Widow for One year

Let’s talk summer reading.

A few years ago I did a piece about racquets sports and film. I tried to cover many of the best examples for tennis, etc. but I hoped it would be thoroughly comprehensive about squash.

There was one movie I missed: The Door in the Floor, the 2004 film with Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger. There are two brief squash scenes in it. The film has a conceit that his squash court has a trapdoor in the floor. I’ve never seen a court with a trapdoor but I am sure there is one out there like that.

Bridges doesn’t believe in taking lets. His mantra: “Whoever controls the T controls the game.”

The film is based on John Irving’s 1998 novel A Widow for One Year. In it, Ted Coles has a hardball squash court at his home in Sagaponack on Long Island. It is in the loft of a barn. Coles said that the reason it is not regulation—it has a low ceiling and “one wall of the court [is] irregular in shape and offer notably less playing surface than did the opposing wall”—was town ordinances, but actually Coles built it that way on purpose to give himself a home-court advantage. The court has no HVAC so it is “ferociously hot” in the summer and in the winter the balls has “little more bounce than a stone.” And there is a dead spot on the front wall (in the film it is in the floor by the back wall) that Coles sneakily has marked with colored chalk.

Not only did Coles deliberately build an idiosyncratic court but he chooses weaker opponents, mostly tennis players new to squash.

Later in the novel, Coles’ daughter Ruth hits alone for hours on the court. She never makes errors. She says to herself that there are “only four good shots in squash” and practices those. When she plays against a boyfriend, she deliberately tins the ball a lot in the warmup, so that when they play he’ll be surprised she doesn’t make errors. (She beats him 15-8, 15-6, 15-9, 15-5, 15-1.)

In the classic parent-child match, Ruth beats Ted 18-16, 12-15, 16-18, 15-9, 15-4. It’s her first official win over her father after twenty years of trying. Later, in the ultimate revenge on her father, Ruth returns to Sagaponack and turns the squash court into her office.

Irving knows enough about squash to mention one of the core propositions of the game: “The terrific thing about hitting a ball that hard, and for that long, was that when she was done, she had absolutely nothing on her mind.”