Most weeknights, racquets line the walls outside the squash courts at Life Time Fitness in South Austin. A dozen or so players mill around, waiting their turn, and talk turns to past matches and unforgettable shots. Their conversations are punctuated by the high squeak of sneakers and the crash of balls and racquets against the walls.
Jesse Molina, a 45-year-old medical software salesman who plays pickup matches here four to five days a week, introduced his teenage boys to the game after he started playing in 2007.
"I played racquetball for 15 years," Molina said. "The first time I tried squash, I was hooked and did not look back."
Like racquetball, squash is played by two players with racquets and a ball in a court with four walls where each player tries to make the other miss, but ask a squash devotee for any more similarities and that is as far as it goes.
"Racquetball is squash in a rocking chair," said Alan Friedman, an English professor at the University of Texas and player for more than 40 years.
Squash players use longer, badmintonlike racquets with long necks and small faces to hit a Ping-Pong-sized ball that has very little bounce to it. The name of the game comes from the ball's ability to compress and, if not hit hard enough, die.
Simple enough, right? Not really.
Many players liken it to playing chess while running a marathon. In a five-game match, a top player can burn 1,500 calories and cover more than 16,000 feet, while thinking four to five shots ahead each time they strike the ball.
The sport has long been associated with elite clubs, prep schools and universities. The word alone can conjure up images of players wearing snug white shorts and pressed tennis sweaters, enjoying gin gimlets between games.
It is a gentleperson's game, but not the game of a gentle person. There is no bumping or jostling, no getting in the way of an opponent's next shot. Players must call fouls on themselves.
"You have to be competitive, but equally polite," said David Sosa, chairman of the philosophy department at UT and a squash player for more than 35 years. "You need the ability to stay cool and maintain civility even when the bullets are flying."
In Austin, access to the game was limited for a long time because the only courts available were at UT. But with the addition of Life Time Fitness facilities in Northwest and Southwest Austin, the number of courts has increased to nearly a dozen and the new locations give Austinites more playing options. (Both Life Time and UT require a gym membership to use their courts).
"Squash is one of the world's most challenging sports," said Don Murphy, the 58-year-old founder of the Austin Squash League and the city's sole squash professional. "It appeals to people who are fitness-oriented and enjoy a mental workout as well. Austin is a great place for squash because it is a fit city full of problem-solvers."
The city's first games were played in the basement of UT's Gregory Gym in handball courts. The university eventually built several squash-specific facilities, and although the number has fluctuated during the past several decades, there are currently seven courts available on campus.
UT President William Powers Jr. can be counted among the pool of players on campus.
"I love the game," said Powers, a longtime player who says he is not as able to get on the court as often as he would like. "There is a great tradition of squash at UT. It rewards endurance and strategy, and is a complete game in that sense."
Several of the university's past presidents enjoyed the sport, but perhaps none more than Norman Hackerman, who was a distinguished scholar and administrator and also a squash fanatic.
"You would get a call from the president's office," said Alan Cowley, who has taught chemistry at UT for nearly 50 years and was a longtime playing partner of Hackerman's. "And as a young professor, your first reaction was `What have I done?' So, it was a relief when you were told he would see you for a game."
Before he agreed to accept the post of president in 1967, Hackerman insisted on three conditions: that he be able to continue teaching an early morning undergraduate chemistry class, maintain his research laboratory and play squash every day at 5 p.m.
While UT has enjoyed a rich tradition of the sport, it has not always been easy to find elsewhere in Austin.
Don Murphy first moved from Sydney to be closer to his family in 2000, and had to take a long break from the game because he couldn't find any place to play locally.
Four years later, after meeting the coach of the UT squash club at a tournament in Houston, Murphy, who is also the owner of OZ E Squash, an online racquet store based in Austin, was invited to become an assistant.
"When I started coaching at UT in 2004, we would run special days to get more players involved and the club grew to 50 players during the 2006-2007 season," Murphy said.
In 2007, when players from UT began to play at Life Time Fitness because the location was more convenient, Murphy saw an opportunity to bring the squash community together, and he formed the Austin Squash League.
Twenty players signed up for the league's first season. The number of players signed up for the most recent season is more than 100.
The mix of people who play in the league includes transplants and locals, engineers and English majors. Many joined for the competition but found much more.
"Austin is a very supportive community that is both interesting and interested," said Eric Katerman, a 29-year-old who will receive his doctorate in mathematics from UT later this month. "When I got here, I felt like I immediately had a dozen squash buddies. Several of those turned into lasting friendships."
Both of Jesse Molina's boys, John and Patrick, also play in the league and often finish their matches smiling and winded.
"The first time Patrick played, he said he would never play again," Molina said. "But 10 minutes later, he wanted to know when the next games were."
In the past, squash players have come to Austin from overseas and the East Coast, but with the addition of the new facilities, a new crop of players native to Austin has emerged. The Molina boys are among two of the first.
"I just can not wait to get on the court," said John Molina, 15. "Squash is a challenge and a great workout. I think there is a big future for the sport in Austin."
Austin Squash League
Location: League matches are played at either Life Time Fitness Austin South (7101 S. MoPac Boulevard) or Austin North (13725 N. RM 620).
Times: Division 1 matches are played on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Division 2 matches are played on Wednesdays at 7 p.m.
Contact: Don Murphy - email@example.com - 512.990.0198
Season: Winter, Spring, Fall
Experience required: Two divisions allow for a range of abilities. When you contact Don to join the league, he'll `have a hit' with you to see where you fit. You need to wear safety goggles and white-soled sneakers on the courts.
Squash rackets, equipment and lessons in Austin
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