Fly a swift fifteen hours south of San Francisco and you get to a huge island that looks a lot like where you left. Sun, sand, vegan diners and yoga studios came quickly into view as my train from the Sydney airport wandered toward the city, setting me back up with top notch squash and another pit stop at my favorite couch in the world.
It had been six months since I first passed through Sydney and crashed with my childhood buddy Adam on his couch alongside Bondi Beach. This was round two and I had a few weeks to make it count. This time I was ready- I knew who best to train with at the Willoughby Squash Center, why the 333 is the better bus than the 381 or the 380, what time the family-run corner market stays opens til on Tuesdays, where the best protein shake in town could be found (Jet Bar Cafe, ask for Coop to make you the Re-Coop). My legs dangled off a couch roughy half my size across from Adam's bed, which was more than fine because it allowed me to end each night sharing stories and laughs with my friend since the 7th grade. I had forgotten what it felt like to come back to something totally familiar, to know the little things about it, to feel comfortable from the get go. It felt good.
I returned to the courts at Willoughby different from when I left in August. Mentally I had learned more about how to best compete on my own on tour, and physically, especially from the last five weeks of workouts in California, I felt like my body could now better sustain the beating that was guaranteed to come it's way in a pro match. It came together well in the quarterfinals of the Willoughby Open, where I battled another pro around my ranking to a tight five setter that he ultimately edged me out in by a few points.
Matches like that one are the occasional markers that can be used to determine progress. But these markers aren't as frequent and visible as I would have thought, at least when trying to gauge progress on a more regular basis. If the journey as a player is a sail across water to some promised land that is your full potential, the pieces of real evidence are sights of some faint land somewhere on the horizon, but otherwise it's you and the water. And it's up to you to believe that the land is coming.
I think the hardest thing, to me at least, is that believing part- believing that on the whole your development as a player is consistently going forward. Maybe not every day but that overall that the trend line is sloping up- that it's improving and not slipping, stagnating, standing still. You lose that belief and you're done. I feel that I need all the moving pieces - every muscle, movement, shot stroke - to be clicking just to compete. Just to not slip. When it's all syncing, I can push on that little bit of extra juice that lifts me up past the last plateau and into the next one. But first, it all has to be clicking and those are a lot of moving pieces to click at once.
I knew I was spoiled several times over by my Sydney setup and also knew my time was here was short so I just went all in. Hustling through morning training sessions and tournaments, chasing down the running trails alongside the ocean, hitting the regular yoga and stretching sessions at Yogatime up the hill. When I wasn't on court I was finding a way to the water and like I did as a kid in Santa Barbara I made it a mission to jump in every day. In the early mornings before I left for practice, at lunch in between sessions, at night as the sun dipped below the cliffs. Under the sun or during a downpour I jumped in each day and each day hit the salt water wondering if this was really real and half expecting to wake up from the dream and be late for work. I felt so alive. My day to day was simple the routine unchanged and I loved every minute of it. I wasn't home but it was the closest thing to it I could get while on the road.
"You know they say sequels are never better than the original" my buddy Adam said with a smile as I packed up my bag before leaving. I told him half jokingly it this may just be part two of a trilogy. As I then reached for my carry on, the zipper broke.
Anything but the zipper. Half my life's contents began to spill out the bag, as if I didn't already understand the consequences of this dilemma. I carry with me almost nothing of value- one pair of jeans and two button down shirts, a couple pairs of shorts and a ton of dri-fits. Take any of them, but leave my zipper alone. In an instant the trusty gatekeeper to my racquet bag, the one valuable thing I owned and that still was functional, had given up.
I didn't have time to mourn further. I scooped up the scattered pieces of my stuff, shoveled them back into the bag that I now held like a newborn around my chest, shuffled awkwardly to the bus stop in North Bondi and headed for Malaysia.