Squash in Philadelphia may sound like the answer to the question, "What is the diametric opposite of mangoes in Tahiti?" But it is more than that. It is a sport. And over the long Washington's Birthday weekend, when the national amateur championships of squash racquets were held at the University of Pennsylvania, it was a sport with a good deal of tang. It had speed, human interest and, most of all, an Indian named Anil Nayar.
Granted, squash has its stodgy aspects. Almost all of its leading amateurs rise naturally, like cream, from the posh prep schools and private clubs of New York, Boston and especially Philadelphia. And when you ask a squash follower what a given player does for a living, the answer is almost invariably, "Oh, investments." At Penn's Ringe courts for the nationals, most of the spectators—no more than 250 of whom could be accommodated—were fitted out uniformly in aquiline noses and camel's hair. In fact, the whole tournament had the air of an annual reunion, complete with a formal dinner dance and luncheon entertainment provided by the Orpheus Club, a harmonizing group of substantial Philadelphia businessmen.
But beneath all that upper crust, considerable life was beating. One thing about squash is that in time the ball—black rubber and slightly larger than a golf ball—comes alive. In the words of Hashim Khan, the legendary Pakistani pro now in his 60s who can still beat almost anybody: "Hollow, this ball. When it is cold, it is hard, it sleeps, it does not wish to play. But you knock it up a bit, air in hollow inside warms up and pushes to get out, it becomes like a spring. Now this ball bounds with joy."
All squash courts are unheated, because if the temperature gets over 40° the ball hops up too much and detracts from the game of a man who relies upon touch and endurance. The relative multitude of the 250 warm-blooded fans at the nationals contributed to the generally lickety-split tempo of most of the big matches.
March 9, 1970
Aside from the bodies up above, there were the personalities down on the courts. Two of them—Vic Seixas and Richie Ashburn—met in the third round of the over-40 veterans division. Seixas, who has been playing squash for 12 years and says, "Tennis is an arm game; squash is a wrist game," at length wore out Ashburn, who has been playing for six years and says that the squash backhand is like batting—"a quick wrist snap"—and the forehand is like "a shortstop's throw."
A great sentimental favorite was Charles Ufford, a 6'5" New York attorney whose canny strategies, deft drop shots and advanced age (38) had the galleries pulling for him against a series of youthful opponents. Ufford met Colin Adair, the third-seeded 26-year-old, in the quarter-finals, It was one of the best matches of the tournament. Big, balding, breathing hard and sweating heavily, Ufford took two games from Adair (three is a match) while losing one. Then in the fourth game he twice hit the floor hard as Adair was running up a 13-11 lead (game is 15). Then each player called "Let" once—signifying that his opponent had been in the way and prevented his making a return. Ufford came back with two points for a 13-13 tie. When such a score arises, the player who reaches 13 first decides whether he wants to play just to 15, or until one player scores two, three or five more points. Prolonging the game as much as possible stood to benefit the younger Adair—despite the fact that he was panting himself. He chose five points. Ufford won the first two, lost three and then won two to lead 4-3. At match point Ufford blew a smash, tying the score at 4-4. Then Adair called a let, Ufford called a let, the ball broke—causing a further delay—and Adair proceeded to call let, let, let, let, four in a row, each of which took a little something more out of Ufford. A great shout went up from the gallery when, finally, Ufford dumped point No. 5 up there just too short for Adair to reach. Then they fell greasily into each other's arms.
Meanwhile, the two big guns of the tournament were advancing toward each other: Sam Howe, 31, the Philadelphian with the build of a large mama's boy and the squash strength of two good-sized daddies; and Nayar, the former Harvard student and last year's champion, who is currently in the import-export business out of New York. Howe, the 1968 champion, is a product of Merion Cricket Club, which means that people accuse him of having been playing squash since he was 5; his strength is his classic, sweeping, always-appropriate Philadelphia-brand shots. Nayar plays Pakistani-Indian style, scrambling helter-skelter all over the court, slapping low-skimming bullets with a racquet held nearly halfway up the handle, returning impossible shots with even less possible shots and, above all, going like crazy all the time.
Shortly after Howe beat Ufford in the semifinals, Nayar eliminated Canadian Peter Martin, perhaps the most fit and agile college player—outfitting and out-agileing Martin to such an extent that Martin turned red in the face and cried, "I don't know how you do that! How do you do that?" After observing that exhibition, Howe—himself already beaten twice this year by Nayar—said: "Anil is too fast for me, too quick for me."
And old master Henri Salaun seemed to agree. Speaking of the Khans (there are Mohibullah Khan and Sharif Khan as well as Hashim) and of Nayar, Salaun said, "They have a different chemical makeup than we do. I don't know whether their blood is thicker or what, but they don't get tired." The prevailing theory is that playing at 7,000 feet in 100° heat with the less springy English ball day after day in their boyhoods breeds in the players of the East a superhuman endurance. The consensus is that Nayar is still no Khan (he has never beaten one of them, and seldom meets them in competition because they are professionals), but he dominates the amateur game now as no one has in many years. "These American players have decided they just aren't going to beat Nayar," says Penn squash racquets Coach Al Molloy. "He's a great champion, but they don't challenge him, won't alter their games to cope with him. He plays too sloppy, because they don't press him enough."
Howe pressed him in the finals, however. Nayar had hardly stepped onto the court when Howe had him three points down. In fact, Nayar led only once in the first two games, which Howe swept—flushed but otherwise expressionless—15-11 and 15-8.
Then Nayar became aroused, and you had two explosive players dashing across that small enclosure, slashing with racquets and rocketing the ball within an inch or so of each other. Point after point, the two spun into position and stretched drastically to scoop the ball off wall or floor, not just getting it but hitting what should have been winners. For long stretches during the last three games of the Nayar-Howe match the red-hot ball never rose above the players' knees. Nayar bore down harder and harder and came back to win the three decisive games 15-9, 15-6, 15-11.
Molloy noted afterward that Howe had, as a matter of fact, taken measures to offset Nayar's strengths—had tried to throw the Indian off his stride by lobbing the ball at strategic moments. But it had not been enough. "Anil gets the pace going so that you feel yourself on a treadmill," said the vanquished Howe. "You wonder when it's going to stop, and it stops when Anil wins."
Nayar, a lively, cordial chap who regrets that squash gives him so little time to keep up with all the plays and movies he ought to be seeing, disclosed for his part that he would like to go on to Harvard Business School before returning to India. So squash in this country had better learn to adapt to a dash of curry.