I want to talk a bit about the dynamics of the first game in squash.
The first game holds a lot of power when shaping the rest of the match, it can give underdogs the opportunity to pull ahead early, but, it can also give better players the chance to assert their confidence and dominance in the match.
I want to focus mainly on the underdogs in this article, so, in the first section, I'll talk about why the first game is so interesting in comparison to other games in a match and why underdogs often have this opportunity to get ahead early.
Then, in the next section, I will go on to provide some tips on the best approach to taking the first game for yourself against a player who is better than you...
As I touched on in the introduction, the first game in a squash match (either best of three or best of five games) can set the tone for the entire match.
Unlike many other sports, it is actually pretty common for the underdog to win the first game in a squash match. This is seen at pretty much all levels of the game, including among top professionals.
Now, I don't do a lot of betting, but, every now and again I put a small amount of money on a squash match (and there is the option to bet on individual games), I will often bet on the underdog to win the first, as sometimes the odds are pretty good (that is not gambling advice by the way).
Anyway, I've put quite a lot of thought into why underdogs seem to have such an opportunity to take an early lead.
The first reason is pressure (or lack thereof).
If you've ever played someone who is better than you, you'll be aware that all of the pressure is nearly always on the better player's shoulders.
This is why most players put on their best performances against players a little (or even a lot) better than themselves.
However, put yourself in the better players' shoes now. I imagine you have also played someone who is worse than you, someone who you believe you should beat, and it's never an easy task.
For me (and I think most other players), these are the games I often feel most nervous during the build-up, and that's where the pressure kicks in.
During the match itself, I always feel a lot more tense playing someone I know I should beat. It often takes me longer than usual just to calm my nerves, start to focus on the game and settle into some kind of rhythm.
If you're in the underdog's position then this is a great thing to capitalize on (but more about that in the second section).
In fact, not only will the underdog not be feeling much pressure, but they will often also be very up for the challenge of having the opportunity to play a better player and improve their own game in the process.
Against a better player, the underdog will often be ready and raring to go, whereas the better player will perhaps not be as up for the match.
This is another reason why the first game can be so interesting, and that's the element of surprise. If the underdog comes out guns-a-blazing, then it can play a big role in shifting the momentum right from the start.
However, depending on the person, it's also not uncommon for the better player to be complacent and unprepared for the match if they're confident that they will win.
They may think it will be an easy match, but, the element of surprise is still a handy advantage in this case too.
If you are the underdog and you're playing someone new, perhaps your opponent has looked into your recent results and rankings and may think that they won't have their work cut out.
Or, if you're the underdog and you're playing someone who you've lost to before, they may just think that, since they've beaten you before, it'll be easy to do it again.
Because of this, they may turn up unprepared, and without a game plan, they may also not warm up thoroughly or put thought into the match, which can heavily sway the results of the first game.
Another thing that can be exciting about that first game is the underdog's opportunity for tactical experimentation.
If you're the underdog and you're feeling loose and relaxed, yet ready, for your match, you will feel more comfortable taking in winners with confidence, trying out different paces, and testing new tactics.
The better player will often stick to a more rigorous, safe approach which will minimize their risk of losing points to unforced errors, but, will perhaps increase the underdog's chances of getting an opportunity to hit a winner.
I know that when I play someone who is perhaps a little lower standard than myself, I become very very cautious and won't be confident when taking balls in short in case I make an error.
I often just end up playing safe lengths and keeping a medium, consistent pace.
The crowd can also play a big role in the first game, especially when there is an underdog.
This is perhaps more applicable in a tournament setting, because, in a team match, chances are both teams would just be rooting for their own players.
In a tournament, you can have lots of people you don't even know watching your match which is really cool.
Like many other sports, it's not uncommon for the crowd to cheer for the underdog which can provide some critical motivation and energy for getting them through that crucial first game.
So, those are some of the reasons why I believe that the first game often has interesting or unexpected results.
Being able to capitalise on these unique elements at this stage of the match can give you an excellent leg up against a superior player...
... So, here are some of my tips and best practices for making the most of that first game to give yourself the best chance of taking it, getting in your opponent's head, and gaining momentum for the second and third games:
Come Out Swinging (At First)
Kickstart the game with a very high pace to show your opponent that you mean business.
If your opponent thinks that this is going to be an easy win for them, then this is the time to catch them off-guard and prove them wrong.
It's arguably the most important part of the first game as it sets the tone for the rest of the game (and maybe the match).
If you show the other player that you're going all in, it can get in their head quite quickly.
My advice would be to hit hard when possible, take volleys as often as you can (within reason), and don't be afraid to take the ball in short at any point in the rally.
If you make it your mission to control the T as much as possible and put your opponent on the defensive right from the get-go, it gives you an excellent opportunity to get an early lead and get into your opponent's head too.
Of course, it's very difficult (and often not very beneficial) to keep up a very high pace of play for a full game as it can get very very tiring, plus, your opponent will begin to get used to it.
I think this tactic works best in the first five points of the first game (roughly), and then it's time to start mixing it up...
Start To Vary The Pace
This is when you start to demonstrate your versatility as a player and show your opponent that you are capable of dictating the pace of play and controlling the match.
