A UnresoWPSA RIVALRIES: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE lved Journeyrouh the Phillips Exeter Academy
Great Squash Rivalries
by Rob Dinerman
July 15, 2001 - In professional sports, the careers of two athletes often become intertwined. This phenomenon normally evolves from a combination of chronology, continuity and confluence from which a shared legacy emerges in the public perception. They may be friends, and may even have similar backgrounds, but when locked in competition they feel the intense rivalry that develops between them. Mutual respect is created between many pairs of players, while mutual hostility festers between others, but the rivalry, particularly when it exists at the top echelon, can be powerful enough to define an entire era in the history of the sport.
The differing courses that a rivalry can take over the span of a career are often influenced not only by ability but also by the personalities of the duelling duo. Subtle weaknesses can become glaring shortcomings to one who learns how to exploit them: a fear of defeat, a predilection with the flashy shot, a hesitation under pressure, a hot temper, an inability to react promptly and properly to changing tactics. This constant interplay of strategic and psychological adjustments causes a competitive relationship of unique intimacy to develop between the two athletes, a relationship forged in part by the cruel knowledge that their rivalry will neither permit them to become strangers, nor allow them to truly be friends.
Thus have such legends as Ali and Frazier, Evert and Navratilova, and Russell and Chamberlain marched in uneasy but permanent alignment into history's expanding ledger and thus have the battles they waged impacted the annals of their sports in a manner that far outweighs the statistical measurements of their formidable achievements.
In squash, a trio of rivalries during the 1970's and 1980's truly stand out for the role they played in the development of the North American professional game. It was during this period, beginning with the early 1970's and extending to 1992, that the WPSA Tour, which was in its infancy as the 1970's began, rose to prominence before merging with the world PSA softball tour in the mid- 1990's.
Many factors can be cited for this expansion, from the promotional expertise of the WPSA business office in Toronto, under the leadership of Clive Caldwell, to the technological advantages of the three-glass-wall portable Tour Court, to the vision displayed by those companies whose active sponsorship had enabled the once fledgling tour to grow.
But it is the players themselves whose styles and performances have truly constituted the sport's headlights. The sparse ten-man ranking list of 1972 metamorphosed by 1990 into a 100-player computerized system, and the undulating rhythms of lifelong rivalries constantly showed up in the weekly shifts of these rating charts.
This article focuses on those three head-to-head rivalries that commanded special prominence during this crucial time in the WPSA expansion. As it happens, this set of rivalries are of similar duration and spaced fairly evenly throughout the period we have been describing. But what they really share is the quality of having defined the tour's ongoing evolution.
1. The Mid Seventies: Sharif and Victor
This extended series represented a classic contrast of both personal background and playing style. Sharif, the eldest scion of squash's most celebrated legend Hashim Khan, had by the early 70's left behind his early pro softball barnstorming with Jonah Barrington, Geoff Hunt, and Abou Taleb and clearly established himself as both the top player and most charismatic figure in the North American game. He radiated a mixture of confidence, elegance and dignity that both charmed the galleries and overwhelmed his opponents.
The natural gifts that Sharif so clearly enjoyed appeared on cursory inspection to be totally lacking in Victor Niederhoffer, which made his noteworthy list of accomplishments somewhat difficult to fathom. Indeed while Sharif seemed in every respect totally in his element on a squash court, Niederhoffer appeared badly out of place on one. This situation was most graphically symbolized by the mismatched sneakers which oddly but understandably remained his trademark. Born the son of a Brooklyn cop, Victor eventually graduated near the top of his class at Harvard, where under the immortal Crimson coach Jack Barnaby he developed into an intercollegiate and five-time US National Champion.
Though Niederhoffer's heavy-footed movement seemed a sorry substitute for Sharif's effortless grace, his sharp eyes, exceptional hand-speed, and practiced touch made Victor far more fit for the game than the casual observer suspected. So too did his steely competitive instincts, which belied his un-heroic aspect and often reduced the Khan-Niederhoffer confrontations to a clash of warring wills. Though others, such as Rainer Ratinac, Stu Goldstein and Gordy Anderson, possessed superior fitness and/or firepower levels, it was Niederhoffer whom Sharif admitted he feared the most during the 1970's for Sharif knew that in Victor he was doing battle with an opponent whose mental toughness was at least the equal of his own.
Though their first match occurred in the quarter-finals of Sharif's first-ever USA pro tournament in the 1967 North American Open (with Victor's driving forehand rail winner giving him a 17-16 fifth-game triumph), it was during the middle portion of the following decade that their rivalry really took form.
In fact, these two titans would meet in the finals of every tournament they both entered during the 26-month stretch between November '74 and January '77 (8 meetings), and this skein might well have extended considerably further were it not for the abrupt intrusion of eight-time British Open Champion Geoff Hunt, who defeated Niederhoffer in the semis of the '77 North American Open before barely dropping an airtight four-game final to Khan.
