SquashTalk Player Profiles
Quotes from Victor Niederhoffer:
|Victor Niederhoffer: Opened up Squash|
July 2001, Concord MA, © 2001 SquashTalk
Niederhoffer, whose bulky, flat-footed appearance oncourt contrasted sharply with that of most top level squash players, was the main driving force in North America behind creating the "open era" of squash and the North American WPSA pro tour. He also made and lost a fortune and recently authored the eclectic autobiography, "Education of a Speculator."
Niederhoffer is possessed of the idea of excellence. He is wholly inner-directed. He is a loner, an intellectual, a champion. His desire for money and personal achievement has led him to become a PhD, an accomplish pianist, the creator of a multi-million dollar financial firm, and a speculator. His personal motto is "Create Value." For a long time he wore two different colored sneakers on court (to the total annoyance of the squash establishment in America,) sometimes with black tie, to remind himself, he says, that no two people are alike.
Niederhoffer's Harvard coach, the legendary Jack Barnaby, recalled a self-confident, arrogant pupil. "Early in his freshman year," Barnaby says, "before I ever met Vic, I learned that he was going around school saying that he intended to be the national squash champion. At that point Vic had never set foot on a squash court."
Of course Niederhoffer was right. He won the U.S. Nationals five times (a record exceeded only by Stanley Pearson who won his sixth in 1923) and would have won more if he hadn't stopped playing between 1967 and 1972 (more about that later,) three national doubles titles and one U.S. Open. He won the open in 1975 by defeating the great champion Sharif Khan. "Vic was not the greatest
natural talent I've come across," says Barnaby, "but he had tremendous drive and competitive spirit. He worked harder at it than anyone I ever instructed."
Niederhoffer didn't ever really look like a squash player. His six foot two inch frame was always strong, bulky and curiously inflexible. John Jacobs, the Harvard Club of NY's pro for 50 years, once remarked that, "Niederhoffer uses the racquet like a hammer." But body structure and inexperience were apparently unimportant. And Niederhoffer had some advantages --- he had grown up in New York playing one wall handball, and had developed advanced racket abilities that way. He had incredible hand-eye coordination and wrist quickness that gave him the ability to create deception.
Niederhoffer developed his game by practicing each shot individually until he mastered it and knew how to hit it from anywhere on the court. He trained alone, playing entire games with himself, hitting shots and making the appropriate returns. This drill was mixed with a grueling exercise regimen designed to fight his metabolic tendancy to flab. Niederhoffer's game became technically unimpeachable. He based it on the theory that the low risk shots, not the showy flamboyant ones are the winners and he pioneered an aggressive overhand serve, playing it too for the percentages. Critics considered his game plodding and colorless in its efficiency, more like watching a computer than an athlete, but Niederhoffer believed in out-foxing his opponents, not out-flashing them. This he learned growing up in Brooklyn.
Jim Wynne was his college roommate for all of their years at Harvard. They first met playing in junior tennis tournaments on suburban Long Island. Wynne recounted his first run-in with an impassioned, young Niederhoffer. Now, here comes Victor in his bedraggled tennis clothes and his basketball sneakers with the tongue flaps hanging out. "Vic was always aware," explains Wynne, "that he grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn, the other side of the tracks, and that he was Jewish. He always had something to prove. He would chew on glass to win."
Earlier that year Niederhoffer lost to national champion Henri Salaun in the semi-finals of the US Nationals. The verbal battles between Niederhoffer, Salaun, and the referee led to Niederhoffer's censure by the USSRA and a bloody nose at the hands of Salaun. But Niederhoffer attributes the incident to "deplorable refereeing." Says Tready Ketchum, then president of the USSRA, and a frequent referee of high level matches, "Victor would yell 'appeal' usually before his opponent had crossed the "T" in his let call. I used to tell him to at least count to ten before he opened his mouth, it would make a better impression. Sure, Vic was overbearing and not very popular for it, but the reason for it was that he knew the rules better than anyone, including many of the referees." He won every major amateur tournament in 1965, then captured his first national title in 1966. The next one was not to come for five years.
