Monday, 11 November 2013

'On Balance': Of primary concern in movement and hitting the ball

On Balance'

A simple concept, but one that requires time to not only master , but to also mentally make the adjustments to one's tactical awareness.

First let me define what is meant by the term 'On Balance': 

On Balance refers to when the player is at the moment of hitting the ball, and comprises of two factors and awareness of one major tactical point: 

1) The player is balanced, preferably nearly stationary, with his or her body weight (or also said, center of gravity) no longer moving towards or through the point of ball contact. 

2) The player is balanced through the racket swing, and his or her feet are positioned in such a way as being prepared to at least begin a return movement towards the T, at the end of the swing.

Tactical point: If not On Balance, then the player should be hitting a defensive shot, preferably high and long. When the player is On Balance, then the full range of shots is open, because the player will have ability to recover to the T, and thus be able to cover the whole court and the likely returns that the opponent will choose from.

When a player is not On Balance, it means basically one of two things (at the moment of hitting the ball): 

1) the player's body weight is still moving towards and through the point of ball contact, or 

2) the player is stretched out reaching for the ball in such away that, after hitting the ball the player will need to first recover from the stretch, before being able to move towards the T. 

In either case, the player is not able to begin returning to the T, immediately upon hitting the ball. Which means a further delay in recovery to the T, and thus frequently results in falling behind in the rally (under increased pressure).


So fundamentally the concept of On Balance means two things for the player, tactically:

1) If the player is not On Balance, not ready to return to the T immediately upon hitting the ball, then the player should choose a defensive shot.

2) If the player is On Balance at the moment of hitting the ball, then the player may hit any shot that is within their technical abilities and strategic style.


The underlying premise is this:

If a player is not On Balance, then they actually need more time to recover to the T. Hitting anything but a defensive shot will actually mean that the player is increasing the pressure on themselves, by not choosing a shot that would allow them to recover to an equal footing within the rally.


Most players at the beginning of their squash life are taught to always strive to hit the ball at the highest point of the bounce. The reason for this, is that this is actually the easiest moment for hitting the ball, as the technical difficulty of timing the swing is reduced. 

The reality though, is that in order to hit the ball at its highest point, players often need to run through or stretch, to reach and hit the ball at its peak. This ends up being counter productive.

For players to continue their rise up the ladder of skill levels, they need to overcome this concept, and focus more on achieving an On Balance position for shots.


In today's game, Nick Matthew is probably the most clear example of the On Balance concept. While virtually all of the top players do exhibit 'On Balance', Mr. Matthew is probably the most precise and consistent with it, and it's very clearly seen on video, in particular in the back corners, and when hitting shots that come off the back wall.

If you watch Nick play balls from the corners and off the back wall, you should note that he invariably has his feet lined up and stationary prior to hitting the ball, that he frequently hits the ball below its peak, often hitting it from just above the floor, and that after hitting the ball, he is immediately moving towards the T.

You'll also note that the lower the point of ball contact (ie close to the floor) the more likely it is that Nick will hit a defensive shot.

Nick will sacrifice hitting the ball at a higher point, if it means that he would not be On Balance. Instead, he will allow the ball to drop from the higher point, and then hit it later in the ball's arc. This delay in hitting the ball, gives Nick time to get balanced and ready to return to the T.

Nick Matthew shows focus, and discipline (supreme patience) in his approach to the ball and his shot selection. Because Nick is willing to hit the ball after its peak, he's more often On Balance, and thus nearly always able to effectively return to the T. This is why Mr. Matthew has an incredible win-loss record against all the other English players and those who play a more traditional 'English length' game. He has the discipline and patience to always hit the ball when On Balance, and thus able to return to the T, which translates into regular control and edge in rallies.

The only players who give Nick trouble are those who with the pre-requisite physical stature, speed, techniques, and are tactically more aggressive in building pressure in the rally from the mid-court, as opposed to trying to dominate from the back court. 


When you're watching top players, you may also note that often players are hitting and moving towards the T almost simultaneously. This is simply a further extension of the On Balance concept. The players are arriving to the ball, and they are setting up their On Balance position and they are swinging at the ball in such a way that the momentum of the swing is beginning the pull of their centre of gravity towards the T.

This is a relatively high level extension of the On Balance concept, because the top players are able to swing at the ball, start the shift in their body towards the T, while at the same time maintaining accuracy with the ball. To be able to do this, requires practice, and of course a wee bit more time to get to the ball and get On Balance.


The take away for aspiring players?

Get into a balanced position to hit the ball (before the swing), after hitting the ball the player should be moving back to the T.

Be willing to hit the ball later and lower in its arc, if this will give you the time needed to get On Balance.

If you're forced to hit the ball when not On Balance, but rather you're stretched out, or still moving to the ball while swinging and hitting, then consider hitting a defensive shot as your preferred option (high lob). 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Nicol David takes the 2013 Carol Weymuller Open, and how...

Observations of Players in the 2013 Carol Weymuller Squash Open

After the Malaysian Open, started the season, the Carol Weymuller Open has quickly followed on, and along with the Malaysian Open it's one of the three women's Gold events to begin this squash year, the third being the upcoming US Open. 

This event ending just before the US Open, had attracted an exceptionally strong field of women. Once the qualifying rounds were done, the first round of the main draw of 16, included only two women from outside the world's top 20. And one of those outsiders is returning to the courts from an injury break, before which she was a solid member of that same top 20. 

So from the first round of the main draw every single match was worthy of a final in many other non-Gold tournaments around the world. Virtually every match had at least one player from within the top ten. And looking at the results we can make some observations as to how the women are doing, as the season really winds up tight now, with the US Open literally around the corner, and the Women's World Open not far on the horizon. And then the rest of the season coming in after the new year break.

So here we go:

Aisling Blake (Irl): Good results coming through the qualifying, particularly a good win over Sarah Kippax. In the first round though, she went down to Laura Massaro (Eng). Aisling is going to need something more to go much further up the rankings. Not a threat to the top guns.

Nicolette Fernandez (Guy): Recent results have brought her up to her highest career ranking of #19. She had a couple of solid wins in Qualifying and taking Low Wee Wern (WR#5) to four games in round one. Solid performance, from a fighter. Will have a difficult time breaking into the top 15. Needs a more polished attack.

Alison Waters (Eng): Was out for awhile for an injury, has made a rocketing return in the past year back up to the top, currently world #4. This is the second tournament in a row where she's lost to Camille Serme (Fra). Granted Camille is on her own recent return climb up the ranking mountain, but it's hard to see where Alison is going. At the moment it is not upward. 

Victoria Lust (Eng): Had a couple of nice wins in qualifying. Definitely puts her in the range of players just outside the top 20. Not enough to her game yet to break into that top group, but she's young, probably a solid member of the next generation for the English National Team.

Omneya Abdel Kawy (Egy): If you don't make her move, and you let the ball loose anywhere near her racket, it's lights out, game and match over. This time Joelle King (Nzl) did a good job of keeping Omneya on the move, with patient rallying. Omneya is always difficult, but her lack of speed restricts her game, and it's difficult to see her returning to her previous high of being inside the top 5.

