You Don't Know Squash: Tournament of Champions in NYC

Jonathan Zeller

It takes a lot to slow down NYC commuters, but plopping a squash court in the middle of Grand Central Terminal might do the trick. Enter the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions, which takes place at the historic transit hub January 22–28. Played on a brightly lit, glass-enclosed court in Grand Central's sprawling Vanderbilt Hall, the tournament looks like a combination of the US Open and the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue. Each year it draws 150,000 onlookers who have the option of watching from paid seats behind and alongside the court, or standing for free along the front glass wall.

To brief novices on what to expect, we've recruited Australian squash star David Palmer. Below, he serves up helpful tips on the tournament, recreational squash and how to use the game's lessons off the court.

Buy a Seat
You can watch the Tournament of Champions for free, but Palmer says it's even better for beginners to buy a seat and observe the action with the players' backs to them. Watching the athletes fling themselves around the small boxed-in court, crossing in front of one another as a tiny ball ricochets around "probably looks crazy through the front wall," Palmer reasons. When he sits behind the court with a novice, "it's much easier to explain the game," Palmer says.

Seasoned squash fans, on the other hand, might want to give the free view a whirl. "Looking through the front wall is pretty exciting for a squash enthusiast who knows the game," he says, explaining that it's a perspective that's not usually available.

Know the Strategy
Palmer calls squash "an attritional grind" during which players fight to maintain physical and mental stamina. They endure long, demanding rallies peppered with "drives" or "rails" (straight shots played off the front wall) and "boasts" (angled shots played off the side walls) while waiting for the perfect moment to hit a deep shot, get a loose ball and finish a point. It's like a marathon wrapped in a tennis match. Thus, the fittest player on the court has a pronounced advantage, and each competitor is determined to make the other cover more court. By staying close to the "T" at mid-court and hitting the ball away from their rivals, players can gain an edge over the long haul. That's why they return to the "T" after every shot.

Squash has sped up recently with tweaks to the court dimensions and scoring system. Palmer says that today's players, like world number-one Ramy Ashour, are skilled at more aggressive play and "attack a lot earlier in the rallies." This often results in shorter games that are more convenient for the Grand Central audience—45 minutes as opposed to, say, two hours. Still, intense focus, hearty stamina and quick reflexes remain essential to victory.

Get Schooled
Squash may have been TV character Dr. Frasier Crane's workout of choice, but it's not just for radio psychiatrists, private school students and British gentry, as some might think.

"It really is a worldwide sport," says Palmer. The Professional Squash Association's 50 top-ranked players hail from 20 different countries. "The Egyptians are booming at the moment," Palmer continues, with three of the top five. Pakistani players dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, and today's rankings include players from Australia, France, Malaysia and beyond. Even Trinity College's unprecedented 11-year NCAA championship winning streak has been built largely on overseas recruiting; according to ESPN, the 76 players involved in that dynasty hail from 15 different countries.

Squash Your Stress
Like its vegetable cousin, the sport of squash is good for you. In fact, Forbes magazine once named the game number one on its list of 10 healthiest sports. "Squash is about being in control of your body and your mind," Palmer explains, so it's a perfect "stress reliever from the hectic New York lifestyle."

For New Yorkers who want to get into the game, Palmer recommends the CityView Racquet Club in Long Island City. Many New York Sports Club locations throughout the City also boast courts, as do some YMCAs.

Get Set
Now you know what all the—ahem—racket is in Grand Central, so swing by the tournament. Whether you're just passing through or want to buy a ticket and spend the day, it's well worth waiting for the next train home.