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> Henri R. Salaun

The Little
Maestro: Henri Salaun

US National Champion 4 Times,
North American Open Winner, Age Group Record Holder


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

Henri Salaun, Great
Champion from Boston

In the 96 years since the USSRA began
holding its national championships, no figure has made nearly as many
appearances on its champions roster over as long a period as Henri Raoul
Salaun, the stylish French-born shotmaking artist and four-time winner
(’55, ’57, ’58 and ’61) of the U. S. Nationals, an event he played in
from 1950, when as an unheralded and unseeded entrant he almost knocked
off the fearsome Diehl Mateer in a five-game second-rounder, through 1966,
when, just months shy of his 40th birthday, he turned back the clock in
a magical run to the semis.

Henri Salaun warms up in 1958

In addition to his quartet of titles,
Salaun reached the Nationals final in ’51, ’54, ’56, ’60 and ’64, losing by
one point in the fifth to Ed Hahn in ’51 and in five games to Mateer (whom
he led two games to one) in ’60, and advanced to at least the semis no fewer
than 10 times, including an eight-year run from 1954-61, even though he was
forced by injury to withdraw twice during the 1960’s.

He also won the first-ever North American
Open championship in 1954, defeating Hashim Khan 15-14 in the third and
last game of the final, as well as a record six Canadian Nationals (four
in a row from 1956-59), a record seven Harry Cowles Invitationals, two
Gold Racquets titles and a combined 26 USSRA age-group championships,
a total which, like his 39 individual victories in the annual Tri-City
(New York, Boston and Philadelphia) Lockett Cup competition, dwarfs that
of everybody else.

Salaun’s loss to Bill Wilson in the
final of the 2002 USSRA 70-and-over tourney at the Harvard Club of New
York this past February occurred a staggering 51 years after his inaugural
appearance in a USSRA Nationals final, representing a time spread that
no one has ever come close to duplicating.

That long-ago beginning may have been
the most exciting Nationals final in the nearly century-long history of
this event. The 24-year-old Salaun, playing in just his second Nationals,
defeated Harry Conlon (who would win this crown one year later), Jack
Isherwood and a somewhat past-his-prime Charlie Brinton, who had won four
consecutive Nationals in the early- and mid-1940’s, to reach the final.

There he went up against the 38-year-old
defending champion Ed Hahn, who had attained that stage via a semi-final
win over Roger Bakey of Boston in the semi-final match preceding Salaun’s
balancing match with Brinton. Midway through his four-game victory over
Brinton, Salaun broke a string in the only racquet he brought to Chicago
and had to finish that match and play the final with a racquet he borrowed
from the by-then-vanquished Bakey, whose racquet was much more tightly
strung than what Salaun was accustomed to.

This was indeed an ironic development
for someone who not too long afterwards started what would become a successful
sports equipment company specializing in racquet sales, including a number
of shoe models that bear the Salaun name, which latter fact indeed would
cause him to be declared ineligible for two National 40-and-over tourneys
in the 1970’s for running afoul of the very strict-constructionist USSRA
rules regarding professionalism at that time! In any event, Salaun never
felt fully comfortable with Bakey’s racquet, but still managed to grab
a two games to one lead before falling way behind early in the fourth

At that juncture, Salaun’s relative inexperience
caused him to commit a tactical error that he still lamented in an interview
decades later; had he pressed Hahn all the way through that fourth game, he
quite possibly would not have been able to make up the sizable deficit he
faced but he almost certainly would have forced his aging foe to expend valuable
energy in closing out that game that he therefore would not have been able
to draw upon in the decisive fifth. Instead, Salaun let the fourth game go
and before he knew it the still-fresh Hahn embarked on a shooting spree early
in the fifth, volleying a series of sharply-hit nicks and winners that brought
him to a seemingly insurmountable 10-1 lead. Incredibly, Salaun responded
with a combination of his own winners and some nervous Hahn tins as his once-huge
margin steadily diminished that added up to a 12-3 run and evened the score
at 13-all. After a Hahn no-set call and a pair of split points, the 1951 National
Championship rested on a single simultaneous match-point. A nerve-racking
series of cautious left-wall exchanges finally ended when Salaun tried to
lob a tight Hahn rail back into play and, perhaps in part due to the unfamiliar
tightness of his borrowed racquet, over-lifted the ball to such a degree that
it soared just above the back-wall boundary, landing in fact in the first
row of the gallery in the most unwelcoming lap of a friend of Salaun’s who
had placed a bet on him to win!

Hashim congratulates Henri for
his 1954 North American Open win.

After a pair of subsequent five-game quarter-final
Nationals losses to Carter Fergusson in ’52 and to defending champion Conlon
in ’53, Salaun rode the momentum he had generated one month earlier in his
’54 North American Open win over Khan to attain the first of what eventually
became five consecutive appearances in the finals of the Nationals, with losses
to Mateer in ’54 and ’56 more than counter-balanced by titles in ’55 (when
he defeated ’53 champion Ernie Howard of Canada in the final), ’57, when he
avenged Mateer’s previous pair of final-round triumphs over him one and three
years prior and handily won the final fourth game after Mateer had saved two
third-game match-points, and ’58, when he again defeated Mateer in the final.

