Jeff Higgs is a new student of mine at LA Fitness, Lake Success, NY. He is a big, strong, ex-collegiate baseball player. He looks like he was once a catcher, he's affable, moves like a gazelle and has these gifted, soft hands, and you can just imagine him peppering the ball with that Walt Hriniak (that great Boston Red Sox hitting coach/guru and author) who emphasized the inside/outside swing as in going to the opposite field with the ball. I would see Jeff on the courts when I arrived at 5:30 a.m. playing Mike Rideout, of Rideout Media Productions, a definite type "A" personality who plays like he lives. I always watched Jeff and thought to myself he could be really good, with some better fitness and technique he could probably within a year or two be a high level B or A player. I spoke to him often offering some pointers and he would say to me on occasion how he'd really like some lessons. I didn't push the lessons since I was pretty booked in the morning slots and plus, he seemed like the type of player that needed a challenge. I didn't want to offer too many accolades on his hands and nice footwork, because I believed it wouldn't matter much unless he was beating his brother at Piping Rock in Oyster Bay, where Amanda Sohby, World junior under 19 women's champion trains. She used to play at LA Fitness with her stepfather, longtime New York coach, Ron Karn.
When Jeff finally approached me about lessons. I told him it wasn't really worth the time unless he was game for 6 months to a year of lessons, twice a week on the court with me. I outlined what he needed to do to get to that solid B and upper B level, to beat his brother, I added that I thought he could with a lot of work and his own fitness regiment and proper diet play A level within two years. I emphasized he wasn't fit for squash and on court with his 25-30 lbs overweight would just play like someone overweight all the time. We would improve his racket skills and footwork, but he would still be with that proverbial backpack of 30 lbs strapped to his back. I suggested he spend every morning 20 minutes level 8 on the stepper and 20 minutes level 14 on the stationary bike. I also asked his to cut out his favorite food and really try hard to refrain from eating it. If he had to eat it eat 1/2 as much. He should do this each week and within a month add his second favorite food. And he'd continue in this mode until he ran out of favorite foods, at which point, I could certainly guarantee he would have lost the 30-40 lbs he needed to lose.
Our first session was good we emphasized the basics of grip, racket preparation and some footwork. I told him What I noticed is that on his forehand and backhand he almost was hitting two handed on each side. I instinctively told him release the racket the two handed hit will impede his preparation and follow through. But then, the image of Peter Marshal, that wunderkind of squash from the 90's, came into my mind. I couldn't in all honesty say that about his two handed shots because Peter Marshall reached number 2 in the world and was poised to take over the reign of none other than the greatest player to ever play this game, Jansher Khan. I saw Marshall play, he was something to behold, he moved so beautifully, his squash court intelligence IQ was through the roof, he would hit both forehand and backhand double handed and it was only when really pushed to the extreme parts of the court that he would use the single hand. I don't know if there was an advantage or whether it was just what he did and if he hit with the racket between his teeth like Hendrix played the guitar with his teeth it would be just as great. That is what pure genius is, absolute genius. Some make money no matter what, everything they do they make money at, others hit great squash balls no matter how they hit them. Peter Marshal was certainly the Warren Buffet of squash.
But life has these strange ironies, it is what makes us different than any other species. As Marshal rocketed to number 2 in the world, he came down with what at the time was called the 'yuppie" disease of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, symptoms including swollen glands, lethargy, fever and a general physical malaise. At the time that syndrome was considered psycho-symatic, "in your head" sort of thing. But in reality it was a clinically proved affliction. Marshall came back from this disease and competed and won the British National Championship. I recently watched him in a match on Youtube playing and you could see that familiar two fisted backhand and forehand, the sort of wand, the magic wand that might not be like the wand of other powerful magicians, but still yielded the same potent magic. You could see the balding on the crown of his head, but he still moved beautifully and his hands on the racket were still simply magic.
Not to forget Jeff, I briefly said, ok, keep doing what your doing if your shots work. If the two hander doesn't work, if you can't hit a tight shot, then we'll change it. To be honest, how you hit the ball doesn't matter, I told him, if you hit it for good length and tight. Who cares whether you are great in your technique and it looks nice on file, if you can it the ball well no matter how you hit it, how you hit it doesn't change the fact you HIT THE BALL WELL. Just watch John White hit the ball, former number 1, and who in my opinion played the greatest 1 game of squash in the history of the game when he took game 4 from Gaultier in the 2009 tournament of Champions -- I was there and saw this incredible game. He once told me in a clinic I did with him he wouldn't advise any player to hit like him. So when you look at the classic techniques of Nicol, Mathew, Wilstrop and then compare them to the oddity of the likes of Marshall and White, you realize that there really isn't any recipe or script in this game for success. Marshall was brilliant, and if not for his illness, you can only imagine him and Nicol and Power on the circuit at the same time...while Nicol in my opinion will go down as one of the top 5 greatest players ever, I think Marshall would have been right there with him. Jeff doesn't have to worry about greatness, he can achieve what he will depending on his ability and dedication, and yes, if he hits the two hander well, then keep the two hander, do Peter Marshall proud.
While Jeff might not reach mercurial heights, I was watching the two hander from England Robbie Temple, wow, what a player he might reach some height.You can see Peter Marshall in his game, this player is so talented. I've been watching him on Youtube and just marvel at the two hander (unlike Marshall he hits it left handed from the backhand only). He is so good, and while in his mid twenties, based on what I saw how he played against the likes of top 10 Peter Barker, this kid is going to reach top 20...he's that good. And when you watch him it could be as if in the 90s you're perched on the edge of your seat watching Peter Marshal glide along the court and strike his familiar two hander for perfect length.
As I progress in the next weeks with Jeff, I'll think of Peter Marshall and Robbie Temple and their unique style in this game and encourage Jeff to find himself in whatever makes his game good. I'm a believer there's no right recipe or timeline for success in Squash. This game is a wheel of fortune, it's a given if you want to play it well fitness and skill are a given, but beyond that it's luck, truly luck in how you develop to play this game. Isn't that after all, how we live our own lives. When it's all said and done if we can just say, as Sinatra crooned, " I did it my way..." that would be quite an accomplishment.