Playing Against Yourself
On squash’s singularity.
By Jazmyn Wang
At 12:17 a.m. on March 5, I pose two questions. The first, buried in an old iMessage thread: “Do you want to play squash instead?”; the second, memorialized in my search history: “How to play squash.”
The two inquiries are motivated by a 21-minute crawl through Dodge Fitness Center’s website, which ends on a page enumerating the benefits of a Dodge Fitness membership. The fourth bullet point drew my attention: "Access to squash courts." Herein lay the solution to my foiled plans to play tennis at Riverside Park, where the courts would not open until April. Serendipitously, the friend to whom I texted the first question used to play squash, and I occasionally partake in tennis, so the pivot seemed plausible. We make a booking.
I soon find that the similarities between tennis and squash end with their use of a racket. Tennis players stand on opposite sides of an open court, separated by a net, whereas squash players face the walls of a closed box, weaving around one another to reach the ball in time. Out of the can, the tennis ball is primed for play, but the squash ball must be warmed up before rallying. Despite online reassurances that tennis skills are somewhat transferable to the squash court, I can neither anticipate the trajectory of the ball nor effectively calibrate how much power to put behind each swing.
When one of my errant swings places our only ball on the spectator platform that overlooks the courts, we alert an employee, and the three of us sift through piles of worn pinnies, clusters of retired fitness equipment, and a graveyard of cardboard boxes. The platform, unfrequented and restricted to the public, seems to be relegated to storage status, not unlike some of the courts below.
Yet, this odyssey to find the ball does not deter me from the sport. Instead, I find myself returning weekly through the end of term.
The courts, offshoots of a third-floor side hallway, possess an unshakeable eeriness. The door of each court must be closed during play, and onlookers must resort to peering through a Post-It-sized window to get a glimpse of the action within. Still, it is even harder for those inside to see out. It is often necessary to knock loudly on the doors or pry them open slightly to get the attention of the players inside.
At any given time, only three courts are open. Last spring, these were Courts 1, 3, and 6; this fall, with Court 6 under construction, Courts 1, 3, and 5. Courts 2 and 4 are ostensibly nonexistent. This indecipherable numbering is just one of the many eccentricities that characterize the space. Unflattering fluorescent light floods each box, but the courts occasionally plunge into darkness when lights are shut off—sometimes because the timer expires, other times because someone in the corridor (invisible to the players within) brushes against the switch.
There are variations among the courts, too. Regulars know that Court 6 has a gouged, unevenly painted front wall strangely absent of the gray imprints left by especially hard-hit squash balls. I only realize this particularity when a group playing on this court during my booking asks if I can instead take the unbooked Court 1, whose wooden-paneled front wall is in superior condition, so that their match can proceed uninterrupted.
Interactions like these were the extent of my social experience at the courts: Though squash is normally played with others, after my initial introduction to the sport I exclusively hit solo. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. After especially good (or bad) shots, I’d fight an impulse to turn around, looking for someone to share in my celebration or disappointment—the looming yet empty spectator platform urging me to acknowledge it. Or was it a function of the lack of reciprocity involved in potentially being seen by those in the corridor—a strange approximation of the panopticon? Not quite. Though the panopticon comparison was initially attractive for its encapsulation of the relationship between perception and performance, my relationship with squash does not warrant such a punitive connotation: rather, it felt like the opposite.
In hitting by myself, I also hit against myself. The squash wall allows for the personification of the self as an opponent. So squash became a constant balancing act—a reminder not to go too easy on myself, so that I could have a challenge, but not to make things too difficult either, or else there would be no sustained rally. When I would inevitably fail to walk this line, squash became a way of practicing forgiveness, too.
Though technically alone on the courts, I was never truly by myself. The hundreds of marks that litter the walls represent those that have come before me. And while it is nearly impossible to see into the hallway, and entirely impossible to see into adjacent courts, arrhythmic thumps that echo throughout the corridor signify the presence of other players. The sound of the ball hitting the “tin,” the lowest 19 inches of the front wall that we must aim above to stay “in” the point, reverberates the loudest, creating an almost public declaration of loss. It is this shared, sonic experience that redeems the unnerving architecture of the courts, coalescing us in a way that sight cannot.