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>Harry Conlon

Conlon, 1952 National Champion



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2004, By Rob Dinerman © 2002 SquashTalk
Photos: © 2001 SquashTalk


Harry Conlon attempted a defence of his national title
despite having been posted to Thule, Greenland all year. Photo courtesy
Robert Conlon © SquashTalk LLC

youngest player ever to win the U. S. Nationals and the first to do so
while an active member of the armed services of the United States, Harry
Conlon took up the game in 1946 at age 13 and learned the game from his
father, Harry A. Conlon, who was the squash professional at the former
University Club (now called Allentown Athletix) in Buffalo, where the
junior Conlon was born.

During the next
several years, he would go over to the University Club almost every day
after school to practice by himself, receive coaching from his father
if he was not too busy or practice with club players such as Henry Jocoy,
Jinx Johnson, Bob Rich or Bill Johnson, among others, who might come in
during the afternoons without a scheduled partner.

From a truly
inauspicious beginning in the autumn of ’47 as a participant on the YMCA
team in the newly formed C class Buffalo league, the slender but cat-quick
teenager swiftly perfected all the front-court shots and developed rifle-like
shots off the back wall. After losing the ’50 city singles final to local
legend Monty Pooley, Conlon won that event the following year, but his
squash prospects appeared to be effectively doomed, or at least severely
constrained, when a few months later he joined the United States Air Force
following his high school graduation and was assigned to Scott Field,
Illinois, with duties in cryptography.

However, by
chance his base commander was a club-level squash enthusiast from nearby
St. Louis, and when the latter realized the talent level of his young
charge he encouraged him to play regularly both on the base and in St.
Louis. This fortuitous circumstance enabled Conlon to participate in a
number of tournaments in the area during the 1951-52 season, including
the Western Championship, the biggest event in the region, where he lost
in the final round to the reigning two-time National Champion Ed Hahn.


It would be a Pyrrhic victory for the latter, however, as by the time
the two next met, in the semis of the Nationals in New Haven a few weeks
later, Conlon had made the necessary adjustments to pull away in the last
half of his 15-13 9-15 15-9 15-10 ticket to the final. There he faced
Haverford College star Diehl Mateer in a classic confrontation of styles
and backgrounds. Mateer struck a dashing figure with his fundamentally
sound strokes off both flanks, the product of his squash upbringing at
the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, then as now the mecca
of American squash, where he learned the game from their two great pros,
William White and Brendan McCrory, and former national champions like
Hunter Lott and Charlie Brinton. His classic game also featured constant
volleying, percentage shot-making and the powerful forehand that would
eventually bring him three U. S. National titles and two North American
Opens in a USSRA Hall Of Fame career.

Conlon, by contrast,
largely eschewed the volley, preferring to play many balls off the back
wall, where his exceptional late wrist action enabled him to whip the
ball past his bigger but less agile opponent, often wrong-footing him
and keeping him off balance both with this stroking style and with his
penchant for attempting daring shots even from difficult positions when
he thought the benefit was worth the risk. Merion by that juncture had
produced more than a half-dozen National Champions, while Buffalo was
considered a backwater squash city, but it was the Buffalonian Conlon
who eventually prevailed, surmounting two difficult mid-match lost overtime
games in the process and drawing relentlessly away in the mid-portion
of the decisive fifth game of the exciting, back-and-forth 15-12 14-15
15-11 16-18 15-8 victory that ensconced him, at age 19 and only four short
years removed from his debut as a Buffalo C player, as the youngest person
ever to win this championship, a distinction he still holds today.

The following
year Conlon made a memorable attempted defense of this title, despite
being stationed virtually throughout the intervening 12 months in Thule,
Greenland, where there are no squash courts, despite not playing in a
single competitive event during that time (while all his competitors were
honing their games in the dozen tourneys comprising the amateur circuit)
and despite taking only a couple of weeks’ leave just before the ’53 Nationals
to prepare for it. Inspired by the occasion and by the supportive presence
that weekend of his hometown fans (the Nationals was held in Buffalo that
year), Conlon barely edged out another future USSRA Hall Of Famer, Henri
Salaun, who would get his revenge in another exciting five-game match
in the Nationals five years later and who along with his great rival Mateer
would win seven of the next eight Nationals during the period from 1954-61


But his thrilling five-game win in the quarters over Salaun and the long
hiatus that had preceded this tournament would exact a price the following
day from Conlon, who then lost for the only time in his career to Cal
MacCracken, who then dropped the ensuing final to Ernie Howard, a Canadian
against whom Conlon went undefeated throughout his career. During the
decade that followed, with only a brief interlude of civilian life, Conlon
was ranked in the top eight almost every year, despite being stationed
for four years in Japan, where he played tennis almost exclusively, winning
in fact the Pacific Air Force championships in that sport in both singles
and doubles, as well as all military Japan championships that were held
during his time there.

Harry Conlon on court. Photo courtesy Robert Conlon
© SquashTalk LLC

His duties also
took him at various times to North Africa, Guam, Alaska, Seattle, Mississippi,
California, Colorado (where he won the state singles and doubles titles),
and Washington D. C., the most squash-friendly of his stations, where
he served three separate tours, during which he was able to win the Woodruff-Nee
and Saucon Valley invitational tournaments while reaching the finals of
the prestigious Harry Cowles, Gold Racquet and Atlantic Coast Invitationals.
During the latter stages of Conlon’s 26-year career in the Air Force,
he was stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where his
duties primarily revolved around the Cadet Athletic Department. He eventually
became the Non-Commissioned Officer in charge of all the cadet athletic
fields, field house and gymnasium and assisted (completely understandably)
with the Cadet Club squash program.

After serving
his country for more than a quarter-century, Conlon retired in 1977, settled
in Colorado and spent 20 years working for a telephone company before
retiring for good in 1997. Now in his early 70’s, he was elected to the
Buffalo Squash Racquets Association Hall Of Fame in 2002 (joining such
inducted luminaries as ’73 Nationals runner-up Bob Hetherington and ’79
North American Open finalist Gordy Anderson), though he was unable to
attend the induction ceremony in person. His good lifelong friend and
contemporary Ed Jocoy, himself well placed for a number of years in the
USSRA amateur and age-group rankings and the son of one of Conlon’s first
practice partners more than a half-century ago, accepted the plaque on
Conlon’s behalf and paid tribute to the accomplishments of one of the
most unique figures in the history of squash in this country.


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