Mimicking the Pros

by Matt Lombardi

Growing up as a sports-crazed kid, there were few things I enjoyed more than watching great athletes on TV and then running outside, while their images were still burned on my retina, and imitating their play. It was more than imitation—it was a form of possession. As I swished jump shots from deep in the corner of our driveway, I was Rick Barry. As I glided across the grass of the neighborhood park, scooping up groundballs and whipping them to an imaginary first base in one seamless motion, I was Frank White.

If you recognize the names of my boyhood idols, you know it’s been awhile since I was a kid. My sports mania has largely disappeared in adulthood, with one exception: squash. When I’m on the court now, on a good day, I still feel that same sense of possession I’d experienced in the backyard decades ago.

I played a little squash in college, but I didn’t take up the game in earnest until I was in my 30s. I’d been hacking away for a couple of years at the West Side Y in Manhattan when a friend lent me a copy of Mike Way’s instructional DVD on footwork.

Top: Stewart Boswell Above: Raneem El Welily

Back then squash on YouTube wasn’t ubiquitous, and this DVD got passed around the Y like a sacred text: watch it, and be transformed. It’s full of valuable guidance about how to get around the court, but what riveted my attention were the examples of pros playing, and one pro in particular—the Australian Stewart Boswell.

Boswell hit the ball differently than the other players on the video. He seemed to get his racquet back earlier, didn’t bend his elbow or cock his wrist as much, kept his racquet face open throughout the swing. The result was a smooth, sweeping stroke that put a pronounced cut on the ball.

I watched the Boswell clips on the video over and over, and when I got back on court I was a different player. It wasn’t just an adjustment to my swing. The racquet felt different in my hand. My legs had a spring-loaded split step that wasn’t there before. I added hold to almost every shot.

Was my game actually better? At first it definitely felt that way. I discovered, though, the downside of this kind of mimicking: the effect diminishes over time. I achieved some lasting improvements by studying Boswell’s game, but that semi-mystical experience of stepping on court and feeling possessed by a world-class player was a short-lived sensation.

Since then I’ve fallen under, and out of, the spell of other players. Not surprisingly, watching the pros live heightens the experience. For the past decade I’ve been a regular at the Tournament of Champions, and I always come away a changed man.

On one particularly memorable day, I discovered Thierry Lincou at the old Printing House club, going through a training session in the days leading up to the ToC. I studied his clean, precise strokes and, especially, the way he moved around the court with the cool authority of a matador. The next time I played, my stance at the T was a foot wider (Lincou knew how to take his space), and I eyed my longtime opponent with an air of detached confidence that was pleasingly novel. Thanks to Lincou, years later I still periodically remind myself to widen my stance, but the spirit of Thierry has abandoned me.

Thierry Lincou

So it’s gone with a dozen or more other squash pros. The key to captivation is for the player to have some sort of quirk to his game—and when you focus your attention on form, it drives home how many of the world’s best players are quirky. There truly is no single right way to strike a squash ball.

For a brief stretch I mimicked the distinctive sweep I detected in Wael El Hindi’s swing, which reminded me of a knife spreading jam over toast. (Needless to say, while I thought I could copy El Hindi’s play, I didn’t dare try to match his snappy fashion sense.) One night at the ToC I spent a half an hour with my nose pressed to the glass of the left hand wall, taking in the majestic, swooping backhand of Laura Massaro. No one else hits a backhand in quite the same way.

My favorite among the women, though, is Raneem El Welily, as much for her chilled-out demeanor on court as for her flawless form. I’ll never forget waiting for serve one evening while my game was under her influence. I jutted out my chin and moved my grip down to the butt of the racquet in her style. Then I swatted my return for a crosscourt nick. (This really happened—but only once.)

There’s a small group of players who qualify as inimitable. As much as I admire the textbook form of Amr Shabana, there’s nothing about the way he plays that my mind can latch onto. Perversely, his style is too pure for my purposes. Similarly, Ramy Ashour’s racquet skills are beyond imitation. But give me the rubber-armed strokes of Ali Farag, or the bounding stride and cocked wrist of Ryan Cuskelly (so like fellow Aussie Boswell in his movement, so different in his swing), and, for a little while, I feel the magic.