Pro Tip: Adjusting Play for North American and International Courts

The great game that is squash is challenging on every level – stretching our limits physically, mentally, and emotionally. Yet we continue to willingly hurl ourselves around that little space, chasing balls that are constantly just out of reach.

I started playing squash in high school in the late 70s when North American (hardball) courts were the norm. In university in the 80s I was still playing in the old high-walled, low-tinned chapels of our sporting church. But by 1996, 80% of the courts in North America had adopted the new international court dimensions and soft ball. In 2017, my home club, the Balmy Beach Club, is one of the last places in Toronto & District that still has the old courts in play. Now, that’s fine as long as you never play on anything else. But those of us who play in leagues and tournaments are constantly reminded of the differences in the two courts and the two ways one has to play.

Court Dimensions

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From a spatial perspective, the courts differ greatly. The hardball court is 18.5 feet wide and 32 feet long with a 16” tin. The “T” is 10 feet from the back wall and the front wall is 16 feet high with a running 22 lineal foot “extension”, then a 4 foot drop, then the final 10 feet of the side wall is at a 12 foot height.

Softball, or international, courts are 21 feet wide and the same 32 feet long but the tin is an inch higher. The front wall is only 15 feet high with the out line descending diagonally to 7 feet high at the back wall, and the “T” 14 feet forward. The height of the service line differs as well between the courts, which affects those who like to serve to the line.

When most players think of the differences in the courts they consider court width. The dimensional changes of tin, front wall height, out line both side and back, and especially the placement of the “T”, are significant factors and require players to think in a different way. Players have to remember that hardball courts were designed for, you guessed it, the hard ball! Hard balls traveled much faster. The hardball game required not as much speed of foot because the court was smaller and the ball came out more to the middle but more racquet speed to keep up with the ball.

Adjusting Your Game 

From a service perspective there are slight differences. For instance, on an international court, the placement of a lob serve on the front wall should be lower and further toward the opponent’s side of centre in order to catch the side wall and hopefully die in the back corner. For those playing on the North American courts for the first time try aiming high to the front wall and more in the centre, this will let you take advantage of the high side walls!

Once the game is underway, a lob tends to be much more effective in a hardball court given the high out line along both the side and back walls. The great Rob Brooks enjoys coming to play at Balmy Beach because he loves the lob game. The lob game works on international courts as well. I’ve been in many a tournament where my opponent is totally flummoxed by lobs, especially crosscourt lobs. Players who’ve spent all their training time on the softball court rarely use the cross lob whereas it’s a key component to the narrow court game. North American courts are a great place to practice your lobs to develop a new weapon for the international courts thanks to the high side walls it’s very hard to go too high!

The straight drive is exactly the same on both courts as the length of court is identical. The one thing to be aware of is that if you use the placement of the service box as a marker for how far you hit your length, then you must be mindful that the service box is 4 feet closer to the back wall in a narrow court. For what it’s worth, landing the ball just beyond the narrow court service box leads to a happy ball death in the corner. Most players use muscle memory for that placement, but be mindful when warming up to check where the ball is landing to get your targets in line!

The drop only differs in terms of height. As mentioned previously, the tin in a North American court is an inch lower so if you’re used to the height of an international court you’ll find you aren’t tinning as much (and making some great shots!), those who are used to the North American court have the opposite problem on international courts, finding they tin out more then normal. Our club T&D teams and competitive tournament players are constantly in need of reminding of this to avoid too many unforced tin errors. Remember again that because the T is farther back than on an international court, the drop shot is more effective as the player has to run that much farther to the front to get the ball.

The crosscourt is the shot that requires the most adjustment between the two courts. The width of the softball court allows a crosscourt to have sufficient width as to be out of reach and not hit the sidewall too early to land in the back of the court. On the narrow court it’s much easier to cut off the crosscourt because the angle is shallower, the crosscourt tends to pop out more as well especially if you are used to crossing on International courts. If the striker has front court advantage, the crosscourt is equally effective on both sides. When crossing from behind the opponent, try to use the extra height of the out line to get the ball over the opponent so that they can’t cut it off with a volley. This will be less risky than a low cross that could quickly come out right back into the middle. Be mindful that because the court is narrower you’ll have less room to move around your opponent, especially if the cross courts are coming back out in the middle. When in doubt playing straight will keep you out of the way to minimize interference and lets.

As for switching back forth between the two courts – the basics are the same: hit for length, control (and mix) the pace, dominate the “T”. If, as a predominantly softball court player you find yourself playing in a hardball court, watch your crosscourts and force yourself to stand a few feet forward of the “T” position.

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Kinmond Smith, Balmy Beach Club

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