For the many, if not the masses

Down but far from out, Gretchen Spruance righted herself to beat Barbara Maltby and win the U.S. women's title in Philadelphia, where the talk was of the game's word-of-mouth explosion
March 01, 1976

Squash, that sport of elitists, is going public. Out of the private clubs and into the beer halls. The proletariato is invading the boardroom. How do you know? All you had to do was listen at the U.S. Nationals last week, where such talk was flying about as thick and fast as the green balls on the University of Pennsylvania's Ringe Courts. There was just one problem: it wasn't quite accurate. Squash may not be as exclusive as fox hunting anymore, but it isn't played by dead-end kids, either. The tournament was dominated by Ivies and observed by a mink-coated, tassel-shoed crowd.

No, it was not social trends that made the Nationals interesting, but a far better advertisement for the game: good squash.

The most interesting match was the women's final between Gretchen Spruance of Wilmington and Philadelphia's own Barbara Maltby. This was only fitting, since the women had finally gotten a sponsor (Bancroft) and equal billing with the men. Hardly a shock in 1976, but long overdue.

Spruance, 28, won the tournament in 1973 and 1974 before taking last year off to have a baby. Coming from the first family of women's squash—her sister Nina Vosters Moyer and her mother Bunny Vosters were national singles and doubles champions, respectively—she began reclaiming what almost seemed rightfully hers when she eliminated defending champion Ginny Akabane in the semifinals. "I've been playing serious singles for about five years," said Spruance, who sells plants to retail stores more as a part-time hobby than a job. "I try to play at least once a day. It's a neat, fun game."

As an undergraduate, Maltby, 27, was voted the best woman athlete at Penn, but did not take up squash until later, when she was working at the Penn medical labs to send her husband Lew through law school. Then Lew became a criminal lawyer and Barbara became a squash junkie. She describes her regimen thus: "I practice by myself for an hour, play men twice a day for about an hour and a half each and do exercises for about 45 minutes. The whole thing takes five or six hours a day. I love it."

Well-coached Maltby has classical strokes; uncoached Spruance has tennis strokes, including a near-replica of the Francoise Durr backhand. "A pro once looked at my strokes and said, 'Forget them, play the game,' " said Spruance. She plays the game by using her reach (she is 5'10") and hitting an excellent volley and the best placements in women's squash.

"Gretchen is an extremely good competitor," said another player before the final match. "She likes to play fast. Barbara should slow the game down. Gretchen will say 'nice shot' and then run off 10 points, just the way Tilden did. She's aloof from the other players. No one really knows her. She only goes to the tournaments in her backyard, except for the Nationals. By most standards, you've got to pick Barbara, but she's top-seeded, lost in the finals last year and has more to lose now because she has so totally committed herself to squash."

Sure enough, in the first game a tense Maltby banged her hand against the wall in frustration. Spruance, who laughs at her mistakes, said "nice shot" and ran off the last eight points to win 15-8. Maltby led 9-1 in the second game and barely hung on to win 15-13. She blew a 6-1 lead in the third game, and lost 15-9.

The Maltby-Spruance styles are totally incompatible, creating some bumping and much strain, and the fourth game was a replay of an earlier meeting this year which Maltby won 3-2 amid collisions and complaints. This time there were 12 "lets," which are called by the referee when one player impedes another, and a crash that left Maltby with a welt under her left eye. Maltby slowed down the pace and Spruance asked petulantly, "How much time does she get, just out of curiosity?" Maltby lost a 14-10 lead in the fourth game and it went into a two-out-of-three overtime at 14-all. After two lets at 15-all, Spruance had a chance for a match-point putaway. She aimed too low and hit the tin to lose the point and the game 17-16. The gallery of some 250 applauded, Maltby let out her breath and Spruance looked up at her mother and smiled wanly.

But as so often happens in this game of intense concentration, a player who struggles to keep a match even can't maintain the pace. Spruance's shotmaking was almost flawless as she ran off the fifth, deciding game 15-6. "She felt the pressure less than Barbara," was the expert commentary from three-time finalist Goldie Edwards. "Gretchen was able to delay her shots, going frontwall-sidewall instead of down the line. You can't be two places at once."

The amateur-only men's division list lacked the continent's two best players, North American Open champion Sharif Khan and squash's most arresting figure, that intriguing blend of Adam Smith and Bobby Fischer known as Victor Niederhoffer. But the absence of Niederhoffer, who turned pro last year after winning his fifth national, merely created another interesting final—between Wall Street businessmen John Reese and Peter Briggs.

At 33, the lanky Reese hoped to make this his last and happiest hurrah. Once top-ranked nationally, he was forced to sit out two years when a hip joint began deteriorating in 1972. Now, to win his first national title, the former Penn captain and Junior Davis Cupper had to beat a 24-year-old Wunderkind in Briggs, twice the intercollegiate champ at Harvard. "If this goes five games, I'm in trouble," said Reese. It went three. Briggs, who had not lost a game in the tournament, wasn't about to start losing in the finals. He hit one behind-the-back shot, another one through Reese's legs, even scored aces on bullet serves, a rarity in squash, and won 15-11, 15-7, 17-15. Now he is off to Pakistan and England for tournaments and may turn pro next year. If that happens, Reese will get another chance. Meanwhile, squash has an attractive new men's champion who is almost as outspoken as he is talented. "Squash has to have more open tournaments," said Briggs. "People say the pros would dominate open tournaments but there are 10 to 15 players who can beat each other on a given day."

If the men's and women's finals were entertaining, the other divisions—veterans (40 and over), seniors (50 and over) and five-man team play—made the case for participation. The enthusiastic team competition, won by Mexico, provided a tournament model for non-championship players.

The country's first public all-squash facility opened outside Philadelphia in 1973. There are now four such structures with more planned, but this scarcely compares to the numerous municipal courts in England and Australia. So don't expect American squash, which is played by more than 400,000 people, to vault past tennis overnight, even though squash is easier to play and provides more exercise in less time. Aside from economics, the real hurdle could be racquetball, an even easier game involving little strategy and much sweat and swearing. In the few cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit where Western-oriented racquetball and Eastern-bred squash compete, racquetball has the upper hand.

Nonetheless, the game is growing. An inevitable increase in open tournaments, television time and publicity will help. Paul Monaghan Jr., the sport's Master Builder, has designed a portable court with three glass walls that can be set up in minutes for exhibitions. Some players don't like the way the ball skims off glass, but as Monaghan notes, probably with prescience, "They'll play with orange balls if there's money involved."

The U.S. Squash Racquets Association now has a full-time executive director in Darwin P. Kingsley III. A former private-school administrator with a flair for plaid and a feel for people, Kingsley is setting forth on a three-week Western trek, ending with the national doubles in Denver March 19-21, to spread the gospel.

"People talk about a squash explosion," says Briggs. "The real explosion is word-of-mouth. Look at the Fifth Avenue Racquet Club in New York. It opened two years ago with no publicity. Now there are 3,000 members. Word gets around."

The word from Philadelphia is that squash can be a game for the many, if not the masses.