What's in a game? After bouncing from squash to racquetball and back, Vic Niederhoffer says he knows.24,2.8,24,4.2,24,6.7,24,11.2,24,13 "Squash is like the days when grand dukes moved legendary squash pro and racquetball maven who now trades commodities for a living. "And racquetball is like real life, the way most of 24,13.6,24,13.3,24,12.9,24,11.75,24,12the world goes about its business. It's the English versus the Americans, the effete snobs versus the truck drivers." This winter, as many casual athletes come in from the cold, the squash/24,12.6,24,12.7,24,13,24,13.2,24,13.6racquetball rivalry sizzles as much as ever. As late as two years ago, with squash the domain of private clubs and racquetball all the rage, it was no contest in Washington. But now that squash looks practically populist at a couple of commercial facilities, both sports boast thousands of enthusiasts in town and out in the suburbs. There are 50-odd squash courts and FROM PAGE 1. a hundred-odd for racquetball not very far from the Beltway. What's more, this weekend and next you can watch both games as played by folks at the top of their form: the Racquetball Super Shootout, a celebrity pro-am tournament this Friday through Sunday in Gaithersburg; and the 1982 Squash Nationals, an amateur event to run Thursday, February 11 through Monday the 15th at several locations. When it comes to squash against racquetball, this town has hardly an equal. Defenders of the faith -- either faith -- lob philosophy, protocol, polemic and, sometimes, just plain poor-mouthing. "I tried squash two or three times and just hated it," says lawyer Ron Goldfarb, a committed racquetballer and warm-weather tennis buff. "The game just seemed very brutal and precarious. All the players I knew were being badly hurt, and I thought I was going to get hurt, too. For a long time I never even heard of squash, except maybe in The Great Gatsby." The Metropolitan Club's venerable squash instructor -- 76-year-old Harry Goodheart, who once taught tennis to Ambassador Kennedy's kids -- would take the other side. "I'm not interested in the bloody game at all," he says a bit sourly of racquetball. "It's just a bastard game as far as I'm concerned -- and dumb." The two games would seem a lot alike -- both involve an enclosed court, a rubber ball and an implement with which to propel it -- but even the uninitiated can sense a stunning contrast. The other day, at a collection of courts in Maryland, contests of squash and racquetball proceeded side by side. This, in itself, was odd: the two sports, hidebound English and upstart Yankee, seldom converge. On the squash court, two clean-cut, wasp- waisted men -- one in pristine whites, the other in bright yellow sweater -- danced a round of pirouettes, sometimes breaking their studied silence with the words, "Nice shot." In their too-tight space, they kept up appearances, though they had to slap the ball with what looked to be dangerously long racquets, and often it hit a strip of tin on the lower front wall. Next door, on the generous expanse of the racquetball court -- the same court used for handball, its rough-and-tumble cousin -- a doubles match progressed. Four burly fellows wearing gym shorts and T-shirts, and wielding paddle-sized racquets, lunged at one another and the ball like linebackers, their exertions graced by exuberant yelps and, occasionally, grunted oaths. Not only did they aim for the bottom of the wall, they sometimes tried for the ceiling. In the spectators' gallery above, a squash fan nudged a neophyte. "Do you see the difference?" he sniffe rules, courtesies and standards. I don't think I could be friends with somebody who behaved badly during a game. What I see on the squash court is likely to be the real person." At the National Capital YMCA, after a spirited racquetball match with his friend Jane Lichtman, education specialist Bob Atwell allows, "One thing I like about this sport is that you can get a heckuva lot of exercise, beat your brains out and forget about it. Another thing I like is that men and women can play each other on equal terms, which I don't think is true for squash." "But when I went to school at the University of Wisconsin," Lichtman puts in plaintively, "both squash and racquetball were male sports. They wouldn't let the women play." Simmy Pell grew up with squash on Long msland, served on the University of Pennsylvania's first women's team 12 years ago, and still manages a match most mornings. "Racquetball," she says, "is a terrific game for the masses. I played a little in Omaha, when my husband's law firm sent him out there. Golly, I think I was one of two women squash players in the entire state of Nebraska." Married to Haven Pell, she confides that they call their five-year-old by the whimsical nickname "New Haven," even though his daddy went to Harvard. As in any game that people play, it's tempting to leap for conclusions. What's surprising, though, is the raft of folks who seem eager to embrace them. Current wisdom, some of it dubious, runs as follows: Squash is urban; racquetball's suburban. Squash is Ivy League; racquetball's from the Heartland. Squash is a game of finesse; racquetball, of force. The squash ball is unforgiving; the racquet ball, bouncy. Squash gets played at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or below; racquetball, at room temperature. Squash is hard to learn; racquetball, fairly easy. Squash causes injuries; racquetball, rarely. And both will make you sweat. "We don't think about squash very much," says Ed Remen, the area's self- proclaimed "Mr. Racquetball." He runs Capital Courts, a bustling emporium across the road from a rock quarry in