Monday, December 5, 2011

Squash as a Rite of Passage

As a parent, perhaps the greatest reward in life is living to see who your child has become as an adult. All of the work you put in, starting with the infant years, the glory years of 4-8 years, truly magical, the beginning of the parent torture years 11 to 19, when as a teenager there is no boundaries to how your teenager can aggravate you and give you angina.

But then that truly remarkable moment occurs, out of no where, when you see your child, your son, as a man, separate from you, he is equal if not surpassing you. He's beginning to take those steps to replace you in the world.

Out at Westchester on Saturday for the latest Pro Squash Tour stop at the Westchester Squash Club in Mamaroneck, New York, it was my first attendence to the PST since back last year at the Sportsclub LA. The energy or squash vibe was so good at this club, it was special from the beginning. Leter Brown, head coach has done something great at this club. Whenever I walk into a club and see all the squash bags and then see juniors on the court doing a clinic and parents sitting about watching them or talking to Lester or other parents, it simply makes me happy. Squash, at any level, makes me happy, It is one of my passions and when I see others partcipating and excited about squash, it just makes me happy to be around them, or in the club, and talking and walking about. It's a Saturday mid day and the place is humming with activity.

Joe McManus, the Commissioner of the PST, has become a great ambassador for the game here in the U.S. He greets the fans arriving to see the weekend's pro matches. He talks squash, talks about his vision to grow this game. He believes in it, he is getting you to believe as well.

On the court is the recently signed pro player to the PST, David Palmer of Australia, conducting a junior clinic. He's an imposing figure, he's in his element on the squash court, he is master there and as comfortable as he is on court, he's even more comfortable competing.

Palmer is idolized in my household and has been for years. Like many great players, you become so accustomed to seeing him play, that you take it for granted. And then, they reach the end of their careers and you realize just how much they mean to the game. How often did my son and I go out and play and try and emulate that massive forehand kill of Palmer's, how often when we had a great point did we imagine that the point was like Palmer and Power, Palmer and White, Palmer and Nicol.

We were there for the PST's main draw matches, Palmer was facing a qualifier. How often had we seen this at the Tournament of Champions over the years? How often on video, PSA live, YouTube did we see this great player warming up. We just awed at his perfect strokes, his balance, his court demeanor. He was the player you looked up to if everything in life wasn't handed to you.

Palmer worked for everything, and as McManus pointed out, this great champion was once thought by the powers from the Australian Institiue of Sport that he didn't have future in Squash. He went out an proved them so wrong. He worked harder than anyone to become the fittest player on tour, he perfected his game, he went instead to that "school of hard knocks" whose facades have no ivy, no brownstone, but through grit and determination he emerged the player he was and will be remembered as.

McManus introduced the qualifier who came out onto the court and began warming up. What must he be thinking? I love to watch these qualifiers go up against the masters in the main draw, those qualies are that "school of hard knocks". The qualifier is warming up, hitting the ball pretty well, is he thinking "this guy Palmer is one of the greats, my squash idol, what am I doing here, but I'm here, don't embarass yourself, enjoy the moment, I'm tight, relax, he's just another opponent"...and then Palmer comes bounding on to the court, doesn't acknowledge his young opponent, and begins his warmup. The qualifier looks good, he's fit, he hits the ball pretty well. Hey, anything can happen, Buster Douglas, Leon Spinks, Larry Bird, US Hockey Gold...forget all that, unless Palmer isn't Palmer there isn't a snow ball's chance in hell...

Play begins, the rallies are crisp, this kid is good, he's hanging with Palmer, they're working the rallies. Have to remember who this is, the kid holds a forehand to the front and crosses and wrong foots Palmer, great hold, capture that on video! Palmer shows nothing in response, he's been wrong footed hundreds of times, no one is perfect. The first game goes to Palmer, in a methodical business like fashion. The qualifier comes off the court, he's worked hard, he's just as business like as Palmer, he knows, he's no fool. Palmer is 20% on the court, he's watched him enough over the years to know. But stay in it, I can hear him think, I love this qualifier's game, he's like a young Palmer himself or maybe he fashions himself that.
Second and third games Palmer goes to what we call the pretzel game, when you get your opponent twisting and turning retrieiving your shots as you control each rally. Palmer is barely working while running this qualifier all over the court. There's no quit in this qualifier, he tries to extend every point. The kicker is, while Palmer is beating him badly, the qualifier just can't quite take the ball early and negate Palmer's pressure, the qualifier is just not at that level to turn the pressure on Palmer. But in every point the qualifier moves well hits well does his best, he has the right idea, he just can't quite execute his shots to a higher level.

In the end, it's Palmer of course. The hopes and dreams of the qualifier are not dashed, he's inspired, in the post game interview, he is humbly grateful to have had the opportunity to play Palmer, nice words. You can see in his face a calm, he just might want to do whatever it takes to be more like Palmer.

I stay on and watch the other matches, I'm thinking of that Palmer match. I'm thinking about what I'm going to write. What more can anyone say about this great champion who is now with the PST and doing what he can to grow this sport in the U.S. Nah, my bent is the qualifier. On the ride home back to Long Island the person who came to this tournament isn't the same person, he is, but he isn't. I look over at him, I see him differently, he is a grown man, the same grown man I saw on the court against Palmer, he's my son, the squash player, the one who just lost to Palmer. Is that qualifier the very same chubby kid I use to take to the courts, the chubby kid who used to talk squash with anyone and everyone and studied this game into the late night, the chubby kid who had great hands but couldn't move? He's chiselled now, lean, and strong and moves with great footwork, he has the same great hands, he has that same squash genius that can talk to the highest level squash mind and the beginner player in the same unassuming manner.

The ride home is different, unlike all the other hundreds of times we rode home together after tournaments, I'm driving but not the driver, he's in the passenger seat, but not the passenger. It's all changed, it's in that moment, how it seems to happen -- a young man's rite of passage.