A WASHINGTON ATTORNEY riles her racquetball- playing buddies by arguing their sport has a lot in common with bowling. She prefers squash -- a game racquetball enthusiasts contend is "for snobs, jut-jaws and dilettantes."

Two businessmen waiting for a lunch-hour court at the Arlington YMCA counter an off-handed remark that handball is a dying sport by declaring loudly, "If God meant for man to play racquetball or squash, He would've strung our fingers."

Loyalties and rivalries can still get healthy workouts in Washington's indoor racquet clubs, where growing numbers of die-hard players arrive as early as 7 a.m., skip lunch or drag in after work to pound a little rubber ball -- and occasionally each other -- inside a cubicle. But snide put-downs that once fueled debate among devotees of the three wall-ball sports today are tempered and mostly just good-natured locker room banter.

The reason for the uneasy truce?

A gradual democratization of the once clubby squash and handball during the past decade, coupled with the popular emergence of racquetball, has forced a marketplace high-mindedness that never used to matter in those traditionally esoteric, non-profit sports. Still, they are three distinct games whose differences outweigh their similarities.

What they most obviously share are claustrophobic dimensions. To play any one of them, you have to stoop low through a four-foot-high door into some version of a long, narrow, hermetically sealed court with floorspace a quarter the size of a tennis court and air chilled to balance out the heated competition that quickly makes it warm and a little funky.

Inside, it's just you and your opponent -- no net, no spectators, no sound from the outside. The eerie white emptiness of the four walls and ceiling is interrupted only by service lines marking the floor and a smattering of disorienting echoes.

All three sports are good workouts. Forty-five minutes of aggressive play at any one of them and your head will spin, your heart pound, your sweat pour and your lungs ache. Knees and ankles will quiver with exhaustion from chasing ricochets that, at times, travel faster than a Goose Gossage fastball.

Sound like fun? It does to a lot of people who pay $200 to $600 initiation fees and monthly dues of $40 and up to join area squash and racquetball clubs (handball is played on racquetball courts).

Racquetball caught on big around here in the mid-'70s, spurring construction of dozens of courts downtown and in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. That burst spilled over into squash, and in the past five or six years, Washington's two premiere commercial squash facilities have seen memberships more than double: Half the 1,600 members of the Capitol Hill Squash and Nautilus Club play squash, as do about 800 of the 1,500 members across town at the Washington Squash and Nautilus Club.

Estimates suggest the number of serious squash players nationwide has jumped from about 300,000 in 1980 to close to a half million. That's still a distant second to racquetball players who number about 10 million nationwide, with hotbeds in Chicago and St. Louis and on the West Coast rather than the Eastern Seaboard. But for every hundred racquetball or squash players, you can probably count the handball players on, well, on one hand.

Those numbers largely reflect each sport's tradition and degree of difficulty.

"Racquetball is a formless game created so that almost anybody could pick up a racquet and play as soon as they get on the court," says Wendy Lawrence, head squash pro at Capitol Hill Squash and Nautilus Club, who scoffs at the skill required in racquetball but not at the attention it has attracted. "The racquet is very short, everything for the most part is in bounds, including the ceiling, and the ball is big and bouncy. The game is accessible to a lot of people."

Lawrence, 32, who learned to play squash at Vassar and taught the game in Manhattan before coming here five years ago, sees "a surge" to squash among racquetball players who are bored with their sport and are no longer put off by "the elitist stereotype." And, in fact, several area racquetball clubs are considering altering some of their courts for squash.

"Squash is a great game with a heck of a lot more tradition than racquetball," acknowledges Judd Grosshans, the racquetball pro at Crystal Racquet and Health Club in Arlington. "But the squash people have been trying to move out of that tradition for years to broaden their base -- for money reasons."

Grosshans, 30, who estimates racquetball's popularity has increased four-uring the past six years, shrugs when racquetball is criticized as too simple and easy.

"What's wrong with having fun? Nothing. Absolutely nothing," says Grosshans, who learned racquetball at Brockport College in Rochester, N.Y., 11 years ago and has taught it for eight. In 1981, he was ranked nationally in the American Racquetball Association's top 20. "That's just a little sour grapes. Sometimes the squash people get scared because we've grown so fast. . .

