It was the most awesome Australian invasion since Rupert Murdoch hit Gotham. Here they came, smiling at one and all, calling their hostesses "mums," and then whipping us at our own game. You want an analogy? All right, imagine the King and His Court beating the Cincinnati Reds—at baseball.
Here's what happened during the last two weeks: the world's best Softball squash players came to America to compete in our hardball squash tournaments. Because the transition is not unlike that from softball to baseball, you might have expected them to learn the new game. Instead they taught it.
First Geoffrey Hunt, the 29-year-old world champion, rode into Philadelphia to play in the $16,000 North American Open. Hunt had played serious hardball squash only once before, at age 16. So he toppled the best amateur and professional players in the U.S. before losing a thrilling final to the world's best hardball player. A week later the legendary women's champion, 35-year-old Heather McKay, stopped in New York just long enough to sweep through the $6,500 Bancroft