Breaking Through the Levels: Balls

by Bill Buckingham

Can using a different ball increase your enjoyment of the game? To find out, US Squash staffers Bill Buckingham and Chris McClintick, erstwhile 3.5 level players, use five different balls during their weekly match. Like most ball manufacturers, Dunlop offers a wide range of ball options, designed to make the game fun and competitive for players of all abilities.

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Game One: Intro Ball: Typically for us, the first game is a feeling out process. Meaning, we don’t run after any ball if we don’t feel like it. Occasionally one of us will shock the other by sprinting to the front and retrieve a short ball, but for the most part, game one is a series of service return winners and tins, highlighted by the occasional three-hit rally. With the Intro ball, however, our squash universe is completely altered. The ball gets to the back wall much more frequently and sits up, allowing us to do the heretofore unthinkable: hit a deep rail off a deep rail. It sits up so long it’s almost embarrassing not to try and retrieve it. So this is what squash is supposed to be. After a game of eight to ten hit rallies, we stagger off the court. Why are we so tired? We both ran a half marathon two weeks ago, so it’s certainly not our lack of fitness. We look at each other with the same unspoken thought: “was that really only the first game?”

Game Two: Progress Ball: Still recovering from the first game, we are a bit lazier starting game two. We notice the Progress ball doesn’t come back quite as far on low drives as the Intro ball did, forcing us to move a bit further forward. After a few quick points, we slow down and adjust to the speed of the ball. We start getting to our spots quicker, allowing us more time to think and hit quality shots. When the ball does reach the back, it sits up just as much as the Intro, allowing for some 5.0-like retrievals, along with grudging respect from the nine-year-old girl who has been watching us play. We are fairly certain she can’t tell that we are playing with a larger ball, and although she seems more interested in her phone than our game, we are sure that she is impressed.

Game Three: Competition Ball: Warming up this ball, we find it incredibly small. How do people play with this thing? We can barely see it. Thrown off by the size, we revert to slugging the ball into the tin, trying to hit volley winners off every shot and just plain stinking. A complete regression; we are back to our 3.5 ways. It feels good to be home. The game lasts only slightly longer than it took us to warm up the ball. Our fan club has disbanded and appears to be taking a nap on a yoga mat.

Game Four: Competition Ball, part 2: Not ones to give up, coupled with the fact we have four balls to try and five games to play, we give the single dot another go. Whether it is the lack of exertion during game three or us getting used to the size of the ball, the fourth game turns out to be our best of the evening. The Competition ball is ricocheting all over the hot court. Although it doesn’t sit up as much in the back as either the Intro or Progress balls, it doesn’t die either, allowing us to keep the ball deep, retrieve and hit several solid rails. Rallies of ten to twelve hits have us doubled over between points, dripping sweat on the floor.

Game Five: Double Dot Pro Ball: We briefly debate whether we should play with the Competition ball for a third consecutive game and skip using the double dot, but in the end, journalistic integrity wins out. Warming it up, the ball seems to be bouncing as high as the single dot. As the final game commences, be it from fatigue or playing with the other balls, we are both taking our time, having long rallies, and hitting well-considered, strategic shots. While our length isn’t at all what it was in the earlier games, we can now get to anything in the front we choose to (the exception being my Willstrop-like hold/drop, which, when clicking, is irretrievable by the best of players). As we get deeper into the game, I notice a bit of a crowd gathering outside the court watching the final points. Whether this is because our play is so solid or because they have the court next and we have gone over our time, I can’t be sure, but I do know the last three points are our longest rallies of the match. As we slog off the court, not unhappy in the least that our time is up, we know two things: playing with a ball that suits your level make what is a fun game exponentially more enjoyable and laying down on a yoga mat is sounding like a really good idea.