Michael Desaulniers, The Man who Dethroned the King
Cowles: Teacher ... Briggs: Natural Talent and Champion ... Kurtz: Pioneer
SquashTalk Player Profiles
September 20, 2004, By Rob Dinerman © 2004 SquashTalk All Rights in all Media Reserved
SHARIF KHANS DECADE-LONG HARDBALL REIGN
This cat-quick hyper-kinetic dynamo was for a half dozen years the most exciting player in the game and the one who will go down in history as the man who finally ended Sharif Khan's legendary and decade-plus reign as the top hardball player in the world.
More than a half-dozen serious rivals, from Mohibullah Khan to Victor Niederhoffer to Rainer Ratinac to Stu Goldstein, expended their entire careers trying and failing to accomplish this feat during a period that extended well over a decade, but in 1981-82, through a combination of his own prepossessing competitive and athletic talents and Khan's advancing years, the 25-year-old Harvard graduate (class of '80) became the first Canadian to win the North American Open (by toppling the 12-time champ and six-time defender Khan in the final) and the first as well to claim the WPSA No. 1 ranking.
The Desaulniers takeover had been impending for some time (he actually held the top ranking for a few weeks during the winter of '81 before being overtaken by Khan that spring), beginning with his breakthrough performance in the '80 WPSA Championship in New York, where he successively defeated both Stu Goldstein and Khan, in each case in four games, before losing to Clive Caldwell in the final. That tournament graphically brought out all of the qualities that characterized the Desaulniers squash persona, the operative word for which was FAST, lightning fast, in fact.
His rise through the junior (U. S. titles in '75 and '76), intercollegiate (U. S. champion in '77, '78 and '80 after missing the '79 event with a broken foot), Open (U. S. Nationals winner in '78 and '80) and professional ranks was in each case incredibly swift. So was his fall from that position during the '82-'83 season, which began with a first-round loss (in five games to Tom Page in Rochester) in the season-opening event, progressed from there with a series of back and hamstring injuries, a hernia operation, visa difficulties and sagging confidence and wound up with Desaulniers out of the top 20 and effectively off the tour for several years.
So was his comet-like comeback, which began during the latter portion of the '84-'85 campaign and really took off the following year, becoming probably the foremost story-line of that season and certainly leaving him superbly positioned to continue and consolidate his regained elevated standing going into the '86-87 tour. And so too was the way that comeback ended, with Desaulniers, still in his 20's but clearly satisfied that he had proven himself beyond challenge, opting instead to disappear from the WPSA competitive picture as quickly and emphatically as he had re-appeared in its top echelons.
No one could cope with what he threw at them during his torrid surge during the spring of '82, when he wrested the North American Open title away from Khan's six-year grasp in Cleveland and barged through the draw at the season-ending World Series of Squash at the Yale Club Of New York, burying runner-up Gordy Anderson under a barrage of nicks throughout a one-sided 15-6 third and final game. He thereby added that trophy to a collection that during the previous 18 months had included the '80 Boston Open, the '81 WPSA Championship, the '82 North American Open, as noted, plus tour stops in Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, Greenwich, Rye and St. Louis.
There was a 22-match winning streak embedded in a 29-1 run during that period, as well as seven consecutive WPSA ranking tournament singles final-round victories and a 1982 WPSA Doubles Team Of The Year Award with his partner Maurice Heckscher. By the end of his career-highlight 1981-82 season, his first at No. 1 after two previous season-end No. 2 rankings behind Khan, Desaulniers was in as dominant a position atop the WPSA ladder as Khan, or anyone else in the history of the game, for that matter, had ever been.
But the very incandescence that so fueled Desaulniers's game may also have contributed to the definite case of burn-out that caused his hard-won reign to prove so fleeting and his fall from the top so precipitous the following 1982-83 season. His competitive polar opposite, Mark Talbott, played a far less frenetic, more patient, error-free game and evinced a correspondingly more laid-back approach that almost appeared to lull his opponents rather than assault them, as Desaulniers and his immediate predecessor Khan preferred to do.
