In the United States, professional squash flies under the radar. You won’t read about it in the sports sections of newspapers or see matches on TV. Its status is, on a smaller scale, like pro soccer’s—it’s an international party, but America’s invitation got lost in the mail. The world’s top 25 men’s players hail from 12 different countries—everywhere from Colombia to Botswana to India to Switzerland. The only two continents not represented are Antarctica and North America.
But, like with soccer, Americans in growing numbers are realizing that squash at the highest level is a beautiful game. When the World Championships take place this November in Bellevue, Washington, it’s going to be a landmark for the sport. For the first time ever, the biggest event in the world of squash will be played on U.S. soil.
If you’re a recreational player who has never seen a pro match, prepare to have your mind blown. Squash was famously named the world’s healthiest sport by Forbes magazine, and when it’s played at the highest level you end up with some of the fittest athletes in the world being pressed to their absolute limits. Elite squash players have to bring every athletic faculty with them onto court: strength, speed, endurance, dexterity, and savvy are all mandatory for success. No one ever wins simply by blowing his opponent away in one facet of the game.
For spectators, watching a pro squash match is like watching a boxing prize fight, minus the blood and concussions. With the glass courts used in major tournaments, onlookers surround the two opponents as they duke it out, testing each other, searching for any sign of weakness to exploit. Like flurries of punches, long rallies in the first game may not show their full impact until four games later, when the players are pushed to the point of exhaustion and beyond.
If you’re lucky enough to be in attendance, you can’t help but get caught up in the intensity of the scene. The space at the Meydenbauer Convention Center in Bellevue is a classic setting for a squash tournament: it’s large enough to foster a lively, festival-like atmosphere, but intimate enough to give onlookers an up-close view. It will be a rare opportunity to see world-class athletes in action from only a few feet away.
If you’re unfamiliar with the world of pro squash, you’re likely to be wondering how the tour works. Where do the players come from, and what do they do for the rest of the year? Here are a few of the details.
Men’s Professional Squash: The PSA
The world of men’s pro squash is overseen by the Professional Squash Association—the PSA. Squash originated in England, and its English roots remain strong: the PSA’s home office is in Leeds, and the top executives, former players Alex Gough and Lee Beachill, are both Brits.
About 500 players are PSA members. As noted earlier, in terms of geography it’s a diverse group, but over the decades there have been periods of dominance by different nationalities, including Pakistanis, English, and Australians. Right now it’s Egypt’s time, and it may remain that way for a while. The #1 ranked player, Mohammed Elshorbagy, and the reigning World Champion, Ramy Ashour, are both Egyptians, as are eight out the last ten world junior champions.
The lower echelons of PSA players consist of part-time pros who take part primarily in smaller regional tournaments. Players ranked in the top 150 or so make competitive squash their livelihood, though some just barely pull it off, supplementing their tournament winnings with exhibition matches, funding from government sports federations, and coaching in the off-season at squash camps. The group ranked from about 50 to 150 is a mix of ambitious young men, some still in their teens, and older players fighting against the possibility that their talent isn’t quite enough to place them in the game’s highest tier.
Squash’s elite players—those in the top 50—make up a traveling troupe that circles the globe battling it out in the marquee events. They maintain fierce rivalries and work incessantly with coaches and trainers to find a winning edge. These are the guys you’ll see putting their talents on display at the World Championships. Among them about a dozen are the game’s superstars—transcendent talents who, on any given day, could step on the court and be the best player in the world.
On the men’s tour a major tournament, designated a World Series event by the PSA, has total prize money of $150,000 or more. The longest-running and most prestigious of these—second only in significance to the World Championship—is the British Open, which is often described as the Wimbledon of squash. Other World Series sites include Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, and Hong Kong. Three World Series events are played in the U.S.: the Tournament of Champions in New York, the Windy City Open in Chicago, and the U.S. Open in Philadelphia. Beyond the World Series, the tour consists of over 100 smaller tournaments a year played in venues all over the world, with prize money ranging from $100,000 to $5,000.
The season comes to a head at the World Championships, the biggest annual event, held at a different location every year. This year’s tournament in Bellevue will be the richest in the history of the game, with a purse of $350,000. With pride and unprecedented prize money at stake, the players are going to put on an incredible show.