The 2012 Canadian Nationals
I just got back from mammoth 22 hour journey from Niagara on the Lake, Canada. Spent a good deal of the journey singing along at the top of my voice with Meatloaf to Bat out of Hell. Yesterday was one of the great days of my life’s journey.
Three months ago in the UK, I thought my competitive Squash career was done – I was losing to players that I would never have normally expected to lose to, with pain in my right knee that simply prevented the possibility of changing direction or pushing off. Having given up and started playing what the British call UK Racketball, I started to get some playability back in the knee and even played a couple of good matches against my old friend and rival John Cordeaux. I really enjoyed the UK Racketball and enthusiastically encouraged players from my county of Norfolk to try it. What a great game for everyone – especially those of us who can no longer play long rallies in Squash. It might be the best cross training game ever for people who want really exhaustive fitness without joint stress.
Anyway, somehow it alleviated the inflammation and pain in my right knee and on my return to the US I started to play a little. As I had nothing to do the weekend of the US Skill levels I entered late into the 5.5. I was seeded but was beaten in a good match by Danial Saleem from Columbia and Atlanta. I won the plate and decided I felt OK and would enter the Canadian nationals. I entered the Rothenberg Big Apple Open as a warm up event the week before – a bit risky because of the knee – but I hoped for some hard games. That is precisely what I got – and ended up playing a talented 17 year old, this year’s 5.0 nationals winner John Sayward, and then Tony Zou – the number 2 from Columbia University. I was moving really well and no real problems with the knee. I lost to Tony 1-3 in the final and was very pleased over all with movement and strategy – control needed a little more work but it was all coming together.
I did some coaching at my friends Simon and Shayne Haysom’s Squash barn on the Tuesday – nothing stressful – felt fine, kicked a soccer ball with my friends Beth and Kirk’s two boys on Wednesday and woke up Thursday morning to drive from Ithaca to Niagara.
Got on court on Thursday lunchtime for my first match and all of a sudden, for the first time since the UK, the bloody knee pain was back and I couldn’t push off. I struggled through my first round match and got off court and tried to work out what the hell was going on.
White Oaks Resort and Conference Center which hosted the Canadians this year is an amazing place – a veritable Disney of Sport and one of the extras they provided was access to both professional sports massage and physical therapist.
I took my bum knee to see one Dr. Joe Pelino. What an awesome guy. He has treated NBA and NHL athletes and cranky knees were nothing new to him. He is trained in many systems and schools of thought and uses what seems most appropriate to each individual case. He told me about something called “active release” which I had never heard of – and proceeded to work an area that he gave a Latin name to which equates to the “Duck’s foot” structure on the inner side of my knee. Whatever he did seemed to quickly begin to relieve some of my “pushing off” problems, and on the strength of that success I booked another session for the next day prior to my quarter final match with my friend and competitor Andre Boissier from California.
In the treatment session the following day, Dr. Joe informed me that he didn’t believe that arthritic knees were impossible to rebuild. He told me about a process of serious specific heavy weight training combined with taking on board Glucosamine and Cartilage. He told me to make sure that when I ate a plate of wings that I crunched up all that gristle on the end. After all said Joe – if you want your knee to regenerate you need the raw materials to rebuild with.
He gave me another session and it felt a little better again. I played my match with Andre on an unusual court with a black glass back. No kidding – pitch black – really good for developing your imagination when it came to following the ball.
I felt a little embarrassed in the match – I was still favoring the leg – more mental than anything else – and moved rather woodenly around the court. Andre was magnanimous in his comments afterward and he had real chances of taking at least a game if not more, but it was a bit of a scruffy match and I feel that Andre was more generous to my sometime reputation than he ought to have been.
Anyway I had made it through to the semi finals and had to face a guy from Calagary by the name of Dave Safton.
By all accounts Dave was a good solid player, firm straight length all the way and in good shape. A test then – if my knee would work, a disaster if it wouldn’t – as without movement no one can play Squash – shots are just punctuation – movement and position are the lifeblood and flow.
Meanwhile, my great friend and rival number one seed, Dominic Hughes, was progressing relatively unburdened through the top of the draw. He now faced Tom Powers – a solid teaching pro from Canada. I obviously hoped that it would be a hard match, but to be honest I was more concerned about how far I could go. It wasn’t long since I was talking about giving up and was unable to change direction and Dave Safton wasn’t chopped liver. Neither on the other hand was Andre Boissier and I had come through that.
I warmed up well and wasn’t thinking about the knee pain every single time I put my foot down – so that was good.
