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.