A history of squash that’s as lively and well paced as the game itself . . . used to be.
It all started with bored medieval European monks who took pleasure in bouncing a ball off the inside corner of a monastery wall, writes journalist and expert player Zug. This game called “racquets”—and its many variants, from court tennis to fives—moved on to become a plaything of the French and English aristocracy (true courts were pricey affairs). A rude form was also played by prisoners and common folk, but what we now call squash was to become, some 150 years ago, the child of private schools like St. Paul’s and tony universities in the Ivy League. (Dartmouth squash captain Zug’s mostly enthusiastic writing occasionally bears witness to that pedigree, with its “contumacious preferences” and “rodomontade eccentricities.”) This sprightly social history of the game also contains good descriptive material on playing styles, from the finesse players who concentrated “on precision of stroke and nicety of placing” to sparkling brutalists like Vic Niederhoffer, as well as fine-line profiles of the sport’s temples (Randolph at Harvard, Merion in Pennsylvania) and its absurdly brilliant players (Hashim Khan, Alicia McConnell, Mark Talbott). Zug is also adept with atmosphere, whether he is praising the composed prowess and humility of great players, or recreating historic matches blow by blow. But he’s perhaps best at tracing the game’s evolution from India rubber balls, bamboo racquets, and granite cages to today’s titanium shafts and glass walls. He ends on a down note, with the sport’s governing body adopting a softer ball, a boon for the aerobics, notes Zug, but death to the “the maverick players and quirky clubs” that thrived on the little nuclear pinball, which ricocheted “like bees shaken in a jar.”
With its narrative vivacity and wealth of historical settings, this classy piece of sports writing is not just for squash nuts.