Philadelphia is home to a major championship of a sport you probably didn’t know had a championship, and that championship starts today.

The U.S. Open of Squash happens at Drexel University from today through October 17. It’s here in Philadelphia for the fifth straight year and will remain here at least through 2023.

So, what exactly is squash? Why is it in Philadelphia? And why should you care? Read on.  

What is squash?

The best way to describe it is like racquetball but with a smaller ball, a bigger racket and a court with different dimensions. The ball doesn’t bounce as high in squash as it does in racquetball but it still moves insanely fast. Serves have been recorded at 175 mph.

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And while racquetball is seen as a country club sport in the United States, squash is basically a country club sport on steroids. It’s still rare to find people from the middle class playing. Being born with a silver spoon in your mouth and attending an exclusive prep school are not prerequisites to play, but almost everyone who plays has that kind of pedigree.    

Who’s playing in this tournament? Anybody cool?

Actually, yes. American sisters Amanda Sobhy and Sabrina Sobhy have been compared to sisters Venus and Serena Williams but pretty much only because they are sisters and very good at their racket-based sport. Unlike the Williams sisters, however, they come from a much more privileged background (this is squash) and will face a much more difficult path to stardom given squash’s relative obscurity.

Sobhy sisters
Amanda, left; Sabrina, right.

Amanda, 22, just graduated from Harvard. Sabrina, 18, is a freshman there right now. They are the two top-ranked Americans in the world at No. 18 and No. 24, respectively. In a sport that’s been dominated by Egyptians, English and Malaysians and is of little interest to people who don’t grow up partaking in cotillion in America, they are seen as the country’s best hope to spark interest in squash.  

On the men’s side, only one American is in the main draw. Several local qualifiers, however, have an opportunity to make it into the main draw of the tournament if they win some early matches in the qualifying rounds — much as qualifiers must do at the tennis Grand Slam events.

Why Philadelphia?

Obvious reasons abound for why the tournament has found a home in Philadelphia after spending the last 50-plus years moving around from New York to San Francisco to Buffalo to Pittsburgh and everywhere else in between. For one thing, Drexel president John A. Fry serves on the board of directors for U.S. Squash.

There’s also this: Philadelphia is considered to be the cradle of American squash. The sport was first invented in the mid-19th century in England, but some of the first courts in America were constructed at the Philadelphia Racquet Club. Though the sport has never grown to be too popular — about 1.2 million Americans play it today — the Racquet Club served as the incubator for those who did.

Where is it being played at Drexel?

In some futuristic looking glass box at the Daskalakis Athletic Center. The big tournaments are always played on these cool-looking courts.

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Credit: Via Drexel

No offense to Drexel, but the US Open of Squash actually used to be set in far cooler locations. It was once played at Millennium Park in Chicago, Symphony Hall in Boston and even Palladium Night Club in New York. Another major squash tournament in the U.S. is regularly played at Grand Central Station.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...