Beads of sweat drip down George Pollack’s forehead as he runs his hand through his mop of hair. His New York Mets T-shirt has turned a dark shade of blue from all the lunging, sprinting, and hitting he’s been doing for the past hour and a half inside a box. Since late February, this has been Pollack’s way to relieve stress from his day job on Capitol Hill. But for most of his life, he had dismissed squash as a leisurely activity for the elite. These days, the New York native plays four to six times a week.
“I had this preconceived notion of the sport, that it was more of the country club type, more of a lazy sport,” says Pollack, 24. “I learned my lesson quickly.”
On a hot summer afternoon in downtown D.C., Pollack and a few dozen other players are indoors, engaging in intense, sweaty round-robin matches at Squash on Fire, the pay-to-play public squash facility that opened in May of 2017 on M Street NW.
Amir Wagih, the former head coach of the Egyptian national squash team, is Squash on Fire’s head coach and has the audacious goal of turning the District into the hub for squash, a sport that has a larger presence in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Next month, The St. James, a 450,000-square-foot sports, wellness, and entertainment center will open its doors in Springfield, Virginia. Squash will be among the 30-plus sports the complex will offer, and Alister Walker, a semi-retired pro from England once ranked number 12 in the world, has been hired to lead the program. Walker, like Wagih, sees D.C. as the future of squash.
“I think D.C. is a market that has been underserved, and that’s one of the reasons it has not become a hotbed,” says Walker, who represents his birthplace of Botswana at tournaments. “But the stage is set for it. … In a few years, you can turn it into as big of a hub as any.”
Opportunities for squash have been scattered and relatively scarce in the D.C. area. Private gyms like Equinox and private schools and colleges like The George Washington University, Georgetown University, Episcopal High School, and The Potomac School have a few courts, but the lack of a central location has made it tough for squash players to find partners or for the sport to attract interested newcomers. (Wagih also serves as head coach of Georgetown’s men’s and women’s squash teams.) Squash on Fire and The St. James are hoping to change that.
Both Wagih and Walker have chosen to make the D.C. area their homes for that reason.
“It shows that D.C. has become a hot spot for squash and I think more clubs will come here and a lot of people now will move to D.C. and train here,” says Wagih, 51. “I think this is going to be the capital of squash. D.C. is the capital for America. We also want it to be the capital of squash.”
Walker’s English father first introduced the sport to his mother in Botswana, and according to Walker, “She beat him pretty early in her learning cycle.” He started practicing with his mother, and discovered that he had a talent for the sport, eventually enrolling in a boarding school in England that specializes in squash.
The reputation of squash being an upper-class, private club-only, Ivy League sport has been slow to shed in the United States. No team outside the Ivy League had won the national women’s title until Trinity College won the Howe Cup in 2002, two teams from outside the Ivy League first competed for the men’s national championship in 2015, and most squash clubs require a pricey membership. But Walker had a different experience in the U.K.
“It’s much more available to the working class,” he says. “It’s in the country, towns in communities based their lives around squash clubs.”
To play squash, you need a partner, a racquet, a rubber ball, and a four-walled rectangular court that is approximately 32 feet in length and 21 feet wide. The basic goal is to keep hitting the ball against the front wall until your opponent cannot do so. A player loses the point if the ball bounces twice when they are attempting to retrieve it, if they hit the ball into the floor before it hits the front wall, or if they hit the ball beyond the out lines.
Squash, players will tell you, requires technique and strategy.
“You have to be precise with your movements, very precise with your shots. It’s not just about hitting it hard,” says 50-year-old Zev Waldman. He’s one of the regulars who show up to the round-robin matches at Squash on Fire. These sessions routinely draw more than 20 players ranging in age from their early 20s to late 60s.
Waldman is one of the club’s 1,000 active users and executive director Margaret Gerety says she saw an average of five new users a week this spring. Squash on Fire does not require a membership, and a 45-minute court session costs $20. A sports membership for the St. James costs $150 per month.
“I think people are looking for an alternative to working out at the gym,” says Gerety, who grew up in Philadelphia and played squash at Harvard. “It’s very interactive. It’s social. It’s fun. It’s very strategic. … D.C. is a really active, physical community and I think all sports are growing in D.C., which is great.”
Professionals from around the world have stopped by Squash on Fire to train. The location of the facility has been in line with the more metropolitan future of the sport as experts see it. In cities like D.C. and Philadelphia, more squash centers are opening in urban areas, Gerety says, and a free public squash court opened in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in April.
“Going from a very bougie sport to a very accessible sport is the journey squash is on right now,” says Wick Clothier, the head squash professional at the Equinox gym in D.C. “All of the patrons of squash can see the value in opening up these programs and the difference it’s making in kids’ lives. …People look at England, at European countries where it’s a mainstay sport and not a bougie, gentrified sport. I think professionals in America would like it to open up, to be more a middle-class, upper middle-class sport. It’s too small right now, but it’s beginning.”
A large part of the growth of squash will come at the junior level. Gerety calls the youth players “the bedrock of any good squash program.”
At The Potomac School, an independent K–12 preparatory school in McLean with an annual tuition of $41,100 for high school students, there are plans to build more courts, adding to the existing four on campus, due to demand from the student body.
Players like 15-year-old sophomore Aalia Hussain are a part of that growing enthusiasm. Hussain picked up the sport four years ago and is now ranked within the top 100 nationally in the girls’ 17-and-under division. She has competed in cities around the country and witnessed an increased participation and appreciation for squash at her school.
“I see it becoming really competitive and I think we’re going to have a lot more coaches in the area,” she says. “When I go around and tell people I play squash, they actually know what it is. A few years ago, they wouldn’t even know what it was.”
For some time, Hussain says, she needed to travel hours for competition. But lately, she has been able to find players on her level in the area, sometimes on the same team. In mid-October, Squash on Fire will host a junior tournament, where approximately 200 of the top young players in the country, including Hussain and a few of her Potomac School teammates, are scheduled to compete.
Soon, they hope, this will be the norm.