Spectators at Squash on Fire watching a match between Egypt and England
Spectators at Squash on Fire watching a match between Egypt and England Credit: Kelyn Soong

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All Philippe Lanier wanted to do was to take a nap. As organizers set up the trophy ceremony stage for the Men’s World Team Squash Championships last Saturday evening, Lanier sat down at a nearby table and looked forward to finally being able to relax. But first, he needed party plan. A player from the Wales team approached him to ask about the post tournament party at L2 Lounge and Lanier explained that anyone wearing a squash uniform would be able to get in.

During the past week, dozens of professional squash players representing 23 countries were in town to compete for one of the biggest trophies in the sport. Squash on Fire, the club on M Street NW that the Lanier family founded, hosted the event. It was the first time the biennial Men’s World Team Squash Championships had been played in the U.S.

“For my family personally, this was a Herculean effort and one that we questioned from time to time because it’s a big financial commitment and squash isn’t a universally appreciated sport,” Lanier says. “Seeing this turn out the way it did, seeing us be pretty much sold out every day and the press that we’re getting, the recognition on Facebook, it’s worth it.”

Lanier’s sister, Camille, competed in squash from a young age and went on to play the sport at the University of Pennsylvania. Their father, Eastbanc founder Anthony Lanier, dreamed of creating a squash club in D.C., and in May 2017, Squash on Fire opened.

The club does not require a membership and operates on a pay to play model. While the D.C. area does not have the squash tradition of other U.S. cities like New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, the interest in squash locally has been on the rise. Lanier believes that bringing an event like the Men’s World Squash Team Championships to D.C. will elevate the sport’s profile in D.C.

“We’re up to 7,000 [members] now,” Lanier says. “1,500 active on a regular basis. And we’re still getting around 200 a month that are coming to try out the sport. In the world of squash, those are staggering figures. They may seem small, but they’re pretty big when you look at what other clubs are doing. I think you see squash is growing tremendously. It’s just how many courts do you have, how much opportunity can get people to try it.”

According to Tim Garner, the championship director for the event who also works for the Professional Squash Association, the men’s championships at Squash on Fire drew about 400 to 500 spectators at its peak.

The club has eight courts, and on Saturday, about 100 fans watched as Egypt beat England to win its fourth title in the past five championships. Lanier believes, upon reflection, that the club could have held 150 more spectators.

“I love it. People are engaged,” Ali Farag, the world No. 1 men’s squash player from Egypt, says of the atmosphere. “I wish there were more stands for people … but the vibe was nice and and obviously, because it was team event as well, you know, it brings in more spirit into it.”

Lanier says that without a national sponsor it would be “close to impossible” to make a profit from the event. It’s one of the reasons the U.S. hasn’t hosted the team championships in the past, he says. 

To have national sponsorship, Lanier believes it would need to be a “co-ed and recurring event.” Squash on Fire intends to host more professional tournaments in the future, including possibly becoming a stop on the PSA World Tour.

“The [men’s team championships] was an investment on our part to learn about the future,” Lanier says. “From what I’ve learned, if we were to host regular professional events, we would find a way to do that and have the costs covered.”

Before and after the final match, Farag, who competed at Harvard University, spent time posing for photos with fans of all ages. He partially credits Egypt’s dominance in the sport to the fact that young kids grew up watching professionals compete in front of the pyramids in Cairo.

He knows the effect that the sport’s exposure can have on future generations.

“I think if you could have more attention in the nation’s capital that it is going to grow nationwide,” he says. “And if it grows nationwide in the U.S., it’s going to grow worldwide. So this is what we need. I think tournaments like this are going to attract younger kids to join the game.”