Stuff of Legends

I open the email and stare at the screen. Whether I’m interested to play an invitational tournament in Bermuda. The moment I read Bermuda my fingers hit the keyboard and I reply instantaneously. It’s more than a decade ago, but the World Open in 2007 was one of the coolest tournaments I ever played. The full glass court was built a stone’s throw away from the whitest beach you could imagine. We -the players- hired scooters which we crashed into walls, onto parked cars, and totally wore out exploring the backwaters of the island. We were young, alive and free and anybody could still become world champion. ‘Who else is competing?’ I ask, more out of politeness than curiosity. Names of legends appear on my computer screen: Power, Palmer, White, Parke, Evans, Marshall and Taylor. ’Hence the tournament title,’ I mumble to myself. ‘Legends of Squash.’

I’m not a legend, I think to myself while the rain pours down outside my windmill and I start eating the cheese wheel of Gouda on my dinner plate. Not among those names! Three former world number ones, one former world number two, two former world top-3 players, and a former two-time European champion. But, opportunistic as I am, I decide to play along. It might not be a prank. I’ll play along and pretend till my flight is booked and I’ve arrived safely on the island.


One month later I land in Bermuda. The humidity hits me the moment I set foot on the ground. While the azure blue sea water glides by the car window I ask the driver if I’m the first player who’s arrived. ‘Mr. Power arrived last night,’ he says. I look out over the ocean and see myself, fourteen years young, in front of the player’s lounge of the Dutch Open, being slightly pushed by my dad, nervous as hell, about to approach Jonathon Power, the eccentric Canadian who reinvented the sport, to ask him for an autograph. Or maybe I can do one better: perhaps he’ll give me the bandana with the golden M of McDonalds (his sponsor) on it. I wanted that McDonalds bandana so bad! For weeks it was the only thing I could think about. How cool is an athlete dominating world’s most demanding sport with a golden M on his head? Power gave me the bandana which I kept in a safe next to mum’s jewelry ever since.


The Coral Beach and Tennis Club Hotel is simply astonishing. The property is full of palm trees, the terraces overlook the ocean and the ground is worth many more millions than I can comprehend. 80 Million or not, the rooms aren’t ready! The receptionist tells me to wait in the lobby, so I do, and after a couple of hours legends Palmer and White walk in. When I get up to say hi, I see myself, a 19-year old boy, sitting in the first row of the gallery in Antwerp watching the World Open final. I was witness to an epic and dramatic final, a match that would slip through White’s hands and crowned Palmer world champion. The mental strength that won Palmer the title carried him through to win many more titles. It was a trait I later tried to emulate. Be like Dave, I thought at nerve-wrecking moments in my career. Be like Dave.


Later that evening I turn up at the welcome party. If there’s one thing I hate it’s probably wearing a suit and tie, and if I had to name another: overdressing would be a close second. I’m wearing a suit and tie, especially bought for this occasion, many painful dollars spent in a midtown Manhattan men’s store. I have to pretend to be a legend now, I have to blend in, it’s what the email said: suit and tie. But of course all the sponsors and the real legends are wearing flip flops and V-neck t-shirts and shades in their hair. We’re in Bermuda man! Relax!


I see Parke, Taylor, Evans and Marshall walk in and I get a flashback of my childhood room, my parent’s house in The Hague, the collage I created from hundreds of pictures cut out of old Squash Magazines. Parke, the fittest player on tour. Taylor, the smoothest mover on a squash court. Evans, possessor of the most horrific hold. And Marshall, the guy who nearly did the incredible: beat the greatest player to ever walk the planet, playing with TWO hands, double-handed I mean, forehand and backhand, never seen before in squash, till he trained so hard Chronic Fatigue Syndrome took him out of the race.


We catch up over a beer while the sweat patches on my back and the tie cutting off the air supply in my throat feel great.  


The next few days go by as if they’re a dream. It seems that the bigger legend you were, the less professional you become. Peter Marshall only took one racquet with him, for the whole week. An old Dunlop from twelve years ago, with no strings in it. Power had actually taken no racquets with him at all. Well, he did find one hardball doubles racquet and one tennis racquet in his bag. If he could borrow mine? So I lend Power my own signature racquet and the most bizarre thing is now a reality. The Canadian phenomenon whose bandana is still in my mum’s safe will play LJ’s Robocop Harrow Stealth this week. I just pray to the sporting gods I won’t lose to a guy using my signature frame.


