By Jay D. Prince
So how many times have you played the same opponent with a fair amount of success, only to have him/her waltz into a tournament and crush you—seemingly out of nowhere? It’s a phenomenon that seems to be unique to sports, though I suppose it could apply in business too. But inevitably, your opponent has had some sort of motivating fire lit under him/her that resulted in the determination to beat you, no matter what it takes.
You see it in professional sports all the time. And squash is no different. At the US Open, that just finished up the day we took this issue to press, the English guys were playing with a fire in their bellies that we hadn’t seen in quite some time. And the motivation in this instance seems to have been two-fold: The men’s World Team Championships are coming up in December, and the Wall Street Journal ran with an article in the middle of the tournament extolling the virtues of the Egyptian contingent of players. The gist of the article was Egypt is the new Pakistan, and it essentially wrote off everyone else—including the men from England who hadn’t been able to stop either Amr Shabana or the wunderkind, Ramy Ashour.
That is, until the semifinals of the Open. Just hours after reading the Journal’s article, James Willstrop walked on court to take on Egypt’s Karim Darwish. I know, I didn’t mention him above, but he came out on top in his quarterfinal over Shabana who retired with an injury. Willstrop took the match to him for five games driven by the desire to put at least one Englishman into the final. Just after that, England’s Nick Matthew stared down Ashour with the same steely determination. And he succeeded in a surprising four games.
What the crowd couldn’t see, and Willstrop and Matthew won’t admit it, was that England was feeling a bit slighted by the article in the Journal. And with the World Teams just two months away, Egypt would be the clear favorite. And that same motivation to overcome Egypt probably served the Brits well in the quarterfinals as well when Willstrop put an end to the repeat aspirations of Frenchman Gregory Gaultier in four games, and Matthew ended the run by Gaultier’s countryman, Thierry Lincou, in five. Why so motivated? Because France will undoubtedly be seeded higher in the World Teams since Gaultier and Lincou are currently ranked higher than any of the Englishmen.
Think about how you feel when you have that “something extra” driving you. Your legs feel lighter, you suddenly have more stamina than normal and you seem to strike the ball with a purity that just isn’t there everyday. And it is extremely rare for any one athlete to summon that desire to win day after day, week after week, and month after month. Squash saw it in Jahangir and Jansher Khan. Tennis is seeing it now in Roger Federer. And basketball saw it in Michael Jordan. For everyone else, we look for that extra “thing” that can carry us to victory.
I know I do. While in New York for the Open, I took on my photographer and friend, Steve Line. Steve and I have been playing at least once each time we cross paths at the US Open or Tournament of Champions, and I am proud to say that I hold a slight edge. But this particular week, Steve was talking smack every time I walked into the room. And the last time we played, I fell pretty hard. So we settled things at Richard Chin’s Harvard Club, and we put five dollars on the match. I don’t need much more motivation than that and prevailed 3-2 after falling behind 2-1. Of course, now that I’ve put this in writing, I’m sure Steve will come after me in January at the TOC. I’ll have to find something to give me the edge between now and then. What drives you?