Sterling, Virginia. "It still has an image of 'snobby East Coast' to your average, grubby racquetballer. Racquetball, though, has been trying to fight the 'YMCA' image -- you know, jocks in T-shirts and gym shorts -- for a long, long time." Remen recently welcomed a visitor to watch a typical bout. The battle, as usual, would pit Remen against Joe Gibbs, coach of the Washington Redskins. But before the coach arrived from nearby Redskin headquarters, there was time for a look around. It was a weekday afternoon. In a gleaming glass-walled court, one of 10 at the facility, instructor Debbie Webber was smashing the ball around with a colleague, John Toole. With every impact came an explosive pop and the wind-tunnel whoosh of flying rubber. "Come on, fatso," she cried at a missed point, rolling her eyes toward the ceiling. "Move your buns!" Toole skirted his racquet against the glass and unleashed another burning serve. In a nearby court, three Virginia women played a variation on racquetball called "Cutthroat," while next door, two of their husbands -- one a golf pro for a snowbound course, the other an out-of-work air traffic controller -- sweated through the standard game. "I'm here at least four times a week," Ken Moss, the erstwhile controller, said later. "It keeps me from getting too depressed about my job. If it weren't for racquetball, I'd go nuts." Next to the courts, on a thin spread of wall-to-wall carpet, a few fellows pumped some iron at the Nautilus machines. Across the room from them -- they declined to play along. "Sure, I know those guys," Remen said with a laugh. "They're cops. They probably had a game this morning and I guess they stuck around." Watching them, he added, "I find a great camaraderie with the players in this game. They play as hard as they can, sweat up a storm and then sit around and have a beer. That's a big part of those guys' lives. We try to a create a homey atmosphere, rather than a stuffy one." (All this would have clashed with the Washington Squash Racquets Club, where members traverse Persian rugs and belly up to an antique English wine bar.) At length Joe Gibbs appeared -- square- jawed and handsome, with fresh creases in his white shorts -- a vision somewhat at odds with his opponent's free-flowing look. Remen wore a jogging suit, his stringy mane cascading from under his terry-cloth cap. "How ya' doin', coach?" he drawled. The coach flashed a bright even smile. "Great," Gibbs replied, and Ed Remen winked. "Racquetball is great conditioning, something you can do your whole life," the 41- year-old Gibbs allowed as he donned protective goggles, sweatband and racquet-hand glove. A seasoned competitor, he switched to racquetball from handball years ago, helped build two racquetball clubs in St. Louis, and now urges the sport on his football players. "It requires good hand-eye coordination and it's also a great 'burst' type of muscle activity, just like you have in football." Before long, he and Remen had plunged full-tilt into one of their thrice-weekly matches. A bystander said, "Joe'll start screaming in a minute." Indeed, as they rocketed the ball with frightening force, Remen winked, but Gibbs just screamed. "Dang you, Joe," he yelled. "That's absolutely terrible! What are you doing? Playing giveaway? Come on, make yourself play!" By the third game, with the score even (racquetball, like squash, is played to 15, though only the server can score), he seemed a man possessed. "Cripes!" he swore, sweating head to toe. "Cripes! Joe, dang you!" When Remen hit a winner in the midst of the fourth game, a shot that caromed out of reach, Gibbs stopped everything to look beseechingly up at the gallery. With a wail, the coach implored, "Was that good?" Remen jumped in before anyone could answer. "Don't do that, Joe," he chided. "We're not playing squash." A few days later, Senator John Warner was lounging in leathery splendor at the Metropolitan Club. "The thing about squash," said the Republican from Virginia, killing time before a match with a local investment banker, "is that the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury very much apply. You just never question an opponent's call. If he calls a 'let' (blocking an opponent's path to the ball), you very quickly play the point over." His eyes narrowed under bushy brows. "Never is it questioned." Warner hits the squash courts several times a week. "It has all the attributes of greatly beneficial exercise and brevity," said Warner, 54, a player for the last three decades. "Let me tell you a funny story," the senator said, as a white-coated waiter appeared to take orders. "My wife Elizabeth has a great sense of humor. I'd just won the B-handicap tournament here at the Metropolitan Club, and we happened to attend the opening of the Capitol Hill Squash Club. So Elizabeth got up before a large audience and said, 'My husband has his wife, my husband has his Senate, and my husband has his squash.' " Here the tone grew imperious, suitable for a star. " 'What I wonder is just which of those things he thinks is more important.' " The senator chuckled and slapped his k Warner wore whites, Specter a pale blue sweatshirt -- "Arlen, you're not properly attired," Warner teased -- both men a symphony of sweatbands and goggles. Soon they were breaching senatorial courtesy, fighting each other for the "T" -- in the center of the squash court, the best place to be -- and fiercely whipping the ball at sharp angles. Specter, the slighter man, was the more contained player, relying on backspin and accurate placement; Warner was the more intimidating, a power-hitter who seemed to use his body as an offensive weapon (or at least as a deterrent). He