Walking into the gallery of court one is like wading onto the subway platform at Times Square in the heat of summer. It’s humid, it’s hot as hell, and there are so many people it’s almost impossible to move. Fortunately, the line inside the door loosens and I squeeze by a few bodies to a place at the very top of the bleachers where I can look down on what I’ve come to see—two of the best men’s collegiate squash players battling it out on the court below. Princeton Tigers vs. Trinity Bantams. It’s one the last big matches of the season.
After reading Run to the Roar recently by Trinity coach Paul Assaiante and James Zug, I became intrigued by the idea of witnessing one of these notorious Trinity matches. So last Sunday, I hopped a train with a friend from NYC to Princeton. At Princeton Junction where you transfer to the “Dinky” to campus, we ran into Trinity’s number one from last year, Baset Chaudhry. Tall, dark-haired, and wearing distinctive black specs, he’s hard to miss. And while he’s undoubtedly a killer on the court, he struck me as a gentle giant. I liked his answer to my friend’s question as to why he told people he was 6’ 4 ½” and not 6’ 5” which sounded more impressive. “I like to be exact,” he said. Maybe a clue as to why he was numero uno almost all four years? And I doubt anyone was any less impressed….
But I digress. There I was sweating away in the back of the bleachers above court one. I’d weaved my way over to a spot next to a student manning a few communication devices—a video cam, a small mike that he talked into between points, and a smart phone he either constantly updated and/or received messages on. Clearly someone wanted to know what was going on. I asked a couple of men nearby if they could still see, and they politely agreed that I hadn’t usurped their view. The older of the two soon asked if I had attended Princeton. Uh, no, I replied, which probably befuddled him, given that I happened to be wearing a shirt the color of a Sunkist orange, a Princeton color. Sometimes I really don’t think about my fashion consequences. But he seemed willing to forgive the faux pas when I confessed to playing hardball in college, which happened to be the one his daughter had attended. He was wearing a blue oxford shirt himself, so his Princeton affiliation wasn’t as obvious as mine, but he pointed out his name on the wall of Princeton Top Ten All American. We kept up a bit of chat for the next few games; I’ll call him Prince.
Collegiate dual matches consist of nine matches that count, and often a few exhibition matches that don’t. In this instance, three matches were to be played on each court, so at least three would be going on at a time. Matches four through nine were on courts right next to one another and all were open at the top so that a few bleachers worth of fans could look down on them. There was standing room only for every match, but at least you could breathe.
Back on the one court that you couldn’t, about a dozen or so bleachers below me, the number threes were warming up, or rather were on a slow boil, if the heat was anything like it was up by us. I recognized the Trinity number three, Andres Vargas, from his picture and description in Run to the Roar. At 5’9” and 130 lbs. he was about 10 lbs. lighter than I, and one inch taller (although maybe he’s not as exact as his former teammate?). This guy was fast and hit the ball faster. His opponent, Princeton’s Christopher Callis, didn’t look much larger to my heat-stroked eyes, although perhaps he was nearer my own weight class.
Their first point went on seemingly forever, which in squash is over a minute. I’m sure they were feeling each other out. But after all that, it ended in a let. And then it was deja vu all over again. It often takes me a while to figure out a player’s game, but it was almost immediately evident to me that Andres’ was about speed. Speed on the court and speed of his shots. This guy got to everything. And even when he had little choice but to throw in a lob off the back wall, he’d be back at the T, ready for whatever Callis gave him. I was almost shocked by how many unlikely retrievals he would turn into winning points. I bet Callis was shaking his head, too. Callis wasn’t playing badly—far from it—but he just couldn’t get the ball away from Vargas.
Then again, Callis did get the second game. Unlike his fuzzier shots in the first, the ones he intended to put away in the second were much more on target, and he began racking up point after point. “He’s going through him like butter,” Prince said, gleefully. And he was for a while, until Andres had had enough and put the butter in the freezer, popping off shots left and right to bring the score back up to 9-9, before losing the next two points. Interestingly, Andres called a let at 9-10 when the ball came down the center of the court and it looked to me as if Andres would’ve hit Callis if he’d taken the shot. I wasn’t the ref, though, as someone reminded all of us in between games, and the real ref didn’t give Andres the let. It must’ve been evident to more than me that the call was a little dubious as another fan leaned over to me after the guys had walked off the court and said “Write down ‘hometown call’.” Yup.
After that, it was pretty clear that Andres wasn’t going to let the match get away from him. He and Callis hit rail and rail and then one of them would pick up the pace and try to out trick the other. It worked less well on Speedy Gonzales Vargas. Although I had to snicker to myself when Callis complained aloud to the ref. “He’s not moving. He takes his best shot and doesn’t move.” Then again, that might’ve been part of Andres’ strategy: move fast only when he has to. If only I could learn that lesson.
After getting back the third game, Andres had Callis either frustrated or tired, and probably both. The game tied at 2-2 and then Andres just stepped on the pedal and accelerated all the way to eleven. He was in the zone and Callis couldn’t get back in—if he was even in it. Prince shook his head. “He’s too good,” he conceded. I nodded. Good entertainment, too.
I had a harder time getting into the next match. The number twos—Trinity’s Parth Sharma and Princeton’s David Letourneau. After Andres’ speed and hard hitting, their game looked as if it was being played under water—or maybe it was all the sweat in my eyes. These guys were heavier, more solid. Sharma is 5’ 7” and 162 lbs. for instance. The whole game looked and sounded different, more deliberate. I watched until the match tied at 1-1, but when I heard that Gustav Detter’s brother, Johan Detter, was playing at number 7 on a cool court, I decided to skip out for a while. That’s the thing with a collegiate match, you’ve got to decide what to watch and what to miss, and sometimes you miss something good. Not that I didn’t like watching Johan; he’s much longer limbed than his brother Gustav and at the T looks as if he could touch both side walls by barely moving. When I arrived he was in the midst of losing the first game. As soon as Johan’s opponent Peter Sopher got to 11, Gustav was off like a shot to give advice to his younger brother. It was sweet to see. And whatever he told him worked, because Johan took the next game. And the next. And the next. I moved on again before the end, but his match was the 5th Trinity win, so he clinched the dual match for the Bantams. Two hundred forty consecutive wins and counting. . . .
There were, of course, more games to watch. I walked back into hell, aka court one, in time for the last few points of Letourneau’s victory over Sharma. There was a standing ovation and Prince was beaming. Given that the Tigers were ultimately taken down by a bunch of chickens, I was glad he had something to cheer about.
I’m glad I went. I can’t say I was nostalgic. My own squash team experience was nothing like this. But it was a very fun thing to do on a wintry Sunday afternoon. And next time my own alma mater is playing a match nearby, I’m going to dress in blue and white and go cheer, because no matter how many matches you’ve won or lost, every team needs its fans.