By Sam Howe & Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Baird Haney Juniors Tournament, which attracts the top players from the entire Northeast, is just one of three squash events hosted by the historic Heights Casino. Founded in 1904, the Casino (named for an earlier concept of 'Casino' as a house of games, rather than a place to gamble), built two of the earliest indoor tennis courts in the U.S. and later added squash courts and in the early 1930s a doubles squash court in the basement. Based at 75 Montague Street, the Casino hosted the earliest Open Doubles Squash Championship in the U.S. in 1938. It attracted the top professionals and amateurs of the time, and has continued to do so continuously since. (In the 1960s it was renamed in honor of David C. Johnson, a Heights resident and champion player who won the tournament.)
In the 1970s, the nation's first serious juniors program was begun by club professional Fred Weymuller. Unlike other toney and suburban clubs in Westchester, Greenwich, and Philadelphia, the Heights Casino junior players could walk to their club. Weymuller thereby was able to create a high-powered program that included practice before and after school, with huge participation. To this day, the Casino employs many more squash--and tennis--professionals year-round than any of the country clubs in suburbia. Fred Weymuller's protégé and wife Carol led the development of women's squash in metropolitan NYC and the Casino created more than three decades ago the 'Weymuller'--an international women's tournament that still attracts the top 16 players from all over the world.
In the 1980s, a beloved assistant pro named Baird Haney was killed in a car crash on the Manhattan Bridge. An existing junior tournament run by head pro David Temple was re-named in honor of Baird Haney, and it has since become a very popular--perhaps the top--stop on the metropolitan junior tournament circuit.
Hosted by the Heights Casino, the Baird Haney has grown in size and utilizes several other neighboring brownstone Brooklyn squash clubs to accommodate a large draw of junior players from ages 10-18.
Linda Elriani, who was ranked for many years in the top five women internationally, now heads the squash program at the Heights Casino. “This is probably the longest-running juniors program in the country,” she said, “and our tournaments, whether junior or adult , or doubles, attract the world's best players.”
Many of the players that participate in these tournaments are high school kids from right here in Brooklyn. Most of the students either go to St. Ann's on Pierrepont Street or Packer Collegiate Institute on Joralemon Street and the train in the club's “accelerated program”.
Members of that program practice at least six, usually seven, times a week. It's grueling not only physically, but the kids at this level are competing for scholarships at Ivy League schools and some of the top universities in the country. So in addition to finding the time to practice six or seven days a week, they have to keep their grades up or forget competing for the scholarships.
“They all seem to be very good at managing their time,” Elriani said. “They realize the grades are the most important thing. Luckily, most of them live within a few blocks from here, so it's easier to find time. [At] a lot of these good colleges, even if you have good squash skills, you still need the SAT scores. One doesn't come without the other and we're fully aware of that.”
For high school squash players, this is the highest level program in the area and the student-athletes are aware and usually have no issues with motivation. One student-athlete, Andrew Douglas, is not yet in the program, but has already transferred to Packer and regularly plays and practices there. He explained that he's extremely determined to join the club because “it's undoubtedly the best program in the city.”
For those lucky enough to be members of the club already, they are using it as a springboard. The accelerated program helps get them into the top tournaments in the country, which get them noticed by college coaches. Even if they don't expect to continue playing squash at a high level in college, they know that it looks better on applications. Many also use it to get into a slightly better school than they otherwise would have.
“You have to be smart to play squash because a lot of us are looking at trying to get scholarships from Ivy League and other competitive schools,” 16-year-old Lucy Martin explained. “It works the other way, though, too, where squash can help you get into a school that you otherwise wouldn't have gotten into.”
“It's great having these courts so close to home,” 17-year-old Gabriel Bassil said. “That's why you see so many good squash players coming from Brooklyn. I love the Baird E. Haney too. It's one of my favorite tournaments. I get to stay at home and I don't have to travel hours to get to the tournament. It's my own environment. It's fun.”