by Brendan Sample
Although it has a considerable following in countries around the world, the game of squash does not have the same kind of large following in America as sports like football, baseball and basketball have had for some time. Despite a lack of mainstream attention in the United States, however, there are still plenty of people who enjoy playing squash, particularly in Chestnut Hill.
With the Philadelphia Squash Club located at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, which itself has well over 100 student players, there is plenty of exposure to squash in the neighborhood, which helped to draw British professional Stu Hadden all the way from London.
At 24 years old, Hadden was a national squash champion for Great Britain and ranked in the top 200 professionals in the world before moving to Chestnut Hill in late October last year to become the touring pro for the PSC. He has only found more success since arriving, having achieved a ranking of 180 and reaching his first three quarterfinals and first semifinal on the professional tour. In addition, he has been working in a mentorship role at SCH, working directly with kids at the school to help develop their understanding of the sport. It is certainly a lot to handle, but for Hadden, squash is a lifelong love that has come as second nature.
“I could walk and then I could play squash, like since I was a little kid,” Hadden said. “I was naughty in church, and so my parents sent me to play squash at the squash club next door instead of going to church because me and my friend used to mess around – the rest is history.”
Hadden already had a connection to Chestnut Hill through SCH high school varsity and middle school coach Michael Jefferys, who previously coached Hadden’s coach from London. Jefferys was the national coach of the South African junior team, on which was Hadden’s coach, Jesse. Having that connection, Hadden heard when Jefferys was looking for someone to help at SCH, which led to him getting the job.
Though Chestnut Hill is certainly a different environment from London and would require an adjustment from pretty much anyone, Hadden has actually credited the neighborhood atmosphere for his recent successes.
“Something in the water in Chestnut Hill’s done it for me,” he explained. “This is definitely prettier. The weather’s definitely a lot nicer. The game is different here as well. It’s growing, so there’s a lot more kids playing it and stuff.”
One thing that has certainly been unexpected for Hadden is the response that SCH kids have had to squash. With both the number of students that have taken to the sport, ranging from ages 11 through 18, and the high skill level at which they have been playing, it has been a welcome surprise.
“It’s like 150-200 kids maybe,” Hadden said. “The level’s definitely a lot higher than I was anticipating. America hasn’t traditionally been very good at squash, but every year it seems to be getting stronger and stronger, so I definitely wasn’t expecting the level to be as high as it is … I think they take it a lot more seriously over here from a young age. There’s more of an emphasis on just having fun when you’re younger with the sport and then maybe it gets a bit serious as you get older, but I think over here it’s more intense early on. I think sport in general is taken much more seriously because it can get you into colleges.”
Another main difference between the two locations is the preparation. Hadden noted that while squash may be played the same no matter where in the world you go, getting himself and others ready for matches has been noticeably different.
“I train with the kids, whereas in London I was training with other pros,” he said. “That’s definitely different prep, playing with top juniors instead of playing with top pros. It gives me a chance to work on different things. With pros I have to work on playing fast, but with the kids I can control the ball a bit better because I’ve got more time on it. It’s completely different tournament prep, but it seems to be working pretty well.”
As the squash season winds down this month, Hadden will be playing in two more tournaments: one in New York on May 11 and another in Costa Rica at the end of the month. Squash will then ramp back up in October, with the U.S. Open taking place in Philadelphia. Hadden is hoping to qualify for the Open by either winning a tournament played by local professionals or by having a high enough ranking at the time.
In the meantime, Hadden will continue to adjust to his new life in Chestnut Hill. He is currently living with the family of SCH students, albeit temporarily. While Hadden has certainly had much to enjoy on the squash scene, his most memorable moment during his time here so far is something that transcends any differences between London and Chestnut Hill.
“I’d say that’s the Harry Potter Festival,” Hadden said. “I just turned up – it was like the day after I arrived. That was pretty fun.”