By Steve Crandall
You won’t find many college squash programs more successful than the one at Trinity College in Hartford. Under legendary coaches Paul Assaiante and Wendy Bartlett, Trinity’s teams are among the most feared in college sports. Last month, Assaiante was inducted into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame. Last season his streak of guiding the Bantams to the national championship finals ended at nineteen in a row; his teams have won fifteen of those nineteen opportunities.
Wendy Bartlett begins her thirty-third year as head coach of the Trinity College women’s team, having led the squad to a third-place finish in the nationals a year ago. In thirty-two seasons, Bartlett’s teams have compiled an impressive record of 375-103 for a .785 winning average, and they won national titles in 2002, 2003 and 2014.
In short, they’re good: the coaches and the teams. So we thought, whoN better to talk with about stringing for intercollegiate squash? Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of Trinity, and for many years both Paul and Wendy have been kind enough to have their squads playtest many of our new strings. So, I am biased, but I think the record shows that they know what they’re talking about.
What happens when squash string goes to college? There are several string-related issues that are different from an amateur or professional environment.
The first relates to cost. Nobody likes paying for their string, but what is unique in the college environment—at least at Trinity—is that the players are quite free from the constraints of cost. It’s the coaches who pay the bills and have to control their budgets. Players, for the most part, get to use whatever string they want and get their racquets restrung whenever they want.
At Trinity players are encouraged to string their own racquets. “Some we teach, some come already knowing how to string,” Assaiante said, “and some have a teammate string for them.”
Because the boys aren’t paying for their own string, “they’re more concerned with string feel than durability,” Assaiante said. “We as coaches are interested in durability because we have to pay the bills.” They’ve been able to address both issues with the newer Zyex®-based strings. “The powder blue UltraNick®18 and the red PowerNick®18 strings were the go-to strings last year,” he said, “but we have recently been play-testing that new black Ashaway string, SuperNick® ZX Micro, and that seems like it will be pretty popular as well.”
Selecting a string is also easier in the college environment. “We have lots of demo racquets with all the different kinds of string,” Bartlett said. “And they choose what is best for them.” Also good on the women’s side is that Vikram Malhotra—Wendy’s assistant coach and a rising pro, currently world No. 62—”is really into strings and can advise the girls on what string is going to give them more touch, more power, etc.”
While string durability and breakage is an issue for the men, “it’s never a huge factor with us,” Bartlett said. “The girls just don’t go through string after string. They are more concerned with touch and control, and now that they’re making thinner strings more durable, it’s a perfect situation.”
“I remember years ago Paul and the boys always complaining about strings breaking,” Bartlett added. “But now, new strings like Ashaway’s PowerNick and UltraNick have the soft feel and are very durable.”
Assaiante also noted that power and control are differentiated by the tension of the string. “A power player looking for more feel is going to string his racquet more tightly,” he said. “A touch player needing more power will string more loosely. Plus, you have more touch if your swing is shorter. And with the new strings, with a short swing and less tension, you can still get the power you need. You get the best of both.”
Both coaches claimed their players were quite knowledgeable about strings, especially the better players. “Players who come in at our level are experienced and have played at a very high standard,” Bartlett said. “So they’ve been taught a lot about string. But they’re also very open to suggestion because they want to do what’s best for their game.”
Many of her top players come from other countries and have preconceived notions about what makes a good string. But when they hit with some of the new Zyex-based strings, “they like them because they get the feel and the tension durability. They really like that soft touch that the ZX provides.”
I was curious about how had these teams stayed so successful for so long: what was their secret? Bartlett put it very succinctly. “We have kids from all over the world, and yet by the very nature of our program, we emphasize the oneness of everything: that we’re working together as a team and a family, that there are no prima donnas. It really works. That makes for a very special team and a very special group of kids.”