ELITISM AND DISCRIMINATION
While in Chicago, Niederhoffer applied to membership to the city's five private clubs that had squash facilities. He was turned down by all five. His version is that he was denied membership by anti-semites. One of the clubs, Lake Shore, was the location for the 1967 National Tournament, and Victor opted not to defend his championship. Tready Ketchum investigated the situation at the time and recalls, "Vic had his reputation for abrasiveness that didn't sit well. I'm not saying he wasn't discriminated against, maybe if he wasn't Jewish his behavior wouldn't have been an issue. The Lake Shore Club did have Jewish members, and I spoke to one of
them about Vic's rejection. The fellow said Niederhoffer wasn't turned down because he was a Jew, but because he was a Jew with a deportment problem." So Niederhoffer refused to compete in a sport where "I couldn't be treated as an equal," and with the exception of the 1968 National Doubles tournament, he left the game for the next five years. "I recognize a private club's right to refuse me membership," Niederhoffer said, "but the fact that the national tournament was being held in this kind of closed environment is typical of the short-sighted, elitist attitudes of the ruling body. This kind of thinking deterred me from playing the game at a time in my life when I could have given competitors and spectators a lot of pleasure."
Niederhoffer made his return to squash. In his absence, the Indian hall of fame player, Anil Nayar, had risen to prominence and won the past three National Championships.
In the first tourney of that season, with Niederhoffer rusty and out of shape, Niederhoffer lost to Nayar in the finals. From that point on, though, to the amazement of most observers, Niederhoffer dominated Nayar and won back the championship at Detroit that year.
THE HARVARD CLUB
I was about to ssuggest that I would prefer to know about his financial conquests when I became aware of a small, conservatively well-dressed man standing over us. He was glaring at Niederhoffer's pale blue T-shirt with U.S. Open Philadelphia 1977, across the front. The small man cleared his throat.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Niederhoffer," he said tentatively.
Mr. Niederhoffer said nothing.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Niederhoffer, that this time everything is wrong."
Niederhoffer broke into the first truly amused grin I had witnessed in all our meetings.
"The rules of the club, as you well know, are that gentlemen must wear ties and jackets, conduct themselves in an orderly fashion, and there should be no conspicuous display of papers. I'm afraid, Mr. Niederhoffer, that I must ask you to leave," the man concluded fearfully.
We gathered our paraphenalia and rode the elevator to the sixth floor squash area. Niederhoffer was visibly embarassed. We went outside through a fire door and sat on the tarred roof. Niederhoffer laughed at the incident and griped about the irony of not being allowed to conduct business in a club of businessmen.
A FUTURE OF SQUASH
It was the fall of 1975. Victor had collected his fifth national title the previous spring, and didn't feel that he had been tested by the best --- the best, he knew, were the pros --- at that time Sharif and Mo Khan, and veterans like Rainer Ratinac and Ken Binns. Victor decided on a dramatic move --- he was going to defect to the pro ranks. Victor showed up at the Boston Open --- at that time the second most prestigious Pro event in North America and entered not as an amateur, but as a pro. He circulated a press release announcing his reasons --- but the unstated one was to shake up the squash establishment and open up the game.
Victor in 1977 became a leader of the burgeoning pro organization --- as the existing pros, especially the Khan clan, realized that Victor's financial knowhow, drive, and organization could benefit them all.
By his lead, he recruited other former "amateur" players to join the pro ranks -- Frank Satterthwaite, and then a growing group of players, so that the real competition was now taking place at the open events.
Satterthwaite said, "With Vic at the helm, the pro association was a very exciting place to be. He lined up some sponsors for new tournaments and negotiated better deals for the pros as the circuit started to open up."
This growth was also made possible by the confluence of the pro groups efforts to build a tour with the emergence of public squash clubs, pioneered by Harry Saint and his New York Town Squash. The Boodles Gin Tournament, held at Saint's Uptown Racquet Club was a cornerstone of this new direction.
So Victor succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. By 1979, a year after Victor's retirement from active play, there was a vibrant pro tour and most of the top players had defected to the "open" game. The traditional "invitational" amateur events, held in the stuffy, closed venues Niederhoffer had railed against, immediately became footnotes to the main event, the open tour. And the pro association gained in stature and power, providing checks and balances against the directions of the USSRA.
END OF THE FIGHT
Niederhoffer gave up competitive squash. At 34, it was getting harder for him to keep in shape, the demands on his time were greater with business booming and his family growing. He sprained his ankle very badly in the 1976 Metropolitan Open. It was a signal to him, but because he had turned pro the year before and committed himself to playing and organizing he finished the 1977-78 season.
He did not do very well. "I felt like I was playing like a dispassionate observer," Niederhoffer said, "like I was someone in the grandstand. I also got to thinking when I was beating the amateurs, like Tom Page and Michael Desaulniers, who I knocked off last year, that it was too bad for me to be beating those guys."
He ruminates a bit about not having the chance to beat Sharif Khan one more time. "I was the only one at the top who didn't play squash full time. If I had I would have been clearly better than anyone else in the game." Niederhoffer had been searching for words to explain his retirement and now he found them. "What it is," he said, "is that I've lost the killer instinct."
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