Line Hansen (Den): Had two expected wins in qualifying, and that was it. Coming up against Raneem El Weleily (WR#3), it didn't look good, and that's the way it played out. After Raneem warmed up in the first game, the match was essentially over. Line's game and experience will keep her just inside or around the top 20, but not likely to go much further up the ladder. 

Dipika Pallikal (Ind): Has been ranked as high as #10, dropped back down, currently at #17. She had a great win in the first round over Kasey Brown (Aus). But the physical work of that 5 game match meant she had little left in the next match against Nicol David. In these large Gold events, it's would be a stretch to expect that Dipika will get to the later rounds. From the round of 16 matches are already tough, so it's not likely for anyone to arrive in the quarter finals without having expended some measure of energy. And Dipika doesn't appear to have the gas tank to go the 3 or 4 hard matches needed to contest a major title.

Joelle King (Nzl): Excellent strategic win over Omneya Abdel Kawy (Egy) in the first round, and a good fight with Raneem El Weleily (Egy) while going down in three games. Joelle is really a solid player now, deservedly in the top 10. Needs to get in as much top level match play as possible expand her experience, so that she can start to make the players at the very top start to 'sweat'.

Jenny Duncalf (Eng): Solid player, very good all around game. Lots of experience. Makes her one of the 'gatekeepers' of the top rank. Absolute stalwart of the English National Team. But with the current group of players ranked above her, with youngsters Low Wee Wern (Mas) and Camille Serme (Fra) climbing fast, one can not see her returning to her former career high of #2.

Low Wee Wern (Mas): Good win in the first round over Nicolette, showing solid nerves, handling the fighter from Guyana, and coming out with the win that was expected, against someone playing some of the best squash of her career. Lost in the second round to Laura Massaro, but definitely not a 'bad' loss, even though it was in three games. Definitely continues to show an improving game. And her attacking tactics and techniques are beginning to gel. Will continue to have some tough matches against players from #5 - #15, but she's going to gradually start winning these with growing ease and confidence. As she starts to win these matches by scores of 3-0, then she'll start taking games off the very top players, and making them suffer. Her overall game is still adjusting to the top echelon of the rankings.

Laura Massaro (Eng): Wow, she's been on an awesome run, taking the tour by storm. Multiple titles, big titles, and several wins over Nicol David. And it's all been due to her phenomenal attack tactics on the backhand side of the court. She's really come into her own in the past year and half or so. But now, the others are starting to attack her. For awhile it seems the strategy was to push her around a bit, try to keep her away from the backhand midcourt. But recently her opponents are attacking, and it appears to be down the forehand side. This is keeping her away from where she's dominant, and at the same time building pressure that starts to create some time and distance between Laura and her optimal T position. With losses in the semifinals of both the Malaysian Open, and here at the Carol Weymuller Open, it might be time to evaluate how to handle players who are attacking her forehand. Question is: 'Is there time enough before the US Open'?

Raneem El Weleily (Egy): Currently the top women's proponent of the 'Egyptian game'. And this takes her through so many opponents. Her ability to attack from anywhere on the court, simply overwhelms most of the women, no matter what their ranking, and that even included some matches against Nicol David. Until now.... With the recent Malaysian Open, we've witnessed a new Nicol David, may we say Nicol 2.0 ? Whereas in the past year Raneem had a couple of excellent wins over Nicol, that has been reversed in the first two Gold events of this season. Nicol 2.0 is now an attacking player, with the same or improved fitness levels of before. And Raneem has simply been unable to keep up. In the semifinal here, on the cement wall court, Raneem did better score wise than in the Malaysian Open, but the result was the same. With Nicol now attacking, every rally is a sprint, and by the time the first game is over, Raneem was starting to physically struggle. With her racket skills and the bouncy court the second game score was still respectable, but the end result was not in doubt. Raneem is going to have to raise her fitness level, if she really wants to consistently compete with Nicol.

Camille Serme (Fra): Can we say it? Simply put, this is likely to be Camille's 'break out' tournament. She's taken down England's top three women in her three rounds, on the way to the final. I don't know just how much a jump in the rankings will take place when the November rankings come out, but Camille has just beaten the world's #4, #7, and #2. Next week in the US Open, she is unseeded, and her draw will have her possibly playing Nicol David in the second round, that's tough. But, if in November her ranking goes from #10 up somewhere into the top 8, then her future results should start looking very good, as in the big events the top 8 always get seeded. Camille being only 24 years of age, is now performing at a level that should bring her solidly into the top ten, and keep her there for quite awhile. Considering Camille's results last year in the Malaysian (R2-Loss), Carol Weymuller (R1-Loss), and US Opens (R1-Loss), one would expect that this year's results will vault her into the top 8.

Nicol David 2.0 (Mas): Fantastic, Nicol has followed up her resounding Malaysian Open win with another masterpiece of attacking squash that the women's game has likely never seen in the past. Her attacking game that is now riding high, on top of her relentless level of fitness, as a spectator it looks like Nicol physically finishes off her opponents in the first game. It is reminiscent of Jahangir Khan, who often played extremely long, fast, physically exhausting first games, that had close scores, only to have the opponents break down before the end, and thus the next games were simply not competitive. Nicol's game is now so complete, I'm not sure if there is anyway to counter what she's doing. Opponents really have no choice but to try and run with her at this attacking pace, or they'll simply lose the games quick smart. But trying to keep up, is wearing out her adversaries faster then ever. One has to wonder if Nicol has ever felt so comfortable in her wins as she's likely starting to feel now. Even if someone does take the first or second game off of her at some point, the expended effort to have achieved that, will likely empty out the energy reserves, and then they'll have nothing left to finish the match.

So the finals how did they go? The first game was an absolute slugfest. Up until 6-6 both players were full-on with the attacking deep drives and fast drops. At that point it looked like Camille started to fall behind a bit, and Nicol was breaking away. Camille responded with a bit more height on the front wall, which gave her extra time to recover to the T, and she caught up. Still Nicol takes the first game in extra points, maintaining her attack at full speed. 

The second game, in the early rallies it looked like Nicol was forcing Camille to overstretch to shots, and this is where Camille's errors creeped in. Where in the first game Camille was getting to virtually every shot on balance, in game two she was falling half a step behind, and once she had to lunge to the ball the rally's result became predetermined, and thus the game as well.  

In game three, Nicole came out playing slightly higher on the front wall for her deep drives, setting a pace, then she'd change up playing something quick and short. This worked extremely well, as she built up a large lead. Camille came up with some nice shots to get a few points back. But in the end Nicol's subtle in-rally shifts in this game were too much for Camille, and Nicol takes the third game comfortably.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

2nd most valuable front court squash shot ....

