November 29, 2006

The Beauty of Squash

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Nestled between the indoor and outdoor tennis courts of the Reis Tennis Center are the Belkin International Squash Courts. Sports fans may know them as the home to the men’s and women’s squash teams, but medieval scholars will recognize Belkin as one of the lesser known circles of Dante’s Inferno — reserved primarily for sportswriters and masochists.

My guide through these infernal glass-backed, maple-floored courts, was none other than men’s squash head coach Mark Devoy. A New Zealand import, he and his wife, women’s squash head coach Julee Devoy, have manned the helm of the Cornell’s squash program for the past three years.

When I showed up outside the Devoys’ office Monday afternoon, Mark offered me a bag of oranges. In retrospect, I wished he’d told me to abandon all hope.

It’s not like I didn’t come prepared. Indeed, I was armed with not one, but two pastel polo shirts — collars popped, of course. But, apparently, the United Colors of Benetton, coupled with 10 years of sub-par junior tennis and a blooming career as a Nintendo Wii tennis professional cannot make up for having never actually played squash.

You see, squash is a game that is ultimately about cruelty — at least when you’re playing against a man once ranked in top-60 profes sionals in the world. You’re given a racquet of about 80 square inches to cover a court with an area of 96,768 square inches — creating the type of spread normally reserved for my Arizona Cardinals. You’re matched up against a man at least twice your age, with only one of his original hips, whose right knee is still swollen from its third arthroscopic surgery. And then, after sprinting from back corner, to front corner, to back corner again and again, you’re handed your dignity, neatly gift wrapped in the form of 9-0 skunking. A minute and half later, you do it all over again.

Much like turning 21, you can’t fully understand what it’s like to play squash until the day after. I woke up yesterday morning convinced a small, sharp-taloned animal had burrowed into my shoulder. Sitting up, I realized my forearm hadn’t hurt as much since middle school, and let’s just say that while tying my shoes, it felt like I’d taken a different kind of pounding the day before.

At one point in my life, I considered myself reasonably athletic, having played soccer, tennis, baseball and basketball to varying degrees. Yet, squash is unlike any sport I’ve ever played, with a lethal combination of aerobic and anaerobic exertion that had me grabbing my knees faster than Eddy Curry.

Furthermore, what little racquet-sport knowledge I possessed was virtually useless against the crafty Devoy. In tennis, hitting crosscourt with loads of topspin is generally a safe bet. In squash it’s a recipe for disaster, as I learned over and over again from my crafty Kiwi opponent. But therein lies the beauty of squash, a sport that proves the adage, “Old age and low cunning will beat youth and ability every time.”

Granted, I’m lacking in ability and not as young as I used to be. Still, watching Devoy pick apart my game, anticipate even my most clever shot and generally wipe the court with my pink polo-wearing carcass, the old aphorism seemed especially apt. I played for a little over 30 minutes with Devoy, and was worried my legs would cramp and I would crash while driving home. Cornell’s actual varsity athletes are on the court for at least three times that amount every day, hitting harder, faster and longer than I could ever imagine.

However, back in the late 1980s, Cornell’s squash program was in danger of extinction. As collegiate squash made the transition from the narrow North American courts to the wider International courts, schools began to refuse to play at the Red’s outdated Grumman Courts. But thanks to the generosity of Steven and Joan Belkin ’69 as well as members of the Friends of Cornell University Squash, the program was revitalized with the construction of its new home.

Far from a one shot deal, such charity is the only reason Cornell continues to field teams each year. Squash, along with a handful of other sports at Cornell, is almost completely donor-funded. The Athletic Department will make up for shortfalls, but each year the men’s and women’s teams are expected to meet all of their budgetary needs through phone-drives and fundraisers. Every sport at Cornell must fundraise to an extent, but while Princeton and Yale are tossing financial aid at international players, Cornell is holding bake sales for bus trips. The fact that each year the Devoys field a nationally competitive squad is a testament to the commitment of Cornell’s athletes and alumni.

So, while the Testa-Devoy rematch isn’t headed for pay-per-view anytime soon, Cornell is blessed with top quality collegiate squash.

It’s a sight to see. Matches can last up to three hours, and individual rallies can carry on for 25-to-30 shots. Ball speeds can reach into triple digits, and like any one-on-one sport some quality rivalries develop. This Saturday, Harvard and Western Ontario come to town, and these epic matches are sure to be far more divine than the painful comedy of my education in squash.

Paul Testa is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Cleveland Rocks will appear every other Wednesday this semester.