played with abandon, at one point diving to the polished wooden floor for a failed save ("get" in squash lingo) and rolling onto his back. Once up, Warner got pinged in the backside when he stepped in front of a volley. "Now I'll have some rosette," he said, using the squash term for ball-induced bruises. Specter, 52, a serious player for the last 12 years, had wanted to go the full five games -- "Oh, come on, John," he wheedled -- but Warner insisted on a 5-point tiebreaker with the score at 2 to 2. "We have to get back and analyze the president's message," Warner lectured. "There are some pursuits higher than squash now and then." "None that I would acknowledge," Specter shot back. Then he put Warner away in the tiebreaker, 5 to 4. Tradition has it that squash began in England as an offshoot of the older game of rackets -- invented centuries ago by residents of a debtors' prison. The credit rating of the average player -- if you believe a recent survey by Squash News, showing nearly half of them with household incomes of $50,000 or more -- has much improved since then. "No, they did not consider racquetball," says Phil Gloudemans, a spokesman for Insilco, a Fortune 500 company which sponsors a lot of squash tournaments, hoping to attract investors. "The market does not reflect the type of person they want to reach." Racquetball, meanwhile, was created in 1950 -- by a squash player, on a handball court, at the Greenwich, Connecticut, Y. "It was wintertime, and I was having trouble getting exercise, because I couldn't find anybody to play squash with," says Joe Sobek, 63, racquetball's acknowledged inventor, now a squash and tennis instructor in Greenwich. "At the Y, they were playing a game on the handball court called paddleball. They were using a nice, lively ball and a platform tennis paddle. It was a dead, wooden paddle. It occurred to me that it would be so much better to have a strung racket with a resilient surface -- equal in size, shape and weight to a platform tennis paddle." Sobek designed the article, arranged for its manufacture, helped develop a suitable rubber ball and promoted his new game as "Paddle Rackets." Nineteen years later, with Sobek pursuing other angles, it began to catch on -- after a group of players changed the name to "Racquetball." Today the game claims about eight million players, compared to less than a million claimed by squash. "It was in 1969, at the first national championship at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis," recalls Eugene Fred ("Call me Dr. Bud") Muehleisen Jr., who left a dental practice in San Diego, California, to push racquetball full time. "A bunch of us had a meeting to give it a name. We didn't wanna call it 'paddleball.' We probably would have gone with 'paddle rackets.' But a fellow sitting next to me, Bob McInerney, said, 'Dr. Bud, why not call it "racquetball"?' I said, 'Bob, that's a great idea, put the name in motion.' It won by acclamation. It turned on the light." It wasn't until 1974, with racquetba also partner with lawyer Jonathan Roosevelt, great-grandson of President Theodore, in the Capitol Hill Squash Club. "I think the game will change," says Roosevelt, a top squash amateur in the over-40 class. "That's an inevitable consequence of the growth of the sport. You got players now who were not born with squash racquets in their mouths, and already there's a lot more pushing and shoving, and gamesmanship, on the court." Saint, for his part, has learned at least two things: that squash can do well by itself, and that squash and racquetball don't mix. "Most of the places where they've tried it, it hasn't worked out," he says. "You end up having two halves of the business competing against each other. You're going after different markets to begin with. Nationally, racquetball is middle- and lower-income people in the suburbs, while most of the squash activity is in the cities. And the vast majority of squash is still in private clubs." The Brooklyn-born Vic Niederhoffer, to the horror of private clubs, used to delight in tweaking squash's old guard. Harvard's star player of the early 1960s, he'd show up for matches in odd socks and sneakers. "Vic was a racquet genius," says Roosevelt, who knew and played him at Harvard. "You take anyone with the kind of genius Niederhoffer had, and you've got to be a little forgiving of the manifestations of that genius." These days, Niederhoffer, only slightly mellowed, says he still likes squash as a game but prefers racquetball as a way of life. "It's not a gentleman's game," he says. "Sometimes the play is like a rattlesnake's rattle: 'If you don't get out of my way, I'll kill you.' They hit you, they scream, they beat you up. In squash, they might knock you over the head, but then they say 'Oh, sorry.' "I prefer racquetball, where they call a spade a spade and let it all hang out." WHAT A RACQUET The Super Shootout, a racquetball tournament of pros, local celebrities and amateurs, starts at noon Friday and runs all day Saturday and Sunday at the Athletic Express Club, 700 Russell Avenue in Gaithersburg. Free. Call 301/258-0661 for details. Then, from Thursday, February 11, to Monday the 15th, the U.S. National Singles Squash Championships, men's and women's, will be held at the following locations: the Capitol Hill Squash Club, 214 D Street SE; the National Capital YMCA, 1711 Rhode Island Avenue NW; the Pentagon Athletic Center at the Pentagon; the University Club of Washington, 1135 16th Street NW; and the Washington Squash Racquets Club, 1120 20th Street NW. Most seats -- available first-come, first-served -- are free. Call the Washington Squash Racquets Club at 659-9570 for particulars.