Learning how to play in unfavourable/imperfect conditions has been one of the most important lessons in my short career. Playing different types of tournaments in different types of clubs in different types of cities and countries provides invaluable experience in the art of adapting to your surroundings and making the best of the situation. Very, very rarely have I felt perfectly prepared for a match. There are usually a few variables that I fail to or cannot control, even before matches I have been thinking about for months beforehand. There is always some sort of inconvenience or other circumstance that prevents ideal preparation. Part of being a good player though means doing your best to minimize the variables that you can control.
One of the most common experiences I’ve had is playing on unusual courts. Courts that were over 35°C, slippery as ice, had pieces missing, tins too high, etc. This has always bothered me, and instead of playing to the conditions, I’ve historically let these idiosyncrasies bother me. Lately though, I’ve been learning to accept the conditions and use them to my advantage. Ultimately, both players are on the same court. If the ball takes a weird bounce in the back left corner, keep hitting it there! Whining about the shadows or missing floorboard will only distract you and create excuses for a loss.
Another common scenario is not having the ideal equipment on hand (string, grip, shoes, etc). For a variety of reasons- especially on extended tours- equipment fails or breaks and cannot be replaced before the next match. Again, this may make a minor difference to your play…but it will not be as detrimental as worrying that your grip or strings will make the difference between winning and losing. Forget about it, do your best with the tools you have, and sort out the situation afterwards. I always find it strange when people blame a loss squarely on their racquet- without considering the tinned reverse boast they tried ten times!
There are many other possible glitches that can come up before or during a match. Not eating properly, not giving yourself time to warm up, stress from work and the like. The list is indeed much longer for amateurs who don’t have all day to prepare for matches! But the moral of this story is to forget about what you can’t control (a bad grip, a bad ref, extreme temperatures), analyze the factors directly affecting the match (court conditions) and decide how to use them to your advantage. You’ll almost never play a match where everything falls into place, but you can still turn these perceived annoyances in your favour.
People often wonder why there are so few upsets at the very highest levels of pro squash. It is considered a major upset when someone outside the top 10 beats one from the top five, and seeing someone outside the top 20 take out one of the top boys happens only once or twice a year. Contrast this with tennis, where it is not uncommon to have several of the top 10 crash out early in a tournament. Even the dominant trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer fall victim to up and comers barely inside the top 30 from time to time. In my opinion, there are a few different explanations for this difference in dramatic upsets.
To begin, it is much harder to win a point quickly in squash than tennis. A big server can steal two or three points per game, and the rallies are less drawn out. Outright winners and unforced errors happen more frequently. In squash, the serve is really not an advantage at all, and the nature of the game makes it more difficult to score a cheap point with an aggressive attack. Most balls are returned and rallies are much more structured. Opportunities to win the rally must be earned with good length. If the squash serve were changed to a high boast, or even a backwall boast, one player would have a distinct advantage at the start of each rally.
Another possible explanation is the fact that a tennis player can “hit his opponent off the court” on a given day. Due to the dimensions of the court and lack of walls, all-out attacking can pay off and even the best defense can’t stop it, as long as unforced errors are kept to a minimum. If a player can maintain accuracy fore a whole match, the opponent will be overwhelmed and unable to settle. This was how Robin Soderling beat Nadal at the French Open in 2009, handing Nadal his first ever loss at that tournament. This approach can be effective in squash too, but as mentioned above, it is much harder to maintain such pinpoint accuracy if your opponent is getting every ball back. Although tennis matches last longer, the actual playing time is similar to a pro squash match, sometimes shorter. There are more balls hit in squash, which gives more time for the “better” player to show their class over their opponent. The longer the match goes, the more likely the better player is to win.
This is one of many differences between the two sports. Some might complain that the lack of upsets in squash is boring, and the same players are making the later rounds of every tournament. But from a player’s perspective, I love the fact that squash is a complete meritocracy. You can’t fake your way to a good win. Whoever is more talented and works harder will ultimately prevail in a match. It can be reassuring to know that the likelihood of succumbing to a lesser player is low; but the reverse effect can also hamper your confidence when going up against someone ranked higher than you. Just another item to add to the list of why squash is such an interesting game!
The wisdom that “Squash is a mental game” has been heard by anyone who has ever played an organized match in this sport. Motivation, psychology and tactics are all integral parts of the game. This is a squash truism and needs no further discussion. Rather, I want to look at one of the lesser known mental aspects of the sport; an internal psychological battle that not many players have experienced. I am referring to the challenge of being a pro player trying to climb up the rankings from the bottom and having mediocre results. In my opinion this is one of the most interesting aspects of the game, but it is rarely publicized.
