For 49 grueling minutes, Colombia’s Miguel Angel Rodriguez—the highest ranked South American ever to play squash—did everything in his power to fend off the three-time World Squash Champion Nick Matthew during the men’s semi-final match at the NetSuite Open Squash Championships in San Francisco on Sept. 28.
A racquet sport similar to tennis, squash is played on a cubed court where combatants strike a rubber ball against the playable walls of the court.
And from the glass cube court assembled at Justin Herman Plaza, the 29-year-old Rodriguez lunged one final time for the tiny rubber ball, in a desperate attempt to keep his tournament hopes alive.
He didn’t reach the ball in time. Rodriguez, the No. 5 squash player in the world, fell to England’s Matthew, No. 2 in world, by a score of 3-1.
“It’s not easy,” said Rodriguez after the match. “[Matthew] is one of the most consistent players in the tournament.”
The event, which took place Sept. 25-29 and featured some of the best international squash athletes, marked its fourth annual appearance in the city, and for the first time included a women’s bracket.
“We’ve had some great players from Latin America come over the years, because we’re building up really the top tournament on the West Coast,” said NetSuite founder Evan Goldberg. One of those players is Rodriguez, who is also known as “The Colombian Cannonball.”
“There’s no way you get to that level in world squash without having a good solid game,” Goldberg said. “And he’s from our hemisphere, and that’s very rare to have someone up there. The last one was Jonathon Power from Canada.”
Rodriguez started off his 2015 Netsuite Open tournament by eliminating the No. 30 ranked Carlos Salazar of Mexico by a score of 3-2. This year has been Rodriguez’s best, as he capped it with his second squash gold medal in men’s singles at the 2015 Pan American Games.
But his journey toward squash greatness began long ago in his native Colombia.
Following in the footsteps of his father Ángel Mesías—who reigned as Colombia’s national squash champion for 11 years—Rodriguez was three when he first picked up a racquet. By age 8, he competed in his first national Colombian tournament, and won. When he was 15, Rodriguez decided he would pursue the sport professionally. By 17, he was able to defeat his father one-on-one, and eventually dropped out of college to turn pro at age 19, receiving his parent’s “undisputed” support.
“The thrill of representing a country, the adrenaline … I think it’s an opportunity that only professional sports can provide,” Rodriguez said. “In his era, my dad helped squash grow, because it was a new sport. What I’ve accomplished, my dad never did. In that era, he didn’t have the opportunity to travel like I have.”
But despite international stars like Rodriguez, along with Latino athletes such as Peru’s reigning World Junior Champion Diego Elias, Mexico’s greatest female squash player Samantha Teran, and Mexican duo Cesar Salazar and Alfredo Avila, squash is still relatively unknown in this part of the world, a sport reserved for the wealthy privileged elite. Goldberg is seeking to expand access to the game.
“They’re doing it in tennis. Obviously there’s this amazing role model in Serena Williams. I think it’s important to have role models like that and people that aren’t necessarily from the mainstream of the squash world. And to encourage kids, play a sport that is very athletic,” said Goldberg. “We don’t have a Serena yet, but it could come.”
Story by: Alexis Terrazas