Mercer Island, Wash. — Two middle-aged professionals - a business executive and a doctor - shut themselves into an 18-by-32-foot court, shake hands, and proceed to blast a rubbery, golf-sized ball at one another. Lunging, twisting, sweating, grunting - for 45 minutes they bear little resemblance to their dignified alter egos, but rather, vaguely resemble two prisoners battling for dominance within a narrow cell. Small wonder, for this struggle - commonly known as squash - originated within the walls of London's infamous Fleet Prison. While the ethics of the game have evolved considerably since its lawless origin in the late 1800s (today, for example, one would not expect the good doctor to trip his opponent as he sprints to retrieve a drop shot), one important aspect remains unchanged: an almost obsessional desire within some players to master the game. After losing his right arm during World War II, Seafirst Bank chairman Richard Cooley not only learned to play squash with his left hand, but won, in 1954, along with his four West Coast teammates - Bob Colwell, Walt Pettit, Gene Hoover, and Ted Clarke - the United States National Team Championships.
``Squash really gets into your blood,'' says 65-year-old Richard Daly, a retired Navy commander who lives in Mercer Island, Wash. Daly, secretary/sage of the Seattle Squash Rackets Association and six-time national veterans champion, did not win his first national tournament until he was 55. And he can look forward to continuing age-group competition for quite a while, since the US Squash Rackets Association has now increased its age categories by sanctioning tournaments for players 75 and over.
This decision is not surprising, as more than 20 percent of all squash players are over 45 - an inevitable consequence of lifelong efforts to not only learn an infinite number of shots, strategies, angles, and pace, but to drill what is learned until it becomes reflex action - an absolute necessity in a game where a well-smacked ball can travel 100 m.p.h. or faster.
Although not as speedy as he once was, Daly refuses to view age as a disadvantage. ``To win in squash is more often a matter of outsmarting rather than outrunning your opponent,'' he says.
Indeed, a familiar drama reenacted on squash courts all over the world begins with an inexperienced but hard-hitting hotshot's brazen challenge to an elderly club champion. The vet is invariably labeled as ``wily,'' or ``crafty,'' but the hotshot knows better. He has seen how deliberately the older man moves his feet, noticed the veteran's reliance upon a few favorite shots and his ``old-fashioned'' style of play, and concluded that the time has come for a new club champion.
On the first point of the match, the veteran lobs a high-arcing serve that dribbles into the back corner, immediately takes control of the ``T'' - the strategic center of the court where the service lines meet - and thereafter intimately acquaints his young challenger with every nook and cranny in the court.
Well into the match, the hotshot, who is having trouble hitting his cross-court drive (for some reason the side wall keeps banging into his racket), realizes just how reliable and cunning those few favorite shots are, how unsettling that old-fashioned style of play is, and how swiftly his opponent anticipates his every shot with sure, if slower, steps. By match end, junior is dripping, red-faced, frustrated, and panting, wondering why the ``old codger'' wants to play another game.
``When I play a fit guy,'' says 56-year-old, six-time national veterans champion Les Harding, ``I think to myself - OK, fit guy, let's see how you run.'' Lean and fit himself, Harding, also of Mercer Island and a divisional manager with Boeing Company, relishes sending younger, quicker players in futile quest of his ``three-wall nick'' - a shot that caroms off the side and front walls, nicks the seam between the opposite side wall and the floor, and finally rolls across the court.
Such relish is not malicious; Harding's genuine concern for teaching squash is typical of the game's veterans. Hugh Labossier, the 1986 national amateur champion and currently a top-ranked professional on the North American squash circuit, is quick to credit Seattle's veterans for his early development: ``Harding, Daly, Yusuf Khan - all those guys helped my game. ... I learned a lot of shots from them - and a whole lot of patience.''
But Hugh reserves most credit for his squash-playing father, Larry. At age 44, the elder Labossier holds the 1986 Pacific Coast Championship title for the 35-and-over age category. How does he consistently thrash his younger opponents? ``When you've got as much of this as I have,'' explains Labossier, pointing to his prominent ``spare tire,'' ``you have to make the other guy run.''
Veteran squashers, however, teach more than how to win trophies and make the other guy run. ``Squash is a gentleman's game, you play by the rules,'' insists 77-year-old Seattle attorney Ted Clarke. Lamenting the modern system of refereeing, Clarke, who did not end his gentlemanly 20-year reign as Washington State Squash Champion until he was 50, passionately adds, ``And for cryin' out loud, gentlemen don't need three refs to play by the rules!''
Far better than referees, the very presence of veterans on the court enforces the ethical tradition, in part because younger players are more cautious when playing older opponents, a caution that teaches patience, control, and speed without recklessness. Also, ``There's a certain traditional pride among older squash players, and I think it passes on to the younger ones,'' says Daly. ``You'll know right away when you're playing with somebody dishonest ... but after word gets around, they can't find a game.''