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!
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!
Last night I had the opportunity to play an exhibition match at the Barrie Athletic Club, as a crowd warmer for the main event which was Karim Darwish vs Thierry Lincou. This was part of the Cambridge Cup, which is an invitational tournament held around Toronto featuring many of the world’s top 8 players. As I watched these two former world #1’s, I was once again reminded how amazing the very best players in the world are. Darwish is one of the truly elite players and Lincou is now in the tier just below the very top guys.
There is a distinct difference between the top 16 and the 10-20 players below them. The upper echelon have a certain presence on court that exudes confidence and experience. They are very assertive in the warmup, do everything with a purpose and do not get fazed by unfavourable conditions. Their basic length and width is already in place from the first rally, and they never put themselves in a bad position or make a bad tactical decision. Their ball striking is severe and aggressive; if a ball is floated back down the wall, it is with the purpose of regaining the ‘T’. Any ball that isn’t within inches of the wall is volleyed and probably sent to the front of the court. Between rallies, they are always entirely composed and don’t give off any indications of fatigue or frustration.
I believe the real difference between the best and the rest is really exposed as a match wears on though. The very best guys have a certain creativity and speed of thought that the slightly lower ranked players lack. They don’t fall into a comfort zone of playing predictable patterns, and know exactly when to break up the rhythm of play with a boast or crosscourt flick. This innate sense of the game affords them the ability to hit outright winners. At that level, it is impossible to hit a clean winner if your opponent has a read on where it is going. The ability to counter attack from compromised positions is also an important asset. If these guys were to play defense every time they were put under pressure, they would never get control of a rally. Countering an aggressive attack with an even more aggressive shot can quickly shift the balance of a rally.
All of these differences are very, very subtle and could easily go unnoticed. In fact, it is easy to miss them when two top boys are playing each other, because both of them do everything so well it appears standard! But watching someone from the top 16 play someone ranked 20 or lower will highlight these differences. The guys ranked in the 20s and 30s are still incredible players who have achieved something most people couldn’t dream of, but they are often dispatched in the minimum 3 games by the very best. So next time you are in the mood to watch a match video, fire up an early round contest from the latest tournament, and see the true class of the best squash players on earth.
Some of the most frequent questions people ask about life as a squash player (other than “How much money do you make?”) have to do with day-to-day training routines. After all, the main reason top pros are so good is the years of dedicated, methodical training they have done. Most squash fans know that the average pro is doing two or three sessions a day five days a week, so without discussing the obvious I will try to give some insight into what myself and my training partners do in a given week.
Since the National Squash Academy opened last year, training for players based in Toronto has become centralized. Obviously this is a big step forward for Canadian squash. Any day of the week, you can find 6-10 of the best players in Canada and the odd international guest on court at the NSA. There are two sessions per day most days. One of them is either match play (three times a week) or drills involving lots of movement and options. The other one is usually a “closed” session, with the purpose of improving technique, accuracy and consistency. The more intense sessions are a great time to implement new skills being perfected in the closed sessions. Total time on court each day is usually around four hours, and there is always work to be done in the gym afterwards. Due to each player having different tournament schedules, it is rare to have everyone on the exact same program for a day. The core values of each session remain the same, and it is up to the players to tailor their training around tournaments as they see fit. This is a whole science of its own and often takes years to master.
Training full-time is a huge mental battle and there are ups and downs within each month, week and day. On the one hand, you have to put 100% effort mentally and physically into every session in order to see results. On the other, showing up to the courts every morning with weary legs and doing boast-drive for the thousandth time can leave anyone struggling for motivation. In my few months of being dedicate full-time I have started to understand two major points: 1) you absolutely cannot get caught-up in micro-frustrations. On a given day you might be a bit tired, a bit slow, or a bit inaccurate. This obviously happens to everyone, but letting bad days undermine your confidence and limit your enjoyment will only turn squash into a chore rather than a passion. 2) you can’t train with an insane intensity every day without burning out at some point. It can be tempting to exhaust yourself to satisfaction on a Monday or Tuesday, but the rest of the week will be compromised. Five days at 85% are better than one day all out. I’m always looking to derive new lessons from my training experiences. Hopefully they will pay off some day!