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In Memoriam
Stephen
J. Vehslage – 1939-2002

National Champion in 1965, 3
Times Intercollegiate Champion


May 2002,
By Rob Dinerman © 2002 SquashTalk
Photos: © 2001 SquashTalk

Stephen T. Vehslage,
Former National Champion, 12/10/39 – 5/5/02

The American squash community lost
its fourth truly significant figure in barely over a year earlier this
month when Stephen Thomas Vehslage, three-time winner of both the Junior
Nationals and the Intercollegiates and the USSRA National hardball champion
in 1965, died on May 5th in Greenwich, CT after a year-long battle with
brain cancer at the age of 62. He is survived by his wife of more than
40 years, April, his two children, Stephen Jr. and Cynthia, six grandchildren
and his older brother Ramsay, with whom he won every major invitational
at one time or another during the 1960’s and formed one of the highest-ranking
doubles teams of the 1960’s.

Stephen Vehslage in 1965

His death was preceded by those of
Harvard’s nonpareil 92-year-old coach Jack
Barnaby
in February, Ed Hahn,
his two-time predecessor as National Champion in 1950 and 1951 who died
at age 88 in November and 1977 Nationals winner Tom
Page
, one of the greatest American-born doubles player ever, who collapsed
and expired on a New York sidewalk in late April 2001, when he was still
just 44 years old. Like Page, Vehslage learned his squash at the venerable
Merion Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, where he was coached by
the club’s famed pros William White and Brendan McRory, and was part of
an especially gifted crop of teenagers that included Jim Zug Sr., Kit
Spahr, Claude Beer and the Howe brothers, Sam and Ralph, both of whom
were inducted into the U. S. Squash Hall Of Fame earlier this spring.

The entire group benefited greatly
not only by the outstanding coaching they received and excellent sparring
partnership they provided each other but also by the Merion tradition
of having exceptional juniors often practice with the club’s best adult
players, which at that time included such luminaries as Diehl Mateer,
Stanley Pearson, Carter Fergusson and Ben Heckscher, who between them
won six Nationals between 1948 and 1963, as well as Hunter Lott and Charlie
Brinton, former multiple-national champions who conducted clinics for
boys on weekends.

THREE TIMES JUNIOR, THREE TIMES
COLLEGE CHAMP

The inaugural National Junior championships in New York in 1956 occurred
during Vehslage’s junior year at the Haverford School, by which time his
always impressive athleticism and several years of exposure to squash
enabled him to rise superior to the rest of that eight-player field and
to defend this title during his pair of remaining age-eligible years as
well. That last title occurred during his freshman year at Princeton,
where he starred both in soccer and squash, twice earning first-time All-Ivy
honors and teaming with Zug as starting fullbacks on the soccer squad
and leading the squash team to consecutive first-place finishes at the
annual ISA championships during his sophomore and junior years while winning
the Intercollegiate Individual squash crown, later named the Pool Trophy
in honor of its first champion Beekman Pool, during all three of his varsity
seasons from 1959-1961, the only Tiger ever to accomplish this extraordinary
feat.

Stephen Vehslage (left) with
Brother Ramsay, teammates at Princeton 1959

MERION INTRAMURALS
His back-and-forth rivalries with the Howe brothers and Heckscher were an
intrinsic part of the amateur invitational scene during the 1960’s, with each
member of this Merion quartet winning the Nationals at least once during the
six-year period from 1962-67; the lone non-Merioner to win that prestigious
title during this substantial stretch was Victor Niederhoffer in ’66, when
he defeated first Ralph 15-12 in the fifth in the semis and then Sam in overtime
in the fourth in the final.

Vehslage’s foremost nemesis during that
time was the four-time Nationals winner Henri Salaun, 13 years his senior
but still very capable, against whose mobility, experience and counter-punching
expertise Vehslage often experienced great frustration throughout the prime
period in his career. Salaun would keep the ball tight to the walls and often
keep Vehslage off balance to a degree that prevented the young slugger from
ever getting his best shot in against him.

1965 NATIONALS
For the 1965 edition of the Nationals, which was hosted at the Hartford Golf
Club from February 20th-22nd, the unseeded Vehslage was dealt a difficult
draw that required him to face rising Canadian star Colin Adair (who would
win this event in both ’68 and ’71), against whom he lost overtime sessions
in both the second and fourth games before asserting himself 15-9 in the decisive
fifth game.

