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WPSA Rivalries: A Historical Retrospective

by Rob Dinerman

Great rivalries define both the sport's stars and the sport itself. Rob Dinerman, in an article first published in 1989, explores three great recent North American rivalries: Sharif Khan vs Victor Niederhoffer, Sharif Khan vs Mike Desaulniers and Jahangir Khan vs Mark Talbott.

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 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 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 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 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 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 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

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

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Sharif Khan vs Victor Niederhoffer:

1967 North American Open Quarterfinals;
         Victor Niederhoffer 3-2
1972 North American Open Finals;
         Sharif Khan 3-1
1974 Teaneck Open Semifinals;
         Sharif Khan 3-2
1975 North American Open Finals
         Victor Niederhoffer 3-1
1975 Boston Open Finals
         Sharif Khan 3-0
1976 Montreal Open Finals
         Sharif Khan 3-1
1976 WPSA Finals
         Sharif Khan 3-0
1976 Boston Open Finals
         Sharif Khan 3-1
1976 Boodles Gin Open Finals
         Victor Niederhoffer 3-1
1977 Boodles Gin Semi Finals
         Sharif Khan 3-1

                                    Matches      Games

Sharif Khan                 7                   24
Victor Niederhoffer    3                   15

 

Victor and Sharif ... whereas the typical match with Sharif was always played at an accelerated pace, with Sharif rushing his opponent more and more until the opposition collapsed, Victor's contests with Sharif were all memorable and more resembled chess matches. The mesmerized spectators could see the great squash minds of both players spinning as they struggled to shift tactics rapidly and gain advantage over the opponent...

Victor's mind games --- usually involving constant parrying and discussion with the referee served to annoy and distract most of his opponents. But as far as Sharif was concerned, these discourses seemed to mainly serve as a source of amusement for Sharif, who would respond to Victor and the crowd with a broad smile and glib rejoinder...

One year at the Boston Open, Victor unveiled a highly unorthodox hard serve, that was launched by leaning into the center of the court and blasting the ball at the near wall for an unexpected ricochet. This serve worked well for him up until the finals... Sharif hadn't been sleeping... on Victor's first attempt at this wierd serve, Sharif stepped up and effortlessly volleyed the serve into the nick. Victor never attempted that particular trick serve again...

Sharif Khan vs Michael Desaulniers:

1977 North American Open, Round of 16
        Sharif Khan 3-1
1979 Montreal MAAA Final
        Sharif Khan 3-0
1979 Boodles Gin Final
        Sharif Khan 3-2
1980 WPSA Championship Semi finals
        Michael Desaulniers 3-1
1980 North American Open Finals
        Sharif Khan 3-1
1980 Montreal MAAA Semi Finals
        Sharif Khan 3-1
1980 Boodles Gin Open Finals
        Sharif Khan 3-0
1981 Minnesota Finals
        Michael Desaulniers 3-2
1981 WPSA Championship Finals
        Michael Desaulniers 3-2
1981 Detroit Open Finals
        Michael Desaulniers 3-1
1981 San Francisco Finals
        Michael Desaulniers 3-1
1981 Rochester Desenex Final
        Michael Desaulniers 3-0
1981 Detroit Open Final
        Sharif Khan 3-1
1981 Boston Open Final
        Sharif Khan 3-2
1982 Minnesota Open Final
        Michael Desaulniers 3-0
1982 Skyline Open Final
        Michael Desaulniers 3-2
1982 North American Open Final
        Michael Desaulniers 3-1
1982 Mennen Cup Final
        Sharif Khan 3-0
1986 Greenwich Open Quarters
        Michael Desaulniers 3-0

                                         Matches      Games

Michael Desaulniers        10               38
Sharif Khan                         9               37

Michael and Sharif ... Sharif in his mid thirties and Michael in his early twenties made an amazing rivalry... both player offered up a big dose of charisma both on and off the court... while Michael seemed hyperactive at all times, darting around, playing videogames at hyper-speed, nervously fidgeting, Sharif painted the picture of total confidence, often downing a large cheeseburger just before playing ... A large part of Sharif's game was the aura of physical domination that he created oncourt. With his wide, allseeing eagle eyes he would piercingly stare down his opponent and unleash extreme power at close range to back his opponent out of the center of the court... Michael, however, was not to be backed-off, and the classic photos of Michael and Sharif show them at extremely close range, jockeying to move each other out of the middle of the court ...