Match Point. It had been hard to get those two words out of my mind as I waited for the next wave to come through. It was a perfect sunrise at Crackneck point. Four feet glassy tubes peeling all the way along the rock shelf with only two guys out. Yes, everything was perfect. Except for those two words. Match Point.
Six months earlier I had gotten off the plane in Toronto. The cold northerly wind had dropped the temperature to minus twenty, a far cry from the heat of an Australian summer. It brought back memories of all those many miles I had ran through the ice and snow may years ago. As I made my way to the taxi stand trying not to slip on an ice patch, I realized it had been ten years since I played my last tournament and retired from the world circuit. I had seen the world and the world had seen me…I thought at the time.
Since then it had been a life of coaching, surfing and fishing in my little piece of paradise. Not a bad life all my friends kept telling me,however there was one thing missing,the elusive world championship and that was happening on a portable court set up at the base of the CN Tower in Toronto. First things first though, being unranked I had the daunting task of qualifying before I could even think of seeing the lights of the CN Tower.
After checking into the Valhalla Inn, I had an early night and passed out into a jet lagged slumber. In the morning I made my way to the Canadian Squash Academy where the qualifying was going to take place. Even though it had been ten years I was feeling fit and strong, I had the match practice and encouragement from the nick squad a nickname I had given to six juniors I had coached for the last eight years.
They where now eighteen years old, super fast, had great shots and all were ranked in the top ten in Australia. Playing three of them a day plus interval soft sand running and swimming against the rip at Shelly Beach had me jumping out of my skin. If someone was going to beat me they were going to have to work unbelievably hard I thought to myself.
As I entered the academy the butterfly’s began to fly around in my stomach, something’s never change but they soon calmed down as I soon saw a few faces from the past. The qualifying draw wasn’t kind to me and I would have to play Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday if I kept on winning. Every match was going to be like the final. One more day and it was going to start.
My first opponent was Herman Cristides, the No1 Argentinian player. From what I could gather he was twenty one, fit and played a fast paced “no frills” type of game. So what if he was 19 years younger. I had three things going for me. Experience meant: No1 – I knew the game, No 2 – I could read the game and most of all No 3 – I could play the game. At my peak, I had been ranked No 4 in the world.
The Squash Academy was alive with action by the time I arrived, eight matches were already in progress to be followed by another eight, in which mine was one. I was following the match between Ming Wong of China and Dimitry Makorov of the Ukraine. Definitely the game had spread worldwide I thought.
It was a tough match with lots of bumping and barging. Glad I wasn’t the ref as they both had an interpreter to explain the calls, Ming Wong managed to squeak it out, 16/14 in the fifth. Let the fun begin, I said to myself as I entered the court. Countless matches started passing through my brain during the warmup, but the concentration and steely eyed focus started to appear as soon as Herman spun his racquet, and started to serve.
One hard rally followed another, and it was point for point until eight all when I hit three good serves, got three loose returns and hit three winners to end the game. The nick squad had prepared me well as the next two games were over quickly and as my confidence grew, Herman started making more and more mistakes. After the match I walked over to the draw and saw I had to play Ming Wong in the second round. Hmmm. I was sure he would be feeling his ninety minute bump and grind. The slower the better I thought.
Once I got back to the Valhalla I decide to take it very easy, after all it was only one step towards the CN Tower, and two more giant steps to go. I did manage to notice however, that Mark Wilde of Great Britain and Marcel Mareau of France, No 4 and 5 of the world were looking very comfortable at the bar as I walked past.
My match against Ming Wong started as I had predicted. A few long hard rallies and even half way through the game I could see he was tiring. Yesterday’s match had taken a lot out of him and the match was over in twenty five minutes. In more ways then one I was glad to save all to the energy I had, as once I checked the draw I saw a major struggle for the final qualifying spot lay ahead. My opponent was going to be Jacko Jefferies, another Aussie with a big reputation for doing anything to win.
