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Madness in an Unpadded Cell

Bob Capazzo

The two men enter the glass-backed cube of plaster and parquet at Greenwich Country Club’s Converse House and take turns smacking a ball against a wall. Ad men for the rest of the workday, they come here while their coworkers back at the office tuck into Caesar salads and meatball subs, entering a world all their own, of split-second reflexes, of microscopic margins between glory and pain.

The ball, an acorn-size sphere of hard black rubber, gains quickness and torque with every ricochet. As it attains speeds of over 100 miles per hour, the ball becomes harder to see while generating enough force to raise a welt, perhaps a blister, on exposed forearms and thighs. The racquets the men hold are tiny in comparison to those used in tennis but are built just as strong, with the same hard graphite edges that sting like a scimitar if you are clocked in the face by someone’s backswing, easy enough to do while jockeying for position in a small, confined space.

The striking thing about squash, that lends it its truly fearsome quality, is not the risk of injury but the intensity of play. Within a few minutes, faces are flush and sweaty. Grunts of frustration and pain echo off the Plexiglas. As the men run forward and back returning each other’s rockets and drop shots, trying simultaneously to allow each other a fair shot at the ball while vying for the T, the strategic, cross-stripe-demarcated center position from where one can dominate play, the squash court seems to shrink in size, like a phone booth where two Supermen fight for the same cape.

Bill Ridenour, lean and hearty at fifty, plays a tough game, but he’s less hooked on winning than the workout squash gives.

“I hate running,” Ridenour says. “For me, this is the thing, three times a week.”

Ridenour is winning this match, though. He usually does. The reigning men’s squash champion at Greenwich Country Club in both singles and doubles, he has been one of the club’s best players since joining the club in the 1980s. Back then, he remembers, Greenwich Country Club’s squash courts were dim, cold throwbacks to the days when squash still wore the trappings of its British boarding-school roots. Today the club’s courts, symbols of the sport’s growing stature, especially in Greenwich, are shimmering state-of-the-art affairs, built according to international standards of play.

“It’s a great workout thing, not just for the body but the mind,” says Rob Robben, Ridenour’s opponent, pausing a moment as he wipes his racquet handle dry. “You have to think ahead of your next shot all the time.”

Forty-two-year-old Robben is so into squash that, after toweling off from this match, he will be driving over the state line to the Apawamis Club in Rye for a doubles match. Unlike Ridenour, he is not a Greenwich Country Club member but rather a self-described “club nomad,” often found here or at Apawamis or else the Field Club or Round Hill Club, two other private Greenwich clubs with squash courts. He is even on visiting terms with some Greenwich residents who have courts in their houses.

Jack Farley doesn’t have a court in his house, but there is a handsome wall display in his living room at Indian Harbor that tells the history of the game, from the days it was played with wood racquets strung with catgut. Also a Greenwich Country Club member, Farley used to play as often as eight times a week, though he’s slowed down some. “I can’t get the hang of this soft ball,” he says, referring to the switch made in the mid-1990s when American players dropped the harder ball used in squash’s infancy for the softer variety now in use around the world.

Farley still considers himself an “avid enthusiast,” especially in January, when some of the world’s best squash players come to Greenwich to compete in a pair of simultaneously held tournaments, the North American Open for men’s doubles and the Greenwich Open for women’s singles. “Greenwich is a mecca, an epicenter of squash,”  says Farley. “It’s recognized around the world and strongly recognized in the USA.”

Leading the charge in that regard are two local private high schools, Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School. Each year, squash teams from both institutions compete with the best programs in the country for the women’s and men’s national titles. Earlier this year, the Brunswick boys lost in the finals, as did the Academy girls, who had won the national title in both 2005 and 2006. Alumni of both schools can be found in top college programs at Harvard, Princeton, Trinity and Yale. Stanford University boasts one of the only U.S. players to be ranked with the top 100 females in the game, Greenwich’s own Lily Lorentzen. And Charlie Tashjian, who was nationally ranked the No. 1 boys squash player under seventeen when he was at Brunswick and is now a junior at Trinity, won his second national title this past season. Add to that the growing number of top squash pros who come to Greenwich to play and teach, and the result is a town on the verge of achieving critical mass in a game dominated by cities like Philadelphia and Boston.

Kevin Klipstein, chief executive officer for US Squash, the organizing body behind the sport nationally, recently scanned his membership database and discovered Greenwich was fourth in the nation in card-carrying players, behind only New York, Philadelphia and Boston, in that order. “There’s a lot of critical mass in Greenwich,” he notes.

Squash has been played at the Round Hill Club since the 1920s, but there was a lull until recent years. Now the club’s three singles courts and one doubles court get plenty of action, especially on weekends and late afternoons.

“It really gets busy when kids get out of school,” club squash pro Steve Scharff explains. “We have sixty-five to eighty juniors play at least once a month, some of them five times a week.” He adds that nearly that many adult members of the club play squash, too, though not as intensely.