Second most valuable front court shot ... The straight low long drive

So let's go back up to the front court area, and consider what is the next most valuable shot after the high cross court lob. Remembering that the cross court lob is a defensive shot, it makes sense to look at what options we have for attacking our opponent when we're in the front court.

But first let's look at the front court situation - 

If you've just been pulled into a front corner by your opponent, it is basically one of two scenarios: 

One, your opponent has hit the ball into a front corner from either a position already in the front, or from the T area. Either way, most likely when the opponent hits this ball, they're in front of you as they hit it, as you've either hit a weak shot that they've intercepted, or they possibly pressured you in the back court, and you're only option was to send something short into the front such as a boast, or maybe just blocking the ball towards the front. 

Second, is when the opponent has hit the ball into the front, or into a front corner, while they are behind you, as in when they've hit a boast out of a back corner.

In the first scenario, it is usually you who is now under pressure, as your opponent took advantage of positioning to return the ball to the front when you're in a disadvantaged position somewhere behind him. Thus, as you move forward to hit the ball that is in the front, you're effectively on the defensive. Whether you're quick to the ball or not, your opponent already is, or should be, in a good position to cover most of the shots that you may hit, in particular they're very likely going to handle, with relative ease, any shots that you hit crosscourt. (the only caveat is when your opponent's shot is sitting up a bit, and thus you can hit it flat or even downward a bit, thus you can hit a very hard flat, low cross court drive)

Even the shots that you hit wide enough to get to the opposite side wall without getting intercepted, your opponent will only have to take a step or two backwards and they'll be hitting the ball from the central back area, which means, that in keeping the front wall clear you will have to give away more than half the court. Really in this situation the only reasonable defensive shot is the high cross court lob. And that's exactly why it is so common at the highest professional levels; it is not only the very best defensive option from the front corners, hit well, the high cross court lob will completely turn the pressure onto your opponent.

As a complimentary option to the high cross court lob, the other shot that is very effective, is the straight flat drive down the wall from the front corner. 

When your opponent has sent you into a front corner, and they are positioned on the T, any shot that you hit, that stays in the front, runs the risk of being taken early, and driven by your opponent towards the back for a winner. Meaning, for example: your opponent hits a shot into the front, and you move in and re-drop the ball, if your opponent is in a good T position to cover the front, then unless your shot hits the nick, your opponent should likely move in and drive your shot to the back court. If your opponent has moved in quickly to do this, then it generally results in either a winner, or a shot that puts you under extreme pressure.

Really, when you've been sent into the front corner, you should only being hitting a re-drop in two cases: ... 1- You are sure that the opponent is out of position and has not recovered to the T, ... 2- You've developed effective deception in the front court (ala' K.Darwish, J.Willstrop, J.Power), and you can hold your stroke forcing the opponent to wait on the T, expecting and covering a deep shot, then hitting the re-drop to effect. 

If you frequently find that when your opponent sends you to a front corner, that you are not able to begin to assert control of the rally, then you're going to need a new stroke in your front court repertoire to not only get you out of trouble, but to put pressure back on to your opponent. Again, this shot is the straight, fast, low drive along the wall to the back corner.

What does this shot do? It takes the shortest distance from the front wall to the back wall. Because it's low, it is harder to intercept or volley. With your opponent on the T, this shot is the one that will most likely force your opponent to lift the ball, because it will have gotten past them; being low and long, their most likely option is to hit some sort of boast. 

The risks? Basically two risks: One, the opponent has anticipated the shot and moved toward the wall to cover the shot. Then this will in result in a Let or Stroke. Two, your shot is not accurate enough and hits the side wall, bouncing out making it easier for the opponent to handle the shot.

The first risk is ameliorated by developing two or three shots from that front corner. Because when you have two or three options that the opponent has to cover, they're less likely to anticipate. Unless they're feeling desperate and that a 50/50 guess is their best course of action. This takes practice, you need to develop an equal level of comfort hitting two or three shots out of both front corners. 

The second risk (the drive hitting the side wall) is also dealt with, through concerted practice. As with anything else, to develop a controlled and accurate drive, needs practice. It is important to note that for this shot to be most effective, you want to hit the ball so that it will travel past your opponent before it takes its first bounce.

So, if you develop into your front court game the high cross court lob, and the straight low, fast drive, you'll have the two most useful strokes. It will take time, they need focused practice. Hit well, these shots are going to frequently give you a dominant position in the rally. Hit poorly, these shots will cost you. But this is true with any shot in squash eh?

Monday, 16 September 2013

Peter Barker: Defining Moment, Turning Point ?

On this past Saturday in the men's semi-final match between Peter Barker (Eng) and Borja Golan (Esp) there was an injury. Peter had hit a ball that was loose down the right side, just in line with the edge of the service box. Borja moved into a position just off the T, turned to the side wall to hit a forehand. Peter came up behind Borja, stood right over the center line.

Borja hit his forehand and his racket follow through swung up and was headed over his left shoulder as he started to turn forward with the swing. Very unfortunately, Peter being as tall as he is, and having taken up a position that was essentially in Borja's back pocket, the racket head and Peter's nose were on a perfect collision course.

Pretty much a knock out blow. Peter went down, and then up and out of the court. The skin was broken, and volumes of blood pouring out of the nose. The event doctor and medical staff attended to Peter off court, lots of ice and packing of the nose. The doctor's evaluation indicated a probable broken nose and advised a trip to the hospital. 

In the end, Peter chose not to go to the hospital, and the match was postponed until Sunday morning at 9:00am. This with the Men's final scheduled for later on Sunday at 3:00pm.

The end result on Sunday was that Peter had not only shown up in the morning to finish off the semi-final, but then came back less than five hours later to win the final against world #10 Tarek Momen (Egy).

What's significant about this? Well most will comment and then compliment Peter on his physical ability to tolerate pain, the extra endurance required to withstand that, AND finish off the semi-final, along with the final all within a 7 hour window. The ability to fight the distractions both immediate and lingering, are a testament to Peter's mental focus.

But what I'm wondering is: Will this event become a quiet moment of strength for Peter and his upcoming season? Will the intestinal fortitude ("No Guts, No Glory") that Peter found, to endure and prevail, auger in a new stretch in his career that will see him record more success?

Peter is a hulking, almost 'Spartan' like squash player. Someone who moves about the court extremely well for his height. An imposing player to be on court with. But he's a nice guy..... yes he's up for standing his ground on disputed calls, but he's fair and a gentleman. Ya, maybe too nice. Maybe the opponents know he's nice, and that actually gives them an advantage. 

I don't think Peter is going to change his personality, and certainly wouldn't wish it. The sport of squash is better for having such players at the upper echelon, as an example of what squash should be. Might say that he has a similar sense of fairness that Amr Shabana exhibits. 

Peter is sitting solidly in the Top Ten. But he's not made inroads to break into the top 4 or 5. Certainly with the quality of the players in the world top five, it's not an easy task, facing Ramy, Gregory, James, and Nick, a fearsome group of competitors. And of course to get to them in the later rounds, usually requires working one's way through a draw of hungry, fit, skilled challengers.

