The Tournament of Champions recalls a history dating back to the 1930s. To follow the ToC’s path is to track the course of the sport itself, from the gentlemen’s game to the emergence of touring professionals to the heyday of hardball and battles between dueling world champions. The tournament then moved on to become dominated by international players, whose names we all now know: Khan, Power, Nicol, Shabana, Ashour, Gaultier and ElShorbagy.
This winter the ToC celebrated twenty years at Grand Central Terminal. Hosting the tournament at the largest train station in the world, in the largest city in the United States, draws a crowd, and while this much deserved attention alone is cause to celebrate, it’s also worth noting the remarkable progress squash has made during these last two decades.
Like US Squash itself in the 1990s, the ToC bumped around a bit before it found its footing. It shifted to softball in 1992. It shuffled around New York, from the Winter Garden to Grand Central to Brooklyn. But since 1999 it has annually been staged in Grand Central, and this stability has allowed the event to stretch its legs and gain some momentum. For instance, women compete on equal terms for equal prize money, adding to the list of names we now all know, such as David, El Welily and El Sherbini.
In the late 1990s, the American squash community focused on raising millions of dollars to convert courts from hardball to softball. The U.S. national champions in 1998 were Marty Clark, earning his third of four national singles titles, and Latasha Khan, earning her first of seven national singles titles. Both were among the earliest to make dents against the top professionals internationally, and neither had the benefit of any support from their national governing body. Clark, at the time, was even going to medical school.
Today, US Squash’s Elite Athlete Program program hires our top-ranked, full time professionals and collectively provides them several hundred thousand dollars of support annually.
College teams shifted to the international game in the mid-1990s. About fifty schools had teams. Now more than eighty schools have varsity or club programs, spanning twenty-three different athletic conferences and competing in some of the finest facilities found anywhere in the world.
Greg Zaff took advantage of the transition to softball (and the resulting available inventory of hardball singles courts) by starting an urban squash and education program in Boston. Twenty years later, nineteen programs work with 2,000 kids from underserved communities across the country, providing tutoring, mentoring, college prep and access to squash.
Twenty years ago, junior tournament directors mailed and faxed in their tournament results and rankings were calculated once at the end of each year. Today, scores are available in real-time around the world, ratings are calculated hourly and rankings updated on a weekly basis.
Twenty years ago not a single public high school had a squash program, and there was no national middle or high school championships. Now, the U.S. High School Championships is the largest squash tournament in the world, bringing together more than 180 teams, a quarter of which are from public schools.
Twenty years ago the future of squash doubles was far from certain. Some legitimately feared that the hardball game, singles and doubles alike, would disappear entirely. Today, more hardball doubles courts are added to the nation’s inventory each year, and the SDA Pro Tour has members representing eighteen countries and supports a schedule of events across the United States, Canada, and Mexico, with an aggregate purse of more than $500,000.
This progress makes us excited to imagine the course squash will take over the next twenty years.