U. S. Hardball Nationals To Have Its Swan Song In 2016   
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline December 27th --- Imposing resolution on an issue that has been roiling the shrinking hardball squash community for a number of years, US Squash recently announced that the 2016 U.S. Hardball Nationals, scheduled for the weekend of February 26-28 at the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, will be the last time that this event will be classified as an official national championship. Merion itself, which has hosted this competition more often than any other venue and produced a host of its champions over the years, is scheduled to have its three remaining hardball courts removed this coming summer or fall as part of a major renovation of the club’s facilities.

   From its inception in 1907, this tournament, which has historically been referred to simply and reverently as “The Nationals”,  has been held every year other than in 1918, 1919 and during a three-year gap from 1943-45 due to World War II, totaling 104 editions. A women’s championship was added in 1928 and age-group flights began shortly thereafter, starting in 1935 with a Veterans division for players age 40 and over. Plenty of further categories followed in subsequent years, to the extent that at one juncture there were 12 age-group tournaments (starting with a 30-and-over, with flights every five years through the 85-and-over) along with the Championship event, which had a 64-draw with very few first-round byes. In the sport’s heyday more than 400 entrants from all three North American countries competed for what was regarded as the top prize of the amateur squash season. During the 17-year period from 1969-85, 15 different cities spread all over the country hosted the Nationals (Princeton and Detroit being the two-time venues), which throughout that time frame also ran heavily subscribed Five-Man National Team competitions concurrently with the Individual tournaments.

   Interest and attendance, for both this championship and hardball squash as a whole, peaked during the late-1970’s and throughout the decade of the 1980’s, spurred by the growth of the World Professional Squash Association hardball tour and the proliferation of commercial squash clubs, which made the game much more accessible to the public than had been the case when squash was played only at private clubs. Both of those phenomena began to fade as the 1990’s began and the international (i.e., softball) game gradually but inexorably displaced hardball as the sport of choice among the majority of American squash players. Probably the last truly vibrant hardball Nationals, held at Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium in New Haven, occurred in 1991, 25 long years ago. By 2000, only five players were entered in the Open division, which was therefore run as a round-robin, and the number of total players has in recent years fallen all the way to the 40’s, barely 10 per cent of the entry figures during the sport’s boom years. Furthermore, in contrast to the 15-cities-in-17-years phenomenon of three-plus decades ago, during the 17-year period that will include the 2016 championship,13 times it will have been held at Merion, the only exceptions being the Harvard Club of New York in 2002, 2012 and 2014, and the Tennis & Racquet Club in Boston in 2011.

   As part of the drip-drip-drip that has characterized hardball squash’s decline during the first decade and a half of the 2000’s, clubs increasingly converted their hardball singles courts to softball, causing their members to lose access to hardball courts, and those that allowed a few hardball courts to remain paid less attention to their upkeep. Fewer balls were manufactured, with a consequent harmful effect on their performance, and the change in racquets caused a loss in the quality of the points as well. For at least the past decade, as the list of active players has steadily diminished, a progressively contentious debate has grown within the remaining hardball group. An increasing percentage of this number, recognizing the inevitability of hardball’s demise, felt that the Nationals should therefore be allowed a dignified death (as happened with the Canadian Hardball Nationals, whose well-attended and high-quality swan song took place in 1995), rather than have it torturously limp along as such a vastly reduced shell of its former magnificent self, in the process causing a significant drop in the value and credibility of the titles that were being contested. Opposing this viewpoint was a substantial and vocal contingent of players who were determined to maintain the Nationals in an attempt to keep the game alive as long as possible, pursuant to a noble but arguably quixotic hope that a turnaround might somehow take place and that hardball’s popularity would be restored to something approaching its former level.

   It must be admiringly said of the latter camp that its leaders have never stopped trying different ways to attain that goal. Beginning in 2011, a prize-money purse has been offered (the previously amateur-only Nationals was opened to pros beginning in 1996), leading to a larger field and to some of squash’s most accomplished figures winning this tournament during the past five years: Preston Quick, a multiple winner of both the S. L. Green (the national softball championship) and the U.S. National Doubles, took home first prize in 2011 and 2012, with former world top-four Chris Walker to follow in 2013, nine-time S. L. Green champ Julian Illingworth doing so in 2014 and Merion pro Mohammed Reda copping top honors a year ago. In addition, there are still more than a half-dozen hardball invitational tournaments, beginning in late autumn and leading to the Nationals, several of which are played on the 80-square-foot larger softball courts with the green Astral ball (another resourceful innovative wrinkle), which is slower than the fuchsia regulation hardball.

   Out of respect for these efforts and for the decades-long devotion to the hardball game that many of its remaining practitioners continue to demonstrate in word and deed, US Squash, to its credit, has supported the hardball Nationals and held off making the decision to discontinue its status as an official national championship as long as it realistically could. But by this autumn the situation had deteriorated to the point that a total of only five players showed up at the Harvard Club for one of the invitational weekends in November, and by most accounts the US Squash announcement was overdue by at least several years, if not longer.  The spirit and the passion for this unique game still exist, but the numbers have now dwindled well past the point of no return, and the hope is that this farewell 2016 championship, played on hallowed courts that are themselves in their final run, will provide an opportunity to pay fitting tribute to the grandeur and tradition that for so many decades exemplified the U.S. Hardball Nationals.