Thursday, April 10, 2014
On a twenty hour flight to Malaysia recently I settled in with my much anticipated reading of Squash Professional Nick Matthew's autobiography, "Sweating Blood. My Life in Squash." Mr. Matthew graciously sent me a copy for me to review and post to my blog. Dreading that long and tedious flight, once I settled in and began reading this book, I knew, as far as squash books go, this is something special. I also knew that while Matthew and Willstrop (author of "Shot and Ghost") are bitter squash rivalries and competitive in every facet where squash is concerned, their respective books couldn't be any more different (like their style of play). I blocked that comparison out of my head and delved into Matthew’s autobiography, simply reading it as if I picked it up in the airport bookshop. I have read nearly every squash book worth reading and countless other athlete biographies and chronicles. While most of the squash books are instructional and in and of themselves fascinating and worthwhile reads, Matthews book is a bit of everything and reads like biographies of such famous other Athletes, Larry Bird comes immediately to mind . When we read these books we want not only the inside story of the athlete but also the inside story of the sport they played or in Matthews case are playing. Matthew's book delivers on both fronts with each page leaping out at you with very insightful and often intimate details of the professional squash player's life. Matthew proves a keen observer of every detail in a player's life, including their superstitions, their on court antics, and often the tedium of travel, preparation and competing around the world as PSA professionals. You have the sense that while Matthew, by virtue of his monumental squash status as the number 1 player in the world and the greatest British player in the history of the game, could just spotlight his opinions, instead, he ever so humbly and often tongue-in-cheek relates story after story sometimes the rogue, often the innocent bystander, but always the squash player. Matthew portrays himself as a machine on court as well as his off court preparation and training. His approach to squash and his own game are precise, deliberate and executed with a great deal of confidence. He is almost ferocious on court, a fierce competitor whose vocabulary lacks the word quit. By his own admission, he will never ever quit and will battle to the end. Reading this is inspiring even at the club level, how he wills himself to never give up. For a young up and coming professional this book is invaluable -- an important guide or roadmap to doing whatever it takes to win. I found his progression as a player a bit of reality check; his decision to turn professional (giving himself 2 years on tour) and the reality that without deep pockets, his success is largely due to the support from the British sports lottery The lottery provided much needed training and funds to tour. Squash as a profession is a viable profession, something we haven't really embraced here in the US because of the lack of funding available. One of the best thoughts expressed in the whole book is that Matthew, like some here in the US, wants to see an American born player break the top ten. He explains that a high profile American player in the top ten would be huge for squash overall. The likelihood of that achievement without a similar funding system is slim. Having often thought if I had to do it all over again I'd want to, given the opportunity, be a professional squash player, at this point in life I can only live vicariously through the squash life of someone like Matthew who displays a pride and passion for doing what he does -- play professional squash. He didn't come from privilege, but from a middle class background with very supportive parents and friends. He credits much of his success to squash Guru David Pearson, and he shows a deep appreciation for ‘DP’ as he calls Pearson. Like Mathew's brilliant style of play, I hope this book, both insightful and entertaining, will spawn others like Ashour or Gaultier or Palmer to follow suit. The oral history of the game captured in this book’s pages is priceless. The accounts of matches, play, personalities, observations unless written in a book like this are eventually lost to future generations. Professional squash players tend not to dwell or cherish much about the past. I have tried for years to contact and interview some remarkable players of the past, it’s very difficult to do. If they haven’t remained in coaching, they are seemingly gone forever, completely off the squash grid. Those who remain in squash in some capacity don’t much talk about where they were in their twenties versus where they are now. The chasm between touring squash professional and retired player and now coach is immense; like all of us where we’ve been has little or no resemblance to where we are now. It’s only the wisdom, if we’re so lucky, that takes the place of youth and fearlessness. There is much drama in squash, probably like any other sport, except where other marquee sports maintain a myriad of statistics, recollections, books, news articles, magazines, TV specials and documentaries, squash relies on the occasional book like Matthew's book as well as a deeply rich oral history of the game itself. That's why it's not as important to just report the scores of matches, but to report the thoughts, the insights, and the subtle nuances of match play. Treat yourself to this book, you won't regret it. Even if you have little or no interest in professional squash, you'll find it a great read coming from someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in his profession and still maintains this awe and a deep sense of gratitude that he was so privileged to have been part of something he truly has a passion for.