It’s About Time

By Will Carlin

Howard Armitage is about to hit his third off-balance shot in a row. He has been on defense since his backhand return of serve caught the sidewall and landed about halfway between the front wall and the short line on the right side of the court. He had to scramble and lunge across the court to barely cut off a forehand drive. Then, trying to cover an anticipated cross-court, he had to reverse direction when the ball came back to his forehand. And now, he is at full extension and reaching slightly behind him on the other side of the court to hit a high backhand volley. But with this shot, Armitage is about to take control of the point.

It’s the fifth game in the men’s 75+ division final of the 2018 World Masters Championship. It’s between two Canadians: Armitage, who was seeded 5/8, and Gerry Poulton, the two seed. Both men have solid power and deadly short games, but while Armitage moves well, Poulton is the most agile player in this age group in the world.

Everyone who plays the game can relate to this situation: we all meet players who either are just plain better or have aspects to their game that clearly are superior to our own. And yet, we sometimes win.

“I think that controlling time is what leads you to success,” says Rafael Nadal about seventy-five minutes into a great new tennis documentary, Strokes of Genius. In a film filled with insightful quotes about tennis and competing head-to-head, in general, that line stands out—at least partly because it’s even more true in squash than it is in tennis.

To illustrate this point, Richard Millman takes students onto a court and instructs them as follows: you have just played a terrific series of shots against an inferior player and have earned the perfect setup; go ahead and stand wherever that spot is for you.

Most students position themselves a little more than halfway to the front wall from the short line and in the middle of the court horizontally. Richard asks, “How do you feel?” Virtually everyone responds that they feel good.

“And what shot are you going to hit?”

Here there is some divergence, but most pick a hard, low drive or cross-court. Richard tells them that it’s a fine choice and that it has a low risk and high chance of success. “Now, imagine that you are going to hit the same shot from the same point, but your opponent isn’t just better than you, it’s Mohamed ElShorbagy. Now, how do you feel?”

Almost everyone laughs and says that they feel scared. This is where the lesson starts: “You are right to feel that way. Can you tell me why?” Richard asks.

At this point, most students have to think for a bit. Eventually, most realize that they feel scared because they are in danger; they realize that they are much less likely to get the ball past a superior player and that being in the front court is going to be a liability.
“Why?” Richard presses.

Students intuitively know the answer, if not yet the implication: because ElShorbagy is going to cut the ball off shortly after they hit the ball, they are too far up front to cover the next shot.

All racquet-sport players learn early the value of a defensive lob: it allows you time to recover when you are out of position. Fewer of us learn what Millman is teaching: you should always take into account how quickly you can recover to a good position to defend your opponent’s next shot.

It’s one of the reasons that the pros don’t just hit the ball hard.

“Is there any shot that you can hit against ElShorbagy that allows you to keep the advantage?” asks Richard.

The answer, of course, is a lob. Not a defensive lob, but an offensive one—that is, one that is high enough not to be intercepted by your opponent, and, ideally, will drop into one of the back corners without coming off the back wall. Even if your opponent is ElShorbagy, they have to wait for the ball to come down, and that gives you time to recover to a good position.

As we get older and increasingly slow down, the importance of the lob to help control time becomes increasingly obvious. This is why older players can compete effectively against younger ones and why the lob-and-drop game is frequently called “Old Man Squash.”

It’s worth noting, however, that most pros, especially Ramy Ashour and Rachael Grinham, also use the offensive lob incredibly effectively.

That’s the shot Armitage hits now. A high lob far above Poulton’s head that forces Poulton into the back right corner. Gerry has to boast to get the ball out, and he immediately starts sprinting forward to cover the inevitable drop.

Instead of the drop, however, Armitage hits a second offensive lob. Poulton puts on the brakes, turns to chase after the ball, and—just before it’s out of reach—plays it off the back wall.

Armitage should win this match of wits where both players have displayed great movement, crafty dropshots and beautiful lobs and where each had match point. But now, as Poulton’s backwall boast makes it to the front wall, Armitage elects to hit his third offensive lob in a row. He gets a little casual and sloppily hits the lob too low. He watches in exasperation as Poulton volleys it past him for an unexpected winner.

Unwittingly, Armitage has demonstrates one more critical truth. In order to effectively use the lob, you must execute it really well. Every time.