Like many teenage boys, Timmy Brownell grew up playing soccer and baseball. Because his father played hockey, Brownell played hockey. But Brownell’s mother, Christina, played and coached squash, so he also spent considerable time with a racket in his left hand.
“I’ve been around squash since as long as I can remember,” said the 17-year-old Belmont resident. “I probably played my first tournament when I was 10 years old.”
Brownell was intrigued by the game’s compelling mix of speed, skill, and strategy. “Squash takes a bit of everything,” he said. “You just can’t be a brute and run around the court. You need a really strong mental game.
“People call it ‘chess on legs,’ ” Brownell added. “There are so many things you can do, and if you do the wrong thing, you’re going to get hurt.”
When Brownell entered Belmont Hill School as a seventh-grader, he was faced with a decision.
“You can’t play two sports during the winter,” said Brownell, now a junior at Belmont Hill, “but by seventh grade, I was pretty good’’ at squash.
“In fourth, fifth grade, I wasn’t great. But I knew I liked the game a lot, and I knew I liked it better than hockey by seventh grade.”
Brownell made a wise choice. Last month, he won the U-19 draw of the US Junior Open, defeating France’s Auguste Dussourd in a five-game final held at Yale University.
“Yeah, it was a big win. Not many American kids win that one,” said Brownell. Dussourd “is top 10 in the world for juniors. I was not supposed to beat him.”
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Squash has a reputation, considered by many to be the upper-crust cousin of tennis and racquetball.
“I totally understand the stigma that might be attached to it,” said Paul Mathieson , a 30-year-old former professional squash player. “But because the sport is growing, I think it’s allowing people better access. It’s definitely getting better.”
“Tennis used to have that kind of stigma a long time ago,” he said. “Golf, too.”
Today, squash is flourishing locally. Programs like those at Dover Squash & Fitness in Natick, where Mathieson has been the head squash professional since 2008, have helped.
“When I first started at Dover, as the single pro, I had about 30 students,” said Mathieson. “We now have 200-plus students. To go from 30 students to 200 is huge increase in a game like squash in a single facility.
“The sport in Massachusetts is growing dramatically, because there are more high schools that are playing, and more colleges that are playing squash,” he said. “I’ve had to hire four assistant pros to take on the demand.”
Ripley Hastings, president of Massachusetts Squash, said junior programs are exploding.
“There have never been so many junior tournaments around the country, and the junior squash round-robins that the Massachusetts Squash Junior Committee runs over at Harvard continue to introduce new players to the sport in ever-increasing numbers.”
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Like Brownell, Mathieson grew up playing squash. In England, where he was raised, squash was more available to the general public because it was offered at a number of “leisure clubs,” he said.
In 2008, Mahmud Jafri, owner of Dover Squash & Fitness, established the Dover Squash Academy and hired Mathieson to direct the program.
One key to the success at Dover Squash is that the club accepts all ability levels, not solely accomplished players, said Mathieson. The sport is gaining traction, he said, because it offers a tremendous workout.
“There’s very little dead time, or lag time,” he said. “It’s not just physical. It’s not just mental. It’s got a great balance of both. You’ve got to be fairly quick, agile, flexible, and powerful.
“You’ve also got to be also quick-thinking on your feet,” Mathieson said. “You’ve got to think very quickly what you’re going to do in the moment, but also what you might do next game from now.”
With only 90 seconds between games, players can barely catch their breath, so there’s also a premium on cardiovascular fitness.
“If you’re just looking for a recreational game, you can always find people to just play for fun,” said Brownell. “But you can take it as far as you want. That’s what I find really cool about it. If you want, squash pushes you so hard. There aren’t many sports that can really push you that hard, and I’ve played them all.”
Squash is played indoors on walled courts, typically 32 feet long by 21 feet wide. Squash rackets have long, thin necks. The biggest difference is unquestionably the less-lively ball.
“The ball in racquetball is like a tennis ball. In squash, you can drop it, and it might bounce only three or four inches off the ground,” he said. “So you need to be very quick before it bounces, because in squash you have to play it on one bounce. Like tennis, if it bounces twice, you lose the point. ”
The sport attracts athletes of all ages. “We’ve got players 5 to 80,” said Mathieson. “That’s our range.”
Squash is played year-round, though the scholastic season runs November through March. The majority of junior players still come from private schools and colleges, but Mathieson said his goal is to see the sport accepted at all socioeconomic levels.
“Everyone wants the sport to grow, whether it’s in a private school or a public school,” he said. “The big picture for me, and a lot of people in the world of squash, is to have it included as an Olympic sport.”
According to Mathieson, the International Olympic Committee declined to add squash to the 2016 Games, and will likely pass again in 2020. “So we’re realistically shooting for 2024,” he said.
And that just might be in Boston.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.