Just as the key moment when Desaulniers displaced Khan occurred in their '82 North American Open final, when an early 1-0, 8-1 Khan lead dissolved before a determined Desaulniers surge to victory both in that game and throughout the third and fourth, so the defining moment in Talbott's move past Desaulniers came in another WPSA major tournament, the '82 Boston Open, the site of the latter's first major title two years earlier and the city where he had performed so brilliantly as a collegian.
But Talbott unflappably weathered the constant barrage, lobbed and extemporized his way out of trouble, coolly glided to virtually everything that was hit and pocketed a pair of slightly desperate Desaulniers tins to seal the 18-16 fourth-game match-ending tiebreaker.
For Talbott, who proceeded to win the next-day final handily over Mario Sanchez, this win truly signified his advance to the top spot among his WPSA counterparts and launched him to a season-long record (all 17 WPSA finals, 15 of them victorious) that for sheer volume has never been equaled. And conversely for Desaulniers, who this time had truly put himself on the line and seen one of his greatest all-time efforts come up, albeit barely, short, the myth of his at-his-best invincibility had been permanently and publicly punctured, and the bravado that had been a Desasulniers trademark would subsequently evaporate as well during the injuries and losses to lesser opponents that followed. He didn't even enter the late-season Yale Club event he had overwhelmingly won the year before, didn't even play enough events during the ensuing 1983-84 season to avoid "insufficient data" status and was no longer a visible presence on the WPSA radar when the 1984-85 schedule commenced.
Maybe it was the WPSA Doubles title that he and younger brother Bradley won that season (and the next), making him the first (and to this point only) player ever to win both the WPSA and North American Open doubles and singles titles. Or it might have been his return to full health following several years of nagging hurts and maladies. Possibly it was the emergence of the immense challenge and opportunity provided by Jehangir Khan, who starting in 1983-84 began a series of well-spaced sorties onto North American soil that brought him most of the hardball tour's prize money and major titles in the latter's successful mission to "unify the title" and distinguish himself as the world's best hardball AND softball player simultaneously. Most likely it was some combination of these factors, buttressed by a personal discomfort at having his once-glorious career end on terms other than his own and with a whimper rather than on the high note it merited.
Everyone pretty much knew that that '86 Canadian Open was to be Khan's final WPSA appearance, as the latter had decided that three years of playing both the WPSA and international-ball circuits was enough, and that he would concentrate on the international game from that point onward. But no one suspected that it would also be the swan song for Desaulniers, who had just turned 29 at season's-end, clearly had several highly productive years still ahead of him and seemed solidly positioned to consolidate his newly regained standing and reap the rewards, both competitive and financial, of his successful return to a top-level WPSA ranking. All that summer tournament promoters excitedly anticipated the Talbott-Desaulniers rivalry that seemed certain to occur, complete with the fascinating contrast of styles and personalities such a series would entail, and the 1986-87 WPSA Pro Tour Program even had as its center photo an action shot of the Canadian star lashing into a full-bodied backhand, his whole body language conveying the confidence that he once again exuded.
Sadly it was not to be, and the self-removals from the tour of two such entertaining marquee performers as Desaulniers and Khan deprived the 1986-87 season of much of the excitement that has pervaded 1985-86, and may indeed have started the WPSA on the downward trend that wound up with its dissolution not that many years later. Having proven his point by regaining an elite status in such compelling fashion, knowing what a grind it would be to battle a stayer of Talbott's stature week in and week out (not to mention star performers like Sanchez, Ned Edwards and John Nimick, as well as rising stars Kenton Jernigan, Hector Barragan and Greg Zaff), by this time well ensconced in a business career trading gold commodities and still having to contend with nagging strains and muscle pulls, a legacy of his frenetic all-out attacking style, Desaulniers was unable to muster up the hunger and motivation that he knew would be needed for him to flourish.
play at anything less than his best, knowing first-hand how great a decline
just a little slippage had the capacity to occasion and determined to
exit the game this time while on top, Desaulniers retired from a WPSA
tour in whose evolution he had played so major a role with his personality
and meteoric achievements, all of which made him one of the most historically
significant players in the history of the game.
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