At the Field Club, where membership interest in racquets sports has always been high, squash never went out of style. Lester Cummings, a club pro and championship player from the 1930s to the 1960s, was a Field Club legend, once playing and beating an opponent while using a hairbrush for a racquet. Squash is more popular there today than ever, again with young people leading the charge.

“Our events are geared toward adults, but the clinics and lessons we do, 90 percent of those who come are kids,” says Rob Krizek, head pro at the Field Club. “On weekdays from three o’clock to eight o’clock, we have kids on the courts all the time, ranging in age from four to eighteen. One hundred and fifty kids play here. We had sixteen kids who went to the Junior Nationals last year.”

Greenwich Country Club’s squash pro, Jason Hicks, sees the same thing: “That’s the biggest phenomenon, the kids. I have 110 kids coming here playing squash at various times. I may have to change the way I run the youth program because of the high demand. I’m literally busting at the seams.”

What draws kids? Peter Briggs, winner of Greenwich’s North American Doubles championship in three different decades who teaches the game today, notes the lure of the “impact sport.”

“Tennis, golf, squash, crew and skiing are all sports that require big teams, and the best colleges happen to be most competitive in those sports and always on the lookout for good players,” he says. Briggs, an expert on the subject, is an alumnus of Harvard’s varsity team and today head squash pro at the Apawamis Club. He is credited by many as being a principal caretaker of the game in and around Greenwich, his childhood home where he learned the game at the Field Club under the direction of Jack Stephens, current coach of the Brunswick boys’ team. In the 1990s, as the school ramped up its squash program, Briggs was Stephens’s assistant coach. In 2006, Forbes dubbed Briggs the "Bollettieri of squash,” a reference to the tennis guru who tutored Andre Agassi and other legends of that sport.

Briggs’s commitment to the game can best be measured by his decision to leave the trading desk at Kidder, Peabody in the 1980s to take up his sideline passion for squash full-time. He views himself as “a life-lesson coach.” That is evident at the squash courts at Apawamis, where placards around the outer hallway stress sportsmanship and positive thinking.

“The reason squash is interesting is because it is in an enclosed setting,” Briggs explains. “Anytime you are outdoors, the intensity of competition is diffused. You can look around you in tennis, see the birds in the trees between points. In squash, you are in a white room. It’s like a boxing match, where we tie our ankles together at the T. Also, we are in a fishbowl. There’s nowhere for me to hide after I make a bad mistake. For kids, squash is a very intense arena.”

Briggs sees the game as a character builder for young people, the way it was for him at Harvard under the tutelage of legendary squash coach Jack Barnaby. His words of wonder for Barnaby’s memory are eerily echoed about him by the young women who today make up the Greenwich Academy team, many of whom have played under Briggs’s patient, watchful eye at national championships.

“He’s so much more than a coach; he’s a mentor,” says Natasha Kingshott, a junior who last season was ranked No. 3 among all female players in US Squash’s under-nineteen-years-old bracket.

Kingshott’s teammates Alex Burnett and Clare Berner, both seniors on the Academy team, first met Briggs at Apawamis, where their families belong. “I can’t remember playing squash without him being there,” Clare says.

“He knows how to make it personal,” Alex adds. “He relates what he tells you to how you play.”

Other Academy players cite Briggs’s expertise: “He’s a technician,” junior Katie Harrison notes. “His style is different with every player. He adjusts to everyone’s personality.”

“When I went to Nationals the first time he coached me, I was a little nervous,” explains sophomore Meredith Schmidt-Fellner. “In the middle of the match, I was freaking out, and he took me aside and talked to me until I calmed down. He focuses you and gives you things you can do that work.”

Meredith’s mother Karen has been the Academy’s squash coach for thirteen years. She has overseen the team’s run of eleven consecutive New England championships, as well as two national titles. Ask Coach Karen what she’s proudest of and she points to the fact that her ’06 team won not only the national title but also an award, voted on by all tournament participants, for good sportsmanship.

“How many winners get the sportsmanship award?” Karen asks. “It’s because our players try to be good people as well as good players on the court.”

At Brunswick, Jack Stephens has been head coach since 1985. In the beginning, Stephens says, “we were bad. Back then, Greenwich was a hockey town.” That slowly began changing in the 1990s, as the school began placing more emphasis on squash and the program had some winning seasons. With no courts of its own, the school played at the Field Club and later, Sportsplex in Stamford. They endured entire seasons of being the “away” team.

Still, Brunswick scored impressive gains, both on squash courts and with college placements. “A lot of kids got into good colleges,” Stephens remembers. “A lot of kids got into Division I colleges. Our first big placement got into Dartmouth in 1989.”

In the 1990s the legendary young William Broadbent blazed a career as a junior player. Winner of fourteen juniors titles, Broadbent led the varsity team in 1996 to its first of seven New England titles. At the time he was a sixth-grader at Brunswick’s Middle School. Two years later, still a middle schooler, Broadbent was elected captain by his teammates.

“He played varsity squash for seven years,” Stephens recalls. “There’s no other kid in the U.S. who ever played a varsity sport in the sixth grade. And he didn’t lose a match to anybody.”

