I’ve spent six years of my life playing a sport no-one has heard of. Never in my illustrious career as an amateur Eton fives player have I come across anyone who has greeted my response to “so, do you play any sport?” with anything other than a blank stare. It has a world champion but plays no part in the Olympics because we’re the only country in the Northern hemisphere to play it, and the few who have heard of it think it’s a game for top-hatted toffs. Fives ignorance is at such a level that I feel compelled to do a warm up act of “yeah, I play football and cricket, a bit of badminton…” before slipping in “oh, and fives”. So what exactly is this mysterious game and why is there more chance of Emma Watson begging me to go out with her than of me coming across a fellow player?
Everyone knows the gist of squash: you smack a ball against a number of walls, aiming to outwit your opponent, before finishing them off with an unreturnable strike. Fives is essentially the same, but there are four players, with two on each team and, instead of a racquet, you use your hands. With the ball much harder than its squash equivalent, padded gloves are non-negotiable, unless you don’t might being court red-handed, as it were. And instead of playing in the warm, you’re outside freezing. Always freezing. Then there’s the rain – fives games get postponed if it doesn’t rain. Even with the privilege of a roof, the ball goes out the back of the court so often that the accumulation of wet footprints slowly turns the floor into an ice rink, regularly humiliating the unsuspecting wearer of smooth-soled trainers. Are you sold yet?
Fives is actually a very fun game. There’s the team spirit without the Ronaldonian diving (most of the time), a sense of sportsmanship owing to the lack of referee (or, to look at it another way, anything goes), and you build up a fantastic pain threshold from all the rogue shots flying at unholy speeds towards your eyes. The unusual shape of the court also adds an interesting twist to the game: you can use the main protrusion (the buttress) either to ‘kill the ball’ and win the point or, if you’re on a particularly poor run, you can ‘accidentally’ maim your opponents on its sharp edges.
Why it’s called fives is anyone’s guess, maybe relating to the number of fingers on each hand, the number of minutes you’ll last without a bruise, or the number of people who’ve heard of it. But if you’re fed up of getting cold and wet in normal ways, want to slash your tally of lad points, or just look particularly alluring in protective goggles, give fives a go.
God knows we need you.
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