A small rubber ball and a lot of sweaty men
By William Stanistreet
I’m a junkie for change. Change feels like progress and progress is exciting. I can’t sit still. I haven’t lived in the same place for two years in a row since I was 16. I’m always searching for the next thing to obsess over, the next album to play on repeat, the next sport to muse about.
To this end — and I know this is going to sound dramatic — I have given up squash. I know. Earth shattering. Just to be clear — the sport, not the vegetable. Although, I don’t really like the vegetable either. So I’m giving that up too. Or now I’m eating it? I don’t know. I just want change.
Up until now squash (henceforth I will only be referring to the sport when I use this word) has been immune to my obsession with the new, it’s been my sport of choice since Grade 3. Since I was 6 years old I have been playing a sport that peaked in the 70’s and seemingly appeals exclusively to angry middle aged men. Because that’s how the cool kids live.
Milawa, the small town I grew up in North East Victoria, has three squash courts. With a population of a couple of hundred I’d wager it’s the highest squash court per person in the southern hemisphere, but unfortunately census doesn’t cover the ‘SCPP’. In fact, no one really covers anything to do with squash. It’s thought mostly of by bored PE teachers, who wonder silently who exactly is using these courts when they’re not filled by hundred of sweaty pre-pubescent children. Or maybe they don’t, because nobody thinks about squash and PE teachers aren’t known for their reflective tendencies.
There’s something of an urban legend surrounding squash. Except urban legends are cool and this is not cool. It’s more just a fake fact- actually that makes it sound almost important — maybe a fake tidbit. One of those useless pieces of information that has lodged itself somewhere in the back of my brain and can get trotted out to fill conversations.
The tidbit goes that squash is the second most lethal sport in Australia, beaten out only by the daredevil sport of lawn bowls. It’s said that there are more heart-attacks on the squash court than on any other sporting arena. It’s unfortunately not true, turns out equestrian sports are super dangerous and horses shouldn’t be trusted. So all those times I drunkenly tried to impress girls by saying I played the second most dangerous sport in Australia I was lying. Really the biggest travesty was that I thought I was impressing girls with squash. Nobody is impressed by squash.
What the tidbit does show is that squash is an old person’s game, and it’s known as one. And I know it. Most of my casual squash career was spent playing grumpy old men. Bitter when they lost and full of patronising advice when they won — ex-champions don’t always make the best competitors. Not that I did either, but it’s indicative of the aged popularity of the sport that only those that were really good are holding on to it.
Squash came to Australia in a big way in the 70’s with a barrage of badass headbands and short shorts. By the time I was hitting the courts it had even added the patented visor that set it apart as a cool kid sport. While in most places in the world squash lost it’s lustre in the 80’s, Milawa, with it’s own architectural example of soviet bloc brutalism, held tight to the sport that should be vegetable.
Perhaps because of the local passion I ended up sticking with squash right through until now, until 25.
The sport itself is a bit odd. It’s a variant of tennis that holds more in common with the original Royal Tennis (the sport whose court the French signed their game-changing treatise on) than even modern day tennis does. It’s not much of a spectator sport and even less of a delight to the ears. The thwack of a particularly well struck shot can be deafening.
As you can see — squash isn’t a pretty game. It’s a grinders game. At an amateur level, a super fit lower level player can beat out a graceful experienced player by chasing harder and longer. It’s a game of fitness — hence why I was never destined to be that great at it.
But for a long time it was one of the very few things I was good at.
In school another boy and I won the wider Melbourne private school championships (I was then thrashed by the state number 3 in the Victorian Schools open championships in a merciless example of ego deflation). At university, Monash won gold at UniGames for squash and I was ranked number 4. I was never going to be great but I was good enough to be better than the average, which was something that I couldn’t say for most other sports.
Squash is a game with a formula, it’s as much about accruing court position and setting yourself up to play a winning shot. I spent hours lunging up and down those boards, digging out boasts (a shot that hits the side wall before the front wall) and trying in vain to be able to play the perfect drop shot. I was always able to hit the ball pretty hard, which at a lower level can finish points quickly (something I needed to do because my opponents were mostly fitter than me) but as I played against better opponents the extra power behind my shots stopped winning me points.
With more training I got a bit better but hit a clear ceiling and when I did I stopped enjoying squash. There was no more progress. I kept playing socially but stopped really caring. It was fun again for a time but always mixed with frustration, I knew how to play better but just couldn’t do it.
I still think about squash every now and again but doing anything for as long and as often as I’ve played squash bleeds the edges of recall, instead of remembering single instances or matches all I get is a barrage of memories.
Peeling paint, grey tin and slashes of red all bathed in fluorescent light. Players trying in vain to catch their breath and the squeal of sneakers on polished floorboards. Vomit and soreness. Sweat, so much sweat.
It’s a satisfying thing to do, to break the game apart into single fragments like that. It makes the resulting game seem like an absurdist’s interpretation of the individual parts rather than a cohesive and one-time popular indoor sport. It’s satisfying because squash fits that absurdist mold. It’s people hitting a ball at a wall and wailing about it.
So what now? Like the bad-guy in every teenage movie I’m playing with the prettier more popular court based racquet sport; tennis. Because change is great, but I don’t want to stray too far. I’m no good but my serves are starting to go in, sometimes I can hit a winner or two. I feel progress but I’m sure that’ll change.
Maybe after that I’ll take up badminton.