Your opponent will have had a bit of time to get into the match now and warm up their own shots and movements, so, this is likely where the real test begins.
Varying the pace of your shots and rallies in the first game is a great strategic approach that can work to your advantage.
By mixing slower, more controlled shots with sudden bursts of speed and power, you will keep your opponent guessing and disrupt the rhythm that they are trying to get into.
Going from slow to fast will force your opponent to scramble and react, going from fast to slow will throw them off of their movement (and will also give you time to get back into your rightful position on the T).
Perhaps they have come into the match with their own game plan, but, varying the pace may force them to second guess and have to rethink that plan in order to adapt to a style of match that they possibly weren't expecting.
This adds a great element of surprise to your game.
It's not easy to vary the pace as it takes a lot of mental focus. It's hard to be in your own rhythm because you need to be fully concentrating on this strategy. Plus, it can also take its toll physically, so remember not to overboard with the fast pace.
With that said, mastering the art of pace variation can be a game-changer when aiming to claim that all-important first game in squash.
Mix Up Your Shot Selection
Similar to mixing up the pace, mixing up your shots will also keep your opponent guessing in that first game.
If you demonstrate your ability to use deception, play tight lengths, hit straight and cross court drops, trickle boasts, and three wall boasts all early on in the first game, it means that your opponent will have to start to cover every one of these shots to make sure they don't get caught off guard.
This will start to damage them physically as it's tiring for them to move into all corners of the court, but also mentally, as they may struggle to figure out the best game plan to execute.
Avoid becoming predictable at all costs. If your opponent (who is perhaps better than you technically) catches on and can tell what shot you're going to play next, you will find yourself on the back foot very fast as it gives them an opportunity to get onto your shots early and go for attacking shots.
Again, this isn't easy. It takes mental focus and engagement to stick to this tactic and it can be quite tiring, so keep that in mind!
The aim is to always keep your opponent guessing.
Observe Your Opponent's Response
Not every player is the same. Different opponents will react very differently to the tactics above, if you have the ability to watch your opponent to see how they react to certain shots and tactics, you can learn a lot about their weaknesses (and strengths going forward).
Take mental notes of their preferences, and patterns.
If you notice that they struggle with a particular shot or movement, capitalise on this knowledge as quickly as possible (because every point counts).
By observing their response carefully, you can exploit their vulnerabilities and tailor your game plan accordingly.
This awareness can be a powerful weapon, allowing you to outmaneuver your opponent and gain an early advantage in the first game.
Of course, you need to have your head completely in the game to do this too!
Stay Patient And Focus On Consistency As The Match Goes On
I've been talking a lot about how the underdog has such a good chance in that first game, however, I feel like I haven't really mentioned that it is still, of course, not a very easy task at all.
Even if you get a good start and lead in the first game from the tips above, you should still be expecting a battle.
Towards the end stages of the game, this is the time to start to focus on patience and consistency, rather than going crazy with pace (partly because you may be a little more fatigued by now).
Each and every point is crucial at this point, so you need to lower your risk a little bit to get yourself over the finishing line in that game.
Focus on hitting your targets and keeping an accurate length game. Avoid going for winners and risking cheap mistakes.
If you're ahead on points at this stage in the first game, then there's a good chance that your opponent is panicking a little bit by now.
Let them make the mistakes here and just focus on being patient and not giving away easy points at all costs.
Keep Your Head
Even if your opponent pulls ahead in the first game, that doesn't mean that you've missed your chance.
It's likely that they are still nervous about this match and will be trying to stay as consistent and safe as possible. If you can stay positive and keep pushing for every point, you might start to see cracks in your opponent's game due to the pressure.
Try your best to resist the urge to get discouraged if things don't go your way initially.
Every point is a new opportunity. By keeping your emotions in check, you'll make better decisions and execute your shots effectively. Focus on your game plan, and if things get challenging, remind yourself of the strategies you've prepared.
Staying mentally tough can definitely put pressure on your opponent, you might not see it, but it's important to trust the process. They may begin to doubt themselves if they notice that you're not easily rattled too.
Additionally, remaining calm can help you save mental and physical energy for the later stages of the match. A strong mental game is a powerful tool, especially when you aim to take the first game and set a winning tone for the match.
Just remember, the moment your head drops against a better player, that's usually game over. If they have the technical and mental advantage over you, then you are just relying on sheer luck to win.
Positive Body Language
Looking confident is key.
Regardless of your skill level compared to your opponent, carrying yourself with confidence can influence the course of the match.
Maintain an upright posture and display positive body language even when things aren't going your way (although that's definitely easier said than done).
Stand tall, move with purpose, and exude confidence. If you appear confident and self-assured, your opponent may start to question their own game, especially if you start to pull ahead.
They might wonder why you're so composed even when they're favored to win.
Additionally, positive body language can send a message that you're a resilient and determined player. It can be mentally draining for your opponent to see you consistently looking ready and upbeat, even during intense rallies.
This approach can affect your opponent's mindset and create an element of doubt.
They might start to wonder why they're not dominating as expected. By maintaining a positive demeanor, you can subtly plant seeds of uncertainty in your opponent's mind, especially in the crucial first game of the match.
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