More people are picking up the squash racket

Business research associate Adam Levy of Cambridge, Mass., an experienced racquetball player, has recently started climbing into the squash court. ''Racquetball was fun and easy, but you reach a point where you just can't go further with your game, or at least didn't want to,'' explained Mr. Levy. ''Some friends told me squash was more challenging.''

Squash is winning new converts, although not necessarily in large numbers. ''Squash enjoys steady growth'' boasts US Squash Racquets Association president Darwin P. Kingsley III. ''Racquetball came on the scene quickly a few years ago - and will stay - but their equipment sales are already dropping.''

One of the most obvious differences between the two sports is that the racquetball racket is shorter and has a larger hitting surface. While the squash racket resembles a badminton racket with its long handle, the racquetball racket is shaped more like an oversized ping pong paddle.

Both sports are played in a walled-in court, but because squash courts are smaller than those used in racquetball and because the balls are smaller and harder, the action is faster. Squash combines a need for power and agility with the finesse required to ''play the angles.''

''I started playing on advice from friends who played,'' says graduate student Mitchell Gitkind of Worcester, Mass. ''I had fun with racquetball; we could talk while we played. But in squash there is more strategy in planning shots, playing the angles (so we can't talk).''

Squash is also faster than tennis, requiring shorter, quicker strokes, good reflexes, and stamina. Many feel that half an hour of squash is equivalent to well over an hour of tennis.

''Tennis players are always fussing with second serves and fetching net balls ,'' observed Mr. Kingsley. ''In squash, the ball always seems to roll back to center court after a point is played.''

He estimates that more than 500,000 people are playing squash about twice a week. The number is probably double that for people who play squash less frequently.

Colleges are also picking up the squash racket. The University of Pennsylvania, for instance, already has 18 squash courts. Even small Haverford College in Pennsylvania is having five courts built.

None of this, however, means that squash has gained anywhere near the prominence of tennis. Part of the reason may be lack of exposure. Says Betty Kunkle, program director at Racquet Time of Monroeville, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, ''We took a recent survey of our members (on the need for a squash court) and only two people had an interest in it. Of course, some of the people may never have seen the game.''

To some degree, squash remains the game of the well-to-do sportsman. That's because it was introduced into the United States at wealthy Eastern schools in the late 19th century. As these college graduates moved on to other areas, they took their squash rackets with them.

Squash also became associated with businessmen. Courts were at private clubs with rather high fees.

In recent years, YMCAs and YWCAs have brought squash a greater degree of public visibility. Their low-cost membership fees, convenient locations, and easily available courts have attracted a less affluent group to the game.

A YMCA court can be very affordable. Members pay an average of $2 to $3 an hour for court use. There are also public courts where the annual fee and court cost are quite low.

Private clubs, of course, remain expensive. Membership in those that offer several racket sports (tennis, racquetball, squash) generally range from $500 to clubs offering just squash, of which there are many, are becoming more affordable. The annual dues at the highly regarded Uptown Racquet Club of Manhattan are $110, with court costs ranging from $5 to $10 for a half hour. For players that are heavily into squash, there are special ''unlimited play'' memberships.

Squash rackets are priced anywhere from $10 to $120, and a can of two balls is about $3. Special shoes, not considered a necessity unless you are a serious player, run about $40.

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