Squash captivates Grand Central crowd

Julianne Varachi/ESPN.com

On the way home from work, commuters can check out world-class players such as Dipika Pallikal of India and Jaclyn Hawkes of New Zealand.

It's not easy to catch the eye of a busy New Yorker. But drop a 20,000-pound, four-wall glass squash court into the middle of Grand Central Terminal, and even the busiest of commuters can't help but put down their smartphones and stop to check it out.

For 15 years, the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions has distracted rush-hour commuters with an annual squash competition featuring the top players in the game. The glass court is set up so that the front wall is left open to public viewing. Passersby can check it out for free and have a unique vantage point -- the tiny squash balls zoom straight toward the crowd.

The Tournament of Champions has become a premier stop on the international squash calendar, and organizers promote it as "the world's largest squash spectator event." An estimated 200,000 commuters and sold-out crowds filled the 500-seat stadium throughout the tournament's weeklong run, which ended Thursday night.

Despite the event's long history on the men's tour, women have participated on a sporadic basis, with a handful of small tournaments taking place in previous years. This year, the event featured a 16-player women's draw and a 16-player women's qualification tournament.

Many of the top women's professional players circled the Tournament of Champions on their calendars when the organizers confirmed the Women's International Squash Players Association-sanctioned event last fall. Natalie Grinham, the eighth-ranked player in the world, had competed in the Grand Central glass court last year as part of an eight-player tournament. She looked forward to returning to the glass cage for this bigger event.

"I definitely said, 'Right, I'm playing that tournament,'" said 33-year-old Grinham, of the Netherlands, after advancing to the finals in a tough five-game victory over 16-year-old Nour El Sherbini of Egypt. "I was really happy, obviously. I love to play here in Grand Central. It's a great venue, and the court's lovely to play on. We all love playing on glass courts. And it's such a great crowd. It's amazing."

Grinham put on a show for that crowd, beating Dipika Pallikal 11-4,11-3,11-3 in 25 minutes for the championship. Nick Matthew won the men's title, 8-11,11-9,11-5,11-7, over James Willstrop.

The event draws squash enthusiasts from around the tri-state area, many of whom have made the Tournament of Champions an annual event.

Chi Chi Ubina, 45, is a photographer and squash fan who lives in Stamford, Conn. He has been playing the game for 30 years and coming to New York for the Tournament of Champions for decades. He attended Wednesday night's semifinals with his 17-year-old daughter, Maria Elena.

Julianne Varachi/ESPN.com

Yes, that really is a glass squash court in the middle of Grand Central Station.

Maria Elena started playing squash at age 6 and is one of the top junior players in the United States. She's currently No. 5 in the World Squash Federation World Junior Circuit Rankings, and she won the girls' under-19 title at the 2011 U.S. Junior Open Squash Championships. She's thrilled that top professional women have joined the Tournament of Champions draw.

"It's amazing just to see these women play here," said Maria Elena, who had attended the event with her father at least five times prior. "It's great that they're changing off between men and women. It's nice to see and good for me and younger girls to look up to these women."

Maria Elena also appreciates that the Tournament of Champions increases the sport's exposure beyond its strictly East Coast and Ivy League reputation.

"It's so good for the sport, especially because we're all hoping it will be in the Olympics in 2020," she said. "All these people passing by and seeing it -- it makes it so much more global. All these players from all these different countries coming, it's a great representation for the sport."

Squash has emerged as an international sport. Tournament of Champions organizers say there are 15 million players in 120 countries, including 400,000 in the United States. The sport has been rated by Forbes magazine as the healthiest based on cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, muscular endurance, calories burned and risk of injury.

Shu Nyatta, a squash fan and player, works at Tournament of Champions sponsor J.P. Morgan. Nyatta watched the men's matches in Vanderbilt Hall through the front-facing glass wall. Though he had heard about the event in years past, both through work and his gym, Wednesday was the first time he had stopped by Grand Central to check it out.

"I came here expressly to watch the semifinal matches. I love the environment," Nyatta said. "I think it's cool. My work hours are unpredictable, so essentially you can just wander up and don't have to plan to buy tickets. It's nice to just be able to watch it from here. The cube is cool and the vibe is nice. It's just a nice thing to have in Grand Central."

While the event does provide a unique fan experience, it's even more exciting for the players.

"I don't know how to explain the experience," Grinham said. "I just get on the court and just try and enjoy and try not to think about the fact that I'm playing in Grand Central Station or something like that. Just enjoy it and do the best I can."

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