Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Short Game -- Tom And The "Kid"

Years ago, I was introduced to the "short game" of squash by Josh Easdon then club pro at Lincoln Squash at NYSC near Columbus Circle. I was working as a consultant just after 9/11 at Credit Suisse, had put on 40 lbs and had not played squash in 2 years. I would cut out at lunch and head out from Credit Suisse in the Old Met Life building in the Flat Iron District and do a 3 time a week session with Josh. It was really tough after being away for two years, and in the beginning I would take water breaks every 10 minutes. What was most difficult was my pride. I was always extremely fit and would get on the court with players often better, but my stamina and retrieving kept me competitive. At first, I could barely play a few long points without gasping and struggling for oxygen.
When Josh first suggested we play the "short game", which consists of playing in front of the mid court service line and everything above the front wall service line, it was a bit humiliating. It sort of meant that I couldn't play the full court, and it seemed a game that supported a bit of a handicap for the out of shape, really challenged player. My strokes were great, but my footwork and movement was that of a past-his-prime man, overweight and slow.
It turned out that this "short game" kept me coming back. I could play it, and gradually my stamina and footwork improved. I felt an accomplishment when Josh awarded me with some full court points towards the end of our session. Looking back, I think that if Josh hadn't gone to the "short game" when he did I probably would have given up in trying to come back.
But this "short game" has evolved for me as I'm fit again and coaching and drilling both myself and others really hard. I have a couple of students, like Tom Katagores and Haadi Khan, who really get it. Tom is a former racketball player who moved over to squash two years ago. He is in his mid-fifties and surviced double by-pass surgery, and works very hard at his game. He is a fierce competitor, but has the rare quality of being very gracious and sportsmanlike. He owns the Jackson Hole Diners, which serve up some of the most amazing hamburgers in the City and Queens. Coming from racketball he is a bit challenged in his racket skills, but is so eager to learn the right technique, that it makes him the perfect student. When I introduced him to the "short game", keep in mind Tom is incredibly fit, he embraced it immediately. I used the "short game" to teach Tom how to control the center of the court, to cut the ball off, stay off the wall, and to hit as many straight balls as possible, and resorting to boasting only when it was a last resort. The result was extensive rallies where we moved each other around and I could see he softened his racket and really start moving the ball away from me.
The great thing about the "short game" is that it is a minature version of the regular game. If you don't move your feet, hang back, don't cut the ball off or control the center you will run around like crazy. Not unlike the regulation game of squash.
What was quite remarkable to me about Tom was that he understood what we were trying to do immediately. We came off of one of our recent sessions both drenched in perspiration and I think he really had a feeling for controlling the ball, placing it, and positioning himself in the center of the court.
I smile to myself when Haadi, who is 14 years old, asks me to play the "short game", he likes this game because it gets his feet moving. He too, extends the "short game" rallies to the point where we are breathing heavily (he more than me of course), but he really understands this drill and how important it is to his development as a squash player.
Both Tom and Haadi have great regulation games together, they are fun to watch, the older player really trying to help improve the younger "kid" as Tom calls him.
I love the irony of this game, "short", "long", or just regulation squash, in that what was once a bit of humiliation for me is a source of pride for me and my students.
I should point out that I replaced Tom's racket, the Feather 2125 Cyclone, with another one since he told me, like the "kid", he broke his racket -- you might remember Haadi is a racket breaker. Figure that one out.

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