He was around thirty and had beaten most of the nick squad, I had not played him but had confronted him over double bounces while coaching one of them during the NSW Open. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. This was going one big match for sure!
Back at the Valhalla I noticed the crowd at the bar had grown with Christo of Spain and Douglas Barton the dreadlocked Jamaican, who had just cracked the World top ten, singing karaoke to a handful of groupies. Again something’s never change I thought with a little smile. The jet lag was finally under control and as my head hit the pillow I drifted off with tomorrows challenge certainly on my mind.
The 12 pm match time brought quite a few spectators out for the lunchtime session of the final four qualifying matches. Being the first match on I arrived at 11.15am and headed to the change rooms with my pre match psych up session kicking in. Be positive, Go for my shots, Concentrate harder every point, all the things that had been a big part of my squash life for so many years. I placed my bag on a bench and went to the bathroom.
The first of a couple of nervous energy visits. When I returned Jacko happened to be standing over my bag. A bit strange I thought but he said hello and walked to the other side of the room. After getting changed the walk to the court was a reward in itself with some people who I had played against twenty years earlier wishing me well. The first two and a half minutes of the warmup I spent getting my timing together. The second two and a half minutes I spent thinking about the sharp little aggravation I was feeling in the ball of my left foot every time I planted it.
Once the adrenaline kicked in I was sure it would go away and preceded to win the toss for the serve. I then served and the match started. The first few points of the game didn’t go well and the same could be said for the last few points. I was hobbling around and every time my left foot hit the ground the little aggravation had now become a major shooting pain. First game 11/1 to Jefferies in seven minutes I heard a mumble from the crowd.
This was BS I thought as I sat down for the two minutes in between games. I took my shoe off to rub my foot and as I looked at the sole I noticed a thumb tack sticking through the bottom of my shoe.
The cheat had stuck it in when I was in the bathroom! I looked over and pointed both my racquet and shoe at him! I can’t really say what happened then, but from what people tell me I played like a man possessed and didn’t leave the court for the next fifty minutes. All I can remember hearing was the marker say Cooper Allmite Match Point as I smashed the ball into the nick. I didn’t acknowledge Jefferies and walked off the court. My anger soon turned to happiness and I was Back in the Big Time. A days rest and then it was onto the CN Tower.
The setting of the show court at the CN Tower was spectacular, Molson the main sponsor had made four 40ft x 10ft Molson Canadian beer cans which had been placed in four corners with spectator stands for a thousand people placed in between the cans, forming an amphitheater with the glass court in the middle. This was all enclosed in a Perspex bubble which reminded me of a giant Igloo.
Having been qualifier No 3 I had drawn to play Douglas Barton at 7pm. By the time I arrived the Igloo was one big party. A DJ was set up and playing music from the top of one of the beer cans and Gogo dancers were dancing on the top of the other three. Multi colored laser beams were being fired up and reflecting off the CN Tower observation deck. What a sight! When the music died down Douglas and I were introduced and entered the court.
Douglas was a tall powerful guy who hit the ball harder than 99% of the worlds best players and during our first few points he hit two or three absolute dead kill shots. He then pointed to the crowd and patted himself on the back. He was a natural showman who also loved to show off. If it came down to a safe shot or a risky shot the low percentage always came first.
That was to be his weakness and also his downfall. Being used to playing shot makers I could keep the ball extremely tight and even though he would hit his share of winners he would also make mistakes. Luckily for me he did just that and gave me the first two games 13/11 and 15/13. After fifty minutes for the first two games I have to admit I was feeling pretty tired, but trying hard not to show it. At 7/5 to Douglas things weren’t looking too good and I certainly wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of a fourth set. However all of a sudden the Gods must have felt sorry for me and everything started going my way.
