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Quotes from Victor Niederhoffer:

On extra effort: "The difference between winning and losing generally hang on a small thread. Most of my best wins were determined by that little "extra effort" that I put in during the game or shortly before. Many times the "little extra" involved diving to retrieve a shot. Other times it came weeks before as I sprinted two miles up Madison Avenue at midnight to get in shape. If you are ready to give it all it takes and then a little more, you have the potential for greatness.

 

On squash: " I play capitalist squash."

 

On The Philadephia 'Main Line': " The proverbial gentlemen from Philadelphia who would bury their squash racquets in you if you gave them half a chance have always seemed unworthy to me. True, after maiming you they cover with "I'm sorry's" in the English fashion. But I prefer the American rattlesnake to the English fox. At least, if you give the rattlesnake half a chance he will let you go without biting you. The top racquetball players remind me of the rattlesnake. Too many of the former amateur squash champions were foxes..

 

On Jack Barnaby: " The great mentor of my squash career has been Jack Barnaby, the racquet coach at Harvard for forty years. He combined discipline with creativity, knowledge of the great forces of life with detailed factual knowledge of all techniques of the game. He served as a great example but never pushed his knowledge of squash or life on his student.

 

On Cycles: " I learned from Jack Barnaby to change cycles in the course of my squash game. First I played deep so my opponent would lay back. When he was laying back, I would come in with some short shots. ... Next my opponent starts moving up to the front. At this time I change, and move back to depth again."

 

On his own success: " The great Francis Galton noted that all eminent people combined four characteristics: persistence, organization, health, and ability. As for ability, there are literally thousands of players who are stronger, faster, more flexible, better stroked than I. But none have combined this with as much persistence and organization as I have."

 

 

Victor Niederhoffer: Opened up Squash


Victor Niederhoffer (R) plays his arch-rival, Sharif Khan

July 2001, Concord MA, © 2001 SquashTalk
Photos: © 2001 SquashTalk


by Pamela Lawrence in 1978, updated and expanded by Ron Beck in 2001
Pamela Lawrence interviewed and wrote about Victor Niederhoffer in the long-defunct USA magazine Racquet in 1978. Curiously, considering Niederhoffer's achievements in the USA Hardball game, little has been written about him since. Here SquashTalk updates and presents Lawrence's 1978 review of his career and personality.

NIEDERHOFFER THE MAN
The first thing to understand about Victor Niederhoffer is that he is totally unlike any other athlete or human being you will ever meet.

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.

HARVARD CRUCIBLE
When he entered Harvard University in 1960 he was not a squash player. One year later he won the national junior title and by the time he graduated from those hallowed halls, which among other things housed 42 squash courts and host an unparalleled squash dynasty, Niderhoffer was the National Intercollegiate squash champion.

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

Niederhoffer's mentor: Jack Barnaby

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.

BRIGHTON BEACH DAYS
Niederhoffer grew up in Brighton Beach, a section of Brooklyn inhabited by blue collar workers and a disproportionate number of handball and paddleball players. "Brighton Beach is a mecca for court sports," Niederhoffer explains, "and both of my parents are top players. I was five years old when they entered me in my first tournament. I won the handball singles, the handball doubles and the ping pong. I guess you could say my competitive urges were nurtured from a very early age."

PADDLEBALL KING
As a youngster, Niederhoffer played handball or paddleball or tennis daily. He became something of a local celebrity and would often use his court skills to hustle nickles and dimes from unsuspecting adults. When he was thirteen the Brighton Beach group backed a challenge match between Niederhoffer and a national paddleball champion named George Baskin who was 35. Niederhoffer dispatched Baskin and collected a pair of sneakers. Thirteen is a dangerous age to taste the sweetness of heroism, and it caused Niederhoffer to accept nothing less of himself.

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."

FIRST NATIONAL TITLE
Niederhoffer entered the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business in the fall of 1964. He took with him a degree from Harvard, a summa thesis on the stock market, and a notorious squash reputation. The latter distinction he earned by his frequent "discussions" with those in the unenviable position of refereeing his games and by his unendearing habit of playing through an opponent to reach a shot.

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.

PROTEST AGAINST ELITISM AND DISCRIMINATION
Niederhoffer is an ardent exponent of the libertarian philosophy: let me be myself until I step on your toes. One thing everyone agrees about Niederhoffer is that he is eminently predictable in these things --- his Jewish toes have bruised those of several gentile elitists, and vice versa.

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

Niederhoffer accepts the '72 National Trophy

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."

SQUASH COMEBACK
In 1972, stating that he had made his point about predjudice at squash clubs,

Niederhoffer battles Nayar in 1972

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.

ICONOCLAST AT THE HARVARD CLUB
It is a steamy summer weekend. NIederhoffer and I are discussing his favorite subject, capitalism, in the Great Hall of the New York Harvard Club, an endless towering room that looks like the main concourse of the Grand Central Station if you filled it with red and black leather couches and big game trophies. The place is empty except for the two of us. Niederhoffer has his sneakered feet propped up on a mahogany table and is casually slumped back against black cowhide. "I love to make money," he says. "If the squash powers would move to get people making money, you'd see a better game all around."

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.

BLUEPRINT FOR A FUTURE OF SQUASH
"There is a natural tendancy among the aristocratic ruling powers of squash," Niederhoffer continued, "to keep it a clsoed fraternity where women and children aren't welcome. where Jews and unwealthy men aren't welcome. What I've always stood for is the opposite of this, the opening up of the game, to have things on a business basis where the masses could enjoy it and where people could derive a profit. The private group, the people who have been running the USSRA for the last 40 years, are the ones with the money who should be encouraging people to go make a buck. Why did racquetball grow to one hundred times the size of squash in two or three years? It's not because its a better sport, it's that the people involved have an interest in making a profit.

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.

THE END OF THE FIGHT
Victor Niederhoffer was sitting behind a huge, cluttered desk discussing his reasons for quitting squash. It is our second meeting. His back is to a 30 foot long window that brings Park Avenue into the spacious office. A narrow ledge follows the bottom of the window and it shelves a surprising collection of Americana. They are all toy banks and each of them does something when coins are deposited --- fire engines clang, monkeys tip their hats, bears clap cymbals. Like Niederhoffer, they are both practical and unique.

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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