The plant in the living room is dead. The leaves look sad and depressed, they’re hanging their heads, they’re giving up. I cut off some of the dead leaves so more energy could flow to the ones that were still alive, somehow that explanation made sense, but to no avail. I tried watering it, but now I’ve drowned the plant. A few baby-leaves have started to grow from the base of the pot so not all hope is lost. However most leaves are dead or very close to the end and I have to witness this living organism fighting for his life in the corner of the living room. Who thought I’d ever care about something as trivial as a plant? A plant used to be a waste of space. Now I consider it a roommate.
I’m getting older, and I’m changing.
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.’
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.
I was ranked number sixteen in the world when Matthiew Zug approached me on twitter in april 2014. Matthiew had built a 14-court squash and tennis facility in the New York area and expressed an interest in inviting me to play an exhibition match at the grand opening of the new club. I put him in touch with my manager to discuss further details. The program involved hitting with some juniors on day one, playing an exhibition match with the local pro on day two, and spending some time on court with sponsors on day three. The club would pay a fee of 6000 USD for my three day appearance as well as cover all expenses. Matthiew also mentioned that spending some time at the club might turn out to be of even more value to me. An interesting future job opportunity perhaps, while I was in ‘the latest stage of my career’, he kindly brought to my attention.
We were bellowed at. And they were always right. We traveled to all corners of the earth and were followed by a group of elderly men with grey hair and thick glasses. They had devastating authority over us. But they kept us on the right path in life. They often reminded us to not argue, stay on court, and not open the door. Asked us politely to not question their decisions, never drop the racquet, and to not think for ourselves.
In locker rooms we amiably talked about referees as the fathers we never had. Only these fathers had power. Real power.
My girlfriend and I carried the boxes up the stairs. Finally, she was moving in! On her last run from the car to my apartment I heard numerous footsteps click-clacking in the hallway. Whether her dogs could stay too? Not a problem. I was going to spend most of my time at work anyway. And they looked cute enough.
The girl rolled her eyes when she saw me hesitate. Overwhelmed by all the options in front of me - Smurf blue, deep purple, poison green - I needed some time to make a choice. She was visibly annoyed when I asked her about some flavor I had never seen before, and looked at her watch in objection. Sure, there was a line, but ice cream girl seemed livid that her customer took longer than she thought necessary. I apologized, walked out, and reluctantly consumed the so-manieth chocolate ice cream I had in my life.
I was having breakfast in some hotel somewhere in the world -I can’t remember where; after so many years every tournament felt the same- while the 4-times world champion joined me at the table. The guy was ecstatic. ‘I’ve done it, LJ! Twice! In one week!’ he cried out. ‘Can you believe it!?’
I walked up to the buffet and wondered what Amr Shabana could possibly be so happy about. Had he won two World Series events in one week? Impossible, time-wise. Had he earned two business class upgrades in the last 7 days? The man probably flew business anyway. Had he gotten two good draws recently? Irrelevant. Any draw was ‘good’ to him.
It must have been early November when I was an injured athlete awaiting surgery. The surgeon had told me his earliest availability to operate on me was a few weeks from then. It was a long time to wait. Those weeks would mean the difference between making the national championships, or missing out. A shot at one more title, or not. I felt I had no choice. The guy was the best doctor in the world for the surgery I needed and I wasn’t going to settle for someone lesser skilled hacking away in my ankle joint.
I look around and see that nobody is watching. When everybody’s staring at their computer screen I sneak down the stairs of the grey office building. I’ve hidden my trainers in a washroom in the basement that holds a shower and a few lockers. Nobody uses this facility. I quickly put on my gear and run up the stairs. I need to reach the revolving door. Preferably without being seen.
It is Friday and I look forward playing Laurens Jan after a long hard day’s work. Since he is retired, not so serious anymore, and also lacks serious competition, I am suddenly his victim.
OK, OK, I am somewhat late as an important client just called when I had to leave. I see LJ already on court doing his warm-up exercises. Showing off already how high he can still jump and how quickly he can touch the walls, all without a racquet. In my time we used to play with a racquet. That is the whole idea of the game...isn’t it?
Oh yes, then he shows me how flexible he is. Arms and legs everywhere. Do you need those bizarre positions on court to get to the ball and hit it in the middle of your strings?
It’s Friday and tonight I play squash with dad. Since I retired from the professional game we have a twice weekly appointment to sweat out stress after work. The story is always the same. While I do a vigorous warm-up from a previous life, my old man kicks his legs to the ceiling twice and he’s ready to go. He uses a racquet from many sponsors ago and his shirt is tucked into the zebra-striped Nike shorts that don’t even come close to the knee. But who can blame him? I gave them to him a few birthdays ago.
I open my racquet bag that I once used a lot. In the side compartment I stumble upon two old frames. One has a broken string, the other one is slightly cracked at the top. I haven’t touched this bag in a while. In what seems to be a previous life she endured smelly kit, long flights and filthy conveyor belts. She visited many places and withstood versatile conditions.
My final hour as a twenty-something has struck. This last decade has been very career-orientated but I've gotten a lot of satisfaction out of that. I pride myself that whilst focussing intensely on my sport, I haven't stopped LIVING. I have had a lot of fun with friends. And strangers!
My favorite interval sessions, if there is such thing, were done on this rusty bike in a shabby gym of an old English squash club in Essex. This bike was not just any bike. It was a moody old thing. Being the only bike in this tiny gym, she definitely had character. She had an attitude. The moment you didn’t respect her, or the session you were about to (hopefully) endure, she could surprise you with her resistance and send doubts into your legs and brain during only your second or third set of many more to come.
The difference is made
Far away from the spotlight
On a dusty back court
In an old school gym
Out there in the forest
Hidden by the dawn of early mornings
Behind the barrier of pain.
You can go to the best coach in the world, train in the remotest place on earth or have the biggest sponsor on the planet but a coach nor a location nor money can break through your pain barrier.
That run yesterday felt almost spiritual. At an elevation of 2700 meters the only sound I heard was that of my own breathing and footsteps. Jumping over every rock on my path, my heart rate was going insane but my mind was still. Totally focused on that ONE STEP in front of me. Obstacles like roots, stones and branches were gonna punish a wondering mind in a second!