An hour after landing back in New Zealand from Tahiti, I found myself sharing a practice court with an Englishman roughly a hundred and fifty spots ahead of me in the world rankings. Next to us, two Finnish players and a top Brazilian were finishing a training session. It was the day before my first official overseas professional event, the first of three in New Zealand in June, and my only goal on court was to blend in with these guys.
The next day I went on to win my opening match. First pumps everywhere. Pretending not to be phased: I've done this pro thing before. Inside, was very phased: have not done this pro thing before. Voicemails to dad. Fistpumps everywhere. Pure ecstasy, but not just for winning- for proving (to myself) that I belonged (cue a Disney sports movie soundtrack).
Four hours later I lost to a nineteen year old Malaysian. Well that was quick. Back to square one. Back to the training program, on to to figuring out the bus schedule toward the next town. On to the next.
The other players here from a dozen other countries are my opponents, and also my teammates, roommates, travel buddies, training partners, wingmen. Arthur is from a small town in France, where his dad runs the local squash club. Growing up, American college coaches had been calling but he decided he'd rather go pro. JP is from a college town in South Africa but also skipped college to focus everything on the tour: "You can go to university or you can play the tour; you can't do both." Abdulla is the pride of Qatar- at nineteen and already #76 in the world, he is by far the best player the country has ever produced. Manoel is in his late twenties and a top Brazilian; we speak in a mixture of English, hand gestures and facial expressions. I am almost positive he invited me to visit him near Sao Paolo and train at his home club to before the Brazil circuit of events later this year; hope I got that right since I told him I'd be there. Jan's in his early thirties and currently the 15-time Czech national champion. While most players aim for 10 or 13 tournaments a year, Jan regularly travels to over 20. I think he has actually played everywhere.
Since Tahiti I've seen New Zealand through a family of four in the suburbs, a physical therapist in the city, a couple and their daughter in the countryside, a farmer union rep and his two kids on the tip of the South Island, a family who traveled around the world by boat for four years before finding Queenstown. While the squash can blend together, these people help define the experience. For me it is still a surreal way to live- some blend between traveling backpacker and newly adopted son for a few days or week at a time. I get to help with dishes, coach the kids, visit Show and Tell at school. And it always seems that just as I settle in and get a handle on the little things- figuring out how to run the garbage disposal, getting on the good side of the family dog- the tournament is over, and it's on to the next.
And so much of the past month has been spent on a budget bus rumbling down the main highway from the top of one island to the very bottom of the other, experiencing a second straight winter in welcoming new homes with a random group of guys I now call my friends. Three pro events, a team club tournament and one Show and Tell later, I've managed to move up thirty spots in the rankings to world #265. I still can't believe I am getting the chance to do all this.
I ran into someone just now waiting for my flight to Melbourne who thought my racquet bag was for tennis, and asked if I heard about the Nadal upset by the wildcard player from Australia. "Can never look past the wildcard" he explained, "I work in horse racing- in horse racing, you always bet on the wildcard. Same as any other sport. Always bet on the wildcard."
I agreed. On to Melbourne.