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Court of appeal

Squash bounces back with a younger crowd

The Sports Club/LA, where the thin flock to get thinner while gazing through two-story-tall windows onto the Common, is a modern-day Temple of Buffitude. The trendiferous, self-described ''total fitness environment" teaches five kinds of yoga, has a restaurant so chic that its ridiculous Italian name -- blu -- can't bother to be capitalized, and a full-size basketball gym and swimming pool.

The racket sport of choice? Squash, and only squash.

''It's very happening," says SC/LA's 27-year-old squash pro Briggs Johnson, who has built a roster of 300 men and women players in just two years. ''The game sells itself," Johnson says. ''You can't get a better workout at this club in 45 minutes -- it's better than any machine."

Squash? Isn't that the oddball British game that Bill Weld used to play, the fey older brother of racquetball that The New York Times called ''Wall Street's favorite sport" -- and no one else's? The sport so exclusive to the Ivy League and so exhausting that it was once described as ''a herd-thinning device for Alpha-WASP males"?

Gautam Shah, a 30-year-old technology consultant, played racquetball in college and joined SC/LA a year ago. ''Initially you're intimidated by people who are very good," he says, ''but there are a lot of beginners like me. It's really cool. When the courts are crowded you can socialize. People are very friendly."

Like many other recent squash converts, Shah is a hardbody fitness fanatic, an avid mountain biker, and a snowboarder. ''Squash is a different workout," he explains. ''Cycling is more endurance oriented, and squash is almost all sprinting. The bike will take your heart rate to 60 or 75 percent of max. With squash it gets up to 80 or 85 percent and stays there."

Squash doesn't make much of an effort to sell itself, yet it is enjoying a resurgence. ''Its popularity is growing," the ''Today" show opined recently, and Katie Couric even talked about taking up the game after watching a tournament staged inside a glass-walled court in Grand Central Station. After polling doctors, trainers, and physical therapists, Forbes magazine declared squash to be America's healthiest sport, outpacing more credible contenders such as swimming, rowing, cycling, and running.

''It's all word of mouth," says Paul Ansdell, the squash pro at the Concord Acton Squash Club. ''We've tried advertising, and we get no response. Most people don't know what it is because they haven't seen it on TV. People hear that it's a good workout, and if we can get them on the court, they get hooked."

New England has long been ground zero for the sport, which made its American landfall at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., in 1884. Massachusetts boasts the largest chapter of the US Squash Racquets Association, and the US Open, which attracts the world's best players, has been held here since 1998.

At Fitcorp's downtown Boston Racquet Club, membership has risen 10 percent in the past two years, to 1,000, almost all of them squash players. In prime squash time -- at lunch and after work -- courts are jammed, and it's a good idea to reserve one of the BRC's six courts a week in advance, says general manager Bryant Mitchell. Likewise, the University Club in the Back Bay was buzzing with squash on a recent weeknight, with women playing a pickup round-robin tournament on two of the club's six singles courts, while packs of men scampered around two rare, outsize doubles courts.

''It's an unbelievable workout," says Tim Brennan, 26, an account executive who played varsity tennis at Boston College. ''Tennis isn't nearly as hard on your body as squash." Brennan plays and socializes at the ''U-Club." ''I come in at 12:20, and by 1 o'clock I'm drenched in sweat. And there's definitely a social aspect to it. On the court you're basically on top of your opponent the whole time -- you get to know each other."

In his seven years as a pro, Chris Spahr has doubled the male roster of University Club squash players to 300 and brought on about 75 women and 150 junior players in high school or younger. Squash is proving to be a college admissions lure for aspirational parents, as 46 colleges now have varsities, according to the Acton-based College Squash Association. Younger players come to the U-Club's program ''mainly because parents are looking for a winter sport" for their kids, Spahr explains. ''If they gain a high level of competence they might catch a break at a good academic institution," although he notes that hardly any colleges offer squash scholarships.

Melissa Schneider, a surgeon who lives in the South End and practices in the Back Bay, started playing at the U-Club last year because her husband and 10-year-old daughter both play. And the club is nearby. ''It's a great family game," she says. ''We play squash the way people play tennis in the suburbs."

Although squash equipment isn't particularly expensive -- a good racket costs less that $100; ditto for the gum-soled shoes -- the elite downtown clubs can be costly. The Boston Racquet Club costs about $1,700 a year, and it offers a unique perk: clothing. Members come in their street clothes, change into clean BRC gear, and dump it in a bin on their way out. The University Club, which is also a full-service sports and social club, costs $2,400 for a single member; Sports Club/LA, under $2,000. The prices all include court time.

There are cheaper places to play, also with good facilities. The Boston Sports Club in Allston has fine courts, with yearly dues of $840. The Cambridge Racquet and Fitness Club costs just over $1,000, with free parking.

A membership at CRFC also gives you access to the most immodest and amusing squash pro in the area -- Enamullah Khan, the ebullient scion of Pakistan's legendary squash-playing Khans, who bills himself as ''Mr. Squash." Khan boasts of single-handedly waging, and winning, a war against racquetball. ''I replaced racquetball with squash in two public clubs, and -- boom!" says Khan, who also has worked at the Boston Athletic Club.

''I would bet the racquetball players that if I beat them they would have to try squash," Khan explains. ''Once they start rallying with someone who knows the game, they get addicted. It's like playing chess compared with racquetball's checkers. And everyone's bored with aerobics."

Alex Beam can be reached at beam@globe.com.

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