New York. July 15 2001 First Published
1989 © 2001 Rob Dinerman
The Role of Squash Rivalries
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 hesitancy 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 70’s and 80’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 70’s and extending to 1992, that the WPSA Tour, which was in
its infancy as the 70’s began, rose to prominance before merging with the
world PSA softball tour in the mid 90’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
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
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
Though Niederhoffer’s heavy-footed movement
seemed a sorry substitute for Sharif’s effortless grace, his sharp eyes, exceptional
handspeed, 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 unheroic 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 ’70s 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 perseverence 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, -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
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 we have seen 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 unexpectly 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 picing 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 80s began.
If this chronological disparity brought
understandable stamina 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
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 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.
To finish this article turn to:
Part III: The Mid Eighties: Jahangir and Mark