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>Michael Desaulniers, Canadian, Harvard and WPSA Star

Michael Desaulniers,
The Man who Dethroned the King

Cowles: Teacher … Briggs:
Natural Talent and Champion … Kurtz: Pioneer


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September 20, 2004, By Rob Dinerman ©
2004 SquashTalk All Rights in all Media Reserved

ENDED
SHARIF KHANS DECADE-LONG HARDBALL REIGN
[historical
WPSA tour video]

Michael Desaulnier (l) and Sharif
Khan – battles of equals
, photo © 2004
SquashTalk archives.

This cat-quick
hyper-kinetic dynamo was for a half dozen years the most exciting player
in the game and the one who will go down in history as the man who finally
ended Sharif Khan’s legendary and decade-plus reign as the top hardball
player in the world.

More than a
half-dozen serious rivals, from Mohibullah Khan to Victor Niederhoffer
to Rainer Ratinac to Stu Goldstein, expended their entire careers trying
and failing to accomplish this feat during a period that extended well
over a decade, but in 1981-82, through a combination of his own prepossessing
competitive and athletic talents and Khan’s advancing years, the 25-year-old
Harvard graduate (class of ’80) became the first Canadian to win the North
American Open (by toppling the 12-time champ and six-time defender Khan
in the final) and the first as well to claim the WPSA No. 1 ranking.

The Desaulniers
takeover had been impending for some time (he actually held the top ranking
for a few weeks during the winter of ’81 before being overtaken by Khan
that spring), beginning with his breakthrough performance in the ’80 WPSA
Championship in New York, where he successively defeated both Stu Goldstein
and Khan, in each case in four games, before losing to Clive Caldwell
in the final. That tournament graphically brought out all of the qualities
that characterized the Desaulniers squash persona, the operative word
for which was FAST, lightning fast, in fact.

Michael Desaulnier (l) and Tom Page
– high energy electrifying contests, photo © 2004 SquashTalk
archives.

His rise through
the junior (U. S. titles in ’75 and ’76), intercollegiate (U. S. champion
in ’77, ’78 and ’80 after missing the ’79 event with a broken foot), Open
(U. S. Nationals winner in ’78 and ’80) and professional ranks was in
each case incredibly swift. So was his fall from that position during
the ’82-’83 season, which began with a first-round loss (in five games
to Tom Page in Rochester) in the season-opening event, progressed from
there with a series of back and hamstring injuries, a hernia operation,
visa difficulties and sagging confidence and wound up with Desaulniers
out of the top 20 and effectively off the tour for several years.

So was his comet-like
comeback, which began during the latter portion of the ’84-’85 campaign
and really took off the following year, becoming probably the foremost
story-line of that season and certainly leaving him superbly positioned
to continue and consolidate his regained elevated standing going into
the ’86-87 tour. And so too was the way that comeback ended, with Desaulniers,
still in his 20’s but clearly satisfied that he had proven himself beyond
challenge, opting instead to disappear from the WPSA competitive picture
as quickly and emphatically as he had re-appeared in its top echelons.

ALL-OUT
ASSAULT

Lightning fast was certainly the best way to describe not only the extreme
undulations in his squash career but also the manner in which this streamlined
Vancouver native played the game. His style was perfectly suited to the
risk-reward requirements of the hardball game, and Desaulniers played
it to the hilt, always looking to volley and force the attack, dashing
like a roadrunner to the front wall in pursuit of drop and corner shots
and constantly pressuring his often-overwhelmed opponents and daring them
to take advantage of the occasional loose balls his full-throttle approach
created.
Rather than feel his opponents out, Desaulniers clearly wanted to stifle
them with his constant heat, hitting the ball as hard, as early and as
sharply as possible and creating an energy zone that melted their resolve
and left them besieged, exhausted and demoralized. Playing against Desaulniers
during his dominant years, especially 1980-81 and 1981-82, when he won
WPSA Player Of The Year honors both times and copped most of the tour’s
major titles, was akin to playing an entire basketball game against a
full-court press or perhaps being a hockey goal-tender against a prolonged
two-man power play.

