A day after landing from Korea I was on court in Amsterdam trying to keep up with the women's world #1, Nicol David. Nothing knocks off the jet lag quicker than chasing textbook lengths and perfect drops from an 8x world champion, and as I chased I recounted whether all those dumplings in Seoul or mochi balls in Kyoto were truly necessary (I decided they were). One of my best friends from college, Emily, was on a work transfer in Amsterdam and her dad, serving as a US diplomat, lived an hour train ride up the road in Den Haag, where I unloaded my worn blue roller bag in a spare room he generously offered up. For the next month, between a futon at Emily's apartment in the city and the top floor attic of her dad's residence, I was going to have my own version of a home, a rooted base. Or at least that was the plan.
Shortly before arriving back in Amsterdam I was offered one of the last qualifying spots in the $10,000 West of Ireland Open. So a couple days after landing in Holland I was off to Galway, Ireland, staying with my cousin's coworker's brother Padraig Jones and his fiancee, Niamh O'Callaghan, in the seaside suburb of Oranmore. Rented a car and figured out the left side of the road driving thing just in time to pick up my dad/coach, who took the overnight flight over from Boston to watch me compete in an overseas pro match for the first time ever. We arrived early for a practice session at the vintage Galway Lawn Tennis Club, my dad sitting in the top of an empty grandstand on a quiet Tuesday morning, watching me hit straight lengths and drops as he has on a million other courts a million other times in the past dozen years. The club was old school- paint a bit chipped, air musty, the floors mopped by a custodian who proudly told us he too was from Boston, "used ta live right 'n West Rahx-bury." My dad studied the draw, as he's done many times before, but this time it wasn't teenagers from Philly or Greenwich but instead top pros from Cairo and London. The custodian went back to mopping, the ball collided against the aged concrete front wall in the empty arena and my dad smiled, soaking in the view from his little window into a humble, unsexy Tuesday morning of life on tour. Before leaving he snapped a pic to send to the rest of the family, subject: "not exactly Wimbledon!"
I was knocked out of the tournament by a younger player from Belfast, a Commonwealth Games participant for Northern Ireland who would upset the world #123 in the following round. Back in Oranmore, Padraig and Niamh took us in as Irish family, introduced us to old DVDs of legendary Kilkenny/Tipperay hurling contests- a brutally physical game played only in Ireland by amateurs, described by Padraig as "half rugby, half murder" (A quick YouTube search of hurling highlights can put to rest any lingering debate). He wasn't exaggerating about its popularity- the attendant at the Galway Enterprise Rent-A-Car took out a couple of hurling sticks to teach me proper swinging etiquette as I returned the car, before giving me the ball to take with me, in case I find myself in a hurling match sometime later on.
I stopped in Dublin on the way out of Ireland to see Enda Murphy and Grainne O'Toole, a young couple I met with my sister when we all shared an AirBnB home in Cape Town four months earlier. Enda is a rugby pro turned sports scientist, and in the basement of Dublin City University on a crisp blue sky spring afternoon as classes were being dismissed, the sports scientist ran me through his favorite tests and assesments- bike sprints and hill intervals, oxygen efficiency tests and shuttle runs.
That night we shared a family dinner, the two nearly newlyweds and the guy they met for a night last December. We traded life updates over a bottle of white wine alongside pesto chicken and fettuccine, with the best story coming from Grainne, telling me a bit about her cousin, an avid flamethrower - literally, a flamethrower - and her husband- also a flamethrower, and their shared pursuit of weekend flamethrowing. Jumbo Oreo Ice Cream sandwiches to cap things off, purchased in honor of the visiting American.
It was a Friday when I left the next morning and headed for the east coast of Scotland to meet up with Emily in Edinburgh for a quick weekend roadtrip- take a car and drive as far as we could go by Sunday. We made it across to the the west coast and the Scottish highlands, and by Sunday morning I woke up in the quaint little lakeside village of Invararey to another last minute tournament opening- this time in the $25,000 Andorra Open.
I thought a lot of things. First, YES!!! A $25K event for someone ranked around the #200s like me is a win-win: great exposure and the chance of pulling a big upset. Then I Googled 'Andorra'. I had no idea if it was a city, a country, or a person's name. It was indeed a country, tucked away somewhere in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. Next I tried to figure out if I could get there from the village of Invararey in less than a day. Finally, triumph: thumbing away on my tiny iPhone screen at breakfast on a lake in western Scotland, I told the tour organizer I would see them tomorrow in Andorra.
