Squash players push back against gym plan to close courts | Sports

When New Area resident Farzad Azizi looked to buy a home in Sugar Land, one of the deciding factors was its proximity to the local Life Time Fitness due to its squash court.

“I bought my house because of the location of this court,” said Azizi. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be in this neighborhood. But how important it is for me and my family.”

Squash, a ball-and-racquet game usually played on a glass-covered court with a wooden floor, has grown in popularity in Fort Bend County in recent years, fueled in part by the influx of immigrants to the county.

But the sport’s local popularity could be in jeopardy if 1331 State Highway 6 Life Time Fitness (LTF) follows through on plans to close its squash courts during upcoming renovations — the only such courts in all of Fort Bend County.

According to frequenters of the high-end gym and health club, if those courts were removed, the nearest squash court would be about 15 miles from the Sugar Land gym.

Representatives of the gym, which has locations in the area, said the renovations are designed to invest in more children’s programs in Sugar Land, and they plan to turn one of their Houston locations into a center for squash.

“I have to drive 25 miles just to get to the squash court,” says Sugar Land resident Shashank Khandavalli. “If I have to do this several times a week, why should I keep my membership?”

Khandavalli said squash is “a sport for all ages” and LTF members who play the sport range from high school kids to seniors.

Squash players take turns serving the ball so that it hits the wall above the line and lands away from the service line. The rubber ball (which weighs less than an ounce and bounces very low and slow, unlike racquetball or tennis) must be returned without bouncing twice, or the serving player is awarded a point.

According to US Squash, the sport’s national governing body, there are more than 1.6 million players in the United States and more than 20 million players globally. According to Sports Travel Magazine, there are approximately 3.5 million US racquetball players and approximately 20 million worldwide.

Andre Maur, founder of Globalsquash.com and one of the sport’s most awarded professionals, lives in Atlanta and manages the squash program at the city’s LTF venues. He said he often hosts LTF-branded tournaments in the Houston area.

“There’s a big squash there, and that’s because there’s a big Pakistani and Egyptian population, and squash is their national sport,” Maur said. “(Houston) is one of the biggest (squash centers) in America. So, they are very enthusiastic about it.”

Rahul Gandhi, a Sugar Land resident and LTF member for the past four years, said squash is an important outlet for people around the world, adding that the sport has grown because of the recent arrival of immigrants to Fort Bend County, like architect Obinna. Ilochonwu.

“(Squash) reflects the cultural diversity of Sugar Land,” Ilochonwu said. If you take it, I guarantee you most of them (squash and racquetball players) will go.

“We take the money side. However, corporations have a social and cultural responsibility to the areas they serve.”

Malik Tajir, a Sugar Land resident, is the chief spokesman for a group of more than 60 members who signed a Dec. 10 letter to the gym’s general manager saying they would cancel their membership if the squash courts were closed.

Merchant said the general manager told him in December that the squash and racquetball courts would be closed until March to make way for renovations.

“If this goes away, it’s the only sport my son and I play together,” Merchant said.

The general manager did not return an email or phone call from The Star seeking comment for this story.

While Merchant and other residents said they understand LTF is a private business and is free to make changes to its facilities as it sees fit, they also said the company has an obligation to listen to the public. Merchant said many of his members, who pay more than $129 a month in membership fees, are also willing to maintain the courts themselves and pay additional fees to keep the courts in place.

“If you think 100 people are paying $5 a month to play squash, that’s about 25 hours a week of good time,” Merchant said. “That’s a lot of money, about $150,000 a year.”

Maur said the LTF could lose about $100,000 if the Sugar Land squash players group cancels its membership. But he said LTF could look at bike classes or other programs as a more cost-effective way to use the space the courts take up.

“Like any business owner, they want a return on investment,” Maur said. “Closing a squash court always hurts, but from a corporate point of view there is a reason behind it. But (potential losses from membership fees) is a significant amount that they don’t want to lose, especially at this time.”

Bunker Hill, a Sugar Land resident since 1997, said he grew up playing racquetball and hopes LTF will understand that he and others see racquetball and squash as key community assets.

“To cut racquetball and squash is to cut another opportunity for kids to learn a new sport,” Hill said. “For my own selfish reasons, of course, I like to play and it’s nice to have him. But it would be great to introduce children to these sports for the future.”

“We continue to invest in our local squash programming as we make changes at Life Time Sugar Land to meet member demand in areas including our growing Kids Academy programming,” Life Time Fitness spokesman Daniel DeBaun wrote in an email to The. Star.

DeBaun said the company will focus on the CityCentre, a retail space in Houston’s Memorial City, with five additional squash courts (for a total of nine at the club), including a glass court with stadium seating. available for events.

DeBaun said the project will be completed in the coming months.

DeBaun also said Amr Abdelmaksoud will lead the squash program at the CityCentre location. Abdelmaksoud has coached numerous top-10 ranked senior and junior players around the world and in Houston, DeBaun said.

“He and his team will be visiting Sugar Land in the coming weeks with our members who use the squash courts,” DeBaun wrote. “It will remain the best local place for squash in Houston for a lifetime.”

DeBaun declined a request for an interview with Abdelmaksoud, writing that it would be “premature” and that the club would continue to contact members directly.

Gandhi said he was keeping calm about the club’s renovation plans.

The Sugar Land gym completed a $5 million renovation in 2021 and plans to install new basketball court floors and new cycling studios, among other improvements, according to a sign inside the facility.

In the interim, Merchant and Sugar Lands resident Nasir Walji attended an open house at City Hall last Wednesday to voice residents’ concerns and provide feedback on the TE Harman Center, a city-run public recreation facility. improvements and additions they would like to see there.

There is also the potential for some economic losses if members who play squash in the neighborhoods surrounding the fitness center go elsewhere to play.

“Then if we go out to eat, we’ll go to work that’s close to where we play,” Walji said.

But any addition to a senior center or other urban facility would be a long-term solution with no specific timeline or plans.

“The city of Sugar Land has no plans to develop additional indoor recreation facilities in the near future,” said city spokesman Doug Adolph. “We have a number of ways to ensure citizen input into future ISP projects – including a Citizen Satisfaction Survey on our website and a CIP survey portal – but nothing beyond that has been immediately included in the currently approved five-year ISP programme.”

Fort Bend County Judge KP George told The Star that the county has had discussions about building some outdoor courts, but did not respond to follow-up questions about those discussions.

“We’ve already talked about building some outdoor courts,” George wrote in a text message, “but I want to hear from people who support it.”

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