Like her husband, Connie Barnes sees herself as a sort of ambassador.
Instead of representing a government, Barnes likes to spread the word about her favorite sport: squash.
Barnes, along with local businessmen Graeme Dykes and Jim Marshall, are the driving forces behind the Charlotte Squash Club, which will host its first professional tournament, the Charlotte Open, this weekend.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Barnes, who has played since a teenager. “We worked out that it would be very viable to start a program here. We immediately saw the opportunity. Charlotte has a vast, interesting community that’s perfect for squash.”
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The game of squash has been around in one form or another since the early 1800s, a direct descendant of the English game “racquets.” While the present game appears to be a cross between tennis and racquetball, those who play the game say it’s anything but.
“The difference is in the bounciness of the ball,” Canadian touring pro Dane Sharp said. “In squash, the ball doesn’t bounce near as much, so you’ve got to get lower and move faster. But you also have to be more precise. You can’t just hit the ball low to the floor.
“It’s a shame it’s not an Olympic sport. It’s the definition of what sport is – you’ve got to be a finely tuned athlete in all aspects to be successful.”
A native of Australia, Barnes came to the United States in 2002 with her husband, Roderick, a science attache with the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C. That same year, the couple founded the AussieNick Squash Club in Chevy Chase, Md., which has grown to have more than 1,900 members.
Dykes had tried to open a squash facility in Charlotte four years ago but ran into permitting issues. Marshall looked into doing the same two years later, even picking Barnes’ brain for what it takes, from construction to marketing.
However, it wasn’t until Barnes got directly involved with Dykes (who is her financial partner in the new facility) and Marshall in January 2014 that the Charlotte Squash Club got off the ground.
“People here have been promised courts for years,” Barnes said. “Once we got the space, people were coming in and asking ‘Is this finally going to happen?’ We moved very, very quickly to make it happen.”
The facility, which has four squash courts in a 6,000-square-foot space at the old Providence Square Shopping Center, opened in November. Since then, the club has signed up more than 70 members and has hosted three national-level junior tournaments and a collegiate tournament.
The Charlotte Open will be its first tournament in North Carolina sanctioned by the Professional Squash Association, which holds tournaments worldwide.
Sharp is ranked 91st in the world. He is one of three players in the PSA’s top 100 world rankings entered in the Charlotte Open, along with top seed Tom Ford of England (79th) and Mexico’s Eric Galvez (94th).
While the money is nowhere near what is awarded on the pro tennis tours – the Charlotte Open has a $5,000 purse, with $1,000 going to the winner – that’s not what drives most of the pros.
“I’m going to make $70 out of this tournament,” said Sam Gould of Cambridge, Mass., who lost in the final round of qualifying. “But it’s certainly worth it. I had a blast. In the end, it’s all about getting better.”
At Charlotte Squash Club
5660-C International Drive
Friday, 5-10 p.m.: Quarterfinals matches.
Saturday, 7-9 p.m.: Semifinals.
Sunday, 2 p.m.: Finals.