Allow me to provide some empirical evidence from a few months ago. On a Thursday in early November, I received an e-mail saying there was a spot available in a PSA tournament happening in Vancouver starting the following Tuesday. Despite the extremely short notice I jumped at the chance to play in a $20000 tournament and arrived in Vancouver the day before qualifying began. This was a huge opportunity to get a rare win and serious ranking points. I was drawn to play fellow Canadian Tyler Hamilton in the first round. Before the match I sat down and had a chat with myself, which went something to the tune of “It cost almost a thousand dollars to come out here. This is a huge opportunity. This is what you train for. Go out and play like your life depends on it.” With this deep motivation, I won the first two games with blowout scorelines and was poised to make the upset. I was playing my best squash ever. After dropping the third, I regrouped and had a 9-6 lead in the fourth. I remember thinking, “You’ve got this won. Two points. Easy.” I was finally going to break through and having a big win. You can imagine what happened next. I lost five points in a row, and the fifth game wasn’t even close. Feeling the match slip away was a sickening feeling; certainly one of the worst I’ve had in my career. Of course, comebacks do happen and I had to credit Tyler for staying calm under pressure. But when squash is your job and life, a loss like this is ten times harder to stomach. You work so hard for these rare opportunities, get yourself into a winning position, and then manage to lose. Instead of making decent prize money and ranking points, I left with 0 dollars and 0 points. This can be crippling for confidence, especially for someone like me who already struggles with self-belief.
My small-time example pales in comparison with other chokes. John White and Greg Gaultier have both had matchball in the World Open final and lost. Surely that is the ultimate disappointment you could ever have in squash. One of the great things about this sport though is the tendency to have great performances immediately following poor ones. Two weeks after my Vancouver experience, I was at a PSA tournament in Saskatoon. In the fifth game of the qualifying finals, I was 6-0 and 8-2 up against a better player. Needless to say, the Vancouver incident was at the front of my mind I would have been devastated to blow it twice in as many weeks. My hands were shaking between rallies and I felt a rush of anxiety and desperation, something that had never happened to me before. I managed to finally win the fifth 11-9 and record my best PSA win to date. The result went down inconspicuously on paper amongst dozens of others from that night. But on a personal note it was probably the best feeling I’ve ever had after a match. I liked squash again.
Preparing for tournaments is a very important aspect of squash that is overlooked by many players. People tend to show up on the day of a tournament and dive right into the action without putting much thought into their preparation. Of course, time to prepare is a luxury afforded only to players who don’t have jobs or families or otherwise “real” lives. In this article, I will give a brief rundown of the ideal week of preparation for a tournament. Taking just a few of these tips and adapting them to your own tournament routine will definitely give you a better chance of performing at your best.
Assuming a tournament starts on Friday, the last intense training session should happen on Tuesday. This allows two full days to let any soreness or minor injuries heal up. Wednesday and Thursday consist of a few light hits to groove your swing and find a comfort zone on court. Any last-minute training at this point will probably work against you in the tournament. Adding in some light ghosting and stretching will help keep your movement sharp. By the time Friday rolls around, your legs should be feeling fresh and ready for the explosive movements that will be required. Sometimes Thursday or Friday will be travel days; in this case, I would strongly advise getting some sort of exercise before your first match. This will get your heart rate up and stretch out your legs after being stationary for a few hours. The ideal scenario is getting on court at the tournament venue to loosen up and adjust to the courts. No two clubs have courts that play exactly the same. I find people really underestimate how much of a difference this makes. The five minute warm-up before your match is not enough time to fully adjust from dead plaster courts to bouncy panel courts. Again, I realize this is not always a possibility…
Everyone has a slightly different routine in the last hours before their matches. What you eat, how much you eat, how long you warm-up, etc. are all matters of personal preference. The important thing is to strive for consistency, as you are trying to minimize the variables that are in your control. Having a consistent warm-up doesn’t guarantee you will play well, but it does give you the best chance of playing well every time.
Pros often arrive to tournaments three or more days early and dedicate all their waking hours to ensuring they will be firing on all cylinders come match time. When game day finally arrives, all the focus and buildup of the previous days comes to a critical point at which every ounce of energy can be left on court. This meticulous preparation is the reason why professionals can perform at a consistently high level. Telling two guys to play a match out of the blue on a normal day of training would yield a much lower quality encounter than a tournament match.
So, take these tips and realistically adapt them to your game. See how you perform at your next tournament!