Pro squash circuit attempts to go big time with new fishbowl look

When dedicated squash lovers in Boston began planning their annual feast, they weren't thinking of zucchini. They were considering a lesser-known delicacy - the sporting variety - and its potential for pleasing the public palate.

Indeed, enthusiasts of the game didn't go hungry at this year's Boston Open. They were treated to a visual feast of spectacular action, all displayed in a unique shatterproof showcase - a court with three plexiglass walls.

''It's like being in the movies,'' exclaimed eventual champion Mark Talbott to a hushed crowd as the house lights dimmed for one of his matches. For the delighted audience, the only thing missing from this show was the buttered popcorn.

Nearly a thousand dazzled spectators, a record for North American squash, ringed the court to watch Talbott outduel reigning king Jahangir Khan in a grueling five-game final - turning the glass menagerie into Khan's Temple of Doom.

By sheer numbers, the attendance record is modest - even a high school football game attracts more fans. But for the farsighted players' organization - the World Professional Squash Association (WPSA) - it is a significant step toward a future in the public limelight.

The cloistered world of professional squash has long been sheltered from public exposure. Pros are used to performing at cozy clubs, where only a few hundred spectators get a glimpse of the action.

This Ferrari of the racket sports is fast, graceful, and sophisticated. It features a tiny ball that can accelerate from 0 to 100 m.p.h. in less than a second. Brute strength is neutralized, however, by the difficulty of hitting put-aways on a small court (181/2 feet across). To succeed, an athlete must blend power with finesse, patience with imagination.

If the rumblings at the Boston Open are prophetic, this sport will soon thunder into the public eye, just as tennis did 20 years ago.

''Right now, squash has the identical profile of tennis in the 1960s,'' says Bob French, vice-president of marketing for the WPSA, referring to the genesis of the ''open era'' in professional tennis. ''It is male, clubby, and going public.''

In spite of the game's overall elitism, the professional tour has a refreshing esprit de corps that is unusual in a competitive individual sport. The players are a polite, friendly, and close-knit group.

One skeptical tournament official remarked, ''Wait 20 years. See what money does to them.'' High stakes have certainly seemed to isolate and harden tennis stars. Experts disagree on whether the same would happen in squash.

Of course it's a bit optimistic to expect that squash, starting from a much smaller base than tennis in terms of public interest and recreational players, can fully emulate that sport's explosion. Some growth, though, does seem imminent.

Along with the glass-walled court, the Boston Open featured one of the largest purses in North American history, a major corporate sponsorship by Xerox , and local television coverage. French considers it ''a real breakthrough - the start of squash going big time.''

Players and promoters agree that reaching the ''big time'' depends on national television exposure. Taped action from this event will be aired locally before a Thanksgiving Day football game. Tour promoters predict a smash hit, but skeptics are not so hopeful. The game's dizzying pace and lack of breaks, they say, demand an intense concentration that makes spectating exhausting work. Regardless, the upcoming debut will be a telling litmus test of the mainstream sporting audience.

To attract that broader audience, and the money that it represents, the WPSA is displaying astonishing flexibility. Some changes, though, which tamper with the basic elements of the game, have squash purists shifting in their starched shorts.

To counteract impaired visibility in the glass-walled court, they have already switched to a red ball from the traditional dark green projectile. (As tournament co-director Tom Poor put it, ''They'll play with a rock if the money's right.'')

One plan for some future events is to use a court that is 20 feet wide, a change that would cause more winning shots and reduce frustrating interference calls.

This adjustment would indirectly aid a grander scheme which would unify the world's greatest talent - the merger of the North American (hard ball) and international (soft ball) tours - since the international game also uses a wider court.

But even if television coverage and prize money increase, one question remains - will the expansion benefit the sport? Shedding the stigma of social elitism is important, but money-hungry professionalism could dehumanize the game.

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