Ode to the Squash Ball
For a sport that sounds so much like a vegetable, squash has awfully large degree of complexity. It takes a lot of skill to get good. Take the ball, for example. Who would dream up a sport where you run around after a ball that simply doesn’t bounce until half-way through the match? Or rather, a sport where you spend the first 15 minutes warming up not yourself, your muscles or your mind, but the ball itself?
Apparently someone. I discovered recently that the name of the sport, squash, comes from the behavior of the original balls as they bounced off the wall. I understand this to mean that the ball became squashed as it ricocheted of every imaginable surface in a tiny wooden room. The current ball, however, does anything but squash. It bounces. It sputters. It dies.
However, the use of the word ‘squash’ was initially intended, it seems, to distinguish this crazy racket sport from another, namely “rackets.” So “squash rackets” was the sport played with the squashy ball, while “hard rackets” was the one played with the hard ball. Now, anyone who has been hit by a squash ball knows that they are not exactly soft , but perhaps this only indicates that one would really not like to be hit by the “hard rackets” ball. Apparently, the narrowing of the court led to the switch for exactly this safety reason.
Anyway, this split between hard and squashy rackets occurred during the 19th century and gave rise to the popularity of squash, and the subsequent demise of hard rackets. Between then and the 1920s, trial and error produced many balls. Squash at that time was a rougue sport, not regulated by any organization, so people built courts of all shapes and sizes and they had balls suited to the particular court they had built. The larger the court, the safer it was to use a hard ball, the smaller the court, the more squashy you would want to make the ball.
In the 1920s, squash was adopted by the Tennis and Rackets Association, and hence subjected to institutional standards. This meant an end to the idiosyncrasies of court dimension and ball type. Colonel R.E. Crompton of the Royal Automobile Club of London is accredited with devising the first techniques for weighing and measuring balls, as well as testing the amount of bounce of the various balls that were being circulated. Popular manufacturers of the day included the East India Rubber Company, the Silvertown Company and the Gradidge Company, which marketed its so-called “nigger ball” in colors such as red and white, as well as the traditional black.
In 1923, Silvertown won out over its competition and its “Wisden Royal” ball was voted the official squash ball of amateur squash. Balls were subject to certain standards by the Squash Committee of the Tennis and Rackets Association and all other balls began to drop out of circulation.
Squash players like to complain, though. Much like professional soccer players, you will see squash pros arguing with their referees, throwing tantrums, falling down for no apparent reason, claiming “Ah, he tripped me!” As early as September of 1923, not even a year after the ball had been officially standardized, players were complaining that the ball was too fast. They needed the game to be just a little harder, and the committee began talking about making a new standard ball that bounced less.
A series of politics ensued. The Squash Rackets Association (SRA) branched off from its previous protectors, the Tennis and Rackets Association. New companies were brought in to make new balls. In 1930, Silvertown again won out over its competition and was adopted as the official ball of the SRA, but in 1934, the newly formed Women’s Squash Rackets Association opted to use a ball made by Gradidge. World War II bombings in London destroyed most of the ball manufacturers and also dried up the supply of rubber. Silvertown went out of business, leaving squash ball production a major hole. A company called Dunlop stepped in to pick up the slack.
After the war, squash continued to increase in popularity. But then, another disaster. The Bath Club, which had been host to the Amateur Championships, was destroyed in a fire. The Championships were moved to Landsdowne Club, where the courts were warmed and faster. Thus Dunlop developed a much less bouncy ball to counteract this effect. Although other manufacturers continued to make balls, Dunlop had now stolen much of the market and remains the primary producer of squash balls.
Anyone who has seen a squash ball before will have noted the two yellow dots, like cat’s eyes, peering up from the black surface of the ball. Further investigation will reveal other balls with different numbers of dots and different colorations. In the 1970s, Dunlop introduced a system of marking different balls, indicating their degree of bounciness with the colored dots. Squash ball connoisseurs know that a blue dot ball bounces more than a single yellow dot ball, which in turn bounces more than a double yellow dot ball (the standard tournament ball is the least bouncy). Thus beginners, myself included, start with blue, then red, then yellow, until they have finally matured enough to use the prestigious double-yellow-dotted ball.
Much like predecessors who spoke of their “secret recipes” for making balls, Dunlop guards the ball’s identity like a dragon in a treasure-filled cave. When I hold a Dunlop ball in my hand, ready to serve, I know that I am holding an object that has been to several countries and many different stages of development. But where exactly has it been and how was it made?
The ball comes out of a small white, yellow and black box, suited to fit it as perfectly as a cube can fit a sphere. The top of the box is emblazoned with the Dunlop trademark, a D in a circle in an arrowhead, flying off to the right. The side of the box identifies this as the “World’s #1 ball,” which seems a bold claim for a company with a monopoly on the entire market. The box also indicates that this is a “PRO” ball, subtitling that with “advanced players” and specifying yet again with a blow-up of the two yellow dots on the side of the ball. Another side of the box shows a cross-section of the ball and a “micro scale” diagram that looks like something from a chemistry textbook. I try to remember whether the black dots represent carbon. Yet another side of the box declares (in four languages) that this is the official ball of three different world squash organizations. The bottom of the box, in very small letters, indicates “Made in the Philippines.”
According to my research, however, the rubber for the ball is grown in Malaysia and shipped to the Barnsley factory (though it sounds like it should be in England, perhaps it is actually in the Philippines). The rubber is masticated to a workable consistency and then mixed with a series of secret natural compounds and synthetic materials, giving the ball its characteristic feel and bounce. Each ball type (red, yellow, blue dots) contains a slightly different combination of compounds.
The mixture is then run through a series of machines which turn it from a putty-like blob into pellets and then into half-shells. The edges of these half-shells are roughened, coated with a rubber solution and an adhesive and pressed together in an operation called “flapping.” The flapped balls are then passed through a series of further machinations to ensure that the join is firm and their edges are roughened to give them their characteristic matte finish. Before the Dunlop logo is stamped on them, each ball is checked by hand for defects. Thus every ball that reaches the consumer is perfect.
 Though, I will say there is a sort of masochistic pleasure in watching that perfectly round bruise appear on the thigh or back.
 However, I do know of one club in Boston that still maintains a rackets court (larger than a squash court). I saw people playing on it once, when I got lost on my way to a squash match. And coming from someone who plays a pretty obscure sport myself, it was weird. But, hey, whatever makes you happy.
 Examples of many early and rare ball varieties can be viewed at The Squash Racket Collection, a collection of rackets and balls from all different manufacturers and all eras. If ever in Melbourne, Australia (I haven’t been yet, but will soon be planning a visit), you are welcome to take a look. Contact email@example.com for more information.
 Yes, I find this as disturbing as you do.
 Little, however, is known of the exact specifications of this particular ball, as the Silvertown Company’s records were destroyed during the Second World War. Clearly the Germans were after more than just territory.
 A legitimate footnote: since squash balls are made of rubber, they bounce more when heated, due to the elastic properties of the material. Friction heats them up, which is why the more one hits a ball, the more bouncy it becomes. The same goes for warm courts, though. On warmer courts, the ball bounces more from the beginning. On many a cold winter’s day, I placed my balls on the heater before starting practice so that I didn’t have to put in the muscle power of getting them ready for playing.
 However, I still find the occasional imperfection in my balls. Sometimes, you don’t realize that the ball is not perfectly round until you try to play with it and it careens crazily in a direction you never intended. Sometimes, this is a benefit; when playing someone who understands the game and the way the ball should bounce, this may throw them off and win you the point. Just expect the same kind of unpredictable reaction when your opponent hits the ball.