Sharif rebounded from that one-point loss in '67 to control their matches throughout the early 1970s up until undoubtedly the most memorable match in their interesting rivalry, which occurred on the volatile terrain of Mexico City in the finals of the '75 North American Open. There Sharif's record six-year title run was abruptly terminated in a four-game struggle that saw Niederhoffer's wicked genius and relentless determination rise superior to a series of physical ailments, the lung-searing altitude, and the Khan aura of invincibility.
This latter point was particularly telling, for Sharif's lengthy domination of the North American scene was beginning to traumatize his colleagues to a degree that decimated their pre-match confidence and thus greatly facilitated Sharif's victories. Niederhoffer refused to bow to the snowballing effects of this phenomenon, and his perseverance through a sequence of long attritional late-match exchanges found its full reward on this sultry afternoon in Mexico.
Ultimately, however, the legacy of this '75 Open final would lie both in the milestone triumph it held for Victor and in the galvanizing effect it proved to have on a chastened Sharif, who systematically and confidently ripped through all five of their matches during the 1975-76 season. Included among the latter was the '76 Open final in New York, though Niederhoffer entered this match slowed by a pre-match ankle injury that gave an eerie no-mas aspect to the twenty-minute 15-3, 7 and 5 walkthrough that ensued.
Niederhoffer would have one remaining shining moment on his hometown turf, at the Boodles Gin Open the following November, where he took a 2-1 lead and rode a rash of increasingly anxious Khan tins to a one-sided fourth game victory prior to grudgingly (18-17 in the fourth) ceding the last of the Niederhoffer-Khan matches, also at the Boodles event the following season.
Victor's retirement in the spring of '78 brought to a close the series between two champions who, for all their differences, were kindred spirits, bound as they were by their fierce competitive determination and the celebrity that they were forced to share.
With Niederhoffer's departure, Sharif knew that the next true challenge would come from the pack of young wolves loudly baying at his door. By far the most fearsome of those was the mercurial young Canadian Michael Desaulniers, whose captivating rivalry with Sharif next dominated the tour.
II. The Early Eighties: Sharif and Michael
It is somewhat ironic that the same tournament which ended an important chapter of one major squash rivalry would also witness the birth of another. The 1977 North American Open, which is most vividly remembered for the manner in which Geoff Hunt snapped the Niederhoffer-Khan consecutive finals streak, played a big role in kicking off the rivalry between Michael Desaulniers and Sharif Khan, whose unexpectedly difficult four-game first-round win over the precocious Harvard freshman gave an early glimpse of the high-powered series that would follow.
A painful stress fracture in his right foot would sideline Desaulniers for the entire 1978-79 season, but when he returned to the competitive fray the following autumn the rivalry would begin in earnest. And if Sharif was forced to deal in tactical weaponry and psychological warfare in his battle with Niederhoffer, the issue for him with Desaulniers was more one of physical survival.
Michael's blinding speed, hyperactive personality, and constantly attacking style enabled him to create an energy zone that caused meltdowns in his opposition. Playing an entire match at Michael's pace was akin to playing basketball against a full-court press, or perhaps tending goal against a two-man power play in hockey.
Though Sharif had himself always thrived on picking up the pace, it must be remembered that Desaulniers was 23 when he turned pro in the spring of 1980, and Sharif, even by his own undocumented admission, had passed his thirty-fifth birthday as the decade of the 1980’s began.
If this chronological disparity brought understandable stamina and firepower advantages to the young Canadian superstar, its true influence upon the character of their rivalry lies more in the deeper issues it raised both between the two athletes and for the viewing audience. For in the inevitability of the impending Desaulniers takeover, Sharif was forced at last to deal head-on with the terror that lurks behind the dream of being a star professional athlete, the terror that comes with the frightening unknowns which the end brings.
In a way it is the fate of the champion athlete, like that of the heroic warrior, to receive rewards and applause simultaneously with the means of self destruction. What both must eventually confront is the dark side of the Faustian bargain: to live all one's days knowing he can never recapture the exhilaration of those fleeting years of intensified youth. It is a powerful augury of the larger mortality that eventually claims us all. And throughout the winter of '81 Mike Desaulniers mercilessly hammered this painful point home to his valiant adversary with a ruthless finality that no one before him had ever been able to approach.
One three-week span from late January through mid-February seemed especially revealing in that regard. The pair met in the finals of all three tournaments - Minnesota, Toronto and Detroit - with Desaulniers winning first in a fifth-game overtime (18-16), then in a regulation fifth game (15-10) and finally 15-10 in the fourth, his margin of victory slightly expanding with each successive salvo.
