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WPSA Rivalries: A Historical Retrospective - Part III --- Talbott vs Jahangir
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
It is a tribute to both the longevity of Sharif's supremacy and the swiftness of Mark Talbott's ascent that Desaulniers's time at the top seemed so ephemeral. The 1982-83 campaign had no sooner begun when it became obvious that the soft-spoken Talbott had made giant strides with his game while Desaulniers, hampered both by leg injuries and, perhaps, the burn-out effects of his own sparkling incandescence, had lost much of his intimidating bravado.
Talbott reached the finals of all 17 ranking tournaments that season, winning 15 of them, including every major title, and the autumn of '83 saw no diminution of either the eagerness or energy supply that were the cornerstone of Talbott's patient and error-free style. Mark's marvelous conditioning and concentration levels belied a gentle disposition and friendly manner that made him a far less antagonistic target than some of his more fiery predecessors had been. Thus, by mid-November of '83, when the Boston Open rolled around, an atmosphere of easy stability was beginning to surround the tour, and the 23-year-old Talbott's predominance among his protagonists seemed assured for a considerable time to come.
Into this scenario strode a darkly handsome paragon with picture-book racquetwork and the ability to maneuver his supple musculature with the lithe grace of a dancer. Jahangir Khan, who had spent the past several seasons first challenging and then surpassing Geoff Hunt for supremacy in the softball game, had by this juncture consolidated his position firmly in Europe and turned his attention across the Atlantic Ocean to the challenges and opportunities that the North American game had to offer.
Over he came in quest of his claim that he could be the best of both games, for Jahangir understood that, however complete his domination of the international game, only by conquering his WPSA counterparts as well could he truly "unify the title" and establish himself as indisputably the greatest squash player in the world.
If Jahangir's competitive North American debut was attended with considerable pre-tournament conjecture as how well he could adjust in switching abruptly to so markedly different a game, the issue seemed especially pertinent in his second-round encounter with Tom Page, whose blasted drives and exuberent athleticism swiftly presented Jahangir with both a two-game deficit and the sobering possibility of having his entire expedition end in failure. From this ill-boding juncture, Jahangir stormed through twelve straight games, the final three coming by devastating margins over Mark Talbott, who was only able to garner 8, 8 and 5 in the first and most one-sided of the eleven meetings --- all in finals --- that they would have over the course of the next thirty months. The fact that Jahangir would wind up playing in only 13 WPSA tournaments during this period points up the degree to which this pair dominated the rest of the field en route to their special Sunday summits.
The infrequency of Jahangir's appearances in North America lay not only in the demands of the ISPA circuit but also in the perspicacity of his advisory team, whose shrewd strategy was to have Jahangir execute a series of well-spaced sorties designed to bring him much of the WPSA's prize money and all of its major titles while denying his opponents the opportunity to acclimatize to his lethal stroke production, fitness and patience.
Jahangir's presence at a tournament could be likened to that of the most striking woman at a party; if the mood of the room changed and there was eyeball telepathy wherever she went, so the atmosphere was on a noticeably different frequency when Jahangir was around; it became charged with gratifying possibilities, the musk of encounter was in the air.
Nor was this aura diminished by the inscrutable front he steadfastly maintained, which made him a bit mysterious even to the close-knit contingent of his Pakistani comrades and kin. But if figuring out Jahangir was frustrating, defeating him was virtually impossible, as Jahangir most emphatically demonstrated in one stretch in May '85, during which he won the finals of the British Open, Concorded over to New York and proceeded to win the North American Open as well, rising superior to fatigue, letdown jet lag, and the best that both versions of the sport had to offer.
This universality of supremacy seems a particularly instructive point to those spectators and journalists who yielded to the temptation to bill the Talbott-Khan rivalry as a barometer for the relative merits of the two games and thus inferred from Jahangir's 10-1 record the superiority of international-ball players over their North American counterparts. Such conclusions seem, to this writer, to be seriously flawed both because of the mediocrity most other ISPA stars exhibited in their visits to WPSA hardball competition and because Jahangir's domination of the international-ball circuit throughout the mid-80s was, if anything, even more extreme than was the case in North America.
The difference, as Jahangir consistently proved in every major tournament with either ball, was simply between himself and everyone else.
Khan's fruitful forays onto the WPSA circuit ended as suddenly as they began when at the conclusion of the 1985-86 season he decided to concentrate his energies solely on the softball game going forward.
It is unfortunate that their rivalry turned out to be so brief; both men were injury-free and only in their early 20s at that point, and might well have met close to 50 times had Jahangir decided to remain on the WPSA tour.
In summing up their three seasons of top-level competition one cannot acknowledge Jahangir's clear-cut statistical dominance without also declaiming the rewards Talbott earned from the enthusiasm with which he responded to this enormous challenge. While the thrilling 18-16 fifth-game victory he registered in the finals of the '84 Boston Open was a landmark moment in Mark's career, the more enduring legacy he gained from Jahangir's presence was in the substantial improvements he was motivated to make in what was already a highly successful game.
Talbott acquired a personal coach in the respected Ken Binns; upgraded his volleying to put greater time pressure on his opponents; and, most importantly, developed a much sharper array of shots than he had previously possessed.
Many players would have been traumatized by the string of losses that Jahangir administered, but Mark's irrepressible competitive ardor caused him to instead react by continuing to dominate the tour throughout the lengthy period after Jahangir's departure. There is no question that Talbott's game and career record reached levels that would not have been attainable were it not for Jahangir's presence; nor is there any doubt that, had Jahangir reconsidered his decision and returned to the WPSA circuit, Talbott would have been better prepared than ever to duplicate his Boston break-through.
Whether Mark's additional firepower and repetoire of shots would indeed be enough to swing the balance against so redoubtable an adversary is, sadly, forever to be subject to speculation. What is known, however, is that their rivalry both confirmed Jahangir's standing as the world's top squash player in both games and inspired Talbott to become, equally undeniably, the greatest American player in the history of the hardball game.
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What can, however, be confidently stated is that each of these three rivalries represented an immense commitment on the part of both competitors that communicated itself on a visceral level to those fortunate enough to witness their memorable and extended battles.
To read the first two parts of this article turn to: Parts I and II: Sharif and Victor Niederhoffer and Sharif and Michael Desaulniers
A summary of the great world Squash Rivalries:
Jahangir Khan vs Mark Talbott:
1983 Boston Open Final;
Jahangir Khan 10
Mark and Jahangir ... Mark Talbott exploded onto the WPSA Tour with sudden dominance in 1982. Why? He had spent a full year in South Africa training and learning the softball game... when he returned to the WPSA tour, he won with the patience, conservative length, percentage squash, and fitness characteristic of the softball game at the time .... Now onto the scene came Jahangir --- a totally dominant softball player. Because Mark played basically a softball game, and he was now matched against possibly the best ever at the softball game --- his style was not one that was going to give Jahangir extreme difficultly. His one win, though, at Boston in the fall of 1984, was certainly a milestone and kept Jahangir on the North American circuit for another year.... Rather, it was players like Tom Page and Mario Sanchez that pressed Jahangir the most.