Douglas lobbed out of court, 6/7, I hit a back wall nick 7/7, a perfect serve 8/7, a front wall jaw out 9/7. Douglas then broke a string and hit the ball back at himself with his new racquet for another stroke to give me match point. A thirty shot rally followed, front, back, front, back, cat and mouse strategy, it ended when at full stretch I hit a shot off the back wall that barely hit the front wall and dropped glued to the side wall for an irretrievable winner 11/7 and match. Unbelievably I was through to the quarter finals and Douglas was headed back to the Valhalla karaoke to sing the blues.
The DJ started playing “Another One Bites The Dust” as Mark Wilde beat his opponent 3-0 and was signing autographs as I made my way towards to exit of the Igloo. For some reason I glanced back toward the court and noticed a tall slender blonde lady standing near the court. Wow! That’s Impressive! I thought as I walked out into the snow and caught a cab back to the Valhalla. On the way I read the tournament odds, World No1 Ryan O’Donahue 2-1 favorite, Cooper Allmite rank outsider 500-1. The Valhalla bar was packed as I walked past and even though I deserved a beer it was best to stick to what I was doing, after all it had been five victories in a row. So back to my room it was.
Being under the radar was great. My next opponent was Abbas Maloub, a twenty three year old Egyptian who also had been a surprise in the tournament. He was ranked World No 34 and had never made it past the first round of any major tournament. I had seen a video of him play and he was almost spider like with long arms and incredibly flexible. His game consisted of lobs and drops with a killer boast. Lots of work coming up I thought. Now what could he tell about me? I was an older guy who had been very lucky so far!
The DJ was playing Neil Young’s “Old Man” as I entered the court for my match. My strategy was to play fast, very fast, not let him weave his slow paced web and run you into the ground. The match started and it was volley, drive, half volley, volley drop and volley boast. I don’t think I let the ball get past me all game. It worked and after fifteen minutes it was 11/7 to me. The start of the second was the same and I was up 6/3 when I hit the wall. My heart beat was pounding in my head, my legs felt like lead and I was stumbling around the court. After deciding to conserve energy and just go for shots, it was soon 11/6 to Abbas and I was sitting in my seat trying to find a second wind for the third game. I remembered the endless soft sand sprints and getting pounded by 10 foot surf. If they were going to beat me they would have to work incredibly hard, I reminded myself.
Back on court I upped the pace once more. I could see the disbelief in his eyes and indecision in his shots. With one final push I won the game 11/8 and staggered to my seat needing the two minutes in between games. “Come on Coop you can do it” I heard a voice come out of the crowd. I turned around to see the tall blonde lady smiling and cheering.
It had been sixty minutes when we started the fourth. Lob, volley, attack, counter attack, both of us trying to get that two point lead and a bit of breathing room. He got to 8/7, I got to 9/8. He had game ball at 10/9, I had match point at 11/10. On and on it went until finally on my fourth match point I volleyed a dying length that his full stretch dive couldn’t reach.
Men at Works “Land Down Under” started blasting through the speakers and the crowd were all on their feet as we helped each other off the court. The announcer approached and asked “What was my secret?” “Party pies and the ocean” I replied. He then stated I was the oldest World Open semi finalist and could I go all the way? I said ” The only way I was going was to toward the Hot Tub” and started packing my bag. At that moment the tall blond lady approached. “You fight like Tasmanian Devil” she said with a European accent, ” No, just a wise Wombat” I replied, and with that she handed me her card. ” Call me if you need me?” She said. Very interesting I thought as she walked away.
After signing numerous autographs and having a shower I watched a bit of the Ryan O’Donahue/Mark Wilde match and edged my way past the well wishers and headed back to the Valhalla.
Mareka Luvanova- Elite Sports Therapy her card said as I got back to my room.Ahhh, that makes a little bit more sense I thought as I picked up the phone. The way I was starting to stiffen up, I would definitely need her tomorrow. ” Mareka what are you doing at ten in the morning?” I asked. “Seeing you!” She replied. Very interesting I thought once more as I fell asleep.
