The pandemic. Our squash lives are somewhat the same. We can continue to work out on our own, to talk to friends on video conference calls, watch a ton of past matches and to even hit a ball against a wall (amazingly how easy it is to find a usable wall once necessity forces you to look). But one part of the pandemic that is more or less impossible to reproduce these days is getting on court with an opponent.
That means you aren’t bumping into someone, hearing them gasping for breath, seeing their anger at a tin and smelling their sweat. And you aren’t getting hit by your opponent’s errant shot. Being drilled is an inevitable consequence of squash. It has disappeared this spring, along with everything else about live, in-person squash.
Which brings to mind my favorite story about getting hit by a squash ball. It appeared in the New Yorker eighty-seven years ago this month. “Underdog” was a Talk of the Town piece, credited today to D. King Irwin, Walter R. Brooks and Harold Ross. Brooks was the immortal creator of Freddy the Pig; Ross, the great founding editor of the New Yorker; Irwin, who only wrote this one piece for the magazine, was clearly a pseudonym for a member of the Princeton Club of New York who saw it happen.
The piece, published on 8 April 1933, was “a pretty little story of long-deferred vengeance.” It described a Mr. Smith, “a large gentleman,” who went into the Princeton Club’s lounge and announced he had a squash court booked but no one to play with. “The first to reply was a smallish fellow who came out from behind a newspaper and volunteered.” It was a Mr. Jones (both nom de plumes to protect the guilty). They changed and went on court. Turned out they were both pretty good. But within the first few minutes of play, Jones had hit Smith with the ball a half dozen times: “a dull smack and a vicious pain shot through one of his mighty hams.”
Jones “made the remark conventional when such a thing happens,” which back in 1933 was: “Oh—sorry, old man. Hurt you?” Mr. Smith responded, “also observing the etiquette of the courts,” in a similar dismissive manner: “N—no. ‘S nothing.”
As he kept on getting smacked, Smith cycled through the five stages of grief. “Under the astonishingly accurate volleys of his opponent, chagrin at his own clumsiness gave way to bewilderment, then to rage. It became gradually apparent to Smith that it was not chance but demoniac skill that time after time got him into position and then drove that hard black ball from wall to wall and then, plop, against him.”
Rage would have led to something unsportsmanlike, but a small crowd had gathered in the gallery and “before them, the tradition of politeness and good-fellowship must be kept up.” They played on. Jones kept plugging or “soaking” Smith, the ball leaving “each time another round, red, white-centered welt.”
“At last came a tap on the door. Time was up. The opponents shook hands” and thanked each other. Smith, as he headed to the showers, looked “like an enormous pink leopard.”
Why did Jones hit him? Because many years earlier, Smith had been an upperclassman at Princeton and at Joe’s Restaurant had said something deeply humiliating to a first-year Jones. “For years he had waited for revenge, lurking behind newspapers, and becoming one of the best squash-players in the country.”
Smith never remembered him, of course, and even when the piece was published he didn’t know the explanation. I guess that means be careful the next time you get stood up for a match and go into the lounge to recruit a person to play with and a person lowers their newspaper and volunteers.
For more wisdom on revenge, see: