To the victor—Victor Niederhoffer, that is—belongs another silver pitcher. Last week in New York, at 31, he won the U.S. National Singles Squash Racquets championship for the fifth time. His opponents did little but gasp, sweat and run. But Niederhoffer seemed to play effortlessly. His shots were not always brilliant, but he patiently waited out long rallies, and his frustrated opponents consistently found themselves in situations where most of their moves were of high risk. And then they were forced to make mistakes which ruined them.
Niederhoffer had used the same strategy a month before in Mexico City, where he beat Sharif Khan in the North American Open. Khan had won the event six straight times, had in fact lost only one minor tournament in six years. But none of his opponents had been willing, as Niederhoffer says he is, "to wait an eternity" for an opening. Khan trailed 12-11 in their fourth and deciding game, and the rally seemed destined to go on forever, when suddenly he made an error on what Niederhoffer calls "a non-percentage shot," something Khan almost never does. That was the turning point, and Khan cried out, "I don't deserve to win."
"Khan had a fatal plan," Niederhoffer says, "a lack of real toughness. He's been winning so long he doesn't know anymore what it is to play a battle to the death."
In the finals in New York, Niederhoffer beat Peter Briggs, who is only 23—a good thing with all the running he was obliged to do. In three games Niederhoffer made only five errors, while Briggs made more than 25, most on short shots. Niederhoffer said later, using a typical Niederhoffer metaphor, that Briggs was a fiddler who could not handle low C, in this case those short shots.
March 2, 1975
Afterward one veteran squash observer dubbed Niederhoffer "the Bobby Fischer of squash." The reference was to his cerebral game, and possibly to a personality and habits that at times have all but mystified the very straight squash Establishment. His matches were played at New York's University Club, and on the first evening there was a black-tie dinner dance. The ladies wore gowns. Niederhoffer wore a tuxedo and track shoes, one blue, one white, both well-worn. The track shoes, he told the curious, were his style. Also they made him think of heredity and environment, or "nature and nurture," as he put it, and then he went on to tell of his own nature and nurture, how doubly blessed he had been. He never mentioned the advantage of his first name. He said that when he was three months old his favorite toy was a table tennis racket, that he interrupted his parents' paddle tennis games by crawling on the court. His dad had been a quarterback at Brooklyn College, his mother a paddle tennis champion, so he had the nurture part, he said—his mother's endurance, his dad's speed, grace and good eyesight, and the reflexes of both.
The Niederhoffers lived in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, where racket and court sports rated a close fourth in popularity to food, water and air. At eight Victor won the local 13-and-under table tennis and handball championships. At nine, he says, he could beat anyone in the world at paddle ball. At 13 he won an all-New York City 18-and-under tennis tournament. Now he sees it this way: "My environment ideally suited me for a competitive career in racket sports. And being a first child was important, too. I developed a tremendous confidence because I got so much attention and so much love, and so much pressure to emerge triumphant."
And that is how he emerged, on the courts, and near the top of his class in school. For three years he was the best high school tennis player in New York City, but he never played squash. He tried it for the first time in 1960, as a Harvard freshman. In 1962 he won the national junior championships, and as a senior the national intercollegiates. They began calling him "the Ty Cobb of squash." His Harvard coach, Jack Barnaby, said that his prodigy "would chew glass to win." Niederhoffer says he did a lot of "explaining" to judges.
In 1966, while earning a Ph. D. in business at the University of Chicago, Niederhoffer beat Sam Howe for the first of his five wins in the Nationals. It should have been the first of 10, but he wasn't being treated very well by the five Chicago squash clubs; they accepted him as a player-guest, but not as a member, and in 1967, when the Nationals were played in Chicago, Niederhoffer was in the university library, studying. Whatever the cause—his being a Jew, his court manners—he found the situation demeaning. Of the five-year hiatus he says, "Like Caesar when he was dead, even in retirement I was an influence on the game. The champions had to say, 'Would I have won if Caesar was alive?' "
No. In 1972 Niederhoffer came out of retirement and won the first of four straight Nationals. Soon he moved from California, where he had been an assistant professor of finance at Berkeley, back to New York, and began training like no one else. He has his own business—Niederhoffer, Cross & Zeckhauser, Inc.—specialists in arranging mergers between public and private firms, large and small. In the past two years the firm has arranged more than $200 million worth of mergers, but then Niederhoffer works seven days a week, 14 to 15 hours a day. He wears track shoes to the office, plays squash at the Harvard Club every night from 8 to 9:30, goes back to the office until about 1 a.m., then does wind sprints over the two miles to his home. He carries his racquet as he runs, "to beat off marauders," he says, "to show the cops I'm not a mugger and make my training as specific as possible."
It saddens Niederhoffer that the first two justifications are necessary. He is an outspoken adherent of what he calls "the freedom philosophy," whose basic tenet is that men should do anything they desire, short of using aggression on other men.
And then he speaks of four qualities great men share: persistence, or zeal; health, or the ability to implement the zeal: powers of organization; and genius. After winning the Canadian National Singles last month, Niederhoffer told a TV reporter that he possesses the first three qualities, "and there lies my greatness," he said, "perhaps my major claim to a place in the pantheon of racket immortals."
Victor Niederhoffer has always had an acute awareness of his strength, beliefs and desires, and a willingness to speak up about them. And even though the Ty Cobb of squash is more mature now, that characteristic remains. During the second game of his quarterfinal match in New York, ahead 2-1 against Tom Poor, Niederhoffer stopped play and asked, "Is someone smoking in the gallery?"
"No," came the answer.
Down 5-4, he stopped again. "I think there's someone smoking," he said.
Leading 8-6 he stopped again. "Smoking?"
Finally, way back in the gallery someone said that smoke was coming from the lounge downstairs.
After losing, Tom Poor was saying, "What puts the pressure on is that he retrieves better than anyone around."
"I disagree," Niederhoffer said. "A lot of people retrieve well, but they make errors. I keep rallies going not because I retrieve better but because I don't make errors."
"You made one bad one," Poor said.
"I was worried about smoking," Niederhoffer acknowledged.