Periodically, while meandering through the streets of Havana, I have come upon shirtless young men or boys banging the daylights out a ball against a cement wall in what looks an outdoor version of a squash court. This happened most recently as I wandered along 1st Avenue near the Copacabana Hotel in Miramar, Havana. Being an avid squash player myself, I decided to investigate and finally find out more about this popular Cuban sport.
The game was being played at the former University Club, which had been a high-end sports and social club on the ocean before the Revolution. Today it is a community centre with various sports and activities for youth along with two of these racket courts where a Saturday round robin tournament was taking place.
As I watched from the sidelines, I could see that what they were playing (with the intensity of Olympic medalists, I might add) appeared to be a mix between squash, tennis and racquetball. I enquired as to the name of the game and I was informed it was called “cancha” or “front wall tennis”.
Unlike a squash or racquetball court, both of which have four walls, a cancha court has only three walls: a front wall, a left side wall and a back wall. On the right side of the court is simply a line indicating the out-of-bounds and no wall at all. This makes spectating easy from the side but also can lead to stray balls scrambling away from the court. It also allows for an ocean breeze to refresh or cool the players who are often playing in the mid-day heat.
Cancha seems to be played with a racquetball (slightly smaller than a tennis ball but bouncier and not as hard as a doubles’ squash ball) and gets moving very quickly as the game gets going. Tennis rackets (not the oversized ones that are so popular now but ones with reasonable heads) appeared to be the weapons of choice. Scoring seems to be similar to that of doubles squash but don’t ask me to teach you. Even after I was told four times, it was still Greek (oops, Spanish) to me.
Cancha is popular throughout Latin America with cancha tournaments attracting large numbers of players and often from many different countries. Since it mainly a neighbourhood sport, most of the courts are maintained and supported by local players dedicated to the cause. This can involve the occasional painting and cementing party to repair courts suffering from constant use and abuse.
At the particular match I watched, the players were fast, fit and extremely competitive. They also played endlessly. In Cuba, they love their cancha!
A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and loyal cancha admirer. One day he will be brave enough to step on the court!