That latter tournament began inauspiciously
for Salaun, whose title defense seemed doomed when he incurred a bad upper-respiratory
infection earlier that week. He showed up at Annapolis very unsure as
to whether he would even be able to play, an uncertainty that only grew
when Navy’s legendary coach Arthur Potter escorted him to the infirmary,
where he was provided a potion that so jolted his system that later that
evening in his hotel room the entire room seemed to be spinning crazily
out of control. But ultimately he was aided by both the medication and
a fortuitous draw that byed him through the first round and thus gave
him additional time to rest. He barely got past Conlon, 15-13 in the fifth,
after dropping the first two games, but was rejuvenated enough by the
time he played Ray Widelski in the semis to win that match easily and
follow that up with a close four-game final over Mateer.

Salaun and Mateer would face eachother
in the finals of the ’60 and ’61 Nationals as well, with Mateer surmounting
a two games to one deficit to defeat Salaun for the last time in ’60 and
Salaun earning a four-game victory the following year. All told, they
split six National finals during the eight-year period from 1954-61. Mateer
complemented his trio of National titles with North American Open crowns
in ’55 and ’59, while Salaun won the ’54 North American Open (and was
runner-up to Roshan Khan four years later), plus his four National Singles

Between them, they won every one of
the 11 editions of the Cowles event from 1950-60 and all but one of the
Canadian Nationals from 1950-59. Mateer buttressed his singles achievements
with a record 11 National Doubles titles from 1949-66 with five different
partners (Hunter Lott, Calvin MacCracken, Dick Squires, John Hentz and
Ralph Howe), while Salaun has dominated the National age-group categories
to a degree that, barring an absolute miracle, will never be approached,
much less equaled.

1954 NA Open Profiled in LIFE

Their extended rivalry at the very pinnacle
of the amateur game must therefore most properly be ruled a draw, which in
no way detracts from the fascination it came to acquire not only throughout
the squash world but in the larger American community as well. This latter
phenomenon was graphically symbolized both by the substantial article that
appeared in Life Magazine during the winter of 1954 describing Salaun’s unexpected
15-7, 12 and 14 win over Khan in the first-ever North American Open final
and, perhaps more significantly, by the cover of the February 10th, 1958 issue
of Sports Illustrated, which consisted of a close-up frontal photo of the
two stars warming up before yet another final with the caption “Squash Champions
Henri Salaun and Diehl Mateer.”

As often occurs when two top players
become locked in an ongoing series of competitions for their sport’s most
revered trophies over a significant portion of their overlapping careers,
the Mateer-Salaun rivalry developed a unique identity forged in large
part by the substantial contrast that existed in personality and playing
style between these protagonists. Mateer’s game, like the man himself,
was built along clean and classic lines and had an all-American golden-boy
feel to it in the best sense of the term; blond, muscular and handsome,
he was blessed with great power, size, mobility, touch and all-around
athleticism, and his fundamentally sound strokes were developed in squash’s
mecca, the Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia. He was above
all else a power player, who volleyed everything within his long reach
and attempted, usually successfully, to physically impose his game on
his out-classed opposition. Salaun, on the other hand, was small and lean,
the personification of economical but effective footwork, who glided,
seemingly effortlessly, to the ball and had as well the maddening capacity
to place it just enough out of reach to avoid being cut off or retrieved.

He was probably the most astute strategist
and counter-puncher in the game and his retrieving, patience, willingness
to play long points and deft execution of lobs and front-wall shots (all
of which seemed to die just before reaching the far side wall) provided
potent antidotes to power players like Mateer, Howard and Stephen Vehslage,
all of whom experienced varying degrees of frustration in their attempts
to overpower their less imposing adversary with pure heat. Salaun lacked
the thunderbolts these sluggers possessed, operating instead with the
murderous aplomb of a dinner guest quietly pocketing his host’s most expensive

Whenever he played Mateer, the leading
representative of the power game, the question always was which exponent
of these diametrically opposite playing styles would prevail on that particular
occasion. The undulating quality this rivalry acquired during the 1950’s
and early 1960’s, with neither player ever able to put together a winning
streak that lasted more than a few matches, made the outcome of each of
their final-round summits impossible to predict and imbued every one of
their several-dozen meetings with a tenor of its own. What can be said
with much more assurance is that Mateer had had his fill of high-level
squash by the time he reached his mid-30’s, while Salaun has maintained
his interest all the way to his 76-year-old present. Whether this characteristic
has its genesis in his difficult early years is subject to speculation.

