WASHINGTON, Sept. 23 — For the last six years, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has slipped down to the Pentagon basement many afternoons, changed into a T-shirt, sweat pants and headband, and spent a heart-thumping hour playing squash.
There, no matter how the war in Iraq was going or how many Democrats were calling for his head, Mr. Rumsfeld could uncork his deadly drop shot, leaving his foe helpless and himself triumphant, at least for a moment.
In some ways, squash offers a window into Mr. Rumsfeld’s complicated psyche, revealing much about his stubborn competitiveness and seemingly limitless stamina. Pentagon officials and employees say Mr. Rumsfeld’s play closely resembles the way he has run the Defense Department, where he has spent six years trying to break the accepted modes of operating.
“He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” says Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player who works in the Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.
Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”
The almost-daily matches, Mr. Rumsfeld, a former Princeton wrestler, acknowledged last year, have helped preserve his “sanity’’ in a period in which he and the administration have come under increasing political attack.
Yet even the squash court is no longer the refuge it once was. This summer, two of the aides he played with most left his office for other jobs. Last month, Mr. Rumsfeld started to break in a new partner, Lt. Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. of the Air Force, a tennis player who agreed to take up squash after not playing for 30 years so the boss would have a partner.
Mr. Rumsfeld packed his squash racket for an August trip to Alaska but never played a game, even though aides reserved courts at two stops. On the last day of the trip, he delivered his most cantankerous speech in months, likening criticism of the Iraq war to appeasement of the Nazis before World War II.
This month, Mr. Rumsfeld had surgery on his left shoulder, repairing a longstanding injury unrelated to squash. He has not played since, though aides say he is eager to get back on the court after he heals.
Mr. Rumsfeld took up squash more than 20 years ago when he was a business executive. Rather than tricky bank shots off the walls, a move that better-skilled players favor, Mr. Rumsfeld plays with power, hitting the ball hard and ending points quickly. And he relentlessly attacks his opponent’s confidence.
“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who played against Mr. Rumsfeld regularly until leaving his job at the Pentagon this summer.
Mr. Di Rita is a former Naval Academy varsity player more than 25 years younger than Mr. Rumsfeld. He says he lost his share of games and never went easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser posted the score on Mr. Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he had beaten Mr. Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice Adm. James G. Stavridis, who was also on the academy squash team. Mr. Di Rita concedes that Mr. Rumsfeld rarely offers or asks for “lets,” a replay point when one player feels aggrieved.
On the court, “he is very aggressive and he is very intense,’’ Mr. Di Rita said. “He is very good at getting inside your head. He’s everything you would expect Donald Rumsfeld to be.”
Mr. Rumsfeld has declined invitations to play against reporters, as well as to describe his game for this article.
Mr. Rumsfeld himself has suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing.
In an interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett last year, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “I play squash with him,” gesturing at Mr. Di Rita. “When I pass him in a shot and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”
Many politicians have relaxed by competing, and Mr. Rumsfeld is not the first to have earned a reputation for zeal. As governor of New York, Mario M. Cuomo was known for his sharp elbows and tongue on the basketball court; as president, Bill Clinton exasperated his golf partners by taking mulligans, or do-overs, after bad shots.
In squash, Mr. Rumsfeld’s main advantage over more capable and fitter players is that he refuses to play anything but “hardball,” a variation of the game that was once common in the United States but has largely died out over the last decade. Most competitors now play the international game, which uses a softer ball and a wider court, requiring more running and allowing more creative shot-making. The harder ball favored by Mr. Rumsfeld tends to come back to the center of the court, so players do not have to move as much to return it.
The Pentagon gym had eight hardball courts when it was built in the 1940’s. When a new facility was built in 2002, one hardball court was kept for Mr. Rumsfeld and the handful of other Pentagon employees who still play that version of the game.
But some who know him say Mr. Rumsfeld refuses to concede that the game may have passed him by.
“One time I saw Rumsfeld and I referred to hardball as an old man’s game, and he just stared at me,” says David Bass, a public relations executive who sometimes plays on the Pentagon courts. “It’s become a running joke with us.”
Nor does Mr. Rumsfeld lack for bravado. Mohamed Awad, a former champion player who was once ranked as high as ninth in the world, spent a half hour hitting with him last February at a racquet club in Munich, where Mr. Rumsfeld was attending a military conference.
Mr. Rumsfeld plays well for a man his age, Mr. Awad said. Afterward, he said, Mr. Rumsfeld suggested that he could outplay another septuagenarian politician still known for his prowess in squash, the 78-year-old Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.
“I told him, ‘That can’t be right because I have played with Mubarak, and he is much better than you are,’ ” said Mr. Awad, an Egyptian who now lives in Germany.
Mr. Rumsfeld, he said, just laughed. Pentagon aides say that they do not recall Mr. Rumsfeld boasting about being better than Mr. Mubarak.