As soon as I entered The Elite Sports office Mareka came over to me and said “Welcome to my World” as we walked over to a massage table. She was dressed in a white skin tight jumpsuit which accentuated her long legs and fit slender body. She must have been an athlete herself, I thought as she asked me how I was feeling.
“Not too bad but I remind myself of a robot, a little bit stiff” I added with a smile, “it has been a hard week so far.” “Yes, you are no spring chicken” she said with a big grin. She really was impressive I thought again. ” Let’s see what we can do for that stiffness” she said and pointed to the massage table. “Some deep tissue and electro therapy should loosen you right up” she said, “go easy, remember, I have the match of my life at 6pm.” I said as I lied down thinking that I needed to find out a lot more about her.
Ryan O’Donahue had beaten Mark Wilde 3/0 to set up our semi final clash. In the other half of the draw Christo had beaten Charlie Wainwright 3/2 to set up his semi final with Wakim Kahn of Pakistan who had beaten Marcel Mareau in another hard 5 setter.
Ryan from Ireland had been a child prodigy who had won the first of his five world opens at 18 and was currently on a two year unbeaten streak. He had been ranked no.1 for the last five years and was the current Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. For me to win it was going to be a tough mountain to climb, that was for sure.
The Igloo was electric when I arrived and with the matches being shown live on ESPN there was over thirteen hundred spectators crammed in surrounding the court. History would be made if I won. I would be the oldest world open finalist in the hundred and ten year history of the sport. My adrenaline was pumping and Mareka was right, she had loosened me right up and as I made my way to the court all the subconcious, Be Positive, Concentrate, Go for your Shots thoughts were going through my mind. So much so that I barely heard AC/DC’s “Back in Black” echo through the Igloo. “Give it all your might Cooper!” I heard Mareka shout as I bounded past.
It was an explosive start to the match. Three forty shot rallies got the blood flowing. Ryan was smooth, very smooth and being six foot two he was barely taking anymore than two steps from the T to get to any of my shots. If it appeared that I was working harder than him it certainly felt like it.
After twelve minutes the score was 4/2 to Ryan, I put up a cross court lob to his forehand, he jumped up pushed off the side wall to hit one of his patented forehand volley smashes into the cross court volley nick when he landed heavily. His left ankle collapsed and his foot turned completely sideways as the bone shattered in two or three places. He was rolling around in agony and screaming in pain as I reached him. It was a gruesome sight and I tried not to look at the disfigured foot.
I yelled for assistance and the court door flew open. Three or four people came onto the court including the PSA doctor and I saw Mareka in there as well, all trying to stabilize his leg and foot. After ten minutes the foot was in a make shift cast and a stretcher was brought in. The crowd was silent as they carried Ryan out of the court and into an ambulance. I was still in shock when I finally left the court. It was such a terrible event that it hadn’t dawned on me that I was the winner of the match. As mercenary as it was the show must go on I thought and headed to the change room.
Mareka called me at 10pm that evening and told me Ryan had broken three bones and torn most of the ligaments in his ankle. He was in a cast and would be out of action for at least 12 months. Bummer! I thought and she then said another four words – “Get Ready For Tomorrow.”
The morning came quickly after the drama of the day before. After a quick swim to wake me up it was time to get back to work and focus. Today was the Moment of Truth – The Final of the World Open!
As it turned out Wakim had beaten Christo 3/2 in the other semi. Wakim had single handedly brought back the reputation of Pakistani squash. He was a left handed player so deceptive that he could make you look like a novice and beat you in less than fifteen minutes. He had been runner up in the last eight tournaments and was firmly the No 2 player in the world. I would have to watch the ball like a hawk and be super ready for anything.
The match time was 3pm and after shaking hands with fifty people wishing me luck at the Valhalla I arrived at the Igloo at about 2.15pm. There was supposed to be a 3/4 playoff but due to Ryan’s injury there was two of the top U/11 juniors in the country playing. Great PR for the kids I thought. Yes I was going to enjoy this day, I thought as I started to get changed. On the way to the court the crowd erupted as the spotlight shone on Ryan who hobbled in on crutches, a plaster cast from the toes to his knee on his left leg.
