We all crowd around the initial rankings for the squash team, each of our names assigned a number next to it. Frustration simmers around the ladder. My name is 15, and Joseph’s is 11, even though we are nearly equal players. Since last year, he always won 3 – 2, by the smallest margins. A few boys go to Coach to argue to be placed higher, even though every Monday throughout the season, players would be able to challenge up to be move up on the ladder. I throw my headband on the ground in anger, but it only takes me a few weeks until I challenge Joseph.
~ ~ ~
“What the heck, Ryan,” Joseph says. He wears the shirt and pants combination only for challenge match days, supposedly because their light and help him run faster. His brown hair is shorter than normal — the less hair, the more aerodynamic he would be in running, as he said once before.
“That’s obviously a let. You could’ve gotten to the ball without pushing me.” I say, wiping streams of sweat from my face.
“No! That’s a stroke and it’s my point. I’m getting Coach.”
Coach’s whistle rocks as he walks to our court. His scribbles some notes on his clipboard as he listens to each of our sides of the story. “Let.”
Snickers come from some other members of the team, watching on the bench behind our court.
Joseph sighs as loud as he can in front of Coach and me. “Fine. 11 – 10.” He fixes his eyes on the position where I am standing, takes a deep breath, and serves.
I return with a forehand volley and shuffle back to the center. He responds with a cross court, the ball flying off the wall with a loud pop, and I hit another straight shot. For minutes, we only send shots to the back; going for a winner in the front would be too risky for either of us. My goggles fog from the sweat around my eyes, and my feet burn with every step I take. Joseph hits a drop shot and wins the first game.
A few spectators go back to their own challenge matches.
We both leave, and I lean my squash racket against the wall. The new, white grip I had just put on for today is now dirty from my hand holding it. As I walk to the water fountain, shouts of anger and happiness echo from other challenge matches.
I finish my water and get back to the court just in time to see Joseph strut onto the court and try to hit some trick shots.
“Zero all.” He misses his serve.
1 – 0. I smack to ball to the back-left corner, forcing him to boast off the left side to the front-right corner. Racket high, I smash the ball to his backhand side. 2 – 0. By 8 – 3, Joseph gives up on the game.
I win the second game 11 – 4, but the third game comes close at 11 – 8 for me.
Joseph frowns, shaking his head. “Those were just giveaways,” he whispers just loud enough for me to hear.
Between games, I stop by the ladder along with some others to see if there have been any upsets. Number 6 and 7 have switched; the original number six sits on the bleachers, alone, with his face in his hands, and the new number six takes a picture of the updated ladder with a smile on his face.
By the time I arrive at the court for our fourth game, Joseph wears a new headband and wristband and practices his straight backhand rails; he knows I try to keep rallies on his weaker side, and doesn’t stop hitting until Coach tell us to hurry up.
Following my serve, Joseph returns with a backhand volley to my forehand side, and I send the ball back to the left side. The back and forth continues until he pounces on my weak straight forehand and hits a winner in the corner nick.
I slap my forehead. 0 – 1. No weak shots to his forehand.
The next point, I keep him in the back-left corner. The ball sticks to the side wall, and he misses.
I pump my fist in the air. “Let’s go!” 1 – 1.
By five all, Joseph huffs and puffs as he places his hands over his knees. He cleans his new goggles to give himself more resting time. My legs wobble, weak from lunging to the ball at every shot, and my arms dangle as I can barely hold the racket anymore. I lick my lips, my mouth tasting like sandpaper from panting so much. I ignore the pain and discomfort and focus back on the match.
6 – 5. 6 – 6. 7 – 6. 7 – 7. 7 – 8. 8 – 8. None of us gets a considerable lead until 10 – 9, match ball for me.
I look behind the court, and so does Joseph. Coach and every member of the team watch without making a noise. Nothing is heard in the squash center.
My serve arcs up, but Joseph catches it high and drops it in the front. I lunge forward, legs as far apart as I can, and stretch my racket arm and flick the ball to the other side. He sprints and lobs it to the back; we exchange another series of drives and cross courts. Finally, Joseph sends it short. As I move to the front, I hear Joseph’s feet squeaking as he rapidly recovers to the center, so I fire it back straight, whipping my arms as fast as I can. The ball bounces twice before he gets to it, and I win.
I did it, but it isn’t the same satisfaction that I expected to have. And losing to him two challenge matches later doesn’t cause me to brood over why I lost.
I was so caught up with the system of challenge matches, the system of being higher than others, the system of Coach and teammates thinking who was better, that I forgot we were still a team. The entire team too—we cared more about challenge matches than beating the other schools. We saw them not as a way to improve, but as a way to make Coach and the team think we were better.
After I win, I find myself still practicing, even though I had reached my goal. I hear Joseph playing on the adjacent court, so I ask if he wants to hit with me. This time, we don’t keep score.