Squash, which is a vicious, fascinating pasttime bringing body contact and the occasional five-stitch forehead gash to racket games, is a sport to anyone who knows anything about it. To those who don't know anything about it, it is:
a. A vegetable.
b. A cross between croquet and the Times of London crossword puzzle.
c. What Ivy League males are interested in, instead of women.
Elizabeth Taylor knows nothing about it. But she had the grace to admit it yesterday at the brand-new Capitol Hill Squash Club. Lest anyone accuse her of false modesty, she also proved it by wandering onto a hardwood court in high heels to cut the opening ribbon. However, standing next to her for credentials was a sweaty husband, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), wearing shorts and bearing squash racket.
"She's a squash widow," Warner said to a crowd who, if they didn't know much about squash, knew a lot about free drinks and eats on a Friday afternoon in Washington.
"He got beaten by a lady twice this week," she said when she took the microphone. She waved to the woman in question, and explained: "I have to get my thing in for the ERA."
Then she left for the Kennedy Center.
Warner did just as badly against Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.) whom he's been playing since 1969. It was an exhibition, but both men were going at it hard. Ordinarily, politicians aren't seen playing squash. For one thing, it's only in the last few years that it's taken a cue from tennis and moved out of the elite and onto the street. For another, there's a certain frantic aspect to two men pounding a ball against the four walls of a little room, looking as if both of them were locked in a phone booth, and both trying to tie their shoes at the same time.
Sharif Khan does not look like this, however. After Chafee won on a tiebreaker, both senators got to play Khan. Khan is the greatest player in the history of the game. He is a pro, a Pakistani, and the son of the legendary pro Hashim Khan. He has won the North American Open 10 times in the last 11 years. When he hits the ball it makes a noise like a firecracker going off. He is so good that he could make Warner look brilliant.
"He brings out the best in you," Warner said, having gotten five points off him. "The real winner between me and Chafee today will be determined by how many points John gets now against Sharif."
The club had promised to give Gallaudet College $100 for every point either man could get off Khan. Chafee earned them $200.
"It's very frustrating -- you think you've put it away, and then he gets it," Chafee said in the locker room, his bewilderment collapsing into total disappointment when he learned that the journalist interviewing him was not, in fact, from the sports page.
Outside, on the courts, the pros were battling not only each other, but the elitist image squash still has in America.
"It's a universal game, it should be a people's game," said Khan.
Said Mike Desaulniers, a Canadian who has beaten Khan in their last four meetings: "Only in the Northeast, here in the States, is squash being marketed as an elite sport. In Canada, it's for everybody. There are 500 courts in Toronto (as opposed to perhaps three or four dozen in the District). In Australia, there are more squash players than tennis players."
It has everything Americans like in spectator sports, which is to say an esoteric vocabulary and the threat of violence. There is a shot in squash called a "boast," which is similar to, but not to be confused with, the "Philadelphia boast." And there is the near-certainty that if you play it long enough, hard enough, you will get your forehead split open by your opponent's racket, an injury which provides the quiet satisfaction of, say, a Heidelburg dueling scar.
"I recently needed five stitches," said Khan, pointing to an eyebrow.
The people at the party were more interested in eats and drinks. You could have replaced the people watching the matches with grand pianos and had room left over, but hardly more noise being made.
The Babe Ruth, the Bobby Jones, the John L. Sullivan of squash asked for quiet, but didn't get any. He shrugged and kept playing. He's a pro. And those people didn't know anything about squash.