Born April 6, 1926 in France, he was
forced in 1940 at age 14 to flee the Nazis with his mother on a mine-sweeper
that took them from Brittany to England, from which they took a freighter
as part of a British convoy one year later to Halifax, Nova Scotia and
eventually made their way to Boston, where they stayed for awhile with
friends of his maternal grandfather, Dr. Raoul Coquelin, an avid tennis
player, who was so inspired by a trip to the famed Roland Garros, the
site of the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam events in tennis,
that he built his own clay tennis court. Several of Salaun’s uncles attained
nationally rankings, and Henri excelled in this sport at Deerfield, the
noted New England prep school where he spent his last two high school
years, as well as in soccer and squash, which he discovered during his
senior year and in which he rapidly improved. Salaun’s paternal grandfather,
the first of what has now become four generations of Henri Salauns, was
a First Admiral in the French Navy during World War I and into the 1920’s.

Though Salaun graduated from Deerfield
in 1943, his time at Wesleyan was interrupted after his freshman year
by two years of military service, where he was under the command of General
George Patton, and he therefore didn’t graduate college until 1949, having
attained all-American status in soccer and tennis. His squash career began
in earnest shortly thereafter and, as noted, by 1951 he had reached his
first Nationals final, where he fell that one simultaneous match-point
short in his rollercoaster fifth game with Hahn. He won his fourth and
last Nationals exactly one decade later, conquering Mateer in the last
Nationals meeting between these two titans on the latter’s home turf in
Philadelphia, but was prevented from defending in Buffalo the following
year when he tore a plantaris muscle 10 days before the event was to begin
and couldn’t recover in time.

Two years after that, he emerged
from a brutal five-game semi-final with Harvard senior star Victor Niederhoffer
too drained to have anything left for his final with Niederhoffer’s Yale
contemporary Ralph Howe, who won in four games. A pre-tournament back
injury that worsened dramatically after his first-round match ended Salaun’s
chances and forced him to withdraw at Hartford in ’65, but one year later
he engineered a glorious last hurrah in New York when he entered mostly
as a favor to the tournament committee and to revisit the site of his
triumph seven years earlier, and punctuated this appearance with a four-game
upset win over the top-seeded defending champion Vehslage before bowing
in overtime-in-the-fourth in the semis to Sam Howe. A glorious last hurrah
for Salaun’s Nationals career in the OPEN division, that is—he would
win the 40-and-over throughout the first five years of his eligibility
(1967-71) and six times overall, a figure which well might be even higher
had he not missed those two years when he was declared ineligible.

In 1968, in fact, the Nationals was
held in Boston, where Salaun has been based for the past several decades.
He and his wife Emily co-chaired the event, the last Nationals to have
a big (12-piece) band and a black-tie dinner, and Salaun’s considerable
administrative duties did not prevent him from defending his 40-and-over
title with his second straight final-round win over tennis great Vic Seixas,
who had won this flight from 1964-66. Then from 1977-81 he would similarly
win five straight USSRA 50-and-over flights, and six of seven, and on
and on it went.

There is no age-group category right
through the 70-and-over which he hasn’t won at least four times or at
least twice in a row, despite medical maladies over the years ranging
from elbow problems to rotator cuff surgery to a prostate operation. In
San Francisco in 1983, in fact, he opted not to defend the 55-and-over
title he had won in Washington the previous year, deciding instead to
“play down” in the 50-and-over division, which he won in a highly entertaining
though straight-set final against his longtime opponent Charlie Ufford,
his adversary in a rivalry whose matches went both ways, though usually
to Salaun, during their numerous battles in Open and age-group Nationals

Both Ufford and Jay Nelson, another
multiple Nationals age-group champion, cited Salaun’s exceptional control
of the pace, placement and spin of the ball when asked to identify the
most formidable aspect of Henri’s game. The drop shots died just that
little bit closer to the front wall than anyone else’s, the three-walls
had a troublesome tendency to roll insolently out of the nick and the
lobs, rails and crosscourts were directed just enough out of reach to
undo an opponent’s balance and court positioning.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries
who have cashed in their squash and business chips long ago, Salaun today
is still so busy with his sports equipment company that several interviews
for this article had to be scheduled more than a week in advance to accommodate
his brimming and travel-laden schedule. He has maintained both his playing
weight and competitive ardor in both squash and New England tennis, in
which he has enjoyed great success over the years as well.

He certainly remains as sharp, lively
and feisty as ever, even to the point of voicing a contrary opinion at
the general meeting at the most recent hardball Nationals in New York
several months ago, which led to an interesting debate regarding the selection
of future sites for this annual tournament. On this occasion and in many
other ways, on and off the court, Henri Salaun continues to demonstrate
the well-known and ongoing acumen and spirit that, along with his record-shattering
list of achievements, have propelled him to the fully deserved status
this first-ballot Squash Hall of Fame inductee has long since attained
as one of the absolute leading figures in the history of American squash
for more than half a century.


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