What I'm watching for over this coming season, is whether Peter will now have the confidence, the belief that he can push himself further than ever before, and start winning a few more of his matches against the top four. Was this past Sunday a 'Defining Moment' in Peter's career? 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Nicol David... Ascending, hither to unseen heights....

(Sunday, September 15, 2013, Kuala Lumpur)

The final this afternoon was not only highly anticipated, it was literally standing room for all three levels of viewing room inside The Curve Mall. The lines were queuing up an hour before the men's final, which was played first. By the time it was over it felt like the whole of Kuala Lumpur had showed to see their national sports hero: Dato' Nicol David.

Tour de Force, that's really all one can say. Nicol has laid down the gauntlet, and in spectacular fashion. Let the world of women's squash start all over, fighting over the scraps. Nicol's new attacking game is firmly in place, confidently played and now one can see that she's trusting it. 

Not sure if there is anything scarier for an opponent than seeing a Dato' Nicol David playing with NO FEAR. Yes today was another test, to discover how her new attacking style would fare against Raneem, an opponent renowned for the ethereal control within her soft hands, a right hand that so often finds the nick.

Sure it was tough, Raneem found plenty of nicks, and soft misdirection. And yes, Nicol hit some errors, and some errant shots into the middle. But it was obvious from the start, that Raneem was in for a monumental task, already half way through the first game she was showing physical signs of of the work rate. That's how high the pace of the match was, with both players in constant pressure and attack mode.

Nicol has taken the Malaysian Open Squash Championship for 2013 on  a stormy weekend, and fired off an enormous lightning bolt across the landscape. The rain is on the parade of all those who want to be world number ones. No longer will it be enough to find the attacking combinations that will break through a defense that has won 7 senior world championships, and 2 junior world championships.... Nope,  it will not be enough....

Dato' Nicol David is no longer waiting, and reacting on the court, she's become the hunter. She's setting the pace now, she's forcing the issue, add these to her speed and fitness.... and now it is a new Mt Everest for every opponent..... One that they've likely never seen the likes of before. Still with the speed of Peter Nicol, the Nicol David stamina, the David Palmer-like pressure tactics and the mental fortitude of Jahangir Khan..... we witnessed - Nicol is Ascending.... again..... 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Nicol's attacking game takes her to the finals

(Saturday, September 14th, Kuala Lumpur)

This afternoon Nicol David played her semifinal of the Malaysian Open Squash Championships against the French #1, and current World #12 Camille Serme. Actually, these two ladies very recently played in the finals of the World Games, this summer. So both come in to this tournament quite fresh and ready for competitive matches.

The first game was tight, and closely fought, and end up going Nicol's way in extra points. Both players were aggressive throughout the first game, and this kept the rallies fast and strenuous. Actually the first game could have gone either way, but Camille made a couple of mistakes at the end, maybe even early signs of fatigue.

As it was, at about 4-2 down in the second game, it became obvious that Camille was slowing down. In the fast rallies she was clearly a step behind. The first game, with its all out fast attacking pace, had taken its toll on Miss Serme. From 4-2 down, she was a spent force. She did smartly adjust her game going for a more comfortable slow and high strategy. Doing this only prolonged the inevitable, as Nicol simply kept running with her own attacking tactics, and the end quickly became a foregone conclusion.

As discussed previously Nicol's evolving attack still has its rough edges. In particular she's still developing an awareness of how her attack is affecting her opponents and where she needs to position to follow up and either maintain pressure or go for the kill. What's great to see, is that Nicol is now exhibiting an approach of positive pressure (meaning that she's hitting shots that intentionally pressure the opponents). 

In the past Nicol was content to rally and let her opponents either wilt under the accumulated physical demands, or self-implode as they tried to consistently breakthrough Nicol's defense. Now, Miss David is a different player on the court, she's 'taking the game' right to her opponents. She's dictating the speed and direction of the rallies, games, and thus the matches. Two days in a row now, her new tactical prowess has steam-rolled two world class opponents. 

What's really important for Nicol, is that even when she was making errors, she stuck with her new game. She's willing to lose a few rallies to errors, because the overall benefits are far greater. She's dominating rallies, she's forcing the opponent in to errors, and probably the most important factor, she's discovered that attacking her opponents is draining their energy reserves faster than ever before.

For eight plus years, Nicol's opponents have had to stuggle with her fitness, her tenacious error-free defense, her rock solid mental strength. In the past year and a half a couple of women have risen to that challenge, both Laura Massaro, and Raneem El Weleily having taken multiple matches and tournament titles away from Nicol. But now, it truly looks like Dato' Nicol David is "raising the bar" once again. 

With this positive, aggressive attack now on display, opponents are going to be under heavy pressure, and Nicol David's fitness will again come to fore, as very few women will be able to keep up both the attack, counter-attack, and defend, at full speed for three games, much less a full length 5 game match. The future foreshadowing these past two days, is that all those who wish to challenge for the mantle of the 7 time World Champion, are going to find that attacking is not enough, even higher levels of fitness are now required. Fitness not just to attack, but to defend the attack as well.

Friday, 13 September 2013

9 World Titles, and Now Comes the Evolution

(September 13, 2013

Tonight, Nicol David, current world #1, and the only woman to have won the senior world squash championship an amazing seven times, played her national teammate, world #6 Low Wee Wern in the quarterfinals of the 2013 Malaysian Squash Open. 

Now that fact that Nicol won is not surprising, even given that Wee Wern has dramatically improved her game over the past year and a half. No, what was surprising was that Nicol has started to evolve her game, at this relatively late stage of her career. Late being relative, tonight she was looking fitter, than she's been over the past couple of years, and certainly fitter than her young opponent, whose legs couldn't keep up in the end.

Miss David won two world titles as a junior, and has since won 7 world titles, and one would think that whatever got her this far should be just fine. And why not, most folks will say, stay with a winning strategy. The problem is, even though Nicol won her seventh senior world title at the end of last year, she's been struggling against two players in particular for the past year and a half. And both of those opponents play an aggressive attacking game.

Most observers, and coaches could be forgiven for thinking that Nicol just needed to sharpen her game a bit, make a few minor adjustments maybe, and hang tough. The problem is, Miss David's game has always been founded on the idea of 'hanging tough'. Nicol has, from her earliest years, been a tireless, defensive running type player, all the way through at least probably the first 8 of her overall 9 world titles. Last year she showed at times an attacking mentality, but it appeared to be more of an experiment than anything else.

This past spring Nicol suffered a loss to Laura Massaro in the final of the British Open. And that was one of three losses to Laura in their four most recent matches on the world tour. What was obvious tonight is that Nicol and her coach, Liz Irving, haven't been just revamping, tweaking, or refurbishing her game. They've retooled it. Her game has evolved.

Obviously Nicol or maybe Liz, or together, someone came to the realization that in order to beat them, you're going to have to join them. So what was on view tonight

Nicol's footwork has become much more aggressive and attacking, in particular the first step. She is now looking for the volley first, every time. Whereas in the past, she only went for the volley when she saw it coming. Now, she's positioning herself to take advantage of volley or intercept opportunities even before they become evident.

