Self-taught squash star makes professional playing debut

Contributing Writer
Friday, March 18, 2011

Adrian Leanza ‘11.5, the top-ranked player on the No. 12 men’s squash team, made his professional debut at the Providence Open Tuesday. Leanza, who signed with the Pro Squash Tour in February, drew a tough opponent in his first professional match. He faced off against Bradley Ball, the tour’s top-ranked player, and lost the match in straight sets 3-0.

But Leanza said before the match he was not expecting to win — he was just excited to gain experience in his debut and go up against one of the best players in the world.

“I’m definitely going to lose pretty badly (against Ball). But, hopefully, I’m going to get better over the next few years,” he said.  “It’s amazing — these are just the names I hear about in the squash world. The fact that I get to play (Ball) is just really incredible.”

Leanza, who grew up in Denver, took up squash when he was eight. He initially picked up the sport because his dad played squash recreationally, so he grabbed a racquet and started teaching himself the sport that would eventually become his profession.

“While (my dad) was playing matches, I was really bored, so he gave me a racquet and a ball and I would just go ahead by myself,” Leanza said. “And that was when I was very young. That was like my day care, hitting by myself. I just kept going from there.”

Leanza’s self-taught style is evident even today. Stuart LeGassick, Brown’s head squash coach, said Leanza is the only player he has ever seen who skips before he serves. LeGassick decided to let Leanza retain the skip despite its peculiarity.

“I can see players, very experienced and very well-coached players, looking at this little skip before he serves and thinking, ‘Well, this guy surely can’t be that good,'” LeGassick said. “And then he turns around and plays remarkably well and surprises these people time after time.”

Evan Besser ’11, who is a tri-captain of the men’s team along with Leanza and Ben Clayman ’11, said Leanza’s unconventionality makes him difficult to play.

“He does stuff that no one else really would do on court,” Besser said. “That kind of throws off a lot of his opponents because he hits a lot of weird shots that most players who are traditionally trained are not going to hit.”

Leanza’s playing style is so unique that Sean Wilkinson, the squash team’s assistant coach, distinctly remembers seeing him play when Wilkinson was an undergraduate at Bates College during a match between Bates and Brown.

“I remember him just running around the court, diving everywhere,” Wilkinson said. “I think Bates won the match relatively comfortably. Adrian (Leanza) was on the court for about two hours, which for squash is a remarkable time. I remember asking Stuart (LeGassick), you know, what this guy’s deal was.”

Leanza admitted that he does not “really have the best shots or tactics or anything.”

“I just get every ball back,” he said. “I’m very much about … tiring out the other player and being able to go longer than the other person.”

But even as he stuck to his unusual techniques, Leanza climbed in the rankings.

According to LeGassick, Leanza was ranked near 115th in the country when he was in high school. Brown usually recruits players who are in the nation’s top 30. This season, Leanza was the top-ranked player on the team.

Leanza’s improvement has been so drastic that it caught Wilkinson off-guard when he joined the program as an assistant coach in 2010. Leanza did not look anything like the kid diving all over the court that Wilkinson remembered.

“When I got here in the fall, and I gave my first lesson to him, I was like, ‘Are you the same kid?'” Wilkinson said.

Besser also raved about his teammate’s progress.

“He turned out to be … a huge surprise,” Besser said. “Over the past three years, he’s really progressed squash-wise, and he’s turned out to be a really amazing addition to our team.”

Wilkinson just wishes Leanza had been able to benefit from coaching at an earlier age.

“His ability to learn is unbelievable,” Wilkinson said. “If he had a real coach growing up and started playing the sport at a younger age, he’d be top 10 in the country.”

Because of his unpolished technique, Leanza is forced to rely on his physical strength and fitness to beat his opponents. To stay in playing shape, Leanza spends about three hours every day training for squash.

“It is his physical abilities that really make him stand out,” LeGassick explained. “Time after time, Sean (Wilkinson) would turn to me and say, ‘I’ve never worked with anybody this strong and this fit,’ and he’s worked with some of the top squash players in the world.”

“He’s just so unbelievably fit that it’s such a huge advantage for him because no one else really plays with that kind of intensity  and attitude on court,” Besser said.

On Tuesday, Leanza’s  fitness was not enough to beat Ball, who went on to win the Providence Open. But that did not stop Leanza from enjoying his professional debut.

“It’s certainly a learning experience,” Leanza said. “It’s always good to play people a lot better than you. Your flaws are really exposed.”

Leanza will use his professional debut experience against Ball to prepare for the New England Open, which will take place April 9-10, and the Albany Open, which will take place April 29 through May 1.

Leanza, who is completing a bachelor of science in applied mathematics and two bachelor of arts, with concentrations in economics and chemistry, hopes to continue to play at the professional level after the Albany Open.

“I do plan to continue playing after college,” Leanza said. “As long as I’m still improving … I’d love to keep playing.”

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