It is late March when dad suggests we should play the world championships together. He keeps talking about the Masters, this summer held in Virginia, and after months and months of him going on about it, telling stories about previous editions in Johannesburg and Hong Kong, and me listening to those stories, stories I might have heard before, I go online and pay the entry fee. I haven’t paid an entry fee for a tournament in a long time.
I entered, I email him, but get no reply.
The following week I see him. When are you going to put your name in? I ask.
At my age, he says, I’m never too sure if I get injured or not. So I deem it best to wait till the last possible moment to sign up.
Great. Now I’ll go alone. Retired from the tour less than two years ago, and off I go again, to a tournament far away, nothing to win, all alone, one of the things I really didn’t fancy anymore.
Dad and I practice together in the months leading up to the event. The only one who gets injured is me. After twenty minutes on court I pull a muscle in my leg, or twist my back, and feel forced to stumble of court. My 67-year old dad looks at me with those big bewildered eyes, starts hitting the ball on his own and recommends we do an easy boast drive routine. In the meantime I’m on the floor in the changing room trying not to do further damage to the L3 vertebra. In the background I hear the muffled sound of the ball smashing on court three.
We rent a white Ford Mondeo Hybrid and a cute little country house in Charlottesville. It is late July and very hot in Virginia. In the morning I wake up to the sound of dad making breakfast. He doesn’t drain the bacon, chucks it in the same pan as the eggs, which is obviously great for diminished grease intake. I mess around with a French press I found in the kitchen cabinet and make coffee. We talk or read books while Ray Lamontagne’s voice crackles out of the UE Boom speaker.
Every day we go to the club and play the sport which by now is engrained in our DNA. Dad plays the 65+. I squeeze in the youngest category: 35+. Dad coaches me, and I coach dad, and we both don’t listen to each other. I mean, what do I tell my dad in between games? Ideally all the things that he told me over the years I figure. That’ll work. Telling someone to execute what he’s preached his whole life… That is always going to work.
We drive to our little country house and pass a lunch place adjacent to the street. A chain restaurant probably, but it looks healthy, and people sit outside in the sun. It isn’t till the second last day that we decide to actually go in there. Not a soul in the restaurant, but about eight employees behind a very long counter staring at us. We look at the instructions on computer screens behind the football team of employees and try to make sense of the step-by-step process of how to assemble a lunch dish.
One. Pick a base. Salad, greens & grains, mini plus soup, pita, grain bowl. Two. Dips and spreads. Eggplant & red pepper dip, tzatziki, crazy feta, etcetera. STOP. I look at my dad. Panic in his eyes. As his son I know, I recognize it, because I feel the same way. His exact thought at that moment: can I not just pick a readymade meal? Can you please not give me a million choices about salads and grains and dips and spreads and proteins and toppings, things I don’t actually care about? Things I’m sure all taste lovely. Things I’m sure all are healthy. Please compose the dish for me. Don’t make me do it. Don’t make us the decision maker in choices so irrelevant. Fussy eaters we are not. We eat everything. Just put something in the bowl. We’ll eat it.
The lady behind the counter sees the terror in our eyes, two stock-still bodies staring at the menu, looking uncomfortably at each other, offering the customer behind us to go first, carefully listening to how the ordering process unfolds. The lady behind the counter asks if it is our first time here. No shit. We tell her we’re foreigners. Then she guides us through every step of the way of the step-by-step process, the process of making lunch I guess, and in the end we just point at different foods, like babies.
I want this one! dad yells.
Tomatos? Those are tomatos.
We end up having the best lunch of the week outside on the terrace.
The next day we go back. We are confident now. We know how to order. We understand the ins and outs of the Cava chain restaurant model. When we get to the cash register the girl smiles, pushes away my credit card. This one is on them. We love people coming back! We sit down and enjoy an even better tzatziki grain bowl with braised lamb, Kalamata olives, lemon wedge, and cauliflower quinoa tabbouleh, topped off with a spicy apricot dressing and other things we’ll never be able to describe.
The evening before the final, and still everything feels relaxed. It’s just a nice father-son trip. It’s not about winning. It’s a squash-holiday with dad. But is it? Earlier that day I bought some old books in a bookshop. I take one out and stare at the words on the page. Is it not a world championship final I am going to play tomorrow? No matter how I look at it? In bed I try to read Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, but in my mind I’m already out there in the arena. I put the book away and feel my breath shorten. Old habits die hard. A relaxing tournament, yeah right. You either play hard or don’t play at all, echoes a voice in my head. I fall asleep in a light nervous sleep, a sleep I thought I’d retired from.
The next day I play long lost friend Ali Walker, who I’ve probably known since the French Junior Open in Strasbourg 1997. It took a few matches to get used to the glass court, but today it feels good, I see the ball clearly. There’s something about warming-up on a glass court with a brand new ball that is quite beautiful. The ball is dead, the glass is dead, everything is cold, only our bodies are warm. The molecules in the ball are hardly moving. We have to create the energy. We’re hitting the shit out of the ball, volleying to each other. Right up until that moment, when the kinetic energy reaches its peak and the ball gets warm, we play the sport in its purest form. With a ball that doesn’t bounce. Its state when you buy it in the shop. It’s pure. It’s true. Everything after is a derivative.
After our prize ceremony Alistair and I stand on the side wall watching the ceremony for the 80+ category. Look at these guys, man. Massive respect, we say to each other. These guys might look old and grey and slow, but think again, these guys are the fittest 80-year old athletes in the world. A moment later the numbers two and three stand on their podium. Now it’s time for the world champion 80+ to get announced. His moment of glory. The top podium spot is quite a high step-up to take, even for me, and I’m six foot three. The 80+ world champ is a lot shorter than six foot three. He puts his foot on the scaffold. I see a glimpse of worry in his eyes. I just beat the fiercest competitors in the world of my age, but can I climb this podium? Will I make it? Will I not lose balance and crash backwards into the sponsors banner?
I sit on the edge of the swimming pool and drink beers with old friends in the sun. Dad goes inside and buys more beers. I swim one lap, consider it enough. World champion, I think. World masters champion. After my retirement from the tour two years ago I can’t help but think this might be the cherry on the cake. I’m continuously smiling. Another voice in my head says world champion of old people, but I decide to stick with the cherry on the cake voice.
Because what does age mean? Don’t we all have to deal with our age and do the best we can? Athletic performance gets worse with age, there’s no denying that. I’m only thirty-five and I notice my decrease in speed, change of direction, and explosiveness already. Wait till you get to my age! I hear you say. But it doesn’t matter, because the principle is the same. We have to deal with the limitations that our bodies impose on us. Some have less, some have more. We can’t deny the process of getting worse, getting slower, getting less powerful. Still, it’s up to us how much we slow that process down. Slow the process down due to training, lifestyle, never stopping doing exercise. In Charlottesville I saw people from all over the world slowing the process down. I saw players of all ages with the same ambition, locked in different bodies.