an amusing mixture of WASPy types taking in a set before catching the Metro-North, and New York’r random and sprawling rainbow of diversity. One of the matches I caught was between a Frenchman and a guy from Botswana:
Entering “wasp squash” into Google pulls up a few references to crushing insects underfoot, but also more germane results.
Here’s a piece on the Bush presidents entitled “Noble WASP vs. Rogue Preppy” from the New York Observer.
“Dartmouth Squash Hecklers,” with cartoon.
A Continuous Lean put up a great LIFE archive post back in ’09. As you can seefrom the photo below compared to the one above, like all other formerly aristocratic Anglo sports, the attire is no longer traditional but has that extreme graphics/garish colors/moisture wicking middlebrow look that all sports today have:
Here are a couple of Princeton guys from 1959:
And finally, a short clip of squash references from “American Psycho” and “Trading Places”:
Given how prone I am to sports obsessions, I should probably stay clear of squash for now. My life’s already been taken over by golf, and unless the court were plexiglass, I’d be claustrophobic.
And one more thing. In my late thirties, playing all that badminton, I think I was in the best shape of my life — even better than from fencing five days a week in my early twenties. I played a lot of tennis last year, but it’s hard to imagine ever being in squash shape. According to Wikipedia, in 2003 Forbes magazine ranked squash the healthiest sport.
So, who out there plays? — CC