“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won” – Winston Churchill
In the last 25 years, squash in the US has experienced two major shifts. These shifts have resulted in a massive and difficult change physically, and perhaps more significantly, a change in the mindset of the squash community. The two interrelated shifts are the transition from the hardball singles game to the softball singles version, and the emergence of the urban squash movement.
With the formal adoption of the softball singles version of the sport in the mid-1990s, an opportunity emerged for hundreds of pros and coaches from around the world. The international influence on the sport in the US has strengthened the community and the sport considerably. So too has the development of urban squash programs.
The physical change in courts opened opportunities for a change in mindset. Initially using abandoned hardball singles courts, urban squash programs started in Boston, New York and Philadelphia initially, and have now transformed the lives of thousands of underprivileged kids. Equally important, the urban programs, and the squash community’s deep personal involvement and financial support of them, has marked a transition in squash, from a community comfortable with keeping the sport in private clubs and schools, to one focused on how transformational squash is for people, and the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to experience the benefits of the game.
Since these transitions, the popularity of squash has jumped dramatically in the U.S., from a mere 100,000 players, to 1.6 million in 2015, according to a survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
The sport is also expanding geographically. Junior tournament participation on the west coast has skyrocketed. Programs in the mid-west continue to innovate and expand. In recent years, the number of college programs has increased nearly 20% to more than 100 programs in 20 states. We have parity in participation among girls and boys, near parity in college squash participation, and the US is leading the international community in parity for prize money.
In 1995, Squash Canada eliminated the Hardball Singles National title. While we had continued to accredit the US Hardball Nationals, despite participation not exceeding 50 players for the last decade, we will be hosting our final edition in February. As the National Governing Body, It is our obligation to preserve the integrity of the title of national championship, and in this case, a great edition of squash has seen its time come and go.
Hardball singles was a great version of the sport. Variability in the court size, and the bounce and consistency of the ball, are all part of the history of squash. Without the U.S. pivoting to softball, our growth would likely have been stunted, and we would have an extremely limited role in driving the sport globally. Adaptation of the sport will continue to be important as we encourage racquetball court conversions as well as use of the range of balls Dunlop offers, which are going to be key to the sustained long term growth of squash.
Hosting the final Hardball Singles National Championships is a very historic and poignant moment in many ways, however this difficult transition has been mastered, and the opportunity won.