By Kim Clearkin
Director of Squash at San Francisco Bay Club
How often do you marvel at the top players when they hit a cross-court volley nick, ending the point in style? Do you wonder how they created this situation and earned the right to end the point in such a way, or do you just concentrate on the winning shot? While the last shot is the one best remembered, it’s because a player has won the length battle that enables them to look so good.
The length battle—often going unremarked and unnoticed—is paramount to playing squash. It underscores every rally. As players jostle for position, they are like prize fighters in a ring: wary, but looking for the first opportunity to attack.
The length battle is the ability to hit the ball so that it lands at the back of the court (second bounce at the back wall), pulling your opponent behind you and taking a dominant position—where most attacking play occurs—in front. The length of a rally may change based on ability, as explained below, but hitting to a good length and winning the length battle is fundamental to succeeding at squash.
At this level, the length battle is short. Players find it very difficult to hit the ball to a good length. Most rallies at this level take place in front of the short line, and often the first player to hit to the back of the court wins the rally. Part of the reason length works is because players also find it difficult to hit the ball out of the back or off the back wall—and if they do, they will leave it short. Even a good deep serve is effective.
Players at the 3.0 level should practice hitting the ball to and from the back of the court, including off the back wall. Solo practice will lead to better consistency and accuracy by focusing on a target (a folded towel covering about ten boards of floor width works) about six inches behind the service box. Try this until you hit at least ten targets on both backhand and forehand. If you become proficient, try to over hit by practicing hitting the ball off the back wall too.
Often in coaching sessions players will practice going forward to the ball and hitting a target. They also need to practice moving back to the ball from the T, but still hitting to a good length. With a partner, players should practice rotating drives to the back of the service box, keeping the targets in place. This practice will help players gain better understanding and consistency needed for the next level.
At this level, players will be able to drive the ball to the back, as well as move and drive another ball to the back. Accuracy and consistency will still need work, as many of the balls may hit the side wall on their way to the back, but players will understand the fundamentals of the length battle.
Often these players will be so focused on hitting a good length that they forget to attack (i.e., they don’t volley enough), or they choose to attack at the wrong time (e.g. going short too soon, or from the back of the court, or when not balanced).
Players at this level should continue to work on their length shots using similar solo and partner practice to the 3.0 level player. Smaller targets covering five floor boards should be used as players try to vary the height and pace of their shots. Half court alley games, where players must hit the ball within the service box alley, or even half the service box width, will re-enforce the length battle and help with accuracy, consistency and variation of shots.
Players at this level should not forget to work on their short game to make sure they can benefit from winning the length battle.
Players at this level are accomplished, and most rallies will incorporate at least one—often many—length battles. 5.0 players will use height and power for their drives, relying on variation to keep their opponent on the defense. These players keep the ball very tight to the wall, allowing their opponents little opportunity to pounce. Always looking to attack when in front, these players punish inaccurate shots from their opponents with a severe short game that often leads to an advantageous position.
5.0 players still do solo practice, using a small target such as a squash ball box—one floorboard in width. They will experiment with height and power and continue to work with alley games and the line of the ball. Their shots will follow the line of the boards and will rarely hit the side wall on their way to the back.
Players should also work hard on their short game—practicing drop shots and volleys to put their opponent under pressure. Winning the length battle is difficult at this level, and players will want to capitalize on that win by making sure their attacking shots are accurate and tight, forcing a weak shot from their opponent.