The closed room, four-wall sport that is all about working the space
By Katie Garner
Very often, when you play one genre of sport, it’s incredibly easy to also fall in love with similar styles. For example, big footie fans are often also rugby or basketball fans, feeling that pull towards other ball sports. For us badminton players, the intrigue often lies with other racket games, mainly tennis, which is definitely a big name sport now due to the increasing popularity of Wimbledon and Scot Andy Murray. However, one racket sport that is overlooked far too much is the immensely powerful squash.
I started learning how to play squash when I was about 14 or 15 years old, with Jess and I taught by our uncle, a local champion in his heyday. I’ll always remember that the very first thing he made us do each session was run up and down, from the back wall to the front, until we were clutching our sides with stitches and we were panting harshly. He emphasised the importance of this, continuously saying that it was vital to learn the space, important to learn how many strides it would take you to get anywhere on court. For a sport that is played in an enclosed, rather small room, dealing with the spaces seems a rather odd, yet interesting concept.
Squash is simply and fundamentally fun. Playing the ball off the various walls to create different shots often creates entirely unexpected results, and it definitely takes a while to learn how the ball will react. Squash is played with a small, hollow rubber ball that has to be warmed up before play, to ensure that it flies through the air faster and reacts to shots more smoothly. Yes, soft shots and drops are still a feature of the game, but ultimately, you play squash because you love the pure undulated strength of it. To get that ball to bounce, you have to be direct and really work your arm into powering the shots through. It feels so fantastic to just wallop the ball as fast as you can, to find you’ve blinked and won the rally in the same moment.
The scoring system is very similar to badminton, as you can gain points on anyone’s serve, yet if you thought badminton was fast paced playing to 21, then squash is performed at light speed, as you only have to reach 11 (although you can play to two clear points if you reach 10-10). You normally play to the best of three of five games, again very much like sporting brother tennis. Serving is pretty typical – you have to stand in your box, the same as badminton, and your serve has to cross the service line, same as badminton…but the difference is instead of going over a net, you have to hit the front wall and get the ball to land on the other side of the room. On the front wall of a squash court, are three lines. The top and bottom lines act as your outside tramlines so to speak (the top line continues around the side and back walls as well), with the bottom one being a raised bit of wood, so that if the ball hits it, it just zooms straight up in the air with a very annoying…and out… thunk.
The middle line is the service line that compares to your net when serving, as the ball has to hit the wall between the top line and the middle line to be valid and then it has to go past the service line on the opponents side of the court to be in. Getting the serve right is so important and if it hugs either the side or back walls with persistence then you know you’ve done a great one. If it lands more centrally in the oppositions’ side, it becomes far too easy for them to deliver a straight force-full drive that leaves you scurrying into the wall.
The drive is the most common shot you play – fast and flat and utterly unbeatable if correctly placed. Nearness to the walls in any shot is brilliant, so if your drive sticks to the wall, and delivers fantastic length to the back of the court, leaving your opponent with no space to swing their rackets, then odds are it’s a winner.
Boasts are quite simply, brilliant and great fun to attempt. This is where you target the ball at either a side or back wall, so that it bounces off there to land on the front wall (as all shots must come off the front wall, with players alternating in hitting the shots). These can often be unexpected and hard to pull off so it’s so good when one works. They are very handy to play off the back wall if the previous shot has good length and leaves you in a bit of a tight corner. It will come off the back wall, bounce on the ground and then instead of trying to hit it forwards, you would hit it back at the back wall and perform a bit of a lob, so that it travels all the way to the front to hit the wall there.
Volleys are also in abundance and best done after a serve for fast results. Drops shots and gentle ones definitely have their uses, as it can be very difficult to run around each other. Lobs are great ‘get out of jail free’ shots, so to speak and work from either the front or the back.
Probably the most iffy thing about squash is deciding between lets and strokes. What makes squash different is that you don’t just have to watch yourself. It’s important to watch your opponent so that you can judge what shot they are going to perform next, but also to get out of their way. You cannot obstruct their line of vision or their opportunity of playing a shot and this is where it gets hazy. If you tried to get out of the way, for example moving to the side, but they still couldn’t take the shot because you were still too much in the way, then it would be a let and you re-play the point. A stroke is when you just don’t get out the way, and that is an instant point for them.
The best tactic when playing squash is domination of the T. The court floor markings show a general T shape and a smaller box in each of these halves, which is your service box. If you can get yourself to that centre part of the top of the T, then you are in prime position (only a couple of strides) from everywhere on court, meaning that you can place the ball wherever the other player isn’t, without too much stress to yourself.
With squash, there is no real defensive play – it’s very much an attacking sport full of vigour and competition and I tremble to think of what happens during doubles, as me and Jess accidentally whack each other with regularity in singles, resulting in some rather large bruises. Surprisingly, squash is not actually an Olympic sport, although it is vying for a spot in the 2020 games. Squash is incredibly intense and focused, and I often leave court sweating from the core and exhausted. Yes, it is a very physical game, but you have to use your noggin too and be aware of the intricate shots you can use to get out of problematic situations to get that ball to the front wall at all costs. I completely love it and think that everyone should try it just once. If nothing else, it beats a stress ball.