NYSC Flagship Uptown Racquet Club To Close In January        
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline December 21st ---- In a move with greater symbolic than practical implications, the Uptown Racquet Club, once the mecca for hardball squash during the greatest extended stretch in the sport’s history, will be closing on January 15th. The loss of its four international (i.e. softball) courts furthers a disturbing recent trend in which commercial clubs, which at one time were considered the key to squash’s future, are either sacrificing courts in favor of aerobics rooms and physical-fitness equipment, or closing their doors altogether.

   Although the Fifth Avenue Racquet Club, located at West 37th Street on the fringes of the garment district, opened in 1973 as the first commercial squash club in New York, it was in September 1976, when the Uptown Racquet Club --- featuring 14 courts (12 hardball and two softball), double the number at Fifth Avenue --- made its flashy appearance on 86th Street and Lexington Avenue in the heart of the upper east side, that a new and exciting era in squash really began. That November the club hosted the inaugural Boodles British Gin Open, a stop on the World Pro Squash Association (WPSA) hardball tour, which culminated with Victor Niederhoffer scoring an upset final-round win over perennial No. 1 Sharif Khan, and within a year a pair of 10-court commercial facilities, the Manhattan Squash Club on West 42nd Street and the Broad Street Racquet Club near Battery Park, were in operation, with yet another 10-court commercial Club, the Park Avenue Racquet Club on 34th Street, to follow in 1978 and an eight-court club near Lincoln Center four years after that.

   The game’s explosion on the professional, recreational, spectator and sponsorship fronts maintained itself throughout the next dozen years and was largely due to the presence and impact of Uptown, with its coterie of teaching and playing pros (led by Stu Goldstein, the 1978 WPSA Championships winner and a top-three pro on the tour, and including Ted Gross, Stewart Grodman, Daniel Paris and Nancy Gengler) and a substantial number of USSRA top-20 amateurs. One of the club’s most alluring features was that anyone walking on the north side of 86th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues could look through its wide ground-floor window and see the usually high-quality practice matches that were being waged on the ground-floor glass-back-wall exhibition court, and many people who knew nothing about the sport, impressed by what they were seeing as they glanced through the window, would enter the club and become members on the spot. Throughout the latter portion of the 1970’s and the first half of the 1980’s, Uptown both benefited from and contributed to the massive growth that squash experienced during that time frame.

   In 1985 the pro tour event, which during its last few years had become the Chivas Regal Open, ended its 10-year run, and a few years afterwards the ground-floor court was removed as the club management gradually but inexorably devoted an increasing amount of its space to its aerobics and physical-fitness facilities, thereby shrinking the available room for squash courts. During the late 1990’s, Uptown was down to five courts (four softball and one hardball), all secreted in an out-of-the-way area of the third floor, and in 2000 the hardball court was removed and the Fifth Avenue outlet was closed.

    By that juncture, Broad Street, the Manhattan Squash Club and Park Avenue had long since passed on and Lincoln no longer has any squash courts, as the game has swung sharply back to the private clubs, almost completely so in New York and to a large degree in other northeastern-corridor cities as well, making it again inaccessible to everyone else, as had been the case prior to the outset of the 1970’s. Squash has been visibly declining as a priority for the management of the 86th Street facility for quite some time, but there is something about the actual official closing of the courts in what a few decades ago had been the heart and soul of squash in New York, that graphically conveys how transitory and ephemeral commercial squash’s boom years had been.