Quick serve: Where did the game of squash come from? - Hindustan Times
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Quick serve: Where did the game of squash come from?

ByRudraneil SenguptaRudraneil Sengupta
Mar 22, 2024 07:11 PM IST

It can be traced to France 1,000 years ago, then a London prison. See how it evolved and spread to colonised countries, which are home to its best players today

Nearly all racquet sports can trace their history to a rudimentary children’s game from France called jeu de paume (game of the palm), that dates back about 1,000 years.

Sunayna Kuruvilla wins a semi-final during the 2019 National Squash Championship in Pune. India has a long history with the sport. One of the first squash courts built outside Europe came up at the Bombay Gymkhana in the 1880s. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
Sunayna Kuruvilla wins a semi-final during the 2019 National Squash Championship in Pune. India has a long history with the sport. One of the first squash courts built outside Europe came up at the Bombay Gymkhana in the 1880s. (HT Archives)

This game involved slapping a ball made of leather or cloth against a wall or doorway, without letting it drop to the ground. New versions evolved, including ones in which people played across a net (favoured by the nobility and royalty) and ones in which the aim was for the ball to hit the body of the other player.

The game was elevated in the Netherlands, when the racquet was invented there in the 15th century. As it raged through Europe in new forms, common folk played wherever there was a wall, monks in cloistered courtyards, and kings and queens in purpose-built courts.

By the 17th century, rules were being codified, and jeu de paume turned into games such as lawn tennis and paddleball.

Then, in the early 18th century, inmates at London’s Fleet Prison invented a game they called Racquets. It was played with a hard, zipping ball made of wood. By 1845, the invention of vulcanisation made rubber balls available, and boys at the English public school Harrow substituted the wooden ball with a rubber one. They called their version Baby Racquets and, eventually, Squash.

Like many games invented in England and popularised across colonial territories, former British colonies dominate the sport.

The world’s greatest male squash player today is Pakistan’s Jahangir Khan, a six-time world champion who was unbeaten for five years (the game’s longest such streak). Its greatest female player is Malaysia’s Datuk Nicol David, who has won the world championship a record eight times. The country that rules over all others in the game is Egypt; six of the last seven men’s world championship finals have been all-Egyptian, and among women, Nour El Sherbini is only one behind David’s record of eight world titles and well on course to beat it.

Squash championships, meanwhile, can now look rather other-worldly. Tournament courts for squash are made entirely of glass and can be portable. This has allowed the game to be played in remarkable locations. In 2019-20, for instance, the PSA Women’s World Championship was played in a transparent arena placed in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza.

At LA 2028, perhaps squash courts will be plonked on the Santa Monica Pier. It’s finally game on

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