Immediately “We are the Champions” burst from the speakers. The spotlight then returned to me as I reached the court. “Go Allmite” and “Super Cooper” I noticed a couple of signs saying, Mareka was sitting in the front row and waving at me. Wow, The World Open, this is unbelievable I thought. I also thought I had two more things going for me, 1 – with yesterday’s short match I had recovered physically and 2 – The crowd was definitely on my side.
Wakim entered the court first and I followed. After a brief introduction from the announcer we had the five minute warm up. Wakim won the toss, stepped over to the right right box, served, and it was On!
The first few rallies were very unsettling, I was all over the place. He was way more deceptive than what I could have ever imagined. With a super strong wrist, a little flick could generate either a drop shot, lob, or a hard drive. For the first time in my life I couldn’t read a game.
Wakim won the first game 11/5 and I was lucky to win those five points. In the two minute break I was searching for answers to come up with a different strategy, I needed them and I needed them fast or this match would be over before I knew it. The crowd was subdued and I barely heard a little “Come on Coop” from Mareka. The second game started and I was still lost. He still had me going in four different directions all at once.
At 7/1 down I finally managed to read one of his boasts, I threw up a cross court lob to his back hand, he volleyed straight but there was hardly any power and I was able to step across and volley drop it for a winner. During the next rally I threw up a cross court lob again and the same thing happened. A light went off and I had found a weakness. Whether he had an injury I wasn’t sure but from that moment on everything was going to go to his high backhand. I was now starting to win points and from 7/1 down I won eight straight points, lost one then won the next two points to win the game.
The crowd was now starting to come alive, I could hear “Fight Allmite” and Mareka was shouting “Focus, Cooper, Focus.” The third game it was lob, lob, lob, I hit nothing short unless he was buried in the backhand corner.
The momentum had now shifted and I could see he was now the frustrated one, a smash of the racquet on the floor, a scream when he made a mistake, although it was still hard I was controlling the T and got to 9/6. He hit two beautiful drops from the back of the court to get to 9/8 before I hit two more lobs and volleyed his returns cross court into the nick to end the game. Positive! Positive!, I yelled as I came off the court.
It was loud now, really loud, “Coop, Coop, Coop” and ” Fight Allmite Fight” chants were going around the court, the two minutes in between was deafening. I changed my shirt and went back on court for the fourth game. It was do or die now and I was ready and prepared to put everything into the game of my life. The game started and I stuck to my lob strategy. He changed his and started volley dropping, it didn’t matter.
I was onto them like a flash and with a bit of deception myself I either counter dropped or held my shot until he committed and hit the ball in the opposite direction leaving him stranded. It Was The Game of My Life, everything was working now and I had him on a string. 3/0, 4/0, 5/0, 6/1, 7/2, 8/2, 9/3, and finally 10/3 and Match Point. I played a backhand boast up to his front backhand corner, he shaped up and I read him like a book, it was going to be a hard cross court drive. I moved up to intercept and got ready to volley it for a winner.
All I remember seeing was a flash of his racquet as it smashed into my forehead from his full bodied follow through. My racquet miraculously touched the ball before my legs gave way and I passed out on the court floor. The ball trickled off my racquet and hit the top of the tin. Again it didn’t matter. The referee deemed Wakim’s swing dangerous and excessive and awarded me a Penalty Stroke. History had been made and I was the World Champion even though I was unconscious and sprawled out on the floor.
A cold splash of water hit my face and I heard a voice in the distance.”Cooper, Cooper, you are missing all of the good waves!” Mareka yelled from the rocks she was standing on at Crackneck. I turned around and started paddling for the next wave. Yes I had met my match and she was making a point. As I tucked in under the tube I realized my friends were right… I do have a great life.