The middle of these was the most significant, both for bringing Desaulniers his first (and only) WPSA Championship and for the exact statistical deadlock that existed on the computer rankings coming into the tournament. Desaulniers would thus leave Sharif's home city in possession of both this major title and the number 1 ranking position, which Sharif, incredibly, had held uninterrupted ever since the 1968-69 season --- a period of 12 years!
Desaulniers, who would consolidate his lead both the following week in Detroit and one month later in San Francisco, was on his way to the first of two Player of the Year awards. But Sharif, even though slightly past his prime by then, was one of the few who grasped the fact that the same full throttle that impelled Michael's furious style could also be made to imperil it, in the form of tinny patches and impetuous shot selection against a slower pace.
Several other players, notably the methodical, rock-solid veteran Clive Caldwell, also spotted these drawbacks, which that spring contributed to a brief Desaulniers slump and enabled Sharif, with a strong late-season surge, to come away with the North American Open title and top season-ending ranking, both for the final time.
The following autumn Sharif would defeat Michael in the finals of both a tour stop in Detroit and the prestigious Boston Open event, but by springtime of '82 Desaulniers had locked up the top spot with a torrid midseason tear that gave him an insurmountable rankings lead on the field. Sharif's last stand came, appropriately enough, in the North American Open, where this twelve-time Open Champion led 1-0, 8-1 before his momentum and strength gave out and he crumbled under the glare of the hot Cleveland court and Michael's relentless attack.
Sharif still had one hurrah left, when his hometown Toronto admirers inspired him to an emotional victory over Desaulniers in the Mennen Cup, but by this time his aging frame amongst his sleekly wrought younger opponents struck the eye for time's mismatch the way Joe Louis's had next to Marciano's prime beef. It is to his everlasting credit that Sharif held his top position with heroic tenacity and, when finally forced to surrender it, did so with a dignity that belied the pain he must have been feeling.
And of Desaulniers it must similarly be said that it was he, and not the dozen-odd others who tried and failed before him, (Goldstein, Briggs, Caldwell and brother Aziz to name a few) who finally brought Sharif's reign to an end and thereby came to occupy the throne on which his rival had sat so regally for so long.
III. The Mid Eighties: Jahangir and Mark
It is a tribute to both the longevity of Sharif's supremacy and the swiftness of Mark Talbott's ascent that Desaulniers's time at the top seemed so ephemeral. The 1982-83 campaign had no sooner begun when it became obvious that the soft-spoken Talbott had made giant strides with his game while Desaulniers, hampered both by leg injuries and, perhaps, the burn-out effects of his own sparkling incandescence, had lost much of his intimidating bravado.
Talbott reached the finals of all 17 ranking tournaments that season, winning 15 of them, including every major title, and the autumn of '83 saw no diminution of either the eagerness or energy supply that were the cornerstone of Talbott's patient and error-free style. Mark's marvelous conditioning and concentration levels belied a gentle disposition and friendly manner that made him a far less antagonistic target than some of his more fiery predecessors had been. Thus, by mid-November of '83, when the Boston Open rolled around, an atmosphere of easy stability was beginning to surround the tour, and the 23-year-old Talbott's predominance among his protagonists seemed assured for a considerable time to come.
Into this scenario strode a darkly handsome paragon with picture-book racquet-work and the ability to maneuver his supple musculature with the lithe grace of a dancer. Jahangir Khan, who had spent the past several seasons first challenging and then surpassing Geoff Hunt for supremacy in the softball game, had by this juncture consolidated his position firmly in Europe and turned his attention across the Atlantic Ocean to the challenges and opportunities that the North American game had to offer.
Over he came in quest of his claim that he could be the best of both games, for Jahangir understood that, however complete his domination of the international game, only by conquering his WPSA counterparts as well could he truly "unify the title" and establish himself as indisputably the greatest squash player in the world.
If Jahangir's competitive North American debut was attended with considerable pre-tournament conjecture as how well he could adjust in switching abruptly to so markedly different a game, the issue seemed especially pertinent in his second-round encounter with Tom Page, whose blasted drives and exuberant athleticism swiftly presented Jahangir with both a two-game deficit and the sobering possibility of having his entire expedition end in failure. From this ill-boding juncture, Jahangir stormed through twelve straight games, the final three coming by devastating margins over Mark Talbott, who was overwhelmed 15-8, 8 and 5 in the first and most one-sided of the eleven meetings --- all in finals --- that they would have over the course of the next thirty months. The fact that Jahangir would wind up playing in only 13 WPSA tournaments during this period points up the degree to which this pair dominated the rest of the field en route to their special Sunday summits.
The infrequency of Jahangir's appearances in North America lay not only in the demands of the ISPA overseas circuit but also in the perspicacity of his advisory team, whose shrewd strategy was to have Jahangir execute a series of well-spaced sorties designed to bring him much of the WPSA's prize money and all of its major titles while denying his opponents the opportunity to acclimatize to his lethal stroke production, fitness and patience.
