Steeling Squash To Play Outdoor
When hearing Mohamed Elshorbagy, currently ranked the #2 player on the PSA World Tour, speak on how "true" the steel outdoor court plays, one could imagine the world's best players legitimately competing on this thing. That's where my mind went when I did, as "The Beast"was courteously entertaining conversations on World Squash Day. Elshorbagy, along with Saurav Ghosal, Joel King and Joshna Chinappa, who together represented the very top-tier in professional squash, participated in exhibition matches in the celebration. The event, benefiting the PSA Foundation, was held at an odd location, an industrial welding compound in the borough of Queens, New York City. In attendance were several young players from Squash Haven, benefactors and friends. That they were watching this high of a level being played on this particular court, tells a pretty impactful story about how the imaginations of squash enthusiasts can be energized by moving outdoors and into the world of mainstream access.
The energy to move outdoors has been grasped hard by the squash community. One obvious reasoning, being the times we currently experience with Covid, where all sporting activity typically experienced indoors was shut down indefinitely, or so it seemed in 2020. The other focus is for a generic growth in access to the sport. Where the first reason is driven by necessity, the second is driven by aspiration. And as aspirations go, I also imagined how a kid, newly introduced to squash, could feel impelled by seeing Elshorbagy's talents on display, then being driven himself by a desire to pursue playing squash with vigor, as he himself is experiencing some success adapting to the physicality of squash.
Being drawn to outdoor racquet sports as I am, led me to connect with Robert Gibralter of True Squash, which is how I wound up at this event. I'll procure his verbiage and say he's the evangelist behind the steel squash court being envisioned in parks. As it turns out, Robert and I have a very similar experience in our backgrounds, in that, we spent a huge amount of time in the 80's at the James J. Walker Park in Greenwich Village in NYC. At the time, those courts were the epicenter for paddleball and handball in the city. Robert enthusiastically facilitates exposure to the steel court, which made it easy for me to play squash again after 15 or so years. Robert's vision is both an artistic one, as much as it is a vision of more people having access to squash. Matching an environmentally friendly, high-performance squash court, as architectural art sounds progressive and seems to fit right in with the push for converting outdoor spaces to grow squash. When we talk about this, I'll challenge him at times to stop and talk of the groups of people who are already there - that type of talk, which get's Robert pushing back to the big vision. Not surprising to me, knowing how beautiful the form of this steel court actually is. Not only does it speak to playability but it also screams urban sculpture as function. As outdoor courts go, this is an exception though. Typically outdoor courts are fraught with challenging differences in playability. This is definitely one way to think about getting high-quality squash played outdoors for sure.
World Squash Day on the Steel Outdoor Court, NYC
The PSA Foundation, the listed beneficiary of this event states "Outdoor Squash is not a one size fits all movement." on their website. The"one size not fitting all" part resonates in a real way with me, though classifying it as "A Movement" seems a bit hyperbolic from my perspective. That they were enthusiastically present, as students from Squash Haven ran drills with the pros on that outdoor court, seems like a pretty cool thing to do on World Squash Day I'll admit. As I watched, I also knew this was a different type of introduction for these kids, though they entered the court already knowing the game well. For them, playing squash outdoors for the first time with these professionals may be motivational fuel as they strive for the goals offered up to them at Squash Haven. Yet, outdoor squash everywhere in the world, looks nothing like the steel court and in all reality, looks quite different than what you see on Squash TV. But how do you get on Squash TV or even a court in a private club from a handball court in NYC? Or a concrete court in Bolivia? That question is inherent in that "not a one size fits all" statement and will remain a serious question for squash.
Playing Squash outdoors is by no means a new idea. Before the steel court was built, the guys at Public Squash managed to raise enough funding and follow through to get an actual glass court fitted on a handball court in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where I grew up and still spend a significant amount of my time. Successfully planting that court was no small accomplishment in my opinion. I remember reaching out to the Public Squash guys a couple of times and checked out the official opening to the public. I saw a good helping of the squash set, public officials and people invited to play. Time proved itself not a friend to this court. It was a very rare sight to actually see people using it.
More so, when I engaged a local page on Facebook about the damaged court, the push back was intense with negative comments and the dialogue I facilitated bore down to issues reflected in statements like this one, "They literally took away a very popular handball court that was used incredibly often to assemble a court for a sport that doesn’t serve the community. It was destroyed before COVID even hit and as someone who used to visit the part EVERY SINGLE DAY I can tell you I never saw a single person use it. If you want to talk about doing better, maybe we should talk about utilizing tax money to provide entertainment for the people that actually live on Pitt street not the people they are trying to attract (gentrifiers)". Though there were more hostile comments flamed by resentment, there were also comments about the inability of the local community to value projects like this one, which to me screams, "Your vision of access may not be the same as ours."
To date, the Public Squash court remains unfixed and the immediate area effectively unusable. Note to the squash community... no talk about public squash courts in public parks anywhere near Lower Manhattan at least until this situation is remedied. (Hint: It won't go over well with the locals.)
Adriana Olaya, PSA Foundationn
Now, the situation at Hamilton Fish aside, I believe in the idea of outdoor squash as a good one. Done right, it could prove a vibrant addition to a space that can foster fun and well-being. But I'm an outdoor racquet sports guy who moves almost exclusively now in this space, and my particular response to squash co-opting outdoor courts to find new players is an enthusiastic "Great." But if you want to use outdoor courts for exposure to grow and introduce the squash in NYC, I will also say, "Get in line." And "Think critically on where you want that exposure to lead."
I sort of have to jump on the social commentary of this, it's kind of my thing. That aside, I'll get to the fun part for me. I was able to watch these players playing also, and fanboy Elshorbagy, like a kid. Squash is artistry in the proper hands. To be able to see the highest-level play grace this court, now that was a shot of aspiration to me.