By Will Carlin
Ten years ago, I had a conversation with James Willstrop—the future number one player in the world.
James explained how hard it is for spectators to really understand a squash match between top pros, that the game had so many levels of subtlety that even good players don’t really see all the things that are going on.
“I know what you mean,” I said, a little too eagerly.
James winced. I went on, trying to establish my squash bona fides: “You know, I actually played the tour for a number of years.”
James pursed his lips and slowly nodded his head. He wasn’t impressed.
“Um, well, can you give me an example?” I asked, with a little chagrin.
He paused, looked at me and got up. He said, “If you haven’t been there, it’s really hard to explain. It’s subtle.”
Just over three years ago, I started training with Richard Millman. Richard is one of the best teachers of squash on the planet, and one of his great talents is to create skill games that are competitive and fun, but also force new levels of understanding. One of these is the service box game, which is as devious as it is simple to explain: every ball must land in the five-foot-square service box.
What’s the point? The answer begins with a question: if you were poised to hit a forehand down the right wall and you could pick one perfect thing to execute with your drive, what would you choose? You can choose among perfect length, perfect height, perfect width or perfect power (the weight of your shot).
Go ahead. Choose.
It seems like the answer might be opinion-based. It isn’t. The answer is width, and the service box game tests your understanding of and skill with width.
When you try it, you likely will struggle to keep balls in the box. Rallies will be short. If your opponent hits a ball tight to the sidewall, you will be severely challenged to respond with a ball back in the box.
If you keep at it, however, you will start to realize that when a ball truly is glued to the wall, your only hope to control it is to hit the ball either with the very edge of your strings or with the actual frame of the racquet. Intentionally using the frame to hit a drive requires extreme precision. It also requires dealing with panic. When the ball is glued to the sidewall, it’s hard control your anxiety. If it gets the better of you, the typical mistake is to pull out of the shot prematurely to try to force the ball to the front wall—it’s unlikely that you will get the ball back into the service box.
Eventually, you may find yourself watching the ball’s flight so closely that you notice that no wall is perfectly flat and that small imperfections may cause the ball to pop away from the wall ever so slightly, giving you an opportunity to use the strings to control the ball back to the box.
After many months of playing this game with Richard, I had what I believed was a huge insight: wait as long as possible. Waiting, I reasoned, gives the ball every chance to come slightly off the wall, but it also gives the brain more time to correctly orient the feet, body and racquet if the ball stays tight.
Richard and I were now having single rallies that lasted into the triple digits, and we regularly had sequences of four, six, and eight glue-balls in a row. I thought waiting was kind of my secret weapon.
And then something changed. Richard started to win rallies with balls that were not tight to the sidewall. I was bewildered. How could I keep glue-balls in play and make errors on other balls? What was going on? I went home and started to sketch Richard’s shot in my squash notebook. Richard was starting the ball well away from the sidewall, but on a diagonal that tracked gently toward it. Simple enough. So, why the errors?
It turns out it’s the waiting.
If you wait too long, the ball is closing onto the sidewall. In other words, its distance is in flux, so that it now requires precision and timing. And if you decide to wait for the ball to come off the sidewall, it doesn’t: the wall drains the ball’s energy, and it falls precipitously.
Improving in squash is an evolution of both skill and understanding. Richard had sensed my desire to wait and used it against me with this intentional, testing shot. Richard calls it the fade. It looks totally innocuous, but it requires quick recognition and fast action: in rapid sequence, you have to get your racquet back, move quickly forward, and get your feet and body around to play the ball before it reaches the wall.
I had been dismissing the fade as an error for years. Gregory Gaultier is a master of the shot. Every now and then, Gaultier throws one in during a rally. It looks slow, bounces in front of the service line, and isn’t tight; it seems like a loss of concentration. What’s really going on, of course, is that Greg is asking his opponent: “Do you really understand the game we are playing?”
He’s probing, asking a question, challenging recognition. If the opponent is a top-ten pro, he likely will quickly sense the danger, suddenly accelerate and make sure to play the ball before the sidewall. “Good one, Greg, but I see it.”
It’s a moment of cat and mouse in the middle of a rally in the middle of a match in the middle of a tournament. It looks like nothing; it tests everything.