By Tom Coley
“At the front of the court we have two boxes in front of the tin and before the match you put your hand towel in and a separate towel by your chair for in between games. Every seven rallies you can go and wipe the towel.
“It’s hilarious when you see the big guns like Ali Farag or Gregory Gaultier coming on and wiping the floor!”
It’s good to see the funny side of a tough situation. The toughest that most people have ever faced. Professions ripped up, economics and logistics thrown around, the world left in tatters. Just because an elite athlete has the privilege of going to glorious sunny sandy beaches in Spain doesn’t make it easy. Even the world of squash was torn apart by the Coronavirus pandemic.
One year on from the not-so temporary cancellation of elite sport, World No.43 Nathan Lake looks back on how COVID-19 decimated the script for the Professional Squash Association (PSA).
“The day before or the day of the game you can only practice with your opponent or on your own, you can’t be with anyone else. They’re the only person you can travel to games with.
“Matches have changed as well, you can’t wipe the wall anymore, players instinctively do it though.”
Wiping sweat on the enclosed court walls might seem trivial or not as serious as a cricketer shining a ball with saliva, but it’s the small changes that have made a massive difference on both mental and physical wellbeing.
“At some events you can only order room service so other than practice, you’re locked in your room. That’s mentally very hard. They are nice rooms but it’s tough, there are people a lot worse off but it is hard.
“Sometimes you have to quarantine in the hotel room, so you have to think outside the box at how to stay fit. You can’t go a few days without doing anything, so mentally being prepared and dealing with being in your room for a long period of time has been a big area I’ve given a lot of thought.”
But, no matter how much thinking is done, the change (or usually lack) of scenery isn’t as relaxing as it looks.
“Egypt was nicer because you could walk around the hotel but once you’re in the tournament bubble, every two or three days you need another PCR test and you’re only allowed to be close to your opponent.”
With all the games and the travel, Lake admits that COVID-19 has had a huge impact on his fitness and has resulted in new obstacles to overcome, ones still being encountered a year after the problems started.
“I think part of the reason I’ve gotten injuries is because even though I’ve had access to a court, I’ve not had other training partners, so it’s a shock to the system.
“Squash players are used to travelling around the world to play matches or getting into tournaments last minute, that’s not too bad. There’s a point though where your body needs to go through consistent training and matches.”
Regarding this, Lake’s soft tissue therapist Simon Wintle understands why players have struggled fitness-wise over the past year.
“It’s interesting, despite having nearly four months without consistency on court, because he [Lake] had access to strength and conditioning coaches, when he came back he wasn’t far off where he’d usually be.”
Going from training at Pittville Park into a world of daily match preparation is two completely different beasts to tackle. Wintle isn’t surprised that players have been more injury prone since the tour restarted, even a year after the initial COVID-19 surge.
“He was struggling during lockdown because he was training on courts with no heating, they were fairly cold, and they were hard, unsprung floors.
“It took more toll on his body, working in environments he’s not used to, normally he’d be in warmer climates and that effects how the body works.”
These are the outlying conditions that nobody could have foreseen or stopped as the world stood still during the pandemic. It isn’t dampening Lake’s expectations though, as he aims to keep progressing up the PSA World Rankings.
“On my way to my first event back, I remember thinking it was amazing. We were getting to play squash and I could talk to the referees and players and they’d ask how you’re doing and I’d say it’s so good to be playing, I love squash so it really was so good to be back.
“You soon forget that if you’ve lost, you think that it’s rubbish again but I try to tell myself how lucky we are to be back playing.”