No one could
cope with what he threw at them during his torrid surge during the spring
of ’82, when he wrested the North American Open title away from Khan’s
six-year grasp in Cleveland and barged through the draw at the season-ending
World Series of Squash at the Yale Club Of New York, burying runner-up
Gordy Anderson under a barrage of nicks throughout a one-sided 15-6 third
and final game. He thereby added that trophy to a collection that during
the previous 18 months had included the ’80 Boston Open, the ’81 WPSA
Championship, the ’82 North American Open, as noted, plus tour stops in
Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, Greenwich, Rye and St. Louis.

There was a
22-match winning streak embedded in a 29-1 run during that period, as
well as seven consecutive WPSA ranking tournament singles final-round
victories and a 1982 WPSA Doubles Team Of The Year Award with his partner
Maurice Heckscher. By the end of his career-highlight 1981-82 season,
his first at No. 1 after two previous season-end No. 2 rankings behind
Khan, Desaulniers was in as dominant a position atop the WPSA ladder as
Khan, or anyone else in the history of the game, for that matter, had
ever been.

But the very
incandescence that so fueled Desaulniers’s game may also have contributed
to the definite case of burn-out that caused his hard-won reign to prove
so fleeting and his fall from the top so precipitous the following 1982-83
season. His competitive polar opposite, Mark Talbott, played a far less
frenetic, more patient, error-free game and evinced a correspondingly
more laid-back approach that almost appeared to lull his opponents rather
than assault them, as Desaulniers and his immediate predecessor Khan preferred
to do.

Just as the
key moment when Desaulniers displaced Khan occurred in their ’82 North
American Open final, when an early 1-0, 8-1 Khan lead dissolved before
a determined Desaulniers surge to victory both in that game and throughout
the third and fourth, so the defining moment in Talbott’s move past Desaulniers
came in another WPSA major tournament, the ’82 Boston Open, the site of
the latter’s first major title two years earlier and the city where he
had performed so brilliantly as a collegian.

TRANSFER
OF POWER

By this mid-November tournament, there had already been three WPSA events,
all of which (Rochester, Detroit and Montreal) had gone to Talbott, who
in fact had easily defeated Desaulniers in their one meeting, the in final
at the Montreal club where Desaulniers had spent his formative squash
years as a junior player. Galvanized by losing so badly in front of his
stunned hometown fans, realizing that he had played far below par in that
ragged, tin-filled final, and still convinced (as was most of the rest
of the squash world at the time) that at his best he still could muster
more firepower than anyone, Talbott included, could successfully repel,
Desaulniers pointed with a vengeance to the Boston Open the following
week, where he and Talbott would meet in the semis.
And what a semi it was, destined to be classified by tournament co-founder
Len Bernheimer, who had been present at all 16 previous Boston Opens,
as the greatest match in the history of the tournament. Realizing what
was at stake, Desaulniers from the outset threw his vintage full-court
blitz at Talbott, volleying everything within reach, nailing his punishing
three-wall and cruelly maneuvering his slender foe throughout their fast-paced
80-minute shoot-out.

But Talbott
unflappably weathered the constant barrage, lobbed and extemporized his
way out of trouble, coolly glided to virtually everything that was hit
and pocketed a pair of slightly desperate Desaulniers tins to seal the
18-16 fourth-game match-ending tiebreaker.

For Talbott,
who proceeded to win the next-day final handily over Mario Sanchez, this
win truly signified his advance to the top spot among his WPSA counterparts
and launched him to a season-long record (all 17 WPSA finals, 15 of them
victorious) that for sheer volume has never been equaled. And conversely
for Desaulniers, who this time had truly put himself on the line and seen
one of his greatest all-time efforts come up, albeit barely, short, the
myth of his at-his-best invincibility had been permanently and publicly
punctured, and the bravado that had been a Desasulniers trademark would
subsequently evaporate as well during the injuries and losses to lesser
opponents that followed. He didn’t even enter the late-season Yale Club
event he had overwhelmingly won the year before, didn’t even play enough
events during the ensuing 1983-84 season to avoid "insufficient data"
status and was no longer a visible presence on the WPSA radar when the
1984-85 schedule commenced.

