Watching Amir Wagih play squash, you might think he can see the future. No matter where that ball ricochets around the court, the former Egyptian national coach seems to have already shown up to greet it with his racquet. So it’s tempting to believe his latest prediction: “In 10 years, we’ll be the capital of squash. Not just the capital of the USA.”
Wagih has such high hopes for Washington, his new home city, because he’s teamed up with local developer Anthony Lanier to launch Squash on Fire. The $12 million, 20,000-square-foot indoor squash center will sit atop the forthcoming West End Library and Fire Station project. (Hence the “on Fire.”)
The opening is still at least two years away, but in May, Squash on Fire announced its formal partnership with Sports Club/LA. That gym’s four courts, plus the eight planned in the new building, will make it possible to host major international tournaments. And more immediately, Wagih and his team can use the facility to offer programming to the general public.
Using a pay-to-play model rather than being exclusively membership-based is one of the ways Squash on Fire plans to set itself apart. Another is that it’ll be the only program in the District completely focused on the sport, says Fabien Sarran, Squash on Fire’s club professional. He thinks this combination can transform the perception of squash.
“The mentality in the U.S. is that it’s for a clique of white, rich men. In Europe, it’s more if you know it, you’ll play it,” Sarran says.
That’s because it’s a smart game — “chess at 150 miles per hour,” Sarran calls it — and an effective workout. (Lots of lunging around the court contributes to the coveted “squash butt,” Sarran boasts.)
To entice a broader range of players, Squash on Fire has added free clinics to its schedule this summer. (See below.) For veterans, they’re a chance to hone technique. For newbies, they’re a chance to get accustomed to being in a loud, confined space with a flying object.
At the start of a recent beginner session, Wagih told his trio of students that a squash ball needs to be warmed up before a match starts. One that hasn’t been rolled around and whacked a bunch of times won’t bounce.
His ball was ready for action by the time Wagih served it up. To hit it, he explained, they needed to follow a simple rule. With a forehand swing, you step your opposite leg forward. With a backhand swing, it’s the same side arm and leg.
It takes practice, and Wagih made sure they got it — drilling shots until the group felt somewhat confident (and utterly exhausted).
“I have hundreds of things to do,” said Wagih, noting that as students progress, he can introduce them to footwork and the art of racquet control, then get them actually playing matches. There are tricks up his short-sleeves for everyone.
That includes Paul Ellis, 74, who’s played squash for 46 years.
“You can get sloppy, so I’m always learning,” he said after an advanced clinic with Wagih. What impressed him about the coach is his breadth of knowledge as well as his breath capacity. When Wagih teaches, he speaks in a rapid-fire blend of instruction and praise. (“He’s like an auctioneer,” Ellis marveled.)
Ellis and some other long-time Sports Club/LA members have been wary of the ownership change, but Squash on Fire staff have tried to reassure them that it’ll lead to improved conditions. One of the first fixes coming to the gym facility? Cushioned court floors.
“It’s better for the knees,” Wagih says. “Instead of playing for just 30 minutes, people will be able to play for hours.”
You can bet Juan Climent, who practices as much “as my wife will let me,” will take advantage of that switch. He’s been a fixture at the advanced clinics, and can’t wait for other folks to get hooked, too.
“I want to see more players, more coaches, a higher level of play,” the 43-year-old says.
If anyone is capable of making that a reality, Climent adds, it’s Wagih: “He puts every ball where he wants it.”
Squash Is in Season
Squash on Fire is currently based at the Sports Club/LA (1170 22nd St. NW). But you don’t need to be a member of the gym to sign up for court time, lessons or the free clinics being offered this summer. The 45-minute sessions are Tuesdays (beginner), Thursdays (intermediate) and Fridays (intermediate/advanced) at 11:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. Contact the program to reserve a spot by calling 202-944-2145 or emailing email@example.com.
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