I consider it a smart move to play tennis with Power the morning I have to play him. At least tennis is a game I know I can beat him at. It’s early morning and we’ve already swum in the ocean and for nearly an hour I hit Nadal-like topspin forehands high to his backhand. Then heavy rotation to his forehand. After a long breakfast we walk back to our house on the beach and he says: ‘I feel like I’ve lived a lifetime already today.’ When I get back to my room a grin appears on my face. I smell the opportunity. I might have a chance tonight…


Every evening I play a legend and -no matter how hard I try- I can’t help but still feel like a kid. In the knock-up I hide a smile. I try to focus on my own hitting but barely succeed. My whole life I’ve looked up to these guys. My whole life I tried to emulate them. They are the players that inspired me to go pro. I am 36 now, made top-10 in the world, got the absolute most out of my career, feel 100% proud of what I’ve achieved. My own voice echoes in my head: You’ve done alright, you shouldn’t feel like a kid. But I do. I can’t help it. The raw talent so close to you is beautiful to witness. I focus on my own being, but there’s a legend six feet away from me hitting the ball just that little bit cleaner, that little bit more crisp, that little bit smoother.


In the knock-up with Johnny White, from the corner of my eye, I see the massive wind-up of his backhand, and suddenly I’m back outside the courts in The Hague more than 20 years ago. I’m hitting puberty and I watch Johnny White train with Billy Haddrell. Every day after school I rush to the court to watch the two rebel Aussies play. They possess more talent in their little toe than the entire PSA-tour together. Johnny and Billy hit the ball so hard, I never heard a squash ball make a sound quite like that. At the same time it looked so easy, so natural. I wanted to be like them. Johnny White was the first pro player who invited me to join him on court, if only for five minutes.


Two decades later and I catch Whitey in the locker room in Bermuda. He’s struggling to put on his shorts. He stumbles and hops on one leg and nearly crashes into the mirror. That’s how sore the former world number 1 is from his previous battle. The next day I see Power’s body struggle to execute all the brilliant things that appear in his brain with the speed of electricity. I witness Parke struggle to back up his terrier retrieval style which got him to world number three. And for the first time ever I see Palmer ‘The Marine’ bent over from tiredness, something nobody had ever seen before. In the mornings emails fly through cyberspace, legends asking legends for ibuprofens, anti-inflammatory gels, or any other kind of painkiller they could get their hands on.


When I receive the trophy I admit to the crowd that I stole somebody’s shoes from the changing room. Thirty minutes before the final I realized I couldn’t use my own shoes anymore. Call it legendary amateurism. I looked on top of the lockers and saw a bright green pair that seemed to offer more support than the flabby ones I wore last night. ‘Surely they’re not a size 12,’ I muttered under my own breath while I checked the inside of the shoe. No way… I put them on, they felt good, decided to wear them during the final. I would deal with the consequences later.


I explain the story to the crowd and I promise to return them to the rightful owner. For a moment everybody’s quiet, looking at each other. Then a scream among the spectators. The owner is identified. The legends behind me on court lose it. People in the crowd start laughing. The guy is howling. ‘Well this is the fastest my shoes have ever moved,’ he dryly hammers the punchline.


That night I drink beers with sponsors, spectators and legends. Whitey desperately wants me to suck on a pacifier while I hold the massive golden trophy. He calls me baby-legend. The trophy is somewhere thirty feet away, so I promise him if he walks there all the way to pick up my trophy and personally hands it to me, I’ll suck on the pacifier for him. ‘Would you go through the embarrassment to walk all the way to the other side of the club to bring me my trophy, Johnny?’ I ask him.


Thirty seconds later I have a pacifier in my mouth and I see several people holding phones in the air, cameras flashing, undoubtedly Facebook live, eternalized on Instagram.


There are moments in your life when your life’s story is simply right in front of you. When -if anybody asked for a short synopsis of your life- you could just say: This is it. Right here. Right now.


The Bermuda Legends of Squash 2019 was mine.


Patrick, you’ve done an amazing job. The way you did the post-match interviews was brilliant. Sponsors, thank you for making this beautiful event possible. Legends, real legends, thank you for igniting the spark when it needed to be lit in my life and thank you for a week that I will keep in my mum’s safe, next to her jewelry, forever.