I knew nothing about the tournament venue, vague ideas of getting there, no place to stay, no ticket back. I was up at 5 AM to catch the first flight to Barcelona, then a 3 hour bus into the mountains to find this little country. I almost didn't go- a razor thin connection schedule, a pricey last minute flight, a daunting first round opponent (the #1 qualifying seed from Wales, ranked #75 in the world). From the plane and the bus, I transferred to a smaller van, and as "Born in the USA" rang out the van speakers we climbed steeper into the Pyrenees. I assumed we were lost when the van slowed at the entrance to Anyos Park, a four-star ski resort and spa carved out of the mountains.
At that moment I was greeted by the tournament organizer, John- "nice place, eh?" and given a tour of the resort, which was interrupted only so I could be introduced to an American resort guest, perhaps on the basis that we may know each other ("So.. what part of the States?"). We continued to the courts, part of the world class workout facilities that, according to John, also caters to the top formula one and motorbike champions of Europe. I still hadn't figured out what I was doing there, or the sleeping part, when I was led to a spare guest room that the hotel offered up at a special players' rate.
John was a character. Now in his fifties, his wavy graying hair and wide grin gave a glimpse into his colorful past- a former top British junior and charismatic pro player, a rockstar type in the game as it was taking off in the States decades ago. I couldn't figure out why he was helping me out like this. "Mike" he says in his thick English accent "I've had experiences I will never forget, will always remember. Why? Because people did things for me. They did something special. Now I'm in a place where I can pass it on." His only request was I do a few interviews for the local newspapers.
This couldn't be real. This guy was giving me stories to tell my grandkids. I didn't know what to say to John, but did my best to throw everything I had at the Welsh guy that night, giving the crowd of Andorrans something to cheer for as the American world #215 nearly took a game in a match he didn't really ever think he'd be playing in, 3,000 feet above the sea in a tiny nation somewhere in the mountains near France and Spain.
I stayed the rest of the week after I lost, playing twice a day in the high altitude with a close friend on tour, Tristan, a South African living and training in England. Tristan got a university degree in criminology before putting all that on hold to chase the same dream of playing professionally. Together we befriended a few locals, made the mistake of singing "Torn" at the town karaoke bar (Worst. Song Choice. Ever.), shared a family dinner with two of the coolest Andorrans you'll ever meet, followed these new friends on hikes past the horses and stables and toward the lakes and the snow-capped peaks guarding the 50,000 person country.
Somewhere in the middle of all this Tristan shared with me one of his life philosophies, through a story about a frog: "Most people mate, they're like a frog sitting in the bottom of a well. It's sitting there on the bottom, and it has no idea what outside the well looks like- from where he's sitting, it's just this circle. And so the frog doesn't go up there, it doesn't ever get out of the well, it never sees everything that's out there."
On my last day I bumped into the Andorran President himself while browsing flowers and used books at an outdoor market. If only Obama was this accessible! The whole thing was surreal and absurd and a dream- and it really was a dream when, the night after we left Anyos Park, things went back to normal and Tristan and I found ourselves out in more familiar territory: sharing the floor at the Barcelona Airport departures terminal for the night, off to bed before early flights out the next day.
I was back in Holland for three days, long enough to celebrate Kings Day with Emily and her family before scooting off to London, the birthplace of squash and a Mecca for top training. With the help of Tristan and a few other British players I had met in Andorra, I was extended an invite to spend a week training with a top tier of players and their coaches. I crashed with Fernando, another one of my best buddies and roommates from school, who took his hosting game to a new level: he definitely didn't know how to cook chocolate chip french toast when we were roommates junior year in New Hamp residence dorms.
In the mornings I took the tube then the train on a pilgrammage to wherever these top groups were playing. It was like a basketball player heading for Madison Square Garden. The caliber of training was something else- it's one thing to play for your American college, it's another to be trying to hit a ball past the world #25. We were a long way from the Dartmouth squash center, a longer way from the converted racquetball courts of the Santa Barbara Athletic Club.
These sessions were the duldrums of life on tour, and what made the sport beautiful. A bunch of guys getting together on some four walled enclosure somewhere outside London, a coach ready to push us to fatigue through a concoction of sprints and footwork and drilling. There was something soothing about the group training, something serene about coming in together and getting worked according to a set regiment, before passing out in exhaustion on the train home.
Most days, the coaches would run drills where the lowest scoring player stayed on the "bottom" court, and that bottom court soon became my home. And that was fine. I was fighting in the pro ranks now, but it was no different than being 14 years old and new to the competition at the Princeton Squash Camp. Same drills, same bottom court, unable, for the longest time, to push up.
But I kept showing up and eventually it worked out then, and twelve years later at the Roehampton Club outside of London, I reminded myself of the same thing- just keep showing up.