Born to Be a Wild Card

What happens when a Harvard professor enters a professional squash tournament against the world's best players?

Pop quiz: When you hear the term “PSA,” what comes to mind?

Many people will answer: Public Service Announcement. For men of a certain age, another likely response is more ominous (prostate-specific antigen, to be precise). Only a select few will say “Professional Squash Association,” which refers to the organization that oversees squash, a fiercely competitive racquet sport played in an indoor court with a squishy little black ball that goes up to 170 miles per hour.

In the United States, squash remains pretty obscure, but it has a realistic chance of becoming an Olympic sport, and the PSA sponsors a tour, organizing more than 200 tournaments annually all over the world. Last week, the tour found its way to Charlotte, North Carolina. In an act of extraordinary generosity, the promoters invited me to participate as a wild-card entry.

In plain English, “wild card” is shorthand for “not good enough to qualify on one’s own merits.” To be sure, my participation wasn’t entirely random. When Richard Nixon was president, I competed in national junior tournaments, and during the Ford Administration, I played on a national championship team in college. (To give some idea of how long ago this was, in our triumphant year, “Afternoon Delight” was the national champion of songs.) After a hiatus of about 15 years, I fell head-over-heels in love with the game again in 2008—with its breakneck speed, its emphasis on both power and skill, its grace and sheer physicality, and, above all, its constant demand for immediate decisions. In squash, it’s not unusual to have five apparently reasonable options from which to choose in less than a second—with two leading to victory and three to catastrophe. The most common question: Play it safe, or take a risk?

You also have to fight as hard as you can while treating your opponent with respect and courtesy: The game is played in very close quarters, and it’s easy to hurt someone with a ball or racquet. They call soccer the beautiful game, but if I had to identify just one sport to show members of some alien species what the human race is all about, I’d nominate squash.

Over the last few years, I’ve played a lot, sometimes in local leagues with pretty strong players. But even if you’re the most avid tennis player, you wouldn’t exactly expect to find yourself facing Roger Federer one day. Still, wouldn’t you like to give that a try? To see what it’s really like, to learn what separates the pros from the rest of us? For two months in advance, I trained as hard as I could, playing at least five times a week, sometimes with Sat Seshadri, a professional from Bombay who now plays in New York.

Arriving at the gorgeous Charlotte Squash Club courts the day before, I felt a lot like the goofy new kid in high school. The professional players obviously knew each other, and were friends as well as competitors. It was a diverse group, with players from Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan, Guyana, Paraguay, Jamaica, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. There isn’t a lot of money in the sport: In Charlotte, the winner earned exactly $902.50. The professionals play, and are willing to travel constantly, because they love it—above all the intensity of the competition and the sense of camaraderie. Most of them have been playing since they were kids, and are hooked; it’s what they do.

In Charlotte, the players smiled and joked in the locker room, but they had a palpable sense of seriousness and commitment during practice, with established routines. I sat awkwardly in the corner with my two racquets, thinking that I really needed to get a sense of what the courts were like. A forlorn question hung in the air: Which of them might be willing to play with me? As it happened, one of the professionals was hitting on a court, all by himself, and I worked up the courage to ask him if he might want to play. (In my mind, I might have rehearsed how to pose the question: “Would you like to play with ME?” “Would YOU like to play with me?” “Would you LIKE to play with me?” “Would you like to PLAY with me?” In the end, I opted for hand gestures.)

He turned out to be Dane Sharp, a Canadian. The name might not be familiar, but he’s one of the ten best players in North America. In the world team championships, he played a competitive match against Egypt’s Ramy Ashour, the Michael Jordan of squash. Sharp isn’t quite squash’s Lebron James, but he’s fast as lightning, and strong, and the ball explodes off his racquet like a rocket. As it happens, he’s also a really nice guy.

After I introduced myself, and told him I knew who he was, he asked what I was doing there. Our conversation:

Me (brightly, and like a complete idiot): I’m here to play in the tournament.

Dane: Which tournament?

Me: This tournament.

Dane (unsure he heard me correctly): Our tournament?

Me (quietly): I’m the wild card.

Suitably informed, Sharp suggested that we try a little drill, apparently familiar among professional players. I asked him to explain it, and he seemed to say, “You hit a drv and then a bsst, and then I hit a drp and then a drv, and we do that over and over.”

To me, this was completely baffling. What’s a “drv”? What’s a “bsst”? Where was I supposed to try to hit that small black ball? And how many times could I ask Sharp that irritating question?

Days later, I think I understand. I was supposed to hit a hard drive, the whole length of the court, and then I was supposed to hit a “boast,” which hits the sidewall and then the front wall. He would then hit a drop shot, meaning a soft shot that would drop at the front wall, and then he would hit a hard drive back to me—and then the cycle would start again. Get it?

When the drill didn’t work, Sharp suggested that we play an actual game. In what seemed like five seconds, he got up to 10 points. You need just 11 to win, and I resolved to do all I could to stop him from winning the decisive point, which meant that I would hit as hard and run as fast as I possibly could.  Unfortunately, I tripped over my own legs and fell down. (Hard; my elbow is still badly bruised.)

In the actual tournament, my opponent was Jamaica’s Lewis Walters, ranked 105th in the world. Twenty-seven years old, he’s obviously strong and fit, with over 300 professional matches and some big wins against top players under his belt. Desperate for advice, I asked one of the American pros, the former Stanford superstar Sam Gould, what he does when he plays someone who’s a lot better than he is. Here’s our conversation.

Sam (cheerful): I know I can’t win, so I just try to show the audience how good the other player is. I play very long points, with a lot of movement by both of us, so that he can be at his best.

Me (despairing): My goal here is not to show people how good Lewis Walters is.

Nonetheless, I think I might have succeeded in that endeavor. Squash is physically demanding (far more so than tennis), and despite my training for the tournament, the first three points seemed to take a lifetime. (Could I take a nap in the middle of the match?) Walters is scarily quick, and as I saw up close, professional athletes have an uncanny sense of anticipation. Like chess players, pilots, and doctors, they recognize patterns immediately. So wherever I put the ball, Walters was there, seemingly even before the ball itself was.

This is the cruelty of the sport: the longer a point goes, the more you have to run, and the more exhausted you get. That creates a perverse incentive. If you hit good shots against a good player, you have to keep running (and your body cries out, “No!”). But if you miss, or hit a stupid shot, the point is immediately over, and at least for a few seconds, you don’t have to run (and your body exclaims, “Hurray!”).

The author (r) with Lewis Walters (Cass R. Sunstein)

Noticing that I didn’t really belong, the audience was definitely on my side, cheering loudly on the rare occasions that I managed to win a point. (I learned a surprising fact: Fist bumps are hardwired into the human psyche.) But my opponent seemed to enjoy running a lot more than I did. It was a romp for Mr. Walters, 11-4, 11-2, 11-5. At least I didn’t fall down. (Evidently energized by the rout, Walters made it all the way to the final, losing a nailbiter to Mexico’s Eddie Galvez.)

In the locker room after the match, I ran into some of the other professionals on the PSA tour, who had watched the proceedings. “Good fighting,” one of them said, adding, “Nice last game.” And then he offered some of the most beautiful words I have ever heard, as if they might be true: “See you around, at another tournament.”

Probably not. But I left Charlotte not only with increased admiration for the unworldly skill and intense focus of professional athletes, but also with real gratitude for their low-key kindness, and for a lucky, brief glimpse into their sense of brotherhood.