By the time Broadbent was a senior, in 2002, Brunswick had another impressive weapon in its arsenal: the Sampson Athletic Center on King Street. Brunswick-built and owned, with eight squash courts, the facility gives Stephens room to train both first- and second-varsity teams as well as a junior varsity team. The second-varsity team also played in a national championship last season, for second-division school programs, but lost in the finals.

Such a volume of effort has led to another set of impressive results: Fourteen Brunswick grads played on collegiate Division I squash programs in the 2006–2007 season.

“People say I’m in trouble because all my first-team players graduated,” Stephens says, eyes alight. “But that’s why I have a second team, guys who went to the Nationals last year, too. They are seasoned — and hungry.”

At both Brunswick and the Academy, there are walls of photographs of former champions, rosters to look up to, which can make the experience of playing for the teams both inspiring and daunting. The girls readily tick off names like Lily Lorentzen, Christina Fast and William Broadbent’s sister Avery. “All the stories you hear,” Clare Berner muses, “about the players who have been here and done so much for the school … you want to be on the squash court all the time because of it.”

Amanda Siebert never played for the Academy’s squash team, but she’s a GA squash legacy all the same. A graduate of the school in 2006, she spent her Academy years focusing on individual training with the renowned pro Chris Walker, an area resident, as well as other seasoned adults, like that amiable nomad Rob Robben.

In 2006, Amanda was ranked No. 1 among women in the under-nineteen category, and last season was a freshman on Princeton’s varsity team, 2007 national champions. Two other members of that team, Kaitlin Sennatt of the Academy and Anne Erdman of the Groton School, also hail from Greenwich. Jason Hicks of Greenwich Country Club calls Siebert “the epitome of what squash offers Greenwich youth.”

“Some people like playing squash and just having fun,” Amanda says. “I like to be serious and intense. If I had gone to a college where the practices were light and fluffy, I’d feel it was a waste of time. But at Princeton, our team wanted it so badly, each practice was so intense, that I got so much out of it. I like the pressure of the goal to win the national title. The motivation for this year is to do it again.”

What is it about Greenwich that makes squash so vital? Is it a yen for competition, what Jim Stephens calls “the Greenwich psyche”? It’s a sport, he says, that “condenses and concentrates, distills and refines. It exposes your character like an X-ray exposes your bones. It is madness in an unpadded cell.”

Clearly it’s a sport that spits out quitters and the feckless with merciless dispatch, but describing squash as a pastime for double-A personalities misses a larger point.

“Squash is the last bastion for sportsmanship,” Jack Farley insists. “If there’s any cussing or foul language on the court, you get a warning. The second time, you forfeit the match. Anything unsportsmanlike, the other guy can call it.”

Back at the Converse House, Ridenour and Robben are locked in a 7–7 tie. The match has had its showy share of nicks (shots hitting the join between wall and floor, probably the most difficult shots to hit with consistency), rails (shots that hang so close to a sidewall while rebounding that one cannot return them cleanly without smacking one’s racquet against the wall) and boasts (backhand returns that go at a forty-five-degree angle from one sidewall to the front wall and then onto the other sidewall, leaving the other player in an awkward position, to say the least).

Robben finally has the hang of Ridenour’s signature drop shot, one that deadens the ball’s motion on a dime and forces a player on his heels to charge the front wall before the ball can bounce a second time, finishing the point. Victory is in sight.

Robben hits a return that comes right back to him. He gets out of the way late. Even before Ridenour moves in, Robben calls out a single word — Let — in essence awarding the go-ahead point to Ridenour.

On the next point, Ridenour catches Robben leaning forward, awaiting another killer drop. Ridenour smacks the bejesus out of the ball instead. It flies just beyond Robben’s left shoulder, away from his racquet hand, and bounces first off a sidewall and then the Plexiglas backing, by which point it had as much velocity as a falling leaf. Game over. “Ahh! Great length!” grunts Robben.

His enthusiasm sounds genuine because it is. Later, asked whether squash with its let calls and other subjective technicalities is a special favorite among lawyers, both men laugh and shake their heads. “There are some people who can get downright obnoxious about it,” Robben notes. “They are the ones who have a hard time getting a game, though. No one wants to play with them.”

“They are the ones who are going to be playing with the pros full-time,” adds Ridenour. “And they pay for that.”

Peter Briggs, meanwhile, is enthusiastic about a new program he is helping get off the ground: CitySquash. Based out of Fordham University in the Bronx, CitySquash is designed to bring squasht o inner-city children and help the game shed its elitist image. Briggs believes the United States will never advance to the next level in world squash without broad national outreach. Meanwhile, he sees the game imparting to people young and old the same lessons it taught him.

“Like all sports, it’s essentially therapeutic,” he notes. “It’s good for dealing with mental-health pressures. It’s good for building self-esteem. It’s good to compare your skills and proficiencies against someone else’s. Lose, and it makes you work harder. Win, and you learn to win with grace.”