The first time Christoph and I played squash, we weren’t sure what kind of ball to use. “Soft, medium, or hard?” asked the woman behind the counter. Christoph and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. “Well can you make contact?” she asked once it became clear her first question would yield no discernible response. Then she handed us two rackets (brand: Unsquashable™) and said, “Court 6.”
Squash compresses limitless vectors of motion into 62.4 tidy square meters. In football, a wide receiver might buttonhook, slant or fly, but his ultimate goal is to move forward. In soccer, a skilled midfielder has 7,140 square meters to work with an infinite range of attacking angles at her disposal, but she too must ultimately advance. Squash is not this way. Squash is interesting because of its limits. You and your opponent are confined to a cozy ~350 cubic meters. But you can win and lose in all directions. You can dictate the run of play, moving your opponent around the court like a marionette. But with one flutter of the wrist, you can be left flat-footed and flailing your Unsquashable™ racket at thin air. Squash taught me that whatever it is that separates the polar sensations of absolute control and utter helplessness is not nearly as substantial as you might expect.
After the first time we played, Christoph sent me this video of the Qatar Classic 2015 and said, “Whatever it was that we played last week, it wasn’t squash.” There’s a stretch starting at the :20 second mark the leaves even the announcers perplexed. Mazen Hesham, an Egyptian pro, lofts a backhand crosscourt that skirts off two walls and drops “dead as a dodo” in the opposite corner.
“Outrageous!” says the announcer between chortles “It’s a different brand of squash than we’re used to,” unable to compose his chuckling for the remainder of the set.
The second time we played squash, Christoph beat me 11-0 one set. On one point, he won a position close to the front wall and played a shot deep, sending me hurdling to the corner to retrieve the ball with my forehand. I zipped a shot back towards the wall that, instead of dropping “dead as a dodo,” hit Christoph in the side and immediately began to bruise. A brief look of anguish visited his countenance, to which I responded with a sheepish shrug and an apology. Unsure of the rules, we replayed the point, which he won en route to whitewashing me. After scoring the final point of the set, he turned to face my anguished countenance, shrugged, and said sorry.
I first played squash not six months ago while teaching in England. I let myself get run around the court by a couple of British colleagues who, like Christoph, were exceedingly polite in dismantling me. But decorum doesn’t do much to lessen the hopelessness of losing 11-0. That’s something only a couple of wins can fix. Till then you’re lost on 62 square meters.
In On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche says ‘‘Only something that continues to hurt stays in the memory.’’ I’m better now than I was in England. Now when I play I sometimes feel in control and other times don’t. A bruise has a defined life span, but that’s not always the case for a loss. It can vanish and reappear at will.
Last week Christoph and I played for the third time. Having learned from our first two sessions the importance of properly warming up the ball in advance, we began by whacking the ball against the ground. The doors to enter the courts are made of glass, meaning that people can sit outside the playing surface and watch. I imagine we looked rather stupid, taking turns smashing the ball against the hardwood. But soon we were playing at a level higher than ever before, something at least closer to what we saw in the video. We moved with a least some sense of tactics, swapped momentum swings, and played lengthier rallies. I won a few points, then he won them back. At one point Christoph lunged into the front wall to fetch a drop shot I had already turned a victorious back to. I turned only to see Christoph clutch the ball in his nonracket hand and pump his fist. Unsquashable.