According to Australian squash player Cameron Pilley, his sport is two guys doing battle in a glass box. After winning his first round match at the Tournament of Champions, we caught up with him to talk ‘physical chess’ and life on the pro squash circuit.
How long have you been playing squash?
I started playing when I was two or three years old because my parents played. I played my first tournament when I was six, so I’ve played squash my whole life. I’ve been on tour as a professional for about fourteen years now, so I guess you could say I’m a veteran.
Aside from starting at a young age, why squash?
I think my love for the game has kept me in the game. The game itself—it’s got everything: stamina, endurance, you have to be fast, you have to be fit, strong, flexible. Everything that an athlete needs is in that sport. Mentally, it can be brutal, but sometimes that’s the challenge you look forward to.
Can you talk about the brutality and intensity of the sport?
It’s two guys doing battle in a glass box. You’re so concentrated on hitting the ball into the area of the court that you want to hit the ball, but at the same time you’ve got to maneuver around your opponent who’s also in there trying to do the same thing to you. Sometimes there’s a little bit of physical contact around the middle of the court because it’s not a big space—a lot of people call it physical chess and sometimes that’s exactly what it feels like.
Do you have a specific style of play?
The diversity is unbelievable. I’m one of the taller guys at 6’4’’. You’ve got guys who are about 5’6’’, so our strengths are complete opposites. For me, it’s my reach, my volley; it’s only one or two steps to each ball. But I have to get down to the ball and that’s something that I have to work on. The shorter, more explosive guys—they’re naturally good movers, they dive, they do the splits, they jump; they’re unbelievable athletes. But you can maneuver them around the court because they can’t volley as much.
Do Aussies play a certain way? How did growing up in Australia shape you as a professional athlete?
I played a lot of sports when I was younger. It was a mixture of that and that grit and determination that determined Aussie never say die attitude. It has brought me a long way in my career. Sometimes you can see a difference between a Southern Hemisphere player and a Northern Hemisphere player.
Are there any other Aussies on the tour?
There’s only two of us in the top twenty on the world tour and there’s only another two or three guys in the top hundred, so it feels like me and our number two are carrying squash for Australia on our shoulders. We’re out there traveling the world, doing our best, trying to represent Australia the best way we can.
You said you’re a veteran—what do you want to achieve before you put the racquet down?
The Commonwealth Games in 2018, that’s a big goal of mine. I’d like to push into the top ten; my highest ranking was eleven a couple years ago. I made my first World Series Final a month ago in Hong Kong, which was a big stepping-stone for me. I got a taste of what it was like to make it far in those events, so I’d really like to sink my teeth in the next few years.
Have you had any surreal experiences on tour?
We played in Cairo in front of the pyramids— they put the glass court a few hundred meters from the pyramids in Egypt. It was unbelievable—you’re playing in a glass box a few hundred meters from the pyramids and you’ve got the lights on the pyramids in the background. I think that’s one thing with squash, we can put the court anywhere we want, and that’s something special.
How did the match go today?
I managed to beat a guy who’s beaten me for most of my career, so it was good to get a win over him. It was an intense match but it wasn’t a long match.
While you’re here, do you get a chance to enjoy the city?
It’s a privilege to see the amount of stuff that I get to see for squash. I try and put aside at least a day to get out and check out the city. Today I might just have a wander, see what bargains I can get in the shops.
How do you like New York?
I love it. The squash is in the middle of Grand Central so it’s a real electric atmosphere. The buzz is something special. New York is such a cool city, there’s something happening all the time.
What’s life like for you outside of squash?
I’ve got a few little hobbies outside squash but during the season it’s pretty full on squash. I’ve got a few close mates on tour—have a coffee, play some backgammon, have a bit of a chat. Depends on where I am— I can sneak off to the beach and get a surf in. Definitely not here, it’s a bit too cold.
What’s the rest of the tournament look like?
Good question. I’m probably going to play the number one seed in two days time. I’m going to go back and look at some replays of previous matches, pick out some weaknesses of the world number one, and try to put it all together on Saturday.