Saturday, December 15, 2018

No Squash on the Island of Elba

Two years ago, I had a pretty decent routine of work, and after work, squash. Occasionally, I would write a blog piece on squash. But that all changed when my company decided to send all its technology overseas to Hungary. I was part of that technology group. I had the opportunity to relocate to Hungary and of course the first thing I did was inquire about squash clubs near the office there. There were some clubs. To make a long story short, I no longer had to go into the City and my work was done from home remotely with the group from Hungary, at least, until all my paperwork and work Visas were processed. That, in and of itself, was a long and tedious story – ultimately, I decided not to relocate my family and retired from technology. I couldn’t justify the time it would take to go into the City from Long Island, play, shower and change, and head back to Long Island (roughly and easily 3 hours). But wait a minute this is squash. I used to drive for 20 minutes each way to a squash club in Durham NC when I was sent there for my job. I would pick up my two young children from after school, stop at a Burger King and then head to the club where I would put them in the Kid’s Room. I might be taking a lesson with Harvard great Jim Masland, who coached there. I might be playing Peter Smith the best player in the club (always loosing badly, but hey it was great squash), or I’d play a myriad of other players many of whom I would beat. I would play and then get my children and head home We did this for two years before moving back to New York and resuming our normal life. What happened? I think this sneaky little thing called age crept into my squash life. Playing my son was great; he never played to my weaknesses, and, as time went by, the weaknesses started to accumulate. He kept me in the rallies -- as someone once said, one of the wisest things I ever heard, you must be good to play down to someone. He always made it seem like a great match. I was spoiled for years by this. Then, my son decided to go to law school, he stopped playing squash – it was sudden and quick. I was left with that creepy partner called age who was now loitering about. The people I now played, in my time, I would have blown them off the court. I had to play players who didn’t want to make the game fun for me, a good sweat, long rallies, the length game, they wanted to win. And when pride kicked in, I didn’t want to lose. When playing with my son I just cared about good squash, albeit good conditional squash. Now I had to cover that horrible and evil front court where age snickered most. When was the last time I had to cover a drop? My son didn’t drop that was one of the unspoken conditions. He knew, I knew, he could end the point at any time, but we didn’t think about that. He was good enough to make me good without letting on that I wasn’t good at all. I played half the court. But these other guys, they played the front court and wanted to win, and I tried covering the front court -- but the injuries started coming. Nagging injuries at first, a few days off; then more serious ones, weeks off. It stopped being fun, it stopped being good squash for me. Age became to me what the Russian winter was to Napoleon. We never saw it coming. The defeat was hard to take, but it coincided with some of life events and I took full advantage of these events, or should I say excuses. I had no reason to go into the City now except for squash. But I was defeated, age had won out. Age drove and forced me to Elba, a place of exile, a place without squash. While Elba had no squash, it did have tennis. So, I dug out my old Head Radicals and went to the courts. Drop feeds at first, 50, 100, 200 balls – backhand and forehand. I hadn’t hit a tennis ball in over 15 years. I started watching the tennis channel and following the players. I hired a coach to get me back in form. It was an immense struggle. I came from a tennis beginning a long time ago where everything was flat, I struggled with switching grips on my forehand, brushing up more and finishing with the racket higher. I started hitting against the backwall, it snuck up on me this age thing and not only age but 30 extra pounds. I started working on my backhand; went to a two-handed backhand: flat, always flat. I could not, no matter how much I tried, put much spin on the ball. But I was moving, and I was slicing; I forgot how good my slice was. Then came the volleying and the overhead smashes. I thought, I can play this game. I changed coaches and found a great coach who would rally 10, 15, 20 shots. We would be outdoors in the 100-degree heat, I could play this game. He taught me the principles of the game again, don’t worry about spin, I needed consistency first. Don’t worry about power, it will come. We worked on consistency, putting the ball four feet above the net. Consistency: 20 shots the same height. It took a while, but it started to click. I was on the courts now 5 days a week. I expected tennis to help me shed the weight, get fitter, go back to my old self. I kept trying and waiting, but then the harsh reality, yes, I love it, but I’m not moving all that well. “You only play as well as you move.” After all this time and money, I was back to where it all started downhill. I used to watch older players, not so fit, hit the ball well, but. like them, I didn’t move. As soon as coach moved me or extended me laterally, I felt the age and nd my shots weren’t good. I enjoyed it until he started playing to my weaknesses. I didn’t pull any muscles or god forbid tear anything, but I had to pop a lot of Advil – hey, I thought of that old Andre Agassi commercial for Advil. It seemed okay, then I developed horrible gastritis, it was the Advil. I had to stop the Advil. But I loved tennis, I ignored squash until, as luck (good or bad) would have it, there were some squash courts now available nearby. That was now in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to give up tennis. No, I wouldn’t give up tennis. But I had said back in the spring when I was changing my grip and doing things differently with tennis, it must be hard to play both. The technique and grips are so different. And the footwork, I had just spent months undoing years of squash foot work: big steps, long lunges. I was now taking little steps, fast little steps to the ball. My coach said, if I were fitter and trained hard, I could be a 4.5/5.0 tennis player! Maybe he was just saying that because he knew I needed a goal. Elba wasn’t such a bad place. The tennis made it nice. I kept telling myself, just enjoy the time and opportunity to do something you love. Don’t set any goals, just have fun. But how could I have fun, I needed a mission. Coach said…. And then re-arranging the closet, I saw those squash rackets of mine, my rackets, nicely taped and strung; still in my squash bag, just how I had left them. I took them out of the closet, held them, swung them, and stood in front of the mirror. Damn, how did I get to this point. Life without squash? Is it any life at all? Suddenly Elba seemed small and restricting. I needed to escape, escape to where and what? I needed to get back to squash. I went back over months of the daily squash report. I used to read this religiously every day. That made sense, squash was a religion to me. I had been so out of the loop that it was strange to be back in it, interested in squash again. I started watching matches. Wow, the Wolf was hanging it up, a player came out, as in announcing he was gay (okay, it would mean more to me if a player came out and said he was old), Willstrop and Selby are back; some new and exciting players: Paul Coli, Ali Farag. Gaultier was still there, old warrior, great warrior, and wait, what happened, I missed Diego Elias ascent to the top ten. And the Wolf would be gone and Ramy hopefully not too soon as well. It all just started coming back just like that. I started to pick up where I left off. And my son was done with Law School, it took its squash toll on him. He hadn’t played, but as it happened, he found his first job as a lawyer close by. Some force other than ourselves was moving us back toward squash. “Don’t break the racket, we only have two.” We hit around, I couldn’t even see the ball, he still had it, that beautiful stroke. I wanted to get on my hands and knees and kiss the court’s floor, I was off Elba and back home, back in France! We started going each day, a little bit longer and harder each time out. “Hey, it will take time, this is an unforgiving sport, remember?” And the game started coming back, all the nuances started materializing. The drills, the drills, and the mantra that it will take time. And we added in ghosting; must learn how to move again, to lunge, to split step, to follow my shots. And I was still playing tennis. I am playing both, playing both like I use to years back. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. Tennis in the morning, squash at night. No Advil, just stretch, include weights, strengthening, lots of ghosting. Focus on your feet, the rest will follow. God, I love this game, and the other one too. But this squash game, it’s special, special, and however long I have on this earth, I can share this love for the game with my son -- who says he’s sore, he’s tired, or he had to work late and doesn’t feel like getting on the court. He’s a grown man, he wears suits and ties and carries a brief case and goes to an office and sits at a desk – but he’s not old and neither am I – well, just not all the time.

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