Squash, that sport of elitists, is going public. Out of the private clubs and into the beer halls. The proletariato is invading the boardroom. How do you know? All you had to do was listen at the U.S. Nationals last week, where such talk was flying about as thick and fast as the green balls on the University of Pennsylvania's Ringe Courts. There was just one problem: it wasn't quite accurate. Squash may not be as exclusive as fox hunting anymore, but it isn't played by dead-end kids, either. The tournament was dominated by Ivies and observed by a mink-coated, tassel-shoed crowd.
No, it was not social trends that made the Nationals interesting, but a far better advertisement for the game: good squash.
The most interesting match was the women's final between Gretchen Spruance of Wilmington and Philadelphia's own Barbara Maltby. This was only fitting, since the women had finally gotten a sponsor (Bancroft) and equal billing with the men. Hardly a shock in 1976, but long overdue.
Spruance, 28, won the tournament in 1973 and 1974 before taking last year off to have a baby. Coming from the first family of women's squash—her sister Nina Vosters Moyer and her mother Bunny Vosters were national singles and doubles champions, respectively—she began reclaiming what almost seemed rightfully hers when she eliminated defending champion Ginny Akabane in the semifinals. "I've been playing serious singles for about five years," said Spruance, who sells plants to retail stores more as a part-time hobby than a job. "I try to play at least once a day. It's a neat, fun game."
As an undergraduate, Maltby, 27, was voted the best woman athlete at Penn, but did not take up squash until later, when she was working at the Penn medical labs to send her husband Lew through law school. Then Lew became a criminal lawyer and Barbara became a squash junkie. She describes her regimen thus: "I practice by myself for an hour, play men twice a day for about an hour and a half each and do exercises for about 45 minutes. The whole thing takes five or six hours a day. I love it."
Well-coached Maltby has classical strokes; uncoached Spruance has tennis strokes, including a near-replica of the Francoise Durr backhand. "A pro once looked at my strokes and said, 'Forget them, play the game,' " said Spruance. She plays the game by using her reach (she is 5'10") and hitting an excellent volley and the best placements in women's squash.
"Gretchen is an extremely good competitor," said another player before the final match. "She likes to play fast. Barbara should slow the game down. Gretchen will say 'nice shot' and then run off 10 points, just the way Tilden did. She's aloof from the other players. No one really knows her. She only goes to the tournaments in her backyard, except for the Nationals. By most standards, you've got to pick Barbara, but she's top-seeded, lost in the finals last year and has more to lose now because she has so totally committed herself to squash."
Sure enough, in the first game a tense Maltby banged her hand against the wall in frustration. Spruance, who laughs at her mistakes, said "nice shot" and ran off the last eight points to win 15-8. Maltby led 9-1 in the second game and barely hung on to win 15-13. She blew a 6-1 lead in the third game, and lost 15-9.
The Maltby-Spruance styles are totally incompatible, creating some bumping and much strain, and the fourth game was a replay of an earlier meeting this year which Maltby won 3-2 amid collisions and complaints. This time there were 12 "lets," which are called by the referee when one player impedes another, and a crash that left Maltby with a welt under her left eye. Maltby slowed down the pace and Spruance asked petulantly, "How much time does she get, just out of curiosity?" Maltby lost a 14-10 lead in the fourth game and it went into a two-out-of-three overtime at 14-all. After two lets at 15-all, Spruance had a chance for a match-point putaway. She aimed too low and hit the tin to lose the point and the game 17-16. The gallery of some 250 applauded, Maltby let out her breath and Spruance looked up at her mother and smiled wanly.
But as so often happens in this game of intense concentration, a player who struggles to keep a match even can't maintain the pace. Spruance's shotmaking was almost flawless as she ran off the fifth, deciding game 15-6. "She felt the pressure less than Barbara," was the expert commentary from three-time finalist Goldie Edwards. "Gretchen was able to delay her shots, going frontwall-sidewall instead of down the line. You can't be two places at once."