Maybe it was
the WPSA Doubles title that he and younger brother Bradley won that season
(and the next), making him the first (and to this point only) player ever
to win both the WPSA and North American Open doubles and singles titles.
Or it might have been his return to full health following several years
of nagging hurts and maladies. Possibly it was the emergence of the immense
challenge and opportunity provided by Jehangir Khan, who starting in 1983-84
began a series of well-spaced sorties onto North American soil that brought
him most of the hardball tour’s prize money and major titles in the latter’s
successful mission to "unify the title" and distinguish himself
as the world’s best hardball AND softball player simultaneously. Most
likely it was some combination of these factors, buttressed by a personal
discomfort at having his once-glorious career end on terms other than
his own and with a whimper rather than on the high note it merited.

TRIUMPHANT RETURN
Whatever the genesis of the Desaulniers comeback, which began in the later
stages of the 1984-85 season and expanded into full force in 1985-86,
his resurgence was capped off by two memorable semi-final wins over Talbott,
each of which brought him to the final round of major championships. In
Toledo in mid-January 1986 at the WPSA Championship, Desaulniers was too
drained from this effort to put up a representative effort in his ensuing
final with Sanchez, who thereby won his first and only WPSA major title.
But three months later in the semis of the Xerox Canadian Open in Toronto,
when Desaulniers saved three fourth-game match-points against him, salvaged
that game 15-14 and buried Talbott in the 15-6 fifth before giving Jehangir
Khan his strongest challenge of the season in a thrilling and close four-game
final, the Desulniers re-ascent back to the very top tier of the game
had become the most compelling story of that season.

Everyone pretty
much knew that that ’86 Canadian Open was to be Khan’s final WPSA appearance,
as the latter had decided that three years of playing both the WPSA and
international-ball circuits was enough, and that he would concentrate
on the international game from that point onward. But no one suspected
that it would also be the swan song for Desaulniers, who had just turned
29 at season’s-end, clearly had several highly productive years still
ahead of him and seemed solidly positioned to consolidate his newly regained
standing and reap the rewards, both competitive and financial, of his
successful return to a top-level WPSA ranking. All that summer tournament
promoters excitedly anticipated the Talbott-Desaulniers rivalry that seemed
certain to occur, complete with the fascinating contrast of styles and
personalities such a series would entail, and the 1986-87 WPSA Pro Tour
Program even had as its center photo an action shot of the Canadian star
lashing into a full-bodied backhand, his whole body language conveying
the confidence that he once again exuded.

Sadly it was
not to be, and the self-removals from the tour of two such entertaining
marquee performers as Desaulniers and Khan deprived the 1986-87 season
of much of the excitement that has pervaded 1985-86, and may indeed have
started the WPSA on the downward trend that wound up with its dissolution
not that many years later. Having proven his point by regaining an elite
status in such compelling fashion, knowing what a grind it would be to
battle a stayer of Talbott’s stature week in and week out (not to mention
star performers like Sanchez, Ned Edwards and John Nimick, as well as
rising stars Kenton Jernigan, Hector Barragan and Greg Zaff), by this
time well ensconced in a business career trading gold commodities and
still having to contend with nagging strains and muscle pulls, a legacy
of his frenetic all-out attacking style, Desaulniers was unable to muster
up the hunger and motivation that he knew would be needed for him to flourish.

Rather than
play at anything less than his best, knowing first-hand how great a decline
just a little slippage had the capacity to occasion and determined to
exit the game this time while on top, Desaulniers retired from a WPSA
tour in whose evolution he had played so major a role with his personality
and meteoric achievements, all of which made him one of the most historically
significant players in the history of the game.

(photos anyone? Please
send to editor@squashtalk.com or to SquashTalk, 409 Massachusetts Ave,
Acton MA 01720.



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