This hard-earned triumph brought him
to the quarter-finals, where he was scheduled to face the second-seeded Salaun.
But this dreaded confrontation was averted when a knee injury incurred shortly
the tournament began worsened during Salaun’s first-round match with Larry
O’Loughlin to the point where he had to default his second-rounder to Howard
Coonley, against whom Vehslage felt much more confident and whom he defeated
in four convincing games (15-5 in the fourth) to reach the semis. There he
defeated the fourth-seeded Sam Howe, his victim in two of Vehslage’s Pool
Trophy finals in college, 15-8, 13 and 12.

PEAKING PREPARATION
In both that match and the ensuing final, Vehslage played some of the
finest squash of his career, a culmination of a dedicated “peaking” mission
which had begun several weeks before when he had fallen behind Pete
Bostwick
two games to love in the semi-finals of New York’s Metropolitan
A event.
Though Vehslage had
rallied to win that match, he had been sufficiently chastened by his near-defeat
to embark on a concentrated effort to step up the level of both his conditioning
(which he enhanced by doing sprinting drills on the spacious racquets
court at the Racquet & Tennis Club) and his overall game, which he addressed
by scheduling numerous practice sessions against the best competition
he could find.

The top half of the Nationals draw had
been highlighted by the quarter-final upset perpetrated on the top-seeded
defending champion Ralph Howe by his former Yale teammate and recently-crowned
Canadian Nationals champion Bob Hetherington, who had then dropped a close
four-game semi to Niederhoffer, the No. 3 seed who had won the Pool Trophy
as a Harvard senior the previous year and who just one month prior to
the Nationals had won the
Harry Cowles Invitational
. Niederhoffer had previously been severely
tested first by his ’64 Intercollegiates co-finalist Tom Poor and then
by the redoubtable Charlie Ufford, who had forced a fifth game before
succumbing 15-7.

VEHSLAGE OUTPOINTS NIEDERHOFFER
All of these pre-final battles had taken their toll on Niederhoffer and by
contrast Vehslage was still strong and riding the momentum generated by his
brilliant and remarkably error-free performance over Sam Howe one round before.
His recent fitness upgrade had increased his confidence level, which was also
boosted by the faith he had in his game plan (to hit the ball as hard as possible,
even on his serve) and the in-the-zone quality of his stroke production from
mid-tournament on.

This exhilarating feeling of being on
a roll at exactly the optimal time inevitably and inexorably imposed itself
on the course of the final, which saw Niederhoffer win a hard-fought opening
game 15-11 and earn a small mid-game advantage in the second only to buckle
at that juncture in the face of a resolute Vehslage charge that was too
overwhelming for a tiring Niederhoffer to resist. After evening the match
with a 15-8 second game and grinding his way through the pivotal 15-12
third, Vehslage surged to a lead early in the fourth game and never looked
back, pasting his rails and crosscourt drives and forcing defensive responses
which he pounced upon and nailed for winners, and drawing a number of
tins as well from his retreating foe, who could not muster more than seven
well-spaced points harmlessly sprinkled in the midst of Vehslage’s unstoppable
charge to the finish line.

Hard-hitting Vehslage Takes
Singles Over Favored Niederhoffer,
” the USSRA Yearbook’s headline
declared, in an accurate reflection of the tenor of that final. It was
the crowning achievement of the 25-year-old Vehslage’s career. His attempted
title defense in the ’66 Nationals in New York was foiled by Salaun in
four games in the quarter-finals. That year’s crown was eventually won
by Niederhoffer, who at the trophy presentation ruefully acknowledged
Vehslage’s performance one year earlier by noting that he was “making
the acceptance speech I had planned on giving last year.” Vehslage did
get to the semi-finals in his final Nationals appearance in ’67 in Chicago,
where he lost in three to Sam Howe, who didn’t drop a game all weekend,
throughout which he played at the same peak performance that Vehslage
had attained two years earlier in Connecticut.

Other noteworthy achievements of Vehslage’s
career included the ’62 Cowles, the ’62 Gold Racquets (where his victory
marked the first and only time a member of the host Rockaway Hunting Club
won its flagship invitational) and the ’64 Canadian Nationals, where he
defeated Adair in a hard-fought four-game final. Certainly he was the
best junior and college player of his era and one of the very top American
amateur protagonists for a half-dozen years after his graduation from
Princeton, but his tournament participation even during this time was
fairly spasmodic, largely due to the travel demands of his position at
IBM, where he served several lengthy tours overseas in France; in fact,
further on in his life, he was for many years a senior executive for IBM
Europe and later a Vice President and Director of IBM Americas Far East.

