Playing in the Brüggen Open first requires finding the village of Brüggen. Hidden amongst rolling fields somewhere just south of the southern Dutch border in northeast Germany sits a farm town and it's two thousand residents who, as my ride arrived through town, were as surprised to see squash players as we were to learn that indeed we arrived in the right place. Down the street from the town bakery was the village inn and tavern; winding through thick trees past that emerged a squash club. Time for a tournament.
No one was home. The inn was empty, it's adjoining tavern vacant as well. After a few knocks the tavern owner appeared and welcomed us into the foyer where an ancient wooden bowling lane sat unused next to a few creaking tables, dusty framed posters hanging on the faded pastel colored walls. If someone told me I was the first visitor in 45 years I have believed it.
I roomed with three other players: Brian, a thirty-year old school principal from rural western Ireland, married with three kids, taking a year to give the tour a crack. Phil, a thirty-two year old Englishman and a ten year veteran of the tour, set to start Divinity School in the fall. Nearly half his age was Saaid, a seventeen-year old Egyptian junior champion just starting to dabble with the pro game, who would fly back to start his final year of high school in Cairo when the tournament ended. If it were not for this sport, never would a reason exist to link the principal, the priest-to-be, the Egyptian high school senior, and me.
In the main draw round of sixteen, I took on a nineteen year old Czech player, a see-saw, marathon of squash lasting well over an hour when the fifth and deciding game began.
I had been in two similar five game battles in the weeks prior, and having lost them both I was left wondering what was wrong. The fifth is for winners; it's the final stretch and the last round, the time to dig deep and push through. I thrived on the adrenaline of five game battles in college but this month was coming up short. I wanted badly to reverse that trend; as another player told me after the brutal Ukranian loss, you don't to get used to losing in the fifth.
I knew some of the other players in the draw from past tournaments in Brazil, Ukraine, and France; we were now friends and they were now my impromptu coaches, huddling around me to strategize before I went back to start the last game. In a world where I started the tour on my own, I couldn't help but take in the fact that I now had real friends in my corner. As I headed to re-enter the court, Phil's six-foot-six frame swooped in and grabbed my arm, "THE GUY'S BEAT MATE! HE'S GOT NOTHING LEFT!" I had no idea if that was true but the Priest-to-be had given me the last shot of adrenaline I would need; I walked on court certain the Czech player had nothing left, positive he was beat, and went on to win the game, 11-5, and the match 3-2. I was into the quarterfinals.
I battled my friend and carpool driver Seb in the quarterfinals; the one seed and Dutch national champion was too strong, although I took pride when he complimented my hustle after the match. I was hanging in there with a top-100 ranked player. A long way from where I started.
Brian and I made a habit out of visiting the store owner in the town bakery for breakfast. Over eggs and ham and tea we'd hear about the history of this woman's 7th generation family run bakery: how they were forced out by the German soldiers during the war only to be brought them back in for their cooking skills, how her son is 22 years old, the gelato maker and hopefully, the next generation of family ownership.
One morning we kept walking past the bakery, past the town and through the trees and along farms. We both had read A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Alchemist and as we wandered past another field of cows we traded our favorite sentiments of each: one describing how universe of people around you can help you chase a dream, and the other placing in perspective just how small we are in our tiny universe among infinite others.
I asked him why he's doing this- leaving a good job with a wife and kids behind to try and climb the ladder of the tour. He replied with a story about an older school teacher at his school who recently retired. "At his retirement speech, he talked about how every day for the past forty something years, he drove up and over the same hill to work. Each day, same hill, again and again. I live near that same hill. When I heard him say that, I knew that would not be me."
The night I got knocked out of Brüggen coincided with an invite to join the tail end of a friend of a friends' going away party in Amsterdam, and with no couch or set plans in mind I caught I ride with my friend and training partner Marc, and we headed out of the farms for the big city.
Hours later I sat next to a guy named Thomas, who worked for a Dutch company selling commercial boats in Africa. Through polite small talk about his recent trip to Zimbabwe we discovered we shared mututal friends living Harare, and an hour after that I was on the couch sharing drinks with his roommates, answering their excited questions as how exactly I ended up in their living room.
I would play the next day with Martijn, a friend of my friend Reinier and a squash enthusiast. Martijn offered up his couch in return for a squash lesson, so we hit the courts and afterward piled onto his bicycle, weighted down by two grown men and my life belongings, a racquet bag and backpack, dangling off the back as we wobbled our way toward my next couch.