Second, Miss David has 'lowered' her long game, while keeping the length essentially the same. Meaning that her drives from mid-court and the backcourt are being hit on flatter trajectory, basically all her drives are now hitting the front wall more often than not, below the service line. At the same time she's still maintaining the length of her drives. This is significantly increasing the pressure on her opponents.

Third, Nicol has added the attacking boast to her repertoire of shots. Tonight it looked like she hit more attacking boasts in the first game of her match, than she's averaged in a whole tournament.  So now, her opponent will not only have to deal with a flatter drive from Nicol's racket, she has to cope with Nicol's being drastically more positive, and frequent in her attacking the ball on the volley, and then add on top of it all, attacking boasts. 

Nicol David has shown tonight that she has made a leap of light years, in evolving her game. And while this new strategy of constant pressure and attack will take more time to sharpen to its finest, there is no doubt that Nicol's opponents are going to struggle, because she's raised her game, and her legendary fitness is still as good as ever, if not better.

The semifinals are tomorrow, and then the finals on Sunday. Let's look for two things: 1. Does Nicol keep with her new evolved game, and 2. How does it stack up against her recent nemesis. One of them will be waiting for her on Sunday.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The third most important shot in Squash

Third most important shot in Squash ...  the Mid-High Crosscourt

Okay, so we've previously discussed our belief that the second most important shot in squash is the high cross court lob hit from the front court. As we noted in that article post, the high cross court lob is most prevalent at the higher levels of play, and not so commonly seen at lower levels and even intermediate levels of play. It is a shot that is very very useful in the pro game, and certainly would be an advantageous option to have in one's repertoire at any other level. 

Now, it's time to venture a bit further out on the limb and offer up what we consider the next important shot to have in one's overall game: The Mid-High Crosscourt.

First, when we say 'Mid-High', what we mean to say is a shot that is hit to the front wall at or very near the service line. Typically this would mean that a backhand would be hit somewhat above the frontwall service line, and the forehand may be hit on the service line or possibly a bit under it, depending on the player's strength of shot.

At lower levels of play, meaning beginning, all the way up to high intermediate, it is common to see players in a slashing, dashing, speed game of lots of drives, and in particular low crosscourt drives. 

The propensity for these low hard crosscourt drives probably comes from seeing the occasionally spectacular crosscourt drive that whistles by the opponent who's stuck somewhere around the T, unable to react, or not in reach of the ball. But, that's all this is, an occasional winner. Generally, when you meet a player who is regularly getting back to the T area, and is ready for the next shot, a low crosscourt is not a very effective way to attack. 

If your opponent is in decent position and ready, it often does not take anything more than one step and reaching out to block the ball, and you are left scrambling from the back corner to run diagonally to the front to pick up the drop shot that the opponent has comfortably sent into that front corner.

And this is more often the scenario, hitting the low crosscourt, and then rushing to the diagonal front corner, rather than that of the outright winner. 

So my advice to players is to simply stop trying to hit winners like that. The occasional, one out of ten winners, does not compensate for giving up outright winning drop shots or handing dominant court and rally control to the opponent the other nine times. 

The reason we need a crosscourt, is because most, if not all opponents know that the number one shot in a rally is the long drive. Knowing this, as players become accustomed to the game, they will start to edge over towards the near side and try to intercept these long drives, either by volley, half volley, or at least getting an early step towards the back corner.

To counter the opponent's 'encroachment' upon the near side, to prevent them from starting to feed on our long drives, we need the crosscourt option.... to keep the opponent 'honest'. 

This is where the Mid-High Crosscourt comes into play. When we hit a Mid-High cross, aiming for the front wall service line, and hitting relatively close to the center of the front wall (midway between the two side walls), we're hitting a shot that will very often go past the opponent and force them into the back opposite corner.

The Mid-High cross is a difficult shot for opponents to intercept because they're focused on the near side wall, and when the cross is hit near the front wall's center, the ball will travel towards the back corner, often hitting the side wall near the back of the service box, or even behind it. This means that the ball will get to the back, and stay on that side of the court. 

Hitting the Mid-High cross will force your opponent to the back, force them to deal with a ball that's probably going to hit the side wall, bounce on the floor, and quite possibly hit the back wall, before they can get their racket on it. All this, while you may comfortably make your way back to a central position in the T area. 

Please understand, this Mid-High cross is not a desperation shot, or used to get out of trouble. It is used when the rally is equal , or near equal, and we're in a position to get our racket around the outside of the ball, so as to hit a good cross. The shot is used to shift the rally, preventing the opponent from anticipating and poaching a straight shot. 

Against some players one might find that this change of direction gives the opponent a lot of trouble with the turning and twisting that they need to do, in order to position effectively for the ball now in the back opposite corner. At the intermediate and higher levels this won't be so common, as the opponent's movement is more capable. But the value is still there as you're preventing the opponent from raising the pressure on your 'straight game'.

If you're in deep trouble, a desperate position, the best option is to go high on the front wall...... but that's a conversation for another time...... 

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Old Guys Break the Rules

Old Guys Break the 'Rules'

And that's why they win. Most, if not all players are taught that the long straight drive is the fundamental shot in squash. And this is still mostly true, although I would argue that all the shots that are hit deep into the back corners make up a more complete foundation of the game. 

Players need to have multiple strokes that they can utilize to get the ball into the back corners. From any position on the court, if a player only hits one type of stroke into the deep, then that means this player becomes predictable. So even if their shot is well placed, the opponent may easily anticipate this shot, and thus not be overly bothered, or pressured by it. Thus, the aspiring player, aren't we all, does need to spend significant time in developing options to get the ball deep. 

About the only shot that can be predictable, and still be very effective in reversing pressure in a rally, is the high soft crosscourt lob.

But I've wandered off topic, and so quickly too. I suppose that's part of the lure of squash, discussing one aspect of the game naturally brings up so many other facets of importance, that it is hard to stay on course.

Old Guys Rule! And that's because they break the 'rules' we've been taught from day one. Generally speaking, everyone is taught two basic principles of the game: 

1) Hit the ball straight and deep.
2) Move back to the T after every shot.

Old Guys, and we've all seen them, these are the players that so often make juniors and up and coming players look so foolish. The young players with their powerful strokes, their abundant speed, and terrific fitness, consistently tortured by the older player who is obviously slower, significantly less fit, and often with bandage wraps around various body joints, such as the knee, elbow, ankles, etc. 

What's happening, why are the Old Guys winning so often? 

Because they are using the rules you've been taught, against you.

First, the Old Guys know that virtually all of younger and relatively inexperienced players will hit most of their shots long and straight, with the occasional long cross court thrown in. Why do they know this? Because most of us have been taught that way: 'Hit long, mostly straight, get back to the T, and look for the weak shot'. So the Old Guys are already anticipating what shots the young whipper snappers are likely to hit.

Okay, so one then asks, even if they do anticipate, if the ball is relatively tight along the wall, and is hit deep, then how is it that the Old Guys can still control the rallies? Heck, well hit long balls should trouble the Old Guys who are slow, not fit, and restricted by injuries, right?

What most of us don't see, because when on the court and focused on the ball (as we should be of course), is that the Old Guys break rule number two. 

See, Old Guys quite often do not return to the T.... Knowing that their opponent is highly likely to start the rallies by hitting long, the Old Guys simply hang back in the court, often near the back of the service boxes. 

Since the opponent is focused on the ball, they do not see that the Old Guys are well positioned for a long ball. So instead of possibly four steps into the corner, the Old Guy is likely only needing two or three steps. 

That certainly makes it easier for the Old Guy to hit whatever they want, and then they start ignoring rule #1. Since the Old Guys know we hit long to get a rally started, and we hit long when pressured, they are free to take a deep position, and then hit the ball to all the corners, knowing that the majority of our returns will be still be deep. 

As so it goes, often the Old Guys take a win, relatively comfortable in the process, making the younger and newer players do all the running and stretching. By breaking rule #2.

So what is the lesson here?

Yes, we could say that when playing the Old Guys, it is a good idea to play short sometimes. Doing that would force the Old Guys to adjust a bit forward, closer to the T, and then you'd start getting them doing more actual running, and the control of the rallies would no longer be only in their hands, because now, by forcing them to move their base closer to the T, the Old Guys will have more difficulties in the deep corners, and thus not be able to leisurely pressure the opponent.

But, more importantly, what aspiring players need to understand is that even as their long game is improving, if the opponent is never flustered by the deep shots, then a change in tactics is in order. Instead of hitting two, three, four shots long, or more, and waiting for a loose shot, it might be better to hit short early, then no matter what the opponent hits, going long again. Get the opponent running back, to the front, then to the back again.

So remember, the Old Guys, really are old, slower, less fit, and the bandages are usually for real, but these guys break the rules, in particular #2. Hence, their seemingly unflustered control of nearly every rally. So if you don't change the pattern, the odds are stacked against you.  

Monday, 22 July 2013

The second most valuable shot in squash is......?

The second most valuable shot in Squash

Every coach is different, based on their own training, their competitive experiences, and the influence of the professional instructional training that they've had in the course of becoming an accredited coach. So it's quite possible that if you ask several coaches what is the second most important shot in squash, (behind the straight drive), you'll quite likely get different opinions.

So here I am giving my thoughts and explanation for which shot is number two on my list.

The second most valuable shot in a player's repertoire is the high cross court lob from the front corners. 

There it is, and it is not an attacking shot: But primarily a defensive stroke. It's purpose is to get the player out of the deep front corners, with time to return to the central area (the T), and take up a ready position before the opponent has the opportunity to hit the ball. 

It is good to note though, that a well hit cross court lob, that is high enough to go over the opponent, and drop down in the back opposite corner, often becomes an 'attacking' shot, as the ball's position in the corner will put the opponent under pressure. All while allowing the player to comfortably return to a controlling position on the T, or central area.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube, of various top players who effectively utilise the cross court lob. Immediately coming to mind are Peter Nicol, Rachel Grinham, and Nicol David. 

But even players such as Thierry Lincou, and David Palmer, who both played powerful pressure games often use the cross court lob to counteract their opponent's attack into the front corners.

In fact, it would be hard to find any player in the top ten both women and men, who never hit the cross court lob. Some of course use it more than others, depending on the other shots they have in their repertoire and their particular speed and tactical approach to the game. Amr Shabana, Jonathon Power, and other world champions all have this shot in their bag.

In observing lower levels of the game, it is clear that many players either never hit the high lob, or they use it only rarely. As a coach, I suspect this is because when players do hit it, they often hit a weak lob, which the opponent easily intercepts and kills or drives away for a winner. Thus, players typically shy away from hitting it, and opt for either drops or hard flatter crosscourt shots.

The problem with hard cross courts is that whether they are high or low, they'll hit the side wall and then bounce out towards the middle of the court. This then requires the player to stay far off to the side while giving their opponent the whole front wall to hit to. So the result of the hard cross court, is that the player has not turned the tables, they are still under pressure, disadvantaged in the rally, with their opponent having three quarters of the court to attack into. 

When watching juniors, and lower grade players this becomes very apparent. Even at the world level of juniors, the cross court lob is not used enough. 

I find it somewhat baffling, why do we see the cross court lob as a common choice at the top pro level, and yet most rank and file players (even lower ranked pros) will not venture to hit the shot. Most likely, because very few take the time, or make the effort to practice this shot. 

It's a matter of practice. Practice this shot, gain some consistency, get the ball high and slow. Then when you're in a match, and you've been attacked in a front corner, hit the lob, and if hit well, you'll immediately be released from the pressure, at least achieve equal footing in the rally, and quite often put extreme pressure on the opponent.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Major tactical changes, don't often get major results

Changing major tactics, is the best way? Not often, if the players are evenly matched.

I recently watched a high level match between two players. These two players have a relatively long history, and until recently the match record has been a relatively one way street. But now, the tide has been shifting, and the player who for years has been on the losing end, is now getting the upper hand.

Much of this balance shift is due to the very sharp improvement of this player on the backhand side of the court. This player has developed a very effective attack on this side, making use of their physical stature (height, stride length, and physical strength). Whereas most players play the backhand side very defensively, trying to keep out of trouble, and looking for a short ball, or mistake from the opponent, this particular player has completely changed their approach on the backhand side. This player has become very aggressive, and is constantly on the hunt, and pressuring their opponent(s) constantly.

Now, the player, that used to be on the upside in the past, is struggling with this particular opponent. In this most recent match it was obvious that this player had changed some tactics, and in the end it didn't pay off. This player normally will take an opponent's length shots off the back wall. In this recent match the player was trying to intercept as much as possible, half volleying, and full volleying the opponent's shots that were headed to the back court. The end result was that the player's volleying resulted in a low rate of accuracy. Far too many of the volleys were coming out into the middle, or were out from the wall, many to then be cut off for winners or nearly so.

To implement a completely new tactic, in a match that is nearly even, can often backfire. Why? For two basic reasons: 

One, when we try to hit a shot that we are not used to using under match pressure, almost invariably our control and accuracy are no where near good enough. Thus, not only are we not getting the intended - desired result, we might be providing a big opportunity for the opponent to put the ball away. 

Two, squash is so much about knowing and predicting the possible responses from an opponent in a given situation. Each time we add a new shot to our repertoire, we need time to build up our recognition of what opponents can do with this new shot, and thus be prepared to react and move. 

When you're facing an opponent with whom you're closely matched. Major changes in tactics are not usually the best way to get back on the winning side of the scoreline. 

It's usually the little things, that do the trick: a little higher and softer on the front wall for straight drives, from the front - cross court drives rather than cross court lobs, from the mid court - hitting drops a little harder and flatter. 

Winning comes from bringing the ball and rallies to your strengths, and doing what you can towards negating your opponent's strengths. You can't achieve either of these objectives if your shots are not accurate, and you're using new tactics that you are not familiar with.

Small adjustments are going to have a more positive impact on your performance, than making drastic tactical changes. Especially when you're in a close, tight match. A tough opponent means a tough match, no easy way out. But little things can make the difference, giving you the edge throughout many of the rallies. In the end you only need to win two more rallies than your opponent and the game is yours. Six rallies in your favor can win the match. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Assessing the opponent, what's important?

A player that I coach came to me with a dilemma. He wanted to know how to assess his opponent. How to decide what tactics would allow him to impose his strategy on his opponent while at the same time counter the opponent's attempts to assert his own game?

Now understand this player has already worked his way into the intermediate levels. He's actually got quite nice strokes. He's got a good understanding of the game, and he has been developing his own strategic style. Importantly, when focused, he can intentionally adjust the direction and trajectory of the ball. He does still need to improve the ability to change the speed of his shots, but it's coming along. (And who doesn't need to keep improving, eh?)

As a player moves up a level, or meets opponents on court for the first time, there is definitely a new learning curve, and almost always that learning curve is very steep. Probably this is one of the appeals of squash, besides the increasing physical demands, is that as we improve, and when we compete against new opponents, we are confronted with new intellectual challenges on how to take what we have (skills and style), and get ourselves another victory on the career record.

Often when players move up in level, or meet a new opponent, it takes time, building up the database of experiences that help the individual to learn which adjustments are needed, to rise up to a new standard of competence, to where one can impose their 'game' in the rallies.

It's been said before, when moving up to the next level, the best path to success is, typically, to go back to the basics. And there is nothing wrong with this. Almost always, when we move up in level, we really do need to improve the quality of our basic shots. If we don't, then we're giving our higher level opponents too many opportunities to cut our game to shreds.

So.... having said all that..... should we then just accept that when we move up, or meet the new challenging opponent..... that a loss is nigh inevitable?

If we don't want to take this negative approach, then what would be a fundamental key to improving our immediate performance, as we step up to the higher challenge?

As anyone who's played squash for even a short time, we know that the long straight drive is a key component of the game. At least that's what were invariably told. 

But, this is not actually enough, when you're confronted with a tough match....

If you can watch your opponent play someone else, great, if not, then you've got to find out during the early part of your own match. You should be looking for two things:

1. What type of straight drive consistently forces your opponent to the back corner? 

2. What kind of crosscourt shot consistently sends your opponent to the back opposite corner?

Generally speaking, most players will be able to comfortably handle certain types of straight drives, and at the same time some crosscourt shots will cause them no angst. Meaning that this opponent is able to regularly, and effectively, cut off and often attack, certain straight drives and crosscourts.

What you must do, is to discover which drives and which cross-courts your opponent is unable to consistently intercept, and is thus driven into the deep corners (or at least forced to hit the ball from somewhere behind the service boxes, or at best can only block the ball back, with no pace or definite placement).

Whatever the combination it is: higher straight drives with low wide cross-courts, or fast medium height drives mixed with low long cross-courts, or maybe short dipping straight drives combined with high slow lobs that cross to the opposite wall......... 

Find the two shots that consistently force the opponent to the back corners, and then use them. 

Doing this will help you to do two things:

1. It will reduce the pressure that the opponent can force upon you, since you've taken him away from the area where he can apply pressure.

2. It will likely give you the time and space to get in front of your opponent, often being able to arrive on or near the T, before they hit the ball, but also frequently putting you into a position where you can use your own tactics to apply pressure.

Note: that this does require that you are able to hit a variety of straight drives and cross-courts. 

Being able to change the trajectory on drives (height and curve of the ball's path), and for the cross-court being able to adjust trajectory, as well as being able to change the direction to, and angle off, the front wall.

Following this advice, my player, having just moved up in grade,  has been able to beat a few players to whom he'd normally be expected to struggle with, and he's played some other players really tough, making them work for their victory.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Laura Massaro won it, Nicol David didn't lose it!

I was there, back row watching all four semifinals and then the finals. And one can be assured Nicol David was playing well, and she was fit. If Nicol had not been playing well, then the rallies would not have been as long as they were. Nicol throughout her career has been primarily a defensive player, and if rallies are short, that would indicated that Nicol's game is off.  If Nicol had not been physically fit, it would have shown, it would have become obvious that she was slowing down, with signs of tiredness starting to show, in between points body language would have indicated a diminished level of energy. None of this was evident, even to the last point.

No, Nicol was beaten by the better player, on that day, and she's been beaten by the same player several times in recent memory. To add, Nicol's been beaten by another player, from Egypt, several times too. So one can not say that this is not totally unexpected. There are now two women on the women's world tour who have solid victories over Nicol, and this includes Laura Massaro who has taken the 2013 KL Squash Open trophy back home to England. Considering Nicol's style of play, and that her two main adversaries are more focused on an attacking game (albeit in two distinct different ways), it is reasonable to predict that Nicol's dominance, while not over, will suffer at the hands of those who are very good at playing an attacking style of squash.

Some may recall that Peter Nicol was probably the most successful defensive minded player among men's ranks for a decade, starting in the late 90's. And yet, we also must make note that Peter's head to head record with the Canadian Wizard, Jonathon Power, was virtually 50/50. The two of them met in something like 49 tournament finals, with the scoreline being 25 wins for Peter, and 24 to Jonathon. When you count back to their total career head to head record the split is still quite close to 50/50.

So here we have an example of probably the most accomplished defensive player in the men's squash game, and yet against someone who had a consummate attacking game, the resulting finals were evenly split.

In the recent KL Open semifinal, Nicol ran up against an English woman who has developed her whole game around the backhand wall. Laura Massaro is attacking, constantly looking to pressure her opponents along that backhand wall. Most coaches and players look at the back wall as defensive area of the court. Maintain length, keep it straight, look for the loose ball that can be taken crosscourt, then start pressuring the opponent.

This is not Laura Massaro. Laura WANTS the ball on the backhand side, in fact she loves the backhand side so much, that she probably loathes the forehand side of the court. As a coach, watching Massaro dominate her matches from the backhand side, I'd venture that her court training is probably somewhere between 65-75% focused on the backhand side. 

In the semifinal against Nicol David, the final against Alison Waters, and in several other matches I've observed on video, it's obvious that Laura will generally take anything her opponent gives her on the forehand side, and immediately she returns it to the backhand side. This is so different from most players, who reasonably prefer to get the ball to the forehand side of the court where they feel that they have opportunities to attack.

Nope, Laura is not only excellent defensively on the backhand wing, she's also extremely proficient, even deadly, in attacking her opponents on that side. Her combination of crisp drops, drives and lobs have been honed to such a degree that once her opponent comes up just a little short of the back corner, Laura is cranking up the pressure with tight shots both short and mid court along the wall. Anytime Laura's opponents hit to the forehand side, she most often returned the ball to the backhand side within the next two shots. 

No, Nicol David didn't lose the match, she was beaten. Beaten down the backhand side of the court. Does this mean that David's reign at the top is over? Unlikely, however, unless she's going to make significant changes to her approach and style, then losses, to attacking players who are fit, and sharp on the day, will continue to add up. 

Nicol at times has shown the capacity to attack, and she's run past her opponents like a high speed train going by a lorry. The problem is that throughout Nicol's career from junior years until recently, her running game, defensive minded, based on error free play and fitness, have been enough to cause opponents one and all to simply wilt before the aerobic fortress that is Nicol's game. 

Now, Ms. David has a couple of opponents who bring with them the style, skills and mentality to attack, to apply pressure on her, before her aerobic endurance becomes a factor. So the losses are counting up. 

Does this mean that Nicol's run of world championships is under threat? Actually, probably not. The world championships are large enough, with virtually all of the top players participating. This means that every match is tougher compared to most matches played at regular tour events. Basically, everyone is working harder, physically, from the first round through to the later rounds. So looking at the world championships, because the level of competition is higher from the first round, and there are more rounds, players will find their underlying endurance taxed more than any other event in the year. This plays out in Nicol's favor. Any opponent who reaches the final of the world championship will have to work far more, expending more energy reserves than at most events, thus any opponent in the final would very likely be facing Nicol at a physical disadvantage before the first serve is even hit. 

And for the other events, what can Nicol do to get back on top? She has the speed, she has the fitness, she has the defense. Ms. David needs to start attacking. She needs to develop her awareness of opportunities to apply pressure, and when those situations occur, she must go for it. And she needs to do it from round one, grooving her pressure shots, and sharpening her awareness, so that with each succeeding round she is getting better and better.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The relative 'Truth' about tactics and strategy

The relative 'Truth'

Many places where we look for advice on tactics and or strategy in squash, we invariably run across a number of suggested lists of rules: Top Ten, Top Twenty, Fifty Tactics, Twenty Seven and counting.

As a player, either recreational or competitive, and most certainly as a coach working with players, I believe that the more 'rules' there are about how to think and approach winning a match, the more difficult it becomes to learn the game.

Every player in the top ten of squash at almost any time in history has had their own unique skill set, as well as (and possibly more importantly...) their physical attributes, strengths and weaknesses.

In a way, this is part of the interest in watching matches on TV, YouTube, DVD, or in person. Seeing how different players with different skills, physical strengths, and different tactical approaches to the game square up. I would venture to say that putting aside nationalistic fervor, most of us will be cheering for the player that we most associate with, maybe even try to emulate when we're on the court ourselves.

The quandary that I've always had as a player, and even more so as a coach, is how to reduce all the rules into a usable premise from which to begin building our own game and tactical approach to winning on the court. 

>Foremost Idea:

Squash is a game of your position, relative to the position of your opponent. What I mean is that your options, your opportunities at any given moment are dependent on basically three things: 1. where is your opponent on the court; 2. where are you on the court; 3. what shots are you able to choose from to hit a decent shot?

>When you are 'behind' -

If, when you want to hit the ball, your opponent is in or near the middle of the court, what everyone calls the 'T', then your options are not only reduced, but the safer options will typically be defensive (prolonging the rally) from a tactical perspective.

If you are behind your opponent (they're on the T) when you are going to hit the ball, then again, in general the safer options tend to be more about keeping the rally going. 

>When you are in 'front' -

If you are in front of the opponent when you are hitting the ball, now you have options opening up, that will allow you to either attack for the winner or at least increase the pressure on your opponent. 

Whether to go for a winner or just increase or maintain pressure on your opponent depends more on not just if you're in front of the opponent, but where on the court you are: right in the middle on the T, in the middle but near the rear of the service boxes, or are you in front of the short service line.

When your in the middle with the opponent behind, attacking shots are those shots that are generally hit short with the intent that they will bounce twice before the opponent could reach them. 

Shots that maintain pressure, or potentially increase the pressure, are typically  fast long drops shots, and hard flat shots to the back court. Both of these are meant to force the opponent into stretching and reaching for the ball,  hopefully getting a weak return which can then be attacked by placing the ball into the open court.

>Being in 'front' does not always mean attack -

When  you are up against players who are fit, who are fast, or who are very experienced, attacking from the middle by going short with the ball is more effective from further back in the court, where you have the opponent behind you. If you attack one of these afore mentioned players while in the middle but closer to the front or in between the service boxes then it's not really an attack, because with their fitness, speed, and or experience they will get your attacking shot back.

That doesn't mean it's not the right shot, it just means that you shouldn't expect it to be a winner. You therefore have to be continuing to think ahead to the next shot.

>In all scenarios on the squash court, you basically have four situations: 

1. You're on the defensive, scrambling to get the ball. In this case high and long is almost always the correct choice.

2. You're about equal in the rally, and you should be hitting shots that 'probe' trying to elicit a weak or errant shot.

3. Your opponent has hit a ball that is weak and gives you an opportunity put significant pressure on them.

4. Your opponent has hit a particularly weak or poor choice shot, and you have time and space to hit a shot that should be either an outright winner, or most nearly so.

> So where are we?

When I work with players I try to help them understand that they have four situations. The first step for the player, is to recognize which of the four situations they are in. I try to simplify the explanation as follows:

You are: 

1. On the run, on the defensive
2. On an equal footing with the opponent
3. In a position of advantage, typically meaning the opponent is behind you
4. In a position where there is a significant area of open-unguarded court

> This then leads to the player understanding that they have prefered shots for each of these situations:

1.  When on the defensive, hitting high, and very importantly long, is the safe objective

2. When on equal footing, hitting shots that are generally flatter looking for the inaccurate shot off the opponent's racket

3. When in a position of advantage (in or near the middle of the court), hitting fast shots away from the opponent, and possibly down, with intent of forcing a very weak shot

4. When in a position with the opponent trapped along one side or in a corner, then hitting into the open court area, going for the winner


So then naturally most players ask: 'What should I hit in each of those situations?' or 'What are the best shot options in those situations?'

To this the honest answer is that each player is different. So what is right for one, may not be right for another.

The correct shot is the one that you can hit with control and accuracy. If you choose the shot you can accurately hit it, getting the result you want, then you will be at least maintaining your position in the rally. And thus working towards your goal of winning 11 rallies before your opponent.

Referring back to the comment that each top ten player is unique, in watching videos of their play, one can observe that in each of these four situations, players will differ in what they hit. In a defensive situation they'll in general, strategically play a defensive shot, but they may differ on whether it's straight or crosscourt or a flat lob versus a floating lob. These differences depend more on the technical skills each player has and their ability to move on the court and cover the next shot.

To my players, I often say: 'Go watch your favorite players on video, then come back and tell me what shots you want to use in each situation.' And thus, we have a point from where to start developing and then honing the skill set for each player individually.