Balls to the Wall: Five Minute Window of Wasted Opportunity
Sarel Speelman is playing Sibongile Mdlali. Sarel is from Cradock. He is a big boy whose first love is rugby. He is quite heavy and not that fast but he can give the ball a good “klap”. Sibongile is from Zwide. He is skinny, light, lithe and quick. It is the EP Schools Under 16 Trials and the 2 have never played one another.
They emerge and start warming up. A misnomer really. Hopefully, they will have done some dynamic stretching – a short jog, running on the spot, mimicking their on-court movements , racquet swinging, and then, some static stretches. That, they should have done before entering the court. Sarel , wearing rugby shorts, and a muscle bulging, tight-fitting John Deere- sponsored shirt from an Under 15 Rugger festival, moves to the back of the court and bliksems the ball, hard, once, twice, thrice, four times to himself . He then mis-cues and the ball squirrels over to Sibongile’s side. A similar process follows with Sibo, wearing hand-me down shirt, baggies and shoes with different colour laces, drives down the wall, drops to himself, plays 3 volleys and flicks a cross-court to Sarel, who pounds the ball into the tin ….and the process continues with one player, standing idle, while the other, plays with himself. Irritating, infuriating, unethical and unfriendly
There is probably no malice in this selfish but naievely stupid way these 2 prepare for their match, which could see one rocket into the rankings and eventually lead to provincial selection. Literally, all they are doing is warming up the ball . The Ethics of Squash with regard to the warm-up, call for players to hit the ball to each other so that both players have an equal share of the 5 minute warm-up period. The odd shot to yourself is fine but if you wish to ensure the wrath of an experienced player, go the Sarel/Sibongile route, and enjoy/suffer the consequences.
Having said that, this is an ideal window of opportunity to prepare yourself, mentally, for the challenge ahead. How are YOU feeling ? Some nights, maybe because of bio-rhythms, or maybe a bad day at the office, your racquet feels like a plank. On others, your racquet feels like a wand, and you can weave magic. If your mouth is dry, or you’ve been yawning, know that your body is telling you that you are nervous. Take little jumps, run on the spot, unjangle those nerves.
Your 1st objective is to establish your Length. Every court you play on is different. Londt Park courts are hot and bouncy, Crusaders are cold and slow, and at Westview, as you move from court 1 to court 7, the conditions change. At MNNU and Swifts, the ceilings seem low, which makes lobbing, difficult. Travel to Rhodes , and expect something completely different ! High, cold, cavernous, slow and low bouncing. And travel up-country to play at altitude. It’s almost a different ball game. How high, and how hard, do you need to hit the ball to establish a good length on this court ?
What about the ball ? Is it new, and bouncy, or have you been given an old bugger? If you are first on court, it will be cold or if you are playing in a tournament, it’s probably blistery and bouncing all over the place. Check to see its smoothness, and if shiny, use some spit and rub the sheen off. A smooth, shiny ball skids on the floor and makes boasting different and erratic.
Width is another area ignored by many. There is no rule or ethic that states you have to hit the ball comfortably to your opponents. Give them an equal opportunity to hit the ball – Yes. But don’t offer them freebies. Any advantage you can gain, must be taken. Try to get your cross-courts wide, hitting the side wall, opposite to where your opponent is standing . Oh, and that’s another thing. Most players tuck themselves into the back of the court in the warm up, and if they have a weakness in the back corners, they expose themselves, horribly. Move forward to the red line of the tee. There you can volley, stay out of the corners and accustom yourself to the speed of the ball, from the front wall to the tee – which is where you want to be, when the “battle” begins. If you were a cricketer, would you rather face Dale Steyn off 22 yards or 25 yards ? I rest my case.
Back to Sarel and Sibongile. Neither of them know each others’ games, and style of play. Now is the time for them to try and work out some form of game plan to use.
They should be tossing up a slow, high lob, especially onto the Backhand where most players are notoriously weak. If your opponent messes up his return, or lets it pass over his head, know that this is a potential weakness. Toss another one up. Let him get cross with himself even before he starts. Throwing in a couple of lobs will also help you to work out what sort of service, might be best for the night
Play a couple of boasts. Does your opponent run forward quickly, or does he amble/lumber forward to fetch the ball. Tick it off in your brain. The Quick One is likely to be a runner and a fetcher. The Lumberer might be a tad slow, and maybe a shot player, prone to unforced errors.
Smash the ball as hard as you can. How does he react to pace ? Maybe a hard service, directly at the body, might be an option tonight? If you get an easy opportunity, go for the nick. Be positive. Make him scared. If a reverse boast is part of your artillery, play one or two. Or maybe don’t. And surprise him when the match begins.
After two and half minutes, the marker will ask you to change sides. Now, the whole process starts again. Most players hit the ball much harder on their forehand side, but are also wilder and woolier there. Some may not hit the ball as hard on the backhand, but are more controlled. But if there is a weaker side, it needs to be noted, banked and exploited when the match begins.
Certain matches stick in your brain. One, was against a young Paul Barrow at Rhodes. Fit and fast , he smashed me in the first 2 games and I was heading for a miserable defeat and a sad trip home. Desperate, I remembered from the warm up that he seemed a bit weaker on his backhand, particularly in the air. With nothing to lose, I did nothing but pummel and plop the ball into the backhand back corner. Paul fell apart and crumbled to a 2-3 defeat. The beers tasted so much better on the way home that night.
“Time” … Take your time. You still have 90 seconds. Are your laces tight. Drink some water. Is your towel available, your cell phone switched off. Consolidate your match plan. If you have used the 5-minute warm-up effectively, you are probably on the way to a notable victory. And the beers will taste much better tonight.