Will’s World Good Vibrations

By Will Carlin

It’s kind of odd when you think about it. Squash courts all are exactly the same dimensions. The walls are the same height, the lines in the same place, the tin the same height (don’t get me started on the PSA tins). And yet, I am sure you will agree that there are some courts on which you play well and some on which you don’t.

Clearly, there are differences. Differences in temperature, floor, wall materials, ceiling height, placement of the lights and the corresponding court brightness, whether the back wall is glass or not (for that matter whether any of the walls are glass) to name a few. But despite all these things, each of which does, in fact, make a difference in how the ball reacts and thus how you play on the court, it is not what I am talking about.

There are some courts where I just play well and some where I don’t.

Court number one at the old Newport Squash Club was a court where I played well, no matter what. The club was owned by Sam and Ruth Jernigan, and it was where Kenton and Kevin learned to play their unbelievable squash. The club had rudimentary air conditioning and heating, so its courts played very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter. Didn’t matter. I played well there in both seasons. Somehow, I just was comfortable. Why?

I am undefeated for life on the first singles court at the Baltimore Country Club, the old two exhibition hardball courts at the University of Pennsylvania, the Downtown Athletic Club in New York and on the Navy courts at Annapolis. I have always played well at the Atlanta Health and Racquet Club, the old Washington Squash and Nautilus Club, and SportsClub LA.

Once, at Penn, I was playing their number one player, who was probably a better player than I, but even as I dropped the first two games, 15-3, 15-6, I kept thinking that everything would be okay. Looking back, it is almost bizarre. The feeling continued as I found myself down 11-4 in the third game, but I came back to tie the match at 2-2. In the fifth game, I was down 13-8 and 4-1, set five, but I won the match. I don’t know why, but I remember feeling calm the entire time, and somehow sure I was going to find a way to pull it out.

At the BCC, I was playing an archrival in the finals of a tournament, and despite breaking the strings on three different racquets and having to borrow a racquet from my opponent, I still won.

On the other side of the coin, I have never won a match at the Rockaway Hunt Club, on the two exhibition hardball courts at Princeton, on any of the great courts at Trinity, and despite a few memorable wins, I never felt right at West Point, the Multnomah Athletic Club in Portland or on the old hardball courts at Merion. Why?

I remember talking with Jay Nelson once about this, and he started to rattle off dead spots on courts around the country, places where he knew he had an advantage because of intimate court knowledge. I wish I could claim that I was alert and savvy enough to tell you that I had studied the courts where I had won and that this secret knowledge was the difference. But, at least for me, it isn’t that.

So, what is it? I think it is a strange combination of intangible factors that somehow creates a feeling of calmness and confidence (or agitation and unease) before entering a court. A few of the places that I always played well were my father’s home courts (he lived in both Washington, DC, and Los Angeles), and I think the fact that I was staying with my father, feeling like I was on vacation, and showing off for him helped in those locations. There is something about an informal atmosphere that also seems to work for me. Newport and Atlanta both have that feel in spades. But Navy, the DAC, and the BCC are the opposite of informal and, yet, the vibe somehow worked for me; the comfort level always has been high.

I love the Rockaway Hunt Club, Merion and the Multnomah. I always feel special as soon as I get near them. Perhaps it is the history and the atmosphere of each of these three special places that made me want to perform better there, and maybe that hint of self-induced pressure has always caused me to play nervously and erratically. Trinity and West Point have had one thing in common: Paul Assaiante. He was a mentor and a coach to me while I was a teenager, and I always wanted to play well in front of him. Again, a strange self-induced pressure.

These, of course, are rational explanations, and I fear that while there are elements of truth to each of them, they also may be somewhat superficial. The reality is that for each of us, there are courts, clubs, cities, and locations that have some intrinsic quality that helps us feel comfortable and confident. And just as true, there are some that don’t.

I suppose that some people are more immune than others (and, similarly, some are more susceptible; I am sure that I am one of the latter). I suspect that Mark Talbott felt pretty darn comfortable no matter where he played. His record certainly shows it. One of the things that always boggled my mind about Jahangir’s five-year undefeated streak is that no location brought him down. He never had enough of an off match for him to lose—not just for five years, but also in every location where he played. For a location-susceptible guy like me, this is almost unreal.

I am sure you have your own court stories, and I would love to hear them. Just please don’t challenge me to a hardball match on the old courts at Merion. I concede.