"In a sense, they're not wrong when they compare us to bowling because, like bowling, we're such a popular sport. Racquetball is a sport for the masses. It was built on the idea of, 'Hey, come on in, put on a pair of jeans or shorts, and let's bat the ball around.'

Not so long ago, if you played squash, chances were you learned the sport at an Eastern prep school or an Ivy League college. Otherwise, you probably picked it up at a country club or private men's club in New York, Philadelphia or Boston.

That's changed, says Lawrence: "In the past six or seven years its appeal has been broadening," because of the Great American Fitness Fascination and the introduction of women to the sport.

"In the early '70s, when a lot of private colleges like Yale went coed, a lot more women were exposed to squash," she says. "But after they graduated, all of the university clubs around the country that had the squash courts were still closed to women, so public clubs opened up, first in Philadelphia and New York, and then here in Washington."

Lawrence also points to a new ball -- the "70-plus" -- as a factor in spreading squash. Designed eight years ago, the 70- plus is a compromise between the soft ball used everywhere else in the world and the traditional American ball, a harder, hollow green-dot ball the size of a lime that's been clocked at more than 110 mph. "Because it doesn't travel quite as fast as the hard ball, it's a little easier to play," says Lawrence, although compared to those of handball and racquetball, even the 70-plus plays "dead."

The squash racquet remains unchanged, however, and is the nemesis of many a first-timer who gives up the sport out of frustration. Unlike the easily maneuverable racquetball racquet, which has a big face and a stubby shaft, the squash racquet handles like a stiff and weighted fly swatter -- its sturdy but thin shaft as long as that of a tennis racquet but its head round and small.

Good squash players rely on racquet control, plus anticipation and reflex, deception and durable physical condition, says Raheil Qureshi, ranked the No. 1 squash player in the metropolitan area and head pro at the Washington Squash and Nautilus Club. Qureshi, 32, has taught squash and racquetball and has played handball.

Like most squash players, Qureshi contends his sport is more mental than racquetball: "It is more challenging . . . in terms of control, in terms of finesse, in terms of variance of shots. In racquetball, you concentrate on power to put the ball away. The better you get at racquetball, the shorter the points -- a service, a volley and a kill. In squash, it's just the opposite. Good players'll hit the ball 10 or 15 shots to finish off a point."

And that, says Qureshi, also makes squash a physically more demanding sport than racquetball. Forty-five minutes of squash supposedly provides better conditioning returns than jogging three miles or 90 minutes of tennis, and burns off about 600 calories.

Grosshans disagrees that squash is better conditioning than racquetball, noting that racquetball's national champion last year came in third in the Superstar Competition. And while he acknowledges that squash is a tougher skill game, he finds racquetball more exciting.

"When the pros play," he says, "you get two guys in the box hitting the balls 140 to 150 miles per hour. There's a lot of diving. It's very sweaty. It is absolutely exhilarating."

But both Qureshi and Grosshans defer to handball as the taskmaster of conditioning. "To the average person it looks like you're just batting the ball around with your hands, but to hit the ball with your hand instead of a racquet is very difficult," Qurushi says. "You need a stronger arm and better timing and you have to be in better shape. Most racquetball and squash players can't do it at first try."

Because it's played with the hands and no racquet, the best players are ambidextrous -- an immediate problem for most beginners. Handball players, who use lightweight leather gloves or bare skin, look with disdain at squash or racquetball players "who have to use sticks." Although it may be as much ritual as science, handball players often run their hands under cold water before a match to numb them. Occasionally they'll enter a court and slam their palms repeatedly on the walls to numb them, and make an intimidating noise. Because hands bruise and swell considerably during a match, horror stories abound about players who forgot to take off rings before a game.

Far more brutal than squash or racquetball, handball is like a brawl in a box. Shots off the wall are executed by literally slapping the open hand across the wall surface. With no fear of flailing racquets, handball players play toe to heel and make contact more often. And by shortening the strike length to the end of your fingers -- a foot or two less than with a racquet -- shot velocity depends much more on muscling the ball and throwing the entire body into a stroke.