Jahangir's presence at a tournament could be likened to that of the most striking woman at a party; if the mood of the room changed and there was eyeball telepathy wherever she went, so the atmosphere was on a noticeably different frequency when Jahangir was around; it became charged with gratifying possibilities, the musk of encounter was in the air.
Nor was this aura diminished by the inscrutable front he steadfastly maintained, which made him a bit mysterious even to the close-knit contingent of his Pakistani comrades and kin. But if figuring out Jahangir was frustrating, defeating him was virtually impossible, as Jahangir most emphatically demonstrated in one stretch in May '85, during which he won the finals of the British Open, Concord-ed over to New York and proceeded to win the North American Open as well, rising superior to fatigue, letdown jet lag, and the best that both versions of the sport had to offer.
This universality of supremacy seems a particularly instructive point to those spectators and journalists who yielded to the temptation to bill the Talbott-Khan rivalry as a barometer for the relative merits of the two games and thus inferred from Jahangir's 10-1 record the superiority of international-ball players over their North American counterparts. Such conclusions seem, to this writer, to be seriously flawed both because of the mediocrity most other ISPA stars exhibited in their visits to WPSA hardball competition and because Jahangir's domination of the international-ball circuit throughout the mid-1980s was, if anything, even more extreme than was the case in North America.The difference, as Jahangir consistently proved in every major tournament with either ball, was simply between himself and everyone else.
Khan's fruitful forays onto the WPSA circuit ended as suddenly as they began when at the conclusion of the 1985-86 season he decided to concentrate his energies solely on the softball game going forward.
It is unfortunate that their rivalry turned out to be so brief; both men were injury-free and only in their early 20s at that point, and might well have met close to 50 times had Jahangir decided to remain on the WPSA tour.
In summing up their three seasons of top-level competition one cannot acknowledge Jahangir's clear-cut statistical dominance without also declaiming the rewards Talbott earned from the enthusiasm with which he responded to this enormous challenge. While the thrilling 18-16 fifth-game victory he registered in the finals of the '84 Boston Open was a landmark moment in Mark's career, the more enduring legacy he gained from Jahangir's presence was in the substantial improvements he was motivated to make in what was already a highly successful game.
Talbott acquired a personal coach in the respected Ken Binns; upgraded his volleying to put greater time pressure on his opponents; and, most importantly, developed a much sharper array of shots than he had previously possessed.
Many players would have been traumatized by the string of losses that Jahangir administered, but Mark's irrepressible competitive ardor caused him to instead react by continuing to dominate the tour throughout the lengthy period after Jahangir's departure. There is no question that Talbott's game and career record reached levels that would not have been attainable were it not for Jahangir's presence; nor is there any doubt that, had Jahangir reconsidered his decision and returned to the WPSA circuit, Talbott would have been better prepared than ever to duplicate his Boston break-through.
Whether Mark's additional firepower and repertoire of shots would indeed be enough to swing the balance against so redoubtable an adversary is, sadly, forever to be subject to speculation. What is known, however, is that their rivalry both confirmed Jahangir's standing as the world's top squash player in both games and inspired Talbott to become, equally undeniably, the greatest American player in the history of the hardball game.
While it is tempting to seek numerical certainty for arguing which protagonist won or lost an extended sports rivalry, the bittersweet truth is probably at least as much a matter of personal perception as of statistical analysis. Any worthy rivalry gradually acquires a character of its own, and the genesis of its varying course springs from reasons as complex and elusive as the athletes who play the games. None of the rivalries we have chronicled contained any final truths or ultimate resolutions; indeed, one of the most fascinating characteristics of competition, especially among the sport's superstars, is the continuity of opportunity that the upcoming season always provides.
What can, however, be confidently stated is that each of these three rivalries represented an immense commitment on the part of both competitors that communicated itself on a visceral level to those fortunate enough to witness their memorable and extended battles.
A SUMMARY OF THE GREAT WORLD SQUASH RIVALRIES
Hashim/Roshan/Azam Khan 1954-60
Henri Salaun vs Diehl Mateer 1954-61
Sharif Khan vs Victor Niederhoffer 1967-77
Jonah Barrington vs Geoff Hunt 1968-73
Sharif Khan vs Michael Desaulniers 1977-86
Geoff Hunt vs Qamar Zaman 1978-80
Geoff Hunt vs Jahangir Khan 1980-82
Jahangir Khan vs Mark Talbott 1983-86
Jahangir Khan vs Jansher Khan 1986-93
Michelle Martin vs Sarah Fitz-Gerald 1996-99
Jonathon Power vs Peter Nicol 1986-2001
(This article first appeared on SquashTalk.com)