My chewed up Asics still smelled of dried Zambezi River mud with a touch of dead warthog as I stumbled out of a New York City cab from the airport straight into the lobby of a gym somewhere on the lower east side. Bright lights electronic house music and hip fitness goers on ellipticals above the entry welcomed me back to the frigid northeastern USA after eight months away. Four flights and twenty-one hours of flying after leaving Zimbabwe, the last of the Zamebzi mud flung off the sneakers in the gym cardio area just in time: I was less than 3 days away from my opening match in the Wimbledon-of-squash-tournaments and really had to get moving.
I crashed on the futon of one of my best friends, Dan, who had one request: wash everything. Laundry?! Now? But how?? My mind began to race - laundry has been a multi-day (possibly weeklong) adventure with a wide variety of outcomes that doesn't always result in clean (or returned) clothes. Dan sensed my anxiety and showed me his phone. On the screen, an app - the Über of laundry - showed a blinking dot of someone coming to take my life's stock of sweaty clothes and bring them back the next day, fully washed. Well damn.
I was bracing for a huge culture shock but didn't really get one. Some things took longer to readjust to - it would be weeks before trusting any tap water, anywhere - but mostly I was just thrilled to eat at Chipotle again. If there was one thing that stuck as I wandered around Manhattan, it was just how lucky I was to get to come home here. That sounds incredibly cheesy but that's what I felt. In every town, city, country I've come across so far, at least one person or another who tells me of the same hope- to visit America, maybe even live there someday. They watched me describe New York City and the California coast in the same way I sat awed about stories of their home on an island in the South Pacific or along the rim of northern Africa or on the desert outskirts of Dubai. For most of these new friends of mine, their visit will never happen- visa issues, immigration hurdles, red tape. I stared at the cover of my passport as I touched down back at JFK, passing back through customs without a hitch and right out onto New York pavement, thinking then of my other friends who are dreaming of that moment.
Two days later and I was ready as I'd ever be for my big match. Taking the court against me was New Zealand #1 and world #49 Martin Knight, the first friend I had made on tour. For the first time in a long time, I had home court advantage with faces I recognized. Goosebumps ran wild as "Michael Lewis, of the United States" was called out by the referree in front of my parents, one sister, my uncle and a handful of college friends and former teammates among the crowd.
On the dark and chilly and otherwise uneventful mid-January night at a squash club in midtown Manhattan I threw everything I had at my friend. It was brutal. Long rallies, heavy legs, chest burning. Wind knocked out and no air to breath, like like being taken to the ground by a punch to the stomach. Again then again. The rallies stayed long and I started losing more of them, gasping for oxygen when I wasn't hurling towards every corner of the court, chasing tortuous cycles of deep punishing drives to the back and short unforgiving drops to the front.
When it was all over I had lost in straight sets. But this time I held my own. It was respectable. I limped off court dead and defeated, legs shot, knees buckling. I hugged my dad, my coach that night and since the beginning. He smiled. This time last year I was working at a desk. Tonight his son was a professional athlete. It was defeat, but it was progress.
With a break in my tournament schedule after the match, I began work toward closing the next gap. While losing to Marty was respectable, it was still losing, and no one likes to lose. I sat at #218 in the world rankings, a best for me but still on the outside of the top 200 with a long way to go. I headed to California to double down on workouts around Stanford, staying with my cousin and her family a few minutes from campus.
For the next month all the couches, strangers, confusions and unknowns that characterized my first eight months on the tour disappeared. In their place was a routine: a set regiment for eating, sleeping, training and, in between those things, House of Cards watching (what a show) and very loud TSwift album repeating (guilty). Strength and cardio at the gym in the mornings, on court hitting drills with the recent Stanford Men's #1 in the afternoons, family dinners at six followed by card games at eight, out by eleven. Eating became a much more frequent but much less interesting activity: eggs and more eggs, meat and fish, more eggs. Bye bye dairy, grains, booze, gluten. Life became monotonous, straightforward, simple. Just what I signed up for. The reality of trying to get better.
About a year ago an older guy, who now has a wife and kids and works in finance but had played the tour as a young college kid a while back, told me that the actual tournaments would be the easy part- it was the training that would be killer. It took me until now to realize what he meant. By the end of the month I was just starting to survive the sunrise workouts, beginning to get by the afternoon hits and finally winning a few games of Go Fish. I could make a mean four egg steak scramble plus avocado with my eyes closed, blast out all the words to Shake It Off. I was nearly settling into a real routine when my night flight out to Sydney came rolling in.