Sun and Gold in Penang

By Ron Beck

infinitum squash asia pacific masters games penang ron beck

Day 1 - The Trip In

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My trip to the 2018 Asia Pacific Masters Games starts with a surprise: a typhoon hitting Japan and the forced rerouting of a number of UA flights to Asia. My departure from Boston is delayed a day and my flight rerouted through Singapore. After 30 hours of planes and airports, I land in Jakarta for a work stop - a press conference with four Indonesian business journals. The next day, I catch a two-hour flight to my squash destination, Penang, a beautiful Island off the coast of Malaysia and the home of squash legend, Nicol David, whose training facility, the Nicol David Squash Center is hosting the tournament.

The facility boasts four exhibition courts with ample seating. It’s hot and humid indoors and out - I’m ready for some long points. My O65 division is a round robin with six players in the draw; I’ll have five matches in five days. This morning, I start my first match against a Glaswegian who has called South Africa his home for the last 40 years. I win in three. The training with the group and sessions with Nick back at INFINITUM have left me feeling fit and sharp - even with the days of travel. The tournament has an intense feel; there is a large battery of volunteer referees who are taking their role very seriously.

After my match, with the thunderstorms gone, I spend the afternoon walking Jalan Penang (Penang Street), enjoying the atmosphere of the local markets and shops. Finally back on local time, I fall asleep just after 10:00 pm.

Day 2 - Clearing Skies

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It’s the rainy season in Southeast Asia but the skies clear today affording me a view of the lush hills and mountains that frame the skyline of Penang, a combination of colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers.

There are 14 nations represented of the roughly 110 competitors in the tournament. Today, I face-off against the second South African in the O65 draw. My opponent is tougher than yesterday’s; he starts the warm up with a number of trick shots, hitting the ball between his legs and behind his back. I can see he is going to be a strong front-court player so I focus on keeping him in the back. My gameplan pays off and i win again in three, giving me time to study some of the matches of my opponents in the days ahead. I catch the tail-end of a what seems to be an exhausting boast-drop battle between tomorrow’s opponent and that of the day after. The squash center is filled with great squash representing the varied styles of the nationalities competing.

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With my squash done by noon, I take advantage of the good weather with a four-wheel drive to the top of Penang Hill. The ascent is steep with hairpin turns, culminating in a fantastic perspective of the layout of Penang ringed by the scores of cargo ships at anchor in the channel.

I finish the night in town with local food.

Day 3 - Hitting the Crunch Point

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As Day 3 begins, I can see some fatigue and attrition setting in. At 9:00 am, I am one of the first competitors into the building.

My round-one opponent is unfortunately out with injury, having pulled his hamstring at the very end of his match yesterday. For players in these “older” age groups, playing a competition-level match every day for five days in succession is a major challenge.

My opponent today is English and probably the favorite to win the event. Whether fatigue, confidence, or (as his girlfriend claims) “eccentricity,” for whatever reason, he chooses to play with his shorts inside out. Our match is extremely competitive; every single point is hard-fought, with each of us covering all corners of the court. He turns defence into offense, retrieving balls with back-wall boasts dropping perfectly into the front corners, forcing me to restart the rallies, further extending the points. He also handles my serves well - usually a strong point of my game. In the end, I find some good length and precision to keep him guessing; eventually I outlast him.

I’m proud to say that in the post-game, he exclaims to me, in typical English style, “Where in the world have you come from? Out of nowhere!”

Tomorrow morning, I’m up against a Zimbabwe native now living in Perth. I am again struck by the diversity of the draw and our sport as a whole.

Day 4 - A Rainy Morning of Squash

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Today, the placements in the Asia Pacific Masters Squash begin to sort, with the winners bracket players assigned the exhibition courts and the remaining competitors on the others. Still, any court feels great at the Nicol David International Squash Center. The exhibition courts have seating for roughly 90 people and the two featured courts with Plexiglas side walls - presumably to simulate an all-glass court for the Malaysian players are working their way up to the PSA World Tour.

This morning is my fourth of five matches. I am playing a Zimbabwean living in Perth. Chatting yesterday, he told me that with unemployment in Zimbabwe at about 95%, he and his two daughters have moved - one to Perth and one to Singapore - to find a better economic situation. He chose Perth to be close to his grandchildren.

My opponent today presents a different style and more sophisticated game for me to contend with. He steps back and handles my high-pace serve with ease, making several outright winners as serve returns. Secondly, has has a more adept use of angles. I am able to keep him off balance with several lobs over his head and changes of pace and I score another 3-0 win after a muggy and hard fought 45 minutes of squash. Tomorrow is the final match for our division and if I can prevail, I will get the win.

The other divisions also boast some hard fought matches and there are some fascinating games to watch; the first match between the two players I had played yesterday and the day before was a fantastic war of wills, going to 15-13 in the first game with both players completely spent.

The rain is letting up just upon leaving the squash center as I head back to the hotel and so I decide to head to Batu Ferringhi at the tip of Penang. I stop at a fantastic Thai restaurant perched up on a deck in some tall trees. There is a view out over the Straits. It is a great place to enjoy a quiet cooldown from the squash with some of the best Thai food I’ve had and a few Tiger beers.

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My driver back to the hotel says “I’ve heard that if you have a hot temperament squash is the sport for you!” I concur with him that the game is a great way to get the tension out but that you always need to keep your cool on court...

My scores after 4 days: Matches 4-0; Games 12-0; Points 132-58.

Day 5 - Sun and Gold in Penang

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Today dawned sunny with the first blue sky during my time in Penang. I arrive early and get a chance to warm up once again on the exhibition court. I take my time and feel comfortable and relax going into my match.

My opponent today, the last of the round robin series, is from Sale, a small town in Victoria, Australia. The previous night, he tells me the sad story of the demolition of Sale’s seven squash courts, his squash now requiring a 30-mile commute, which he makes daily. As with all of my fellow competitors, he is totally dedicated to his squash and tells me “it keeps me alive!”

He is a great sport and strong competitor. The first game starts out close and I am tense as he seems ready to parry my attacks. The other players in our group have been collaborating on how they might beat me and I suspect they have been feeding my opponent some tips. I use this as motivation and am able to convert a seven-all score in game one. From here-on, I push the advantage and finish the tournament with a rare 11-0. I am thankful for the win.

So, I collect the gold medal for the Asia Pacific World Masters Games O65 Squash! The result is certainly beyond my expectations. I leave with a great feeling having performed well and, more importantly, having made some new squash friends from far and wide.

I am interviewed by the Japanese crew promoting their Masters Games taking place in Kyoto in 2021. The reporter asks me questions about what has motivated me to come and what I liked about the games. My answer is the friendly spirit of competition: the total commitment of all the players to fair and honest play and the great spirit of camaraderie among the 100+ squash competitors.

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Chessin Gertler