The Chemistry of Squash

What a racket—giving urban kids a shot a premier prep schools

In 2004, Tim Wyant, who earned all-American honors in squash each of his four years at Harvard and played the international professional squash circuit for two years, visited M.S. 45, a Bronx middle school, to talk about the sport with a sixth-grade class.

M.S. 45 is housed in an old brick building on the northern edge of Little Italy, near Fordham Road. The school's population is largely immigrant and 70 percent Latino. Ninety percent of its students qualify for the federal free-lunch program. Fewer than 50 percent of its eighth-graders meet New York State standards in language arts.

Twelve-year-old Chris Fernandez, whose family moved from the Dominican Republic when he was nine, decided after hearing Wyant speak that he'd rather sleep in than go to the first-round tryouts for CitySquash, an after-school squash and academic-enrichment program Wyant has run since 2002. The tryouts were scheduled for 8:30 on a Saturday morning. But his two best friends knocked on the door of his family's apartment on Morris Avenue, near the Grand Councourse, and convinced him to join them.

Chris Fernandez swings his way out of the Bronx.
photo: CitySquash
Chris Fernandez swings his way out of the Bronx.

One hundred and eleven M.S. 45 sixth-graders tried out for just 10 spots on the CitySquash squad that year, making the odds of joining the program as steep as they are for admissions at a top Ivy League college.

The notion of teaching the fundamentals of squash to a Dominican kid in the Bronx who's obsessed with Mets shortstop Jose Reyes might seem incongruous, but "urban" squash programs are now pervasive. There are established programs in Roxbury, Massachusetts (SquashBusters); Harlem (StreetSquash); Philadelphia (SquashSmarts, which just opened a $10 million squash facility in North Philadelphia); and on Chicago's South Side (MetroSquash); and smaller ones in Minneapolis (SquashScholars); San Diego (Surf City Squash); New Haven, Connecticut (Squash Haven); and two in Washington, D.C. (D.C. Squash Academy and Squash Empower). The father of the urban squash movement is Greg Zaff, a former top player at Williams College who began SquashBusters in 1995. Zaff envisioned squash as a "fun hook" that would attract children to a program emphasizing academic and social development as much as athletics.

The demographics of urban squash programs, of course, contrast starkly with those of squash at large. Developed in the 1830s at the Harrow School, a public school in London, squash was first played in the United States at St. Paul's School, a prominent boarding school in New Hampshire. Alumni of boarding schools brought the sport to country clubs, and elite boarding schools and country clubs are still the bulwark of the sport in the United States. Most junior squash tournaments are hosted either by schools or country clubs.

Wyant, who is 30, has short-cropped brown hair and a sinewy build born of 25 years of playing squash. He grew up in Cincinnati, far from squash's Northeastern epicenter, which gave him a taste of being an outsider to the squash establishment; when he played in tournaments in Northeastern cities, he stayed with squash booster families to cut down on his own family's travel costs. Wyant was a consistent volunteer for SquashBusters while he was at Harvard, and he now lives in the Bronx.

He frets over how to maximize the benefits of the exchange between his nontraditional players and the old-school squash world. He doesn't just want to bring urban kids to get whipped by kids who have been exposed to the sport longer. And he also doesn't want those urban kids to be intimidated by their new surroundings.

"We go to Harvard for a tournament every spring," Wyant says. "I can see when I walk around on a campus tour that our students with B-plus and A averages are looking around with a keener interest at the campus than students of ours who struggle in school. For students who are top performers, visiting those places serves to motivate them to a greater degree to continue working hard, whereas there's such a gap between where lower-performing students are and where they need to be to go there—it's fantasy. It's not realistic to take a kid with a 75 average at an inner-city pub school and say you could go to the Ivy League someday."

Racket man: Tim Wyant
photo: Alana Cundy
CitySquash's tryouts occur over a period of three months and, for late-round candidates, involve conversations with parents and teachers; but sometimes, when Wyant watches a child with a natural talent at a first-round tryout, that necessary rigor can dissolve. At one of the boys' first-round tryouts last September, Wyant emerged from a court where he'd observed a sixth-grader named Miguel, a lanky baseball fanatic who wore yellow-and-black Nikes and a left-arm cast decorated with friends' signatures. Wyant was smiling and brandishing his clipboard, where he'd written a note: "Freakin' great! Let's hope he gives a damn about school!"

Wyant had a similar reaction the first time he stood on a squash court with Fernandez, who impressed him as a "superb athlete." But Fernandez was not a dedicated student. Courtney Knowlton, CitySquash's former director of placement, remembers him in sixth grade as "a real middle-school guy who cared about baseball and making everyone love him much more than he cared about school." His first semester in sixth grade, Fernandez posted a 75 percent average. Wyant decided to admit Fernandez into the program in spite of his low grades. "He had a certain magnetism," Wyant says. "And he was the kind of kid—terrific athlete, girls like him—who could get away with being a jerk if he wanted, yet he didn't speak ill of anybody."

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