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Squash ‘Farmers’ Hope World Game Sprouts in America

Times Staff Writer

At first, it was the huge sign that attracted former professional football player Abe Woodson.

While traveling to meet a client, Woodson, a life insurance broker in Carson, spotted the bright yellow and green placard atop a warehouse near the intersection of the San Diego and Harbor Freeways.

“I saw that sign forever,” the former San Francisco 49er back said of his trips up and down the freeways. “Finally, I had to inquire about it.”

It turned out that the sign, which says in large letters, “Squash,” had been staring Woodson in the face on his drives for about 10 years. It belongs to Squash Club International, a public athletic facility. Since that day last April, Woodson has been a regular at the Vermont Avenue location near 190th Street, drawn to the racket sport by its quickness, agility and cardiovascular benefits.

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A mixture of handball, racquetball and some tennis, squash is little known here but has a big international following, particularly among British Commonwealth countries. Those few Americans like Woodson who are exposed to its body-taxing features say they know of no game quite as strenuous.

“This is like running wind sprints,” said Woodson.

According to literature from the Esquire Health and Fitness Clinic, squash is “the most rigorous of indoor racket sports. . . . (It) requires speed, agility, coordination and technique.”

The list of Top 10 players in the world is dominated by Commonwealth players. Professional tours draw large crowds overseas. In the United States, however, professional players can’t agree on which rules to follow--the international or their own variations. And American pros use a harder, smaller, reddish ball that makes the game play more like racquetball. The differences have weakened the impact of professional squash in North America, most likely hindering the growth and popularity of the sport in the United States.

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In addition, the relatively few Americans playing the game professionally may have fallen behind their counterparts in the rest of the world. In international competition, only one U.S. player, Kenton Jernigan (at No. 83), is even rated in the top 100.

Still, says club pro Pat Fitzgerald, squash will grow in popularity here if it can attract some of the racquetball crowd that may have become bored since that sport leveled off in popularity a few years ago.

“In 1992 it will be an Olympic demonstration sport,” Fitzgerald added. “After that, if it becomes an Olympic sport, that will really make it go.”

Squash is credited with bringing together many nationalities and races, thanks to its roots in the British Empire. For example, the top two players in the world are from Pakistan.

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“This remains a minority sport,” said the club’s majority owner, Clive Sewell. “There are no taboos. We have all races and religions playing here. Women play here. That’s nice.”

Still, its lack of popularity in the United States has proven difficult at times for Fitzgerald, a native of Quebec who lives in Manhattan Beach.

“When people ask me what I do and I tell them I am a professional squash player, they say, ‘Huh?’ It gets kind of embarrassing after a while. They say, ‘Squash. What’s that?’ I get tired of explaining it to them.

“So now I just tell them I’m a cook and I specialize in vegetables, like squash.”

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Fitzgerald, nevertheless, says he can’t think of a better way to spend a day than teaching the sport.

“It’s hard to beat my life style,” he said.

When you enter the club, the echoes of ricocheting rubber balls is the first thing that strikes you because outside the building you feel dwarfed by the icy glares of reflective windows from the club’s high-tech neighbors in the nearby TRW and Gould buildings. The clocks are deliberately set 10 minutes slow.

“Squash time,” says Fitzgerald, extra time allotted for lessons and stretching.

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“No one is exactly on time all the time,” he said.

Even in its unassuming location, and faced with a lack of interest from most Americans, the club usually maxes out on court reservations.

“There is a lack of facilities in the United States,” Sewell said. “If you don’t have a court, you can’t play.”

Actress Loretta Swit used to play here. A former member of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, Hussein Elatar, works out here regularly.

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“I like the game. I play it when I am in many countries,” a sweaty Elatar said with a smile, a wet towel draped around his neck. A membership costs $50 a month, or courts can be rented for $10 an hour. During certain slow times of the day, it’s not uncommon for players to keep courts for several hours.

The sport has attracted American businessmen and executives from all walks of life. A reporter visiting the locker room at lunch time recently overheard four men discussing breach of contract and patent rights as they removed suits and slipped into all-white athletic garments characteristic of most squash games.

“This is like tennis,” said Fitzgerald. “It is kind of a yuppie, executive-type game now.”

But it plays hard. Explains Fitzgerald: “It takes skill and strategy. That’s why business people like it.”

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Because the international ball is soft and does not bounce well, kill shots, such as those made popular in racquetball, are almost impossible to make. That leads to longer rallies, according to Fitzgerald, who demonstrated three games to a reporter without breaking a sweat.

The game is played inside a three-walled court on a parquet floor, much like handball. The back wall is enclosed with eight-foot-high glass. Players strike the ball at the forward wall with a smaller version of a tennis racket. Every shot is in play, except those that carom off the open beam ceilings.

A game is nine points, with only the server eligible to score. As in other racquet sports, the ball can bounce on the floor only once before it is stroked. Opponents usually play in pairs.

Friday afternoons are the busiest times for play, Sewell said, because the club does a lot of repeat business for out-of-town executives.

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“They come in once or twice a year on business and call us from New York or somewhere to make a reservation,” Sewell said. “Those are the keen squash players, business people.”

Count Sewell right up there with them. He was an international data-processing recruiter based in Indonesia and an amateur squash player when he was sent to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s to locate new employees for overseas work. He and a partner hit on the idea of starting a squash club. Now Sewell is doing the commuting, about twice a month, to run the business from his home in Nevada City in Northern California.

“When I am here, this is my mistress,” he said of squash.

As for the sign, it serves two purposes. First, it “helps people find the place,” he said of the warehouse location tucked behind a shipping company, which it shares with a judo center.

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Second, and perhaps more important, the sign has attracted new customers and players, like Woodson, to a sport that is decidely foreign to Americans.


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