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Pedregal: Birthplace of Mexican Squash

by Rob Dinerman

New York. Published July 26, 2004 © 2004 Squashtalk.com

Mario Sanchez, Mexican hardball banner-carrier photo
© 2004 SquashTalk archives.

When the deVillafranca brothers, Juan and his twin siblings Luis and Raul, sold the family estate in the Mexico City suburb of Pedregal this past spring following the death several months earlier of their last surviving parent, their mother, Carmen, one of the truly historic sites in the annals of Mexican squash likely passed into oblivion.

For it was on this property that the first ever squash court in Mexico was constructed nearly 40 years ago, thereby launching what would become a truly remarkable and memorable phenomenon in the evolution of the sport on this continent.

MEXICAN DISCOVERY MADE BY RAUL
Their father, Raul Sr., was a highly successful and prominent lawyer who in fact served for several years as the personal lawyer to one of Mexico's Presidents during the early 1960's. On one of the senior deVillafranca's business trips to Europe in 1963, he discovered and was immediately entranced by the game of squash, which had been non-existent in Mexico, where the dominant "wall" racquet sports were jai alai and especially frontenis, which is played on a 30 meter by 10 meter three-wall court with tennis racquets and a hard rubber ball similar to a squash ball though slightly larger.

Returning excitedly home upon the conclusion of his business obligations overseas, Mr. DeVillafranca contacted the USSRA to learn the dimensions of a North American (i.e. hardball) court and to procure the necessary equipment; by 1965 a fully serviceable court was ready for action on the back lawn behind the family home, and plenty of action is exactly what the open-air, concrete-floored plaster-walled structure would receive!

From the very beginning, the game was a tremendous hit with the friends and business colleagues that visited the deVillafrancas, with the court in constant use at all hours of the day and night, especially on weekends, when every afternoon the property metamorphosed into a crowded and continuous celebration of the game, to the point where the family actually installed a swimming pool just yards from the court so that their guests could cool off while awaiting their turn on court! Because of the senior deVillafranca's status in the political and business communities, the playing group at this juncture was decidedly upper-crust: one noted USSRA officer in for a visit during that period vividly recalls his host gesturing to the several dozen guests thronging the grounds late one afternoon and commenting that "80% of all the wealth in Mexico is right here on this lawn."

SANCHEZ CLAN GETS IN THE ACT
During the 1968 Olympic Games, which were held in Mexico City, Mr. DeVillafranca approached Carlos and Raul Sanchez, who were members of the Mexican team in frontenis, which was a demonstration sport in those Games, and invited them to visit his home and give squash a try. Both became instant converts, and the latter would eventually attain a level of stardom (including a number of USSRA age-group championships) that was, however, eclipsed by the achievements of his nephew, Mario, who in 1979 would become the first Mexican to win the U. S. Nationals, jump-starting a WPSA pro career that saw him become a perennial top-five-ranked superstar, a finalist in the '82 Boston Open and the '89 North American Open and the '86 WPSA Championships winner via a 3-0 final-round victory over Michael Desaulniers in Toledo.

During the late 1960's the wealthy friends and colleagues of Mr. DeVillafranca began building squash courts in their own backyards and eventually one of their number, Tomas Pacheco, decided to build a few courts that would be accessible to the public. In 1969 Luis Suinaga constructed a four-court complex named The Palace, which became the best known of its genre and the forerunner of facilities at Villa Coapa and other villages just outside Mexico City.

A Great Accomplishment for a young program: Mexican Team finally wins the US Team Event in 1975-76.
photo © USSRA/Peter Clement

A VERITABLE SQUASH BOOM
By the early 1970's the game was booming and in 1972 for the first time a Mexican team, which included Mr. DeVillafranca and his oldest son, Juan, then in his mid-teens, was entered in the USSRA Five-Man Team event. They lost 5-0 in the first round, but the push of Mexican squash was inexorable, as Mexican players began entering the USSRA junior age-group events and making their mark. In December '73, Juan deVillafranca stormed back from a two games to one deficit against three-time U. S. junior champion Ian Shaw, a heavy favorite, in the final of the prestigious Intercollegiate Invitational at the University Club of New York, winning the last two games going away and launching a run that brought him to the semis of the '74 U. S. Nationals and to the winner's circle of the '74 and '75 Intercollegiate Individual tournaments.

Jose Luis Mendez
photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.

That '75 title, in which in the final deVillafranca avenged his final-round Intercollegiate Invitational loss three months earlier to Bill Andruss, had been preceded by a milestone moment in the evolution of squash in Mexico, namely the hosting of the '75 version of the most prestigious tournament in all of squash on this continent, the North American Open. Earlier in the decade, the Federacion Mexicana de Squash had been formally established to oversee the sport's rapid growth, and after several years of attending USSRA Board meetings in his capacity as President of his country's new squash association, Mr. DeVillafranca was able to convince the USSRA to allow Mexico to host this prize tourney, which had always previously been held in either the United States or Canada.

