I didn’t really start the evening on the right foot. Because as soon as it touched 53rd Street, I realized I was headed to the wrong club. NYAC was hosting the ISDA Big Apple Open Doubles Tournament, not the University Club. I often get these mid-town meccas for men confused. It was already 6:30, match time, so I jogged over to 6th Avenue, and zig-zagged between mid-town tourists clumped on the sidewalks. At 58th Street, I hung a left, jay-walked somewhere in the middle of the block and tried to cool down before the back door entrance. But it was too late; I was a sweaty mess. Good thing I was headed to the squash courts.
The doubles court at NYAC is perched all the way up on the 21st floor. And because the main elevator only takes you to the 20th, and then you take this tiny elevator or the stairs, you kind of feel like you’re going to some secret club within a club. Especially when you open the door from the echoey empty stairwell and suddenly you’re smack in the middle of a wine and cheese party. Only half of the guys are in suits and the others are in shorts and t-shirts. I say guys because I didn’t see another woman until I went upstairs to the gallery overlooking the court.
Fortunately, the match hadn’t begun yet. On court were the pro-am finalists. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to play a doubles match at CityView at 8:30 and I had dumbly deduced that I could probably watch most of the finals match before commuting to Queens for my own. I quickly and illegally jumped on my phone to find a replacement. And just as the match began, my phone flashed its green light; another player had kindly taken my spot.
It always takes me about a game’s worth of watching to start to absorb what’s going on. I’d watched a few matches of the qualifying rounds on the Friday before and that level of play was markedly different than this. In some ways, this style seemed simpler, perhaps because the guys playing it have been doing it for a while and mostly full-time. Damien Mudge (University Club’s head pro) and Ben Gould (R&T’s head pro, the reigning champs, were up against Matt Jenson (head pro at Kiawah Island Club & The Charleston Squash Club) and Clive Leach (a pro in Greenwich, CT) and I soon noticed that while they all had full arsenals of boasts and volley drops and reverse corners, they mostly lobbed the ball. Cross court, straight down the wall, cross court, over and over again, working their opponents out of position so that they could more comfortably go for a winning low reverse corner, or maybe a high one.
Another tactic was to change up the pace. Lob… Lob… Lob… Lob… Lob. Smash! Smash, smash, smash, smash, smash! I felt like I was suddenly in a firing range, or some shoot ’em up game. One player would take aim as a lobbed ball floated to the back of the court and instead of popping it up again, he would smack the ball forward as hard as he could. It was like a gun going off. Again and again and again. The guy next to me muttered, ‘there’s a lot of testosterone out there.’ Uh, yep.
Mudge and Gould looked at first like they were going to win the first duel pretty decisively, but at something like 13-7, Jenson and Leach’s kill shots began hitting their marks and they brought the score all the way up to 13-14. However, sometimes you want something a little too badly. At 13-14, either Mudge or Gould fired the ball straight down the middle of the court and Leach called it as his. I’m honestly not sure where he intended the ball to go, but he popped it up into a high lob and I think we all knew as soon as it went toward the front wall that it would be out at the back. It was. Game over. 15-13.
The second game looked at first as if it might be tighter, but after going neck and neck in early points, Mudge and Gould took off at a gallop. There was nothing they couldn’t get and both of them just kept putting the ball away, so low in the corners that there was nothing to be done. And just to show what amazing skills he has, at 14-4 Mudge was standing in the left forecourt when the ball blazed toward him just high of his right shoulder. Sticking up his racquet, he looked like he had zero time to prepare and his forehand arm appeared awkward. But the shot didn’t. Mudge buried the ball into the right corner. Game over.
It was somewhat a relief to see Mudge make a few mistakes in the third game. He tried a backhand volley reverse corner drop that sang out with clank of tin. When Mudge misses a shot, he turns to the back of the court and frowns for a moment and then he must just put it totally away, because he was easily the most relaxed player out there. He doesn’t make many mistakes in a row.
Unfortunately, in the third game, Jenson was stringing together a number of them. In contrast to Mudge’s patience, Jenson was going for winners too early. Down three points at 11-8, he practically reached over Mudge’s shoulder to volley a ball into the front right nick and put it into the floor instead. I’m not sure what Leach came over to say to him after that, but if it were me I would’ve said, we can’t afford those, buddy. I don’t think Jenson could really help himself at that point, though. Everything’s going a million miles an hour and you want to stop on a dime. With each game, this must get exponentially harder. I couldn’t help thinking of the winter biathlon where nordic skiers skate around a course at top speed and then have to steady their bodies, breathing, and heart rate to shoot at a tiny target fifty meters away. At least squash players don’t have to race around the court in a penalty loop as biathletes often do.
At 14-9, we were all happy to see Jenson and Leach save the first match point. But not for long. Within moments, Leach had tinned the ball and Mudge and Gould continued their long reign as kings of the doubles court yet again.