"That's why handball is a dying sport," says Qureshi. "Most younger players look for something easier than that. Racquetball is much easier. You put a couple of hackers on a court and they have a good time. Squash is a little easier but the first times out it is very frustrating. But handball you just can't do."

"It hurts like hell, too," adds Lawrence, who says she has never known any woman handball players. "I associate handball with football player types and squash with tennis and soccer athletes."

And racquetball players?

"We used to joke that racquetball players roll their cigarette packs into their T-shirt sleeves," says Lawrence, unable to resist a little jab, "so they can step out of the court between games for a smoke. They aren't serious athletes."

Don Oldenburg, as you may have guessed, prefers to play squash. SEE YOU ON COURT

If you want to get in the swing or just watch, top-flight amateur and professional squash, racquetball and handball are played at local universities and at these metropolitan area commercial clubs: ARLINGTON YMCA -- 3422 N. 13th Street, Arlington. 525-4383. Two courts for either racquetball or handball. No lessons. Memberships cost $220 a year; plus $2-4 court fees. BETHESDA RACQUET & HEALTH CLUB -- 4400 Montgomery Avenue, Bethesda. 656-9570. Nine racquetball and two squash courts. Lessons available. $475 initiation and $68 a month dues. CAPITOL HILL SQUASH & NAUTILUS CLUB -- 214 D Street SE. 547-2255. Nine squash courts. Fourth annual Cherry Blossom Open, four levels, April 4-6, expected to attract top national amateurs. Lessons available. Membership initiation $200 and monthly dues $40. CHEVY CHASE ATHLETIC CLUB -- 5454 Wisconsin Avenue in Chevy Chase. 656-8834. One squash and five racquetball courts. Lessons available. Membership initiation is $500 plus $58 a month dues. COURTS ROYAL

Hold a series of racquetball tournaments for members through the year. Lessons and clinics available. Racquet sports membership currently costs $130/individual or $180/family plus court fees from $6 to $12. Members can reserve court time in seven locations: ANNANDALE -- 4317 Ravensworth Road. 256-6600. Three racquetball/handball courts. ARLINGTON -- 1122 Kirkwood Road. 522-1702. Ten racquetball courts. CROWNE PLAZA -- 1750 Rockville Pike, Rockville. 468-0690. Six racquetball courts. MERRIFIELD -- 2733 Merrilee Dr. in Fairfax. 560-1215. Two squash and four racquetball courts. SPRINGFIELD -- 5505 Cherokee Avenue. 941-4848. Seven racquetball courts. WOODBRIDGE -- 1401 Devil's Ridge Road. 690-1629. One racquetball court. ROCKVILLE -- 11650 Nebel Street 770-0707. Fourteen racquetball courts. WHITE OAK -- 11313 Lockwood Drive in Silver Spring. 593-7626. Nine racquetball courts. CRYSTAL RACQUET & HEALTH CLUB -- 1333 Crystal Gateway, Arlington. 979-9660. SKYLINE RACQUET & HEALTH CLUB -- 5115 Leesburg Pike, Baileys Crossroads. 820-4100. It and sister club, Crystal Racquet, combine for 16 racquetball courts. Easter Seal Open Racquetball Tournament at Crystal this Friday through March 2. Lessons available. Membership initiation $525 plus $47 a month dues plus $4 and $5 court time fees. NATIONAL CAPITAL YMCA -- 1711 Rhode Island Avenue NW. 862-9622. Six racquetball/handball and four squash courts. Lessons available. Fitness Center membership costs $220 a year plus $39.42 monthly dues. REGENCY RACQUET CLUB -- 1800 Old Meadow Road, McLean. 556-6550. One racquetball and four squash courts. Membership initiation $100 and $35 a month dues. $2 and $4 court fees. THE SPORTING CLUB -- 8250 Greensboro Drive in Mclean. 442-9150. Four squash and 17 racquetball courts. Continuing leagues and lessons available. Membership prices vary with time limitations: Initiation ranges from $200 to $550; monthly dues from $60 to $97. WASHINGTON SQUASH & NAUTILUS CLUB -- 1120 20th Street NW. 659- 9570. Ten squash courts. Next open tournament, four levels, April 11-13. Lessons available. Membership initiation $200 (current sale price) and monthly dues $49.