“Squash, that’s not exercise—it’s flagellation,” says Noel Coward. The inimitable English playwright and composer is well known for, as Time says, his “cheek, and chic, pose and poise” style and dry wit. This quote, though, popped up when I researched a sport that deserves mention: the very English racket sport, “squash.” Although I couldn’t ﬁnd information that Mr. Coward ever played rackets (as they would say), he did mention it a few times in his plays, comedies, and one-liners.
More things that get you going:
I played squash in my teens until my early working years, and I was never really good at it. I played because I was part of the tribe that thought The Preppy Handbook was cool, and everything remotely British was amazing. Yet it was a very good workout. And the beer that came after was extremely cold.
It was much like being a mosquito in a bottle, trying to make its way out. I played when I was at my heaviest. My opponent was more worried about me crashing into him with my heft and literally squashing him, rather than actually losing the set. What’s the sense in keeping a small rubber ball--the size of a golf ball--which has practically no bounce in play for an extended rally, running on all four walls for a point? I don’t know, but I actually enjoyed the rush.
Athletics is really about trends, and some tend to fade away and become, well, pointless. But I can’t say that about squash. This sport is storied. Like its more famous cousin, tennis, the sport dates from the sixteenth century. The rackets were made not to hit a ball over nets, but for hitting a softer ball through walls. The sport, and its requisite courts, began to work its way across the pond to the United States in the 1900s, with even the Titanic having a court in ﬁrst class.
I grew up with names like Jonah Barrington, and Jahangir and Jansher Khan. Jahangir is to squash as Pele or Maradona are to soccer. (This is really contestable, I know, but I am from that era!) The sport came to the Philippines in the 1970s, with the ﬁrst-ever squash court and gallery built at the Manila Boat Club. The Boat Club (yes, real rowing, on the Pasig, and not in a studio), is the oldest membership club in the country. Lou Gopal, in his blog, Manila Nostalgia, writes: “The Manila Boat Club, once aﬃliated with the Manila Club (a.k.a. the English Club) founded in 1873, was located on the northern bank of the Pasig just up-river from the Nagtahan Bridge. The club then moved to another location, being the Ynchausti Estate on M.H. Del Pilar… And eventually to its spot in Santa Ana.”
Crew, or rowing, was popular during the period of the Commonwealth, till right before the war. Many of the British expatriates spent time reliving their times on the Henley on the Pasig. As the war in the Paciﬁc broke out, many Brits and their kindred crew ﬂed to Singapore. There are conﬂicting stories on what happened to the club during the Japanese occupation, but we know that postwar, it was in ruins.
The club, as it stands today, was rebuilt from the destruction of postwar Manila, and the wooden structure overlooking the banks of the Pasig is very much how it was when it was rebuilt in the 1950s. The club is actually a skip and hop from what is now known as the Circuit Ayala. A row down the Pasig to Guadalupe gives you a view of a metropolis on the go.
I was often asked if the river smelled, or if it was dirty. My answer to both is yes, to an extent. During my time at the ABS-CBN Foundation, we spent a lot of time cleaning the estuaries that lead to the river. That’s the real culprit, and the water’s smell depended on the time of day. But in my years of rowing, I have never fallen in. I know many who have, and it isn’t pretty. I have seen quite a lot of strange things in the water, too surreal to write about. But there is so much fun being on the water and getting into the rhythm.
Today, there are only 29 active members of the Boat Club. And it was squash that put the Boat Club on the map in the heady 70s. Membership grew to over 300, and with it came the revival of crew. The club, with a very large expat vibe, brought back memories of the old days. But like all things, the new takes over. If you were a pioneer squash player, you must have played in those historic courts.
I actually remember playing my first squash game at the Boat Club. We had to wait our turn because there were only two courts, and it was exhilarating to play. Over time, Polo built their own courts, and then came Makati Sports with fully air-conditioned ones. The demand was so high that they converted the pelota courts to squash as well.
Valle Verde Country Club was also a nexus of squash play, and the sport took a life of its own. And in the south, the offshoot of the original British Club, was the rugby-driven Nomads, where everything is fun.
Access to a court, though, is what keeps the game quite exclusive. But then again, there is the old Boat Club where you can get in a game, watch the river, and enjoy a cold beer.
I think picking up the game isn’t as difficult as it is in other sports. You can keep to your pace, and with a trainer, such as Ricky Paganpan at the Boat Club (he is also the bartender) you can begin with all the basic drills to get you in the loop. You will need a racket, which you can pick up at any sports shop, and the price is really up to how fancy you want to go. Or find a friend who has a racket lying around the bodega. You don’t need to get into a catsuit to play--the looser the better--just remember that you will be running around, and sweating.
Focus and intensity
So, why do it at all?
Because it is a game of mental astuteness. Just as in all British-inspired sports, there is a sense of aplomb and gentility. You don’t get into a slugfest at the first tee at St. Andrews or in a mouthing rage at an umpire at Wimbledon. It is a test of mettle.
Depending on skill, squash is a brutal test of stamina and willpower, and perhaps the best 45-minute workout you’ll ever experience (a half-hour of vigorous squash can burn up to 500 calories). In other words, it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Squash is played in a small square court, and consists of hitting a ball against the 15-foot-high front wall. When you see squash for the first time, you might think, “How hard can that be?” When you play it for the first time, and your lungs and thighs are burning after five minutes, you’ll have your answer. It uses every muscle, trust me.
The reason squash is so physically demanding is because it is played with a squishy ball that is hard to put away. It is possible to hit outright winners, kill shots that catch the front corner just above the tin (the 19-inch-high metal strip that runs along the bottom of the front wall and above which the ball must be hit) and roll dead. I crashed into my own racket one time and cracked it. My playing coach had a twisted ankle because I rolled over him. By the way, he is one of the coaches of our national team, Jun Paganpan. You get the drift.
You don’t have to be a harsh player to kill your opponent; the key is mastering the ball placement. I played with a 60-year-old that didn’t “flash” the ball on all four walls. You know, he just let the ball hit the front of the court so lightly that running to it from the back of the court seemed like a marathon to forever.
Squash requires focus and drills. It is about being able to replay the shot over and over, and manage the pace of the play. It’s really keeping an eye on the ball, and thinking of what your opponent will do.
Just remember that after your first game your butt and your legs will hurt, and your lungs may need an extra puff from that inhaler; or if you ran like a mad man in such a small place, you will feel the pangs of claustrophobia.
Yes, squash may be like flagellation. But that’s why we do it. It would be pointless if it weren’t difficult. It is a gentle reminder that battles are won with a stiff upper lip, and a cold beer.
Metro Society Vol 15 No 10 October 2018