Sonya Sasson on Squash, Without the Ceiling

Sophomore Sonya Sasson talks about squash, her new book, and that glass ceiling.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Mike Pepper

In March, with New York City shut down, sophomore Sonya Sasson stands at a pillar off West Side Highway with a racquet and a rubber ball in hand. There are no competitors—save for the company of her younger brother—only a blank pillar facing back. Sasson’s gaze is focused. She sets the ball and swings the racquet through the air, watching it bounce from the pillar back to the racquet. Her esoteric game continues, in spite of the glances of passersby or her unflinching adversary. Hours pass.

Sasson takes the ball and her racquet, then returns home—and writes. She writes about practice, precision, and strategy; diagrams, mantras, and lessons fill pages. Then full journals—then multiple ones. A startling pattern begins to unfold. Interrelations between lessons, memories, and experiences; ideas that live past crumpled pages.

Sasson decides to start a new enterprise. That is, she self-publishes a book.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sasson’s debut book, “Ready, Set, Squash!: A Fun Guide to the World’s Healthiest Sport,” co-written by her coach Wael El Hindi (illustrations by Elena Critelli), introduces young readers to the world of squash, from fun facts and history to simple instructions on mastering the fundamentals of the sport.

Squash was invented in 1830s England, against a wall—or a pillar, perhaps—of the Harrow School. Students discovered that a punctured ball, which “squashed” on impact with the wall, produced a game with a greater variety of shots. Though modern squash is an indoor sport, fundamental rules remain similar. Two players take turns hitting the ball onto the front wall; a player earns a point each time they win a rally. A game goes up to 11 points, and the player who wins three games out of five wins the match.

Sasson recognizes that squash is a bit of a novelty sport. “When we were still in person at Stuy, I would have my squash racquet poking out my backpack, and people would go ‘nice tennis racquet!’ or ‘badminton, nice!’” Sasson said. “And of course, when I was busy, I just smiled and laughed a bit.”

Sasson began playing squash at 10 years old, after discovering an abandoned racquet court near her apartment complex. Her mother played squash in college and helped her start-up with practices, training sessions, and tournaments.

Six years later, Sasson’s been nationally ranked sixth in her division. She’s played for the U.S. Team in the 2019 Battle of the Border tournament against Canada, and has traveled both nationally and internationally for squash.

All of Sasson’s accomplishments, however, don’t come without sacrifices. Sasson trains six days a week, and the occasional seven. “It’s definitely overwhelming, balancing with school,” Sasson said. “But I think that’s what’s important, especially now. Part of being an athlete is the exhilaration and the failures and achievements, but it’s also about not taking the easy way out. It’s about getting back up and showing up to the next practice.”

Sasson’s success in squash isn’t exclusively due to her unwavering resilience and a rock-solid work ethic—though these are certainly leading factors. That honor goes to the experiences that Sasson’s lived through, both on and off the court. “The battle-border tournament was in Ontario, at this city called Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Sasson recalled. “Squash is usually a one-on-one sport, so being on a team, together, representing the U.S. was so special. I remember going into the glass court before a tournament, and then just looking outside and seeing someone hold the American flag and chanting ‘Sonya!’ and it just felt so incredibly surreal; and at the end, just hoisting the trophy with teammates, and everyone cheering.”

Squash is not simply a sport to Sasson, nor is her status confined to that of an athlete. It's become an essential part of her identity and a source of magic, between the milliseconds of each game. “I remember this game where I was playing against a girl who was ranked much higher than I was,” Sasson said. “I lost the first two games, and the third round came around—if I lost this round, I’d be out. It was this brief second between points when you breathe, and you think about what you’re going to do, and it just comes into play in one millisecond. And I ended up winning the third game, then the fourth game, and then when it came back to the final round, I remembered all I did to get here. And when you come back out of it, after the comeback and the handshake and walking out of the box, it makes you feel alive like nothing else does.”

The beauty of the sport, however, comes from the fundamental concept behind any skill—it’s the learning process of it all. After every practice, tournament, or training session, Sasson keeps squash journals filled with detailed diagrams and inspiring mantras. “I have a journal dedicated to mantras,” Sasson said. “I know, it’s a bit cheesy, but I read them before matches and it makes me smile.”

Many of Sasson’s initial sketches and mantras have made their way into her book, albeit after numerous prototypes. “Ready, Set, Squash!” features tidbits from Captain Squash, a pro-squash player, and Mr. Clockwise, a newbie, as they navigate the seas of squash fundamentals. “I’m a little dorky, yeah.” There’s a hint of playfulness in Sasson’s voice. “But the process of writing the book was actually really long. We had about 10 drafts, and we put it all into this word document, and the book designer helped us format the book.”

It took a full year to publish her book. Once all the information was digitized—from Sasson’s journals, Critelli’s intricate drawings, and professional photographs—they began a meticulous process of editing and designing. “After the manuscript was set, we worked with the book designer, who would present us with different layouts. Once we decided on one, it was honed and revised, again and again until it was perfect,” Sasson said. “We probably re-read the same 40 pages hundreds of times!”

Sasson and her team registered the book under an ISBN number and copyright. After the legalities were dealt with, they directed their focus toward print and distribution. “Since we were self-publishing, we didn’t have the financial resources or logistics to carry out the distribution as we expected,” Sasson said. “So we went with a relatively large company who would not only print our book on-demand but they would distribute it to over 40,000 retailers worldwide.”

Sasson’s book is out in mainstream retailers like Barnes & Noble, Amazon Prime, and Bookshop, along with independent bookstores like Upper East Side’s Shakespeare & Co. But her main objective is to get the book out to the general public. “There’s this stigma that squash is elitist, but a big part of that is because the public isn’t really exposed to what squash is and what resources are out there,” Sasson explained. “We want to get this book on every bookshelf, so children all over the place will have a guide to play squash, just like how there are books on how to play soccer or tennis.”

Sasson’s mission to expand squash goes past her book, however. She’s started a program for squash at her local YMCA, and a squash program at her middle school is already in the works. She’s met with former world record-holding squash champions over lunch to brainstorm ways to grow the sport and has even continued her training schedule all through the pandemic. “This book is meant to endure,” Sasson said. “We’re passionate about growing squash, and we feel this book has staying power and will help us in this mission, COVID-19 or not.”

And yet there’s a startling distinction between hitting a squash ball against a pillar when courts are closed during the coronavirus and in a glass box at a bustling tournament. Squash is a sport that, for many, exists solely within the realms of private schools or elite social circles. It’s hard, getting into a sport that can be equally as costly and maddeningly difficult to learn; it’s hard, securing places at tournaments where glass walls enclose two players and the ceiling reaches a zenith.

That glass ceiling often looks untouchable. Sasson’s working to open the top.

“Ready, Set, Squash!: A Fun Guide to the World's Healthiest Sport” can be found on Instagram and Facebook as @readysetsquash. The book’s website can be found here.