He married April shortly after his college
graduation and they had their children within the first few years, and his
family commitments limited his available time for squash tournaments as well.
Ironically, the very achievement that highlighted his career probably contributed
to its brevity as well.

Pressure Game

Barnaby in particular displayed his fabled
perspicacity when he described Vehslage as “primarily a pressure player”
who “literally crushed his opponents, his low powerful drives totally
inhibiting their hopes for shot making until he was able himself to make
a winner. Winning in this manner requires iron conditioning, and after
copping the title once, Steve did not wish to make the effort to reach
the peak again. Like other hard hitters before him, he knew that the only
way is to initiate a long conditioning program…Many hard hitters find
too many other things in life that they do not wish to put aside, year
after year. Steve had the distinction of defeating Niederhoffer in the
final (author’s note: something no one else would do in any of Victor’s
five subsequent Nationals finals), so who can blame him for resting on
his laurels?”

OTHER PURSUITS
Actually, though Vehslage’s squash career ended when he was still in his
20’s and therefore did not have the breadth of his elite contemporaries
like the brothers Howe, he did anything but rest on his laurels, either
athletically or in other areas of what became a very full life. He and
his brother Ramsay won every major doubles invitational at one time or
another during the 1960’s and came within two points of taking the ’63
U.S. National Doubles in their only final-round appearance, leading Sam
Howe and Bill Danforth 2-0, 13-12. In addition to these exploits, he became
an outstanding court tennis tennis player in both doubles, where he won
the U. S. Court Tennis Championship with Alistair Martin in ’66, and in
singles, while also excelling at tennis and golf. In his later years,
he became an avid and accomplished fly fisherman as well.

These varied athletic accomplishments
in such a diverse number of sports is especially remarkable for the highly
unusual health condition with which he had to cope and which began while
he was still an undergraduate at Princeton. Every so often, Vehslage had
a frightening tendency to collapse when he was struck in the chest or
shoulder area by a ball or player, a phenomenon whose genesis was never
discovered despite the scores of doctors who attempted to do so and the
countless tests they administered in their effort to diagnose and cure
this mysterious malady.

Sometimes he would be untroubled
despite sustaining a solid blow, yet on other occasions a seemingly innocuous
incident, like a glancing carom off his upper body by a slowly-moving
tennis ball would so undo the normal workings of his neurological system
as to cause a collapse. Whenever this happened, Vehslage would have to
remain on his back for a few minutes, but then would arise and be able
to resume the game immediately, often playing at as high or higher a level
than prior to the event!

These episodes would occur unpredictably
and disturbingly frequently, perhaps as often as nearly a dozen times
per year. Efforts to trace it’s cause to some early accident or trauma
were unsuccessful, and the doctors were convinced that it had no relation
to the fatal brain tumor that he battled throughout the final year of
his life, but it probably played some role in his decision to abandon
the racquet sports at which he so excelled at a relatively early age in
favor of activities, like golf, where the likelihood of a mishap that
could trigger another episode was much more remote.

The wide variation of athletic activities
in which Vehslage experienced success was a microcosm of his life as a
whole, his medical condition notwithstanding. Indeed, his longtime friend
Treddy Ketcham called him “a man for all seasons.” In addition to his
highly productive business career with at IBM, from which he retired two
years ago after nearly four decades of meritorious service, Vehslage was
extremely well read (Shakespeare was a special favorite), an expert gardener
and a connoisseur of fine wines, a pursuit that began during his years
in France. He was a past president of the Round Hill Club in Greenwich
and a Director of the Prouts Neck Country Club in Maine, where he and
April often vacationed during the summer.

He was known as a determined competitor,
yet also, in Bostwick’s knowledgeable words, “one of the finest gentleman
I have ever known.” An exceptional parlay for an exceptional person, who
in a relatively brief squash career rose to the very top, successively,
of the junior, intercollegiate and amateur games while surmounting a disconcerting
medical condition to also attain excellence in a number of related and
unrelated sports and in the business world as well.

Editor’s Note: Mr. Dinerman would
like to thank Treddy Ketcham, Pete Bostwick, Sam Howe and Anne Farrell
of the USSRA Office for their outstanding assistance and support for his
research on this article.





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