The poetic world of the squash court

I started playing squash in grad school because my dissertation director told me to take up a sport. Squash is a racquet sport of precision, strategy and stamina played by two people on an enclosed court. The ball is smaller than a golf ball, rubber and stubborn. Before you learn to play properly, and on bad days, it is shockingly difficult to get the ball to do anything you want it to do.

Even though I’ve played for well over a decade now, squash remains a second language for me. When you watch players who learned as children, you instantly see the training in their limbs. They move like they were born on squash courts. It’s the difference between learning a language when you’re young and trying to pick it up later by practicing it twice a week.

Squash poses for me what the poet W.B. Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult.” It is satisfying to become good at something new and to make incremental advancements over a long period. Like good poetry, squash does have a kind of lyrical grace when played well. And, like a poet, the squash player discovers little things, makes minor adjustments and hoards a store of technical knowledge that makes his or her display appear natural and unpracticed.

In academia, it’s easy to become a walking brain, but when I play squash I am aware that I am a body. On the court, I feel my heart beating and sweat pouring. I can clear my mind and focus on sheer movement, as close, perhaps, as I’ve come as an adult to what Wordsworth called the “glad animal movements” of children.

Squash also reminds me of my limitations. Not only is there always someone better, but injuries remind me that my body is contingent and that ultimately it will fail. Limited by weak lungs, imperfect fitness, insufficient time and less than total drive, I’m probably about as proficient as I will ever be.

The few times I’ve been fortunate enough to get on the court with a professional player, it felt as though the pro was not just more skilled than I was, but enjoyed access to an extra dimension or two. I’m out there trying to draw a straight line with a shaky hand, and the pro is working out some next-level geometries, all strictly non-Euclidian.

The top professionals are leagues above the regular pros. Their performances have the allure that all elite athletes have for us. Many human dreams have to do with overcoming death and the limitations of our bodies. Elite athletes draw us, in part, because their performances are wish images of what the body can be; they show the thing that those who watch sports never tire of seeing: that the human body can do more than we supposed.

The good and the bad in personality come out on court. The easy-going person will eventually smash his hand against the wall in frustration. The truly generous person will beat you with such magnanimity that you wind up admiring her more for her openhandedness than for the skill with which she wiped the floor with you. The apparently confident player will expose himself as deeply insecure, and you’ll see that he is not just trying to win a game, but also anxiously reassuring himself of his whole precarious standing in the world. Accordingly, I know many of my squash partners better than I do people whom I’ve known off the court for a longer time.

But one comes not just to see the other more clearly, but also the self. I am sometimes forced to confront the elements of myself that I like least, but I’m not going to expose them here. (Nice try, Trinitonian.) The people I play squash with probably know what they are.

Squash friendships are different from other friendships. Players face one another with a frankness seldom found in the social world. It is not really necessary to share the contents of one’s mind or learn a lot about a person’s life or job or family before you know him or her well. And this, for me, leads to camaraderie of a peculiar kind. I feel a special affection for those relative strangers whom I meet once or twice a week, year after year, on the court. It is a fellowship unavailable, perhaps, between mere colleagues, because our labor structures our leisure hours as much as it does the workday. It’s the difference, I guess, between people who work together and those who play freely together.

Finally, for me, squash contains an allegorical image of the existing world as well as a wish image of the better world it is possible to imagine. Under capitalism, we are forced to compete for a limited set of resources that are distributed unequally. Squash, like all capitalist sport, revolves around competition; it is a cultural reflection of an economic ideology. But I understand squash to show something more than this. Unlike tennis, squash players share the same space. Because of this, if you look at it in a certain way, players are not just competing but also performing a dance together. This image not only reminds me that an extraordinary amount of cooperation and sharing goes into what we think of as “competition”; it is also a vision of a better world that inheres within but might also emerge from our own. If we mentally remove the competition from the game when we play or watch it, what is left is an image of gracefully moved bodies. It is a wish image of the body moving (truly) freely that would remain when the constraint of competition is lifted. Of all the reasons I’ve mentioned, it is perhaps best reason to keep playing the game.