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God isn’t a sports purist.
Quick proof: We live in an age in which .220 hitters have no trouble wresting seven-figure wages from baseball owners. Rare is the weekend when the networks don’t foist the Haggar-slacked butt cheeks of fiscally and physically bloated golfers on national television audiences. But Marty Clark, a McLeanian who happens to be the Best Damn Squash Player in America, has to fairly grovel to make ends meet.
“It’d be real nice if you mention that Power Bar helps me out,” Clark, now 24, all but pleads to me near the end of our interview. He quickly adds that unless he gets additional corporate sponsorship soon, he’s going to have to give up the game. The Best Damn Squash Player in America, it occurs to me, shouldn’t have to hawk Power Bars. Did Norman Rockwell shill for Sears Weatherbeater to keep his paint bills paid?
“Marty’s got real star quality, no doubt,” declares Hunt Richardson, the head pro at the Sporting Club, one of the premier squash clubs in D.C. “But it’s been tough. He’s out there breaking so much ground for Americans on the international squash scene.”
There’s a helluva lot of ground for Clark to break. Truth be told, he’s the biggest fish in a drained pond. To the average American, squash remains a vegetable or a verb. Forget baseball and golf: Even as far as racket sports go, squash lags far behind tennis and even racquetball here in terms of popularity. (Though the latter’s star is falling to the point where a racquetball court is now easier to reserve than a table at a London steakhouse.)
But while we Yanks are allergic to squash, other parts of the globe devour the game, whose origins, contrary to its tony image, go back to a mid-19th century prison yard in England. The British boarding-school set quickly filched squash from the inmates, and soon imperialist Anglos were introducing it to whatever territories they were occupying. (It’s no accident that Pakistanis are among the best squash players.) The watershed moment in the sport’s U.S. history came in the 1920s, when Yale built a 50-court squash center on campus in adherence of an affluent alumnus’ dying wish. Other Ivy League institutions followed suit, and that conference remains the font of what U.S. squash talent there is.
“We’re way behind,” says Clark of America’s rank ranking on the international squash ladder. Clark is currently ranked 71st in the world. No other American has ever cracked the Top 100. (But that may change soon: Last weekend, at the U.S. championships in Denver, Clark, the defending champion and top seed, was upset in the finals by the lesser-known Mohsen Mir of Seattle.)
Clark’s father introduced him to the game at age 10, and within four years he was the top-ranked junior player in the country. Upon graduation from Langley High School in 1989, Clark signed on with Harvard, which for the past several decades has been the UCLA of college squash. The school won the national team championship in three out of his four years there, and Clark, whose workout regimen is legendary in squash circles, again proved himself the best nonimmigrant singles player at the university level.
Clark got out of Harvard in 1993 and decided to give the pro squash tour a run. His timing was a bit off. Just then, the U.S. overseers of squash agreed to amend the rules to mirror the international standards. Overnight, the “official” U.S. squash court got wider, and “approved” balls got softer. American squash suddenly became a much slower, more tactical game in which durability and brains became paramount. Power and speed, crucial in the old version, were devalued by the amendments.
The alterations, for all intents and purposes, abolished the sport Clark had grown up playing. But he didn’t abandon his racket dreams when the new squash rule book took hold. To a lot of local squashheads, his adjustment to the foreign game has been astonishing.
“The bigger court and new ball change everything. But Marty’s progress has been a great thing to see,” gushes Richardson.
Clark, if he’s to continue to grow as a player, has to spend much of his year abroad, just as Greg LeMond had to flee the U.S. for France in order to excel as a cyclist. Clark leaves this week for a tournament in Pakistan and will spend most of the next three months playing and training in faraway lands in Europe and South America.
And that’s why the sponsorship is required. Given squash’s patrician following, you’d think a guy with Clark’s credentials wouldn’t have much trouble convincing some flag-waving corporate suit to bankroll his worldwide travels. After all, he’s our Best Damn Squash Player.
“I know that I, as the top American player on the tour, could serve as a good way to get corporations exposure internationally. I know it,” Clark grumbles. “I’m not saying I can get the exposure of tennis or golf, but let’s face it, squash is a sport that is so well-connected domestically. I mean, it’s ‘the businessman’s sport,’ and as such it reaches the powers that be in the U.S., whether they be in banking or business or consulting. And it’s also big internationally in those same circles. But I haven’t been able to get that message across to anybody yet. And I’ve been trying.”
Clark knows what he’s up against.
“It all goes back to television,” he says. “Nobody’s figured out a way to televise squash in an exciting way. It’s quite depressing when I see the tremendous amount of money that goes toward things like golf and tennis, but I realize the reality of the situation. Those sports televise well. Golf is played outdoors, in wide-open, beautiful areas, and viewers have no trouble appreciating that a shot that lands near the hole is a good shot. Or when a tennis player aces his opponent.
“Squash is much more demanding on the viewer. It’s played in a very confined area, aces are extremely rare, and not everybody can appreciate how a player, over the course of one rally and 50 hits of a squash ball, meticulously works his opponent out of position to the point where he’ll just barely miss the last shot. He didn’t miss it because the last shot was any better than the others, but because of the others. And that same, drawn-out process is repeated time and time again over an hour-and-a-half squash match. It’s like playing athletic chess, and nobody who doesn’t play chess really appreciates chess.”
And chess, Clark knows, will never garner TV ratings like the Masters’ or Wimbledon’s. Clark has responded to being ignored by issuing the kind of ultimatum that could only come from a squash player. Either he gets some financing or “I’m going to go to medical school.”—Dave McKenna