Thursday, December 24, 2009

Odysseus and his Return to the Wide Court

From the master himself, he aptly quoted Caeser: "Venni, Vidi, Vinci..." as he twisted me on the court like a pretzel and poked his way to defeating my son in 3 hotly contested games. Jim Masland, our long time squash guru and friend, visited us recently from California without a racquet, but with his squash shoes and no socks. Not having seen the inside of an international court in a year. He was much fitter than I last saw him and before we headed to the club I handed him Wilkinson's most brilliant book "How to Win at Squash" as a gift for the holiday's and a Feather 2125 Cyclone to use -- and a pair of socks as well!

Upon Jim's arrival, he hardly had time to put his stuff down then we headed for the courts. I hadn't seen him in over a year and at that time I was injured and couldn't get on the court with him. Last June I was away on business but my son played and trained with him while he was passing through which set up this week's highly anticipated match between them.

My son had been training hard but not playing many matches at a high level. Jim had been playing on the old narrow American courts at UCLA while teaching English Literature and doing a bit of coaching. It seems each of their disadvantages would cancel each other's out.

We were on the courts at LA Fitness and hitting around before the next day's match. They warmed up and Jim seemed befuddled on the court, the ball whizzing by him. Anyone who has played on the old narrow court for awhile knows when you first get back to the international court it is like another planet, or maybe like looking into space. It takes awhile to adjust and and get your bearings -- they drilled and played some long ball. The first deep shot Jim shanked and checked his racquet to make sure it had strings, I must confess I thought, the master is getting old he may have lost a bit.

A 40 year old player, however great, is much different than a great 20 year old player. The pace and the power in their games are different, the reflexes too. While the 20 year old can run and bait an older player into playing that fast paced game, the older wiser player no doubt will attempt to slow it down. While I was thinking this, it occurred to me the master might be disguising himself, much like Odysseus did when returning home disguised as a simple beggar to a house of hostile young warriors. Was he maybe baiting my son into thinking he was slower and lacked the killer instinct he displayed in some of their past matches. He was sore, and he had trouble with the pace and the court. I didn't get on the court with him since I had numerous lessons, which he observed, and of course offered some helpful pointers -- he extended his approval for my coaching methods, which was very important to me as I always strive to get the master's approval.

We spent the evening talking about squash and watching a DVD of Ikskander and Ashour in a match from two years ago. It's great to watch these matches with Jim because he can provide some really astute observations. Ah, I thought, his brilliance is he is at once a student and a teacher.

The day of the match arrived. We headed back to the courts and my son and Jim stretched and warmed up. My son ran a mile and Jim went on the Elliptical. One of my students remarked to me how good could a squash player could Jim be with a beer gut. A slight over exaggeration but yes, Jim has a bit of a gut, but his legs and upper body are strong and he has a solid well balanced squash player's gait and center of gravity. My son is the perfect specimen of a squash player around 6 feet tall, long legs, strong upper body and moves around the court like a gazelle with grace and balance.

We had invited members of the LA Fitness squash community to come watch. I would referee the match. Jim was introduced to all our fellow squash players and he greeted them in his usual friendly manner -- he always seems so at ease around any level of squash player. Both my son and Jim got on court and began warming up. I watched Jim for signs of that wily warrior disguised behind the old beggar. Instantly, Jim cracked a cross court off of my son's cross court warm up shot. And then another and another, down the rail, cross nick, the racquet was like a wand. His backhand is so good -- he takes his racquet back and follows through and with perfect precision makes contact at just the right point. My son seemed a bit tight, I play him and train with him so much I knew his legs hadn't loosened up, best that he gets them going early since Jim looks on his game, so I thought.

On the forehand side Jim really started hitting his stride moving about, taking the ball early, volley dropping. He had his game face on, this wasn't my son he was playing but some opponent that was challenging his squash realm. He was a warrior now. He plays the front well, but he isn't as accomplished there because of a long ago hamstring and knee injury. If you can hit great length, you're more selective in the front patiently waiting for the best opportunity to apply pressure in the front court. My son's front court game has come a long way, he is really strong in the front and I knew he would be attacking the front against Jim forcing him to cover the front as much as possible.

The match started and the points in the first game were beautiful. Both players flowed effortlessly around the court. Jim's movement was so efficient, but a bit flat footed, so my son really took it to him and it was clear his strategy was to make Jim run. The points were long both players feeling each other out, but Jim was being outplayed by a younger and faster player. My son built a solid lead and seemed to take control of the game at 6-3. But then, as it often happens, the player up in the game gets a bit over anxious and wants to close the game out early. Jim was clearly huffing not from a lack of fitness, but from the pace. He argued a few calls, there were some lets, wily that he is, he was trying to disrupt the rhythm of the game. He also started throwing a bit of junk, the old hardball reverse in the front and the Philadelphia Boast, and then really slowing the ball down. I watched how my son reacted and he pressed harder and I could see his cross courts weren't as good ow and Jim stepped in and took them but changed the pace of the ball. He started to take control the first storm weathered. At 6-7 Jim served up this high lob serve that seemed to hang in the air for 5 minutes and my son hit a loose cross and Jim placed a beautiful forehand straight volley drop into the nick.

They went back and forth and Jim had a couple of game balls but my son hung in there and at 11-10 Jim serving, they had a long point and then Jim did the unthinkable, he hit a reverse cross into the backhand (an old hardball shot) that caught my son flatfooted -- he had no chance to retrieve. It was Odysseus, the wily old warrior, seizing game 1.

The second game was Jim's. He ran my son around and my son tinned quite a few. Jim used his pretzel game to create havoc. My son was valiant in his efforts but slow to adjust to Jim's strategy. I thought my son the better player, but as often is the case, the better player doesn't always win.

I tried to offer encouragement and advice to my son between the second and third games, an old habit of mine from my son's junior playing days, and he brushed me off. Okay, he was coming up with his own strategy and he doesn't need me.

The third game was all out war. My son began retrieving better and moving Jim to the front. The game was very tight, Midway through the game it seemed Jim was thinking okay, maybe give my son this game and come back in the fourth game. Dangerous. Jim began slicing and dicing and redirecting the ball off his hold, but my son hung in there, countered well cutting the ball off. He seemed to frustrate Jim with a drop to the backhand front wall from behind the service box. I thought, if my son takes this game he will win because it would have taken too much out of Jim. Jim must have picked up my thoughts because I saw how he wanted to finish it there and he pressed hard and started taking the ball early. It was fast and furious a game which brought out the best in each player.

In the end, Jim won the third game in a tiebreaker and the match. It was not my son's best play, but it was a lesson only playing a match like that can teach -- beware of warriors disguised in beggar clothes! Jim discussed the match and his strategy and it was right on. I was proud of him for some reason maybe because I felt guilty about doubting him the previous night. As we left the courts for dinner, he said he learned some things watching my son's footwork and movement and I responded he taught us some things as well -- at once both student and teacher, warrior and wiseman.

No comments: