From the Commonwealth to the Scenic City

By Brenda Shafer
Photography by Terry Henson

The game of squash originated from the sport, rackets, in England in 1830, but as Richard Millman, Scenic City Squash’s director, quips, “We British like to claim that we have invented squash, but to be fair, balls have been hit against walls for centuries.” However, the British are to thank for organizing the game and its dissemination around the world. The British army built squash courts wherever they went in the 19th and early 20th century. As a result, squash has been dominated by historically Commonwealth countries like Egypt, India, Pakistan, and of course, the United Kingdom. Squash arrived in the United States in the late 1880s, as businessmen brought it back following trips to London. For the last century, though, squash has remained a bastion of New England prep schools and Ivy League universities. Until now.

Swing Low / Owners Mike and Taylor Monen opened the club after falling in love with the sport.


 

Squash began at Harrow School, a prestigious London boarding school, in 1830. As the story goes, boys who were too young for the game of rackets played a similar version in imitation with a sawn-off racquet and punctured ball. The ëjuniorí version eventually became more popular and developed into the game of squash.

Today, the United States has the fastest growing squash participation in the world – the Sports & Fitness Association (SFIA) reports a 66% growth overall since 2010. “We have a long way to go before we can compete with other sports, but we are beginning to make good ground in Middle America,” Millman says. Squash is quickly spreading down South, with universities like Vanderbilt, Sewanee, College of Charleston, UGA, Georgia Tech, and Emory building programs. The University of Virginia spent more than $12 million on a squash facility in 2013 and is already planning on expanding it. “The U.S. Open Junior Championship is now the biggest junior squash tournament in the world,” Millman adds. “In terms of level of play, Egypt is the top country, but in terms of breadth and depth, the United States is the strongest country.”

Chattanooga now boasts its own squash club: Scenic City Squash was established by Mike and Taylor Monen in 2016. Millman, a world-renowned squash coach, and his wife Pat, a coach and former international competitor, joined in 2017. “People like us are more than coaches if we do a good job,” Millman says. “We’re program directors, and it’s programming that makes the difference in the spreading of squash.” The Millmans’ evangelizing of the sport, though, usually has to start with an explanation of what the sport actually is to those interested, as many Americans are still unfamiliar with the game.

Take the Shot / Club members Gene and Mary Catherine Robbins take a swing.


 

Squash looks like racquetball, but don’t be deceived. “It is almost the opposite of racquetball in what it requires,” Millman asserts. The court is smaller, the racquet is larger, the scoring and strategy is different, and most importantly, the ball is softer and “squashes” against the wall, slowing the bounce in comparison. So rather than the ball zooming back, the player must move quickly to meet the ball. This is one of the factors that makes squash “the healthiest sport in the world,” according to Forbes magazine. For 20 straight years, the publication has deemed the energy expended and the endurance, flexibility, and strength required second to none.

“In squash, you have to keep the ball above a certain place, which makes it easier for your opponent to get to the ball,” Millman explains. “Therefore, your assumption must be that your opponent will retrieve the ball. You have to be ready for their shot.” As you improve, the rallies become longer and more complex because you’re more adept at rallying. The longest rally in squash was around seven and a half minutes. That’s approximately 350 shots. That doesn’t happen often, of course. Ordinary players tend to face 5-12 shot rallies.

Club for Community / (L-R) Mike & Taylor Monen, William Henden, Richard Millman, and Mary Catherine & Gene Robbins pause their play for a round at the bar.


We’re very proud of our reputation for good behavior and etiquette. We teach players to be respectful of the competition and to build each other up.


– Richard Millman

 

One of the reasons squash has increased in popularity is that all ages can play it. “Some sports have a limited lifespan, but squash is genuinely a life sport,” Millman adds. “I’ve had students who started in their late 20s and 30s, who are still students of mine in their 60s and 70s. It’s a technical sport. You can’t progress without help, but when you get help, it opens up all kinds of opportunity to develop your artistry in the sport. If you’re an old chap like me, you have to be able to slow the ball down so you can get a couple of breaths in before the next swing. And sneakiness becomes a pretty important aspect of the game. You can hide the ball with your body or show that it’s going one way when it’s going another.”

Like many sports, squash teaches life skills that set up children for success. “Squash is a wonderful vehicle to help someone grow as a human being,” Millman shares. “It hones your perception skills, since you have to focus on the ball while simultaneously being aware of your surroundings. Awareness of others is an extremely important life skill that I believe many people have lost. You also need a sense of humor when playing because you will run into your opponent. It’s an intrinsically funny sport. You’re in an enclosed room with another person hitting a ball against a wall. If you don’t have a sense of humor, you’ll struggle to progress.”

“It’s a competitive sport that encourages achievement, good humor, and manners,” Millman continues. “We’re very proud of our reputation for good behavior and etiquette. We teach players to be respectful of the competition and to build each other up. I try to teach all my players to always speak in terms of what you would like in yourself and what you appreciate in your opponent. If you wish to become stronger, strengthening them helps you. That’s why I say squash is my vehicle, but developing people is my passion,” Millman shares.

The Millmans and the Monens are excited to promote squash in Chattanooga and hope that the squash community grows. “Our club here is about inclusivity and community,” Millman says. “What we’re really trying to do is give something to families. If I am taking on an 8- or 9-year-old kid today, my real goal is that after they come back to Chattanooga, they bring their kid to the club to play. Maybe they will play squash in college. Maybe they won’t. Our real goal is for squash to be part of the community.”

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