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Squash Court Friendship at the Athletic Club

By Jenni Simcoe
Published: Wednesday, December 15, 2010, at 09:09AM
LAAC Squash Court Eric Richardson

Neil Kritzinger and Greg Fowler stand on a squash court at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

“In Australia they call it ‘mateship,’” says Neil Kritzinger, a 64-year-old architect from the African country of Namibia, about his connection to his Australian friend, Greg Fowler, a 49-year-old realtor. The pair had met at the Los Angeles Athletic Club through an old fashioned social network called squash.

“The squash pro pairs up members by dividing them into skill levels,” said Cory Hathaway, Director of Sales and Marketing at the Athletic Club, describing the foundation of a box league. “Everyone within the certain skill level plays all of the other members in that level each month.” At the end of each month the top players in each box are moved up a level while those at the bottom of each box move down a box. The box scores are then posted next to the squash courts for all to see. “It’s great motivation,” says Hathaway.

When Kritzinger and Fowler first played one another a year and a half ago, they instantly hit it off. “Right from the beginning I could tell Neil was very good. He was very humble. It took three minutes to figure out that he knew what he was doing,” said Fowler.

A lifelong squash player, Kritzinger had just joined a box league at the Athletic Club after a ten-year hiatus from playing due to injury. From age 21, he was a competitive player in South Africa and was ranked in the top 20 players in the world. “It was the dawn of the pro era. The two leading players made a bit of money,” said Kritzinger. “The rest of us depended on our financial resources, the kindness of strangers, equipment given to us by manufacturers, and a bit of appearance money—barely enough to go out and have a good time that night.”

Fowler’s experience with a racquet and ball goes back to his youth. “I played tennis from the age of eight and was competing in junior tournaments at the age of twelve,” he said. Fowler was good enough to move to Florida to attend the Harry Hopman Tennis Academy to train with the Davis Cup champion.

“I wasn’t good enough to make money to do it full time, so I would teach and play tournaments and did a few small circuits in the Bahamas,” said Fowler. After playing competitively, he went to school for Business Administration and then moved to California, where he worked as a tennis pro at a club. He got his introduction to squash when he met pro Stefan Castelyn and started taking lessons.

Fowler joined the Los Angeles Athletic Club when Castelyn took a job as the pro at the club. “The club is an international hub of squash players,” said Kritzinger. The pool of players includes top players from Belgium and Fiji.

Fowler plays squash about four times a week, usually against an opponent from a pool of 15 to 20 other members of the club. Kritzinger plays a couple times a week. “I’d like to play more but I’ve been busy, and if I play too much, my body starts feeling it,” said Kritzinger.

Depending on their scores from the previous month, the two may or may not be in the same box of players. When they do get to play one another, there’s a bit of “light trash talk” according to Fowler. Kritzinger says the trash talk is less common in squash than other games. “I moan and groan about umpiring decisions. Jokingly we might say things. Some guys, all they do is trash talk. But, there’s not much time for it on the squash court.”

Squash is much quicker than most American spectator sports, and is not commonly televised. Kritzinger says that is because the quick little ball doesn’t translate well on TV. “Squash has inevitable connotations of being an elitist sport because it was exported by the British and came to the U.S. and ended up in private clubs and Ivy Leagues. In Europe it’s become an everyman’s game, particularly well-suited to the weather conditions.”

Both Fowler and Kritzinger play for fitness. “In 45 minutes the average player can burn all the calories they want to for a whole week because of its intensity,” said Kritzinger. The intensity of the game is why squash has been named the number one sport by Forbes magazine for its level of fitness. “It’s a great workout,” said Fowler, who noted that many top tennis players are now using squash for off-season training.

After a game, the ‘mates’ head a block west to Casey’s for a pint of beer. “We don’t expect to go straight to the locker room and disappear. That happens more in the U.S.,” said Kritzinger. “Maybe they don’t have time or socialize the same way.”

Both men say that belonging to the Athletic Club does more than just give them a workout; it gives them a sense of camaraderie.

Speaking of his friendship with Fowler, Kritzinger said, “When you find someone else who’s prepared to sit around and shoot the breeze after a game, you’re a happy camper.”

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