Although by this time a roof had been added to the deVillafranca family court to allow for play even when it was raining, and although that court had been one of several on which the Mexican Nationals, which began in the early 1970's, was contested, it was nevertheless decided to play the Open at the Palace, which had far greater gallery capacity, and which provided the venue for a truly memorable weekend.

The highlights of that championship were Juan deVillafranca's highly acclaimed run to the semi-finals and Victor Niederhoffer's even more noteworthy four-game final-round upset win over six-time defending champion Sharif Khan, the taut last few points of which were played to the wild applause of the Mexican fans, who by that time had forgiven Niederhoffer for eliminating their hero in the prior round.

But even this enormously important event had to take a back seat to what occurred the following year, when a Mexican squad consisting of Mario and Raul Sanchez at Nos. 1 and 2, Luis deVillafranca at No. 3, Pepe Musi and No. 4 and Raul deVillafranca Jr. at No. 5 posted a pair of exciting 3-2 victories over the Pacific Northwest and Ontario team entries respectively in the semi-final and final rounds of the '76 USSRA Five-Man Team Nationals, held in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American squash. The two Sanchezes both won their matches, but Musi lost and, after saving a match-point in the fourth game, Luis deVillafranca finally fell in five to Jerry Shugar.

SPRINTING TO THE TITLE
This left the entire team outcome in the hands of the youngster Raul deVillafranca and his far more experienced Canadian opponent, Andy Pastor, who led two games to one at the break, but lost a close 15-12 fourth game and faded in the decisive 15-7 fifth. The returning heroes were met at the airport by government and Olympic officials and a Mexican squash movement that began inauspiciously just 11 years before when that lone court was quietly constructed in the back yard of the deVillafranca home had captivated an entire nation.

Miguel Montero
photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.

There would be a successful retention of this crown in '77 in Chicago by the same quintet and a number of other winning teams in the years that followed. Rodolfo Rodriguez in '89 and Hector Barragan ('90-'94) would succeed Mario Sanchez as U. S. Nationals titlists, with the latter also attaining the WPSA top-five, as did Marcos Mendez, the '94 North American Open champion and one of three Mendez siblings (Juan and Jose-Luis being the others) to earn a top-10 WPSA ranking.

At one stage in the late 1980's, nearly 40% of the WPSA tour was composed of Mexican players, with the aforementioned group joined by Tomas Fortson, the current Bowdoin men's and women's coach, Alberto Nunez, Gustavo Garcia, Alejandro Moreya, Edgar Morales, Manuel Loza, Edgardo Alvarez and the Montero brothers, Miguel Jr. and Octavio as tour members who had a significant impact.

The Loews Cup, a WPSA tour event established in 1983 to match teams from the U.
S. and Canada Davis Cup-style, added a Mexican team in recognition of this phenomenon.

In the late 1980's a summer tour of pro events in Mexico even developed, with the Mexican WPSA players entering to demonstrate their prowess to their admiring fans; these events also often drew American players eager to keep their games sharp during the WPSA off-season months and to challenge the Mexicans on their home turf. The 15th anniversary tournament at Villa Coapa, won by Juan Mendez, drew an enormous turn-out of players at all levels wishing to pay tribute to this highly popular club and its owners, the brothers Paco and Miguel Montero.

SHORT-LIVED GLORY

Alberto Nunez
photo © 2004 SquashTalk archives.

Sadly, this glorious period would be short-lived. The takeover of the international game in the mid-1990's and the consequent demise of the WPSA hardball tour would have profound consequences for the thousand-plus hardball courts that had sprouted throughout Mexico during the previous two decades.

Court conversion in Mexico was an especially daunting undertaking, given the prohibitive expense involved and the distance from the sites of the overwhelmingly American-based court construction companies that have accomplished this specialized mission in the U. S. during the past 15 years.

A number of Mexican clubs have successfully converted their courts, and the Mexican men's and women's teams won the gold and silver medals respectively at the Pan American Federation Cup held in Tepic, Nayarit a few weeks ago. But a Mexican player has yet to make a major impact on either the PSA or WISPA pro softball circuits (a situation that shows signs of possibly changing soon in light of the impact Mexican teenagers have been having in recent years in the major junior tournaments) and the buzz that fueled the fervor with which that country embraced the hardball game 30 years ago has not entirely been replicated. However, current PSA pro Eric Galvez, a still young contender who shows electrifying flashes of the flair and brilliance on court last seen from that country from the likes of Mario Sanchez, has the potential of making some signficant waves.

By the mid-1990's, Luis deVillafranca (whose last tournament appearance came in the U. S. 35-and-over event in '99 in Boston) was the only player still actively using the deVillafranca home court that not long before had been the site of so many spirited practice and tournament matches. The worn structure had by any standard thoroughly out-lived its usefulness by the time the family property was recently sold, and inexorably fallen victim to the relentless passage of time. But this preordained fact in no way detracts from the court's standing as hallowed ground to anyone familiar with its absolutely central role in the swift and sure expansion (explosion is probably a more accurate term) of squash in Mexico during a truly magical time in the history of the sport.

 

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