I started the match well and it became evident that, while Dave was a good athlete and a fine striker of the ball, he wasn’t that familiar with deception and pace variation, which are a part of my tool kit when things are going well. My issue was to prevent myself from creating an opening with a well constructed rally and then trying to stupidly play short for a cheap end to the point, which invariably ends badly when you are facing a fit opponent, as it simply results in handing over the advantage that you have just spent your blood sweat and tears earning.
It’s always hard to separate the devil and the angel on your shoulders from competing for your attention and too often the voice I respond to is the one that tells me to be cheap – even though I know that logically when I go longer for longer – I make my opponent pay a heavy price. Fear and a lack of fitness can make for very poor bedfellows and a resulting illogical but tempting sequence of shot selections.
Fortunately I got in front and while it wasn’t plain sailing, I was definitely in charge for the first two games. At two love up, Dominic appeared behind my court, having clearly summarily dismissed Tom Powers. This was mildly irksome, but I was pleasantly surprise to discover that I was that interested. As I walked off to get some water Dominic quipped that he had come to see the next three games and I smiled, but again found I wasn’t affected.
Dave changed his strategy in the next game and came out smacking the thing to the back of the court low and with real power. This caused my knee some real issues as I couldn’t get there soon enough to balance and push off as I played the length. It wasn’t really bad – just enough to force me into flicking at the ball whilst unstable. Dave got to 9-4 up (we were playing 11 PARS) and then I finally stopped the rot. I got to 5, then he got to 10 – game ball – and then I really stepped up and won a quick series of points to get to 9-10. Then I constructed a really good rally, pushed him to the back of the court and got him to leave a half length. Guess who whispered in my ear at that point? Yep – the bloody little devil on my shoulder: “Go for the drop” he said. “No no!” quoth I – and then watched as my arm tamely stuck the ball about two feet above the tin. It was more of a feed than a drop. Dave stuffed it away. 11-9. Bugger! Dominic looked intrigued. I walked off and started talking to myself about my game plan. “Focus” is the mantra I usually use when I am playing well and I realized I had stopped repeating it. I also realized that Dave could only attack if the ball was loose.
I went back into the fourth and started playing very slow and very tight down the backhand wall. It was effective. Dave was utterly non-plused as to what to do. He put me behind him and then could do precisely nothing with the ball that I glued to the wall. In frustration he swung in hope a couple of times and gave strokes away as the ball came right back at him. This was enough to give me a couple of points lead, and from then on I stayed at least that far ahead – never letting him smack it again. So 3-1. Not perfect, but not bad – and the knee was no worse.
The party that night was terrific – very reminiscent of the fantastic job that SESRA did for the US Nationals in Atlanta a few years ago.
All the participants and attendees were made to feel special. Folks are just so friendly up there in Canada. It’s very similar to the ambiance we have down here in the South.
I didn’t get too carried away with the ambiance however, as Dominic was no where to be seen, and he’s just way too good to give him a head start . So after a very pleasant meal, some good conversation with the official referees (they had a ton of them – not a single match was marked by a player!), some presentations of the events already completed, I disappeared back to the hotel.
I had a good solid egg bacon and pancake breakfast and then went to White Oaks to see if I could get some more treatment from Dr. Joe Pelino. I wasn’t hurting badly, but I was looking for some insurance. As it happened I couldn’t locate him in time – so I just did my best pre- match warm up routine – elliptical for 10 minutes, squash specific movements for about 5 minutes, dynamic stretching for about 5 minutes, a little gingerly ghosting – not wanting to hurt that knee – and then solo routines with the ball and movement on any available court.
The final started right on time. Dominic appeared at the last moment – as I expected – he is a professional and would have been doing his own preparation quietly somewhere away from distractions.
My game plan was to try and make the first game as long and drawn out as I could without hurting myself. I felt surprisingly loose and strangely unconcerned. The first game was quite laid back without much intensity – sort of a checking each other out type of deal. I was pretty fortunate and managed to play some good high volley returns to some of Dominic’s excellent high searching approach balls. I stayed narrowly ahead though out and somehow managed to steal the first game about 11-8.
In the second Dominic clearly meant business. He came out more assertively. Dominic has an amazing ability to play constructive length with pin-point accuracy and then from the consequent loose return – either put the ball away with devastating accuracy and severity or completely wrong foot you. There’s not much mystery – he just rips people apart. My only chance in this scenario is to not play a loose ball from his approach shot. This was not working out too well for me in the second game and I soon found myself being mercilessly wrenched all over the court. Anything I was able to retrieve pretty much just fed more fuel to the flames. I was being well beaten when towards the very end of this debacle Dominic stretched me even more severely to the front corner. I felt a nasty little burning sensation in the back of my right hamstring. It wasn’t huge, but it was a problem. It hurt without me moving and even more if I tried to stretch. I came off having lost the game – and felt extremely apprehensive about my ability to continue running.
The third game was not very competitive. Dominic had the bit between his teeth and was ready for business. I was shy of pushing myself. The combination of me being unsure and Dominic being bloody sure did not make for a great competitive spectacle.
I was 2-1 down in short order. As I came of the court that bloody little devil started whispering in my ear again: “Well you made a brave effort. At least you took a game. You didn’t even think you would get to the final.” “SHUT-UP!” I wanted to say. I asked myself what my wife Pat Millman – the best match coach I have ever come across – a former national champion and captain of England Ladies 55+ a couple of years ago – would tell me to do if she were here right now (she wasn’t – she was in the UK, so I was on my own).
I thought she would say – “Either you go on there and give it everything you’ve got or you concede. There’s no point worrying about that leg. It’s now or never. Play your game. Use your height – that’s what wins for you. And don’t play short too early.”
She really is the angel on my shoulder.
So that’s what I did.
The fourth was one hell of a game. Dominic was fully vested. I came out and competed. We had some cracking rallies. It was neck and neck all the way through with him always edging ahead.
Finally he gained match ball 10-9. I stuck to my game plan and managed to get back to 10 all. The rallies were surprisingly long, varied and dynamic for 50+ squash. Dominic made a couple of uncharacteristic errors. And we headed for a fifth game.
The fifth game of the 2012 Canadian National Squash 50+ men’s final is probably one of the most competitive games I have ever played.
Dominic was determined to finish me and most of the rallies off summarily and with vicious severity. I, on the other hand, was determined to hang on, drawing the rallies out, maneuvering Dominic into the back corners with my high trademark floats in the hope that he would either give me an easy opening or make an error. In any event both of these strategies gained some momentum, but not enough to separate us by any appreciable margin. Neck and neck it was, with first one and then the other of us pulling narrowly ahead.
I think (I don’t actually remember) that Dominic managed another match ball. Perhaps this was at 11-10. However I then got on terms and gained a match ball myself. The little devil wasn’t getting in my ear, although I will say that it felt rather surreal to have a match ball against Dominic – a champion who has beaten everyone with monotonous consistency and hasn’t lost to anyone in the US for a long time (he was injured and had to withdraw against Diniar Alikhan in Atlanta – before that it might have been me that beat him at Trinity – but that was years ago). The thought that I had the opportunity to win not only this prestigious title but to beat Dominic in doing so gave me a somewhat heady – almost vertigo-like feeling for a second or two. However, I was still focused on my game plan and still using my “Focus” mantra. Dominic wasn’t going to lie down and die however and promptly brought the game back to level at 12 all. I then won the next point for 13 – 12.
It was at this point I had the brilliant idea of trying to hit a slow easy serve to tempt Dominic into attempting a winner and hitting a tin. Not the brightest strategy against one of the most technically astute players in the game, but I had my reasons. What I didn’t unfortunately reason was the consequence of serving the ball out at match ball – which I proceeded to do. There was a great and incredulous sigh from the gallery and I – laughed. What else could I do? As coaches we spend our life telling our students never to serve out at match ball – and what do I do?
I did not, however, lose my focus. I had a game plan and I stuck to it. I won the next rally. Dominic the next. Then I won the next 15-14 – match ball. A murderous rally ensued, mainly down the backhand wall with neither of us wanting to give an inch and realizing that the first person to play a loose straight backhand would be at a considerable disadvantage. We were both playing quite well, but nerves were jangling, this was after all as vital a moment as you can have in a national championship.
I made a decision that I was going to try to test Dominic high on the forehand – just to throw him off his home territory of perfect backhand length. I committed myself to take the next vaguely loose ball high and across. Dominic’s ball came down the wall and I went to cross court float it. As I played it, I caught the side wall which prevented the ball from going to a full width. It did go very high but I was trapped on the backhand, at about half court, watching as Dominic lined up with the whole of the forehand side open. But the ball was just that little bit high. And Dominic perhaps misjudged it just that little bit. Clang! The ball loudly struck the tin. And I had a Canadian National title to add to my US and British titles. Unreal. And against one of my personal heroes in my sport to boot.
Dominic was extremely gracious in his praise afterwards. It was one of the best competitive matches I have had. Dominic could have easily closed out the match in the fourth. But he didn’t and sometimes that’s what leads to an extraordinary match. Nearly but not quite – for both of us.
Match balls, serving out and tins!
But in the end – “Focus.”