A squashed history
The balls used in squash are apparently what give the game its name. Small speedy squashy spheres were first used in the mid-19th century when the early players of the game at Harrow found rackets balls too hard and too slow.
Before squash was standardised, court sizes, ball sizes and ball materials varied from match to match. But as the game grew in popularity the need for regularity followed.
Since the Tennis and Rackets Association was already established it was the obvious organisation to bring standards to the game. In 1926 the T&RA’s Joint Clubs Squash Rackets Committee officially endorsed two balls to be manufactured by Silvertown and Gradidge. These continued to be used until the Second World War saw the London factories destroyed and the supply of rubber diminished.
After the war Dunlop became the endorsed manufacturer, producing slower rubber balls which were better suited to the warmer environment of the Lansdowne Club where the post-war amateur championships took place. And in 1960 the introduction of synthetic balls by Slazenger gave the game a more consistent but less hardy ball.
Since 1967 the Hastings-based World Squash Federation (WSF) has taken care of standards in the sport. Soon after, in 1970, Dunlop introduced its dots system to help guide players to the right ball for their speed of play and court climate.
How fast can a squash ball go?
How fast your ball goes is affected by numerous factors – your own power, your racket’s power, the tension in your strings, the type of ball, and the warmth of the ball.
Officially Australian player Cameron Pilley holds the record for the fastest squash ball. In May 2014 he hit a ball which was recorded as travelling at 176mph, beating his own record of 175mph. His brother Morgan agreed to take the impact of the ball in the back leaving a nasty wound which he proudly tweeted to the world. We’re sure their mother is very proud!
The Need for Speed
There are numerous manufacturers of squash balls. Each uses a variety of materials to manufacture and some have unique systems to grade the speed of their balls. So, for the novice to the sport, the range can appear confusing.
In essence though there are only really six recognised speeds of squash ball and the right ones for you will be determined by where you’re playing and how you play.
The most universally accepted grading is the dot system. It goes as follows…
The WSF only endorses the Dunlop standard yellow dot championship squash ball, and undertakes a very rigorous testing process to do so. The diameter, weight, stiffness, seam strength, rebound and resilience are all meticulously measured and the performance of the ball assessed in very exact circumstances.
As far as other types of ball are concerned the WSF states that any, “may be used by players of greater of lesser ability or in court conditions which are hotter or colder than those used to determine the yellow dot specification".
The speed of the ball that’s right for you is inversely proportional to the level at which you play. Fast balls are best suited to new players who don’t hit hard as their extra bounce enables players to get under the ball and hit it.
Slow balls are therefore better suited to more skilled and powerful players able to enjoy a more competitive and technically challenging game.
It’s good to have a variety of balls in your kit bag though. Try rallying solo with each of them to get a good feel for each type and select a different ball for each opponent you play based on both your abilities.
Why warming squash balls is a must
If you’re new to the game, one of the most important things to do before you play is to warm up the ball. All balls need to be warm to perform and keeping the ball warm requires a decent period of continued play during the match too, so if you have chosen a ball that’s too slow for your game the ball won’t reach its potential.
Cold squash balls barely bounce, but after warming their bounce can double.
Since they’re made of rubber squash balls are low in resilience. What this means is it they expend lots of energy when they hit and squash against a surface and so can store very little energy to bounce back.
However with repeated impact the ball begins to get warm, the air inside the ball expands and creates pressure, and so on impact there is less squash and more bounce. This is not an exponential process, if it was the ball would eventually explode! Typically when a ball reaches about 45°C the excess heat is lost to the racket strings and court walls and the ball’s temperature plateaus.
As a result temperature has its part to play in selecting the speed of the ball. The warmer your environment the slower the ball you should use.
Players who don’t warm their balls will experience ‘dead bounce’ and barely get the game going. Players who get their ball warm will enjoy a ‘low bounce’ game with some pace. While players who get their ball hot are playing what’s known as soft ball squash, with a high bounce and usually these guys are the pros.
Again it’s good advice to have a selection of balls. Warm up each and rally against a wall to get a feel for the one, when warm, that’s best for you.