The epicenter of the sport of squash in the U.S. might be in East Coast prep schools and the Ivy League, but the nation’s most illustrious player is a Portlander—introduced to the game at 6 by parents from England, where the sport was invented. For the best part of a decade, after going All-American at Yale, Lincoln High School grad Julian Illingworth ruled the US game. He won the men’s national title an unprecedented nine times, achieving a record-high ranking for an American of 24th in the world. In 2014, after a decade on the pro tour, Illingworth, 32, returned home to coach at the Multnomah Athletic Club (where he played as a junior). Now, the champ’s on a mission: to turn Portlanders on to the mano-a-mano racket sport that’s been called “physical chess.”
Like racquetball, you’re playing in a walled court. But squash is an area control game; you’re trying to hit shots that move your opponent to the corners to keep them from the middle of the court. The rallies are long; you have to maneuver your opponent out of position before you can attack them.
I have good hand-eye coordination and reactions. This meant the skill level I could attain was high. And I put a lot of work in. As a kid, I’d just hit the ball against the wall on my own. By 15, I was stronger and fitter than most other US players. If I had to, I could run them into the ground.
I was confident I was the best US player. Against a top-10 player in the world, you’re not as confident. It’s important to have a bit of an “I don’t care” attitude—focused but without fear. At times in my career I had the balance right, but there’d be close matches when I’d feel myself tighten up.
Egypt is squash’s superpower. They have seven of the top 10 players, and it’s the same in the juniors—some of their 12-year-olds, you’re like, “that kid’s really good.” The sport is massive there, like a giant factory—kids [playing] five, six hours a day.
The pro squash circuit is like an unglamorous tennis tour. You’re flying economy. Sometimes you’re staying in nice hotels, but [otherwise] you can be in someone’s basement or crashing at a friend’s. I was gone a quarter to a third of the year. But it was great; every tournament you’re with your buddies. I don’t know many people my age who’ve seen as much as I have—it’s not like I was an investment banker [going to swanky] places; it could be some secondary city in Brazil or wherever.
There was this guy Shahier Razik, known for having the longest matches. He was defensive, methodical. I was the top American; he was the top Canadian.... We’d play multiple times a year. We’d have these hour-and-45-minute matches, long for squash, and my threshold for cramping was about an hour and 45 minutes. No matter what I’d do—drink Pedialyte, whatever—I’d cramp. It was a question of whether I could beat him before I seized up. Overall, my record against him was close to 50‑50. I liked playing him. A really intense squash match is like running a marathon. You learn a lot about yourself.
Within the squash community I’m a little bit of a celebrity. [At tournaments] people know who I am. But then I leave and I’m a normal person, incognito. It’s great. If I’d also made millions of dollars playing, it would have been the perfect storm.
Squash in the US is on the rise. There’s a female player [Amanda Sobhy] who’s top-10 in the world now. And urban squash programs have sprung up—about 25 nationwide—aiming to bring squash to low-income communities.
Squash butt is very common. Your butt gets sore from lunges. Most people can do a lunge in the gym, no problem, they don’t get sore. But if you run then lunge, there’s extra force going into that lunge. The next day, you feel it.... Your knee’s sore, you ice your knee; your whole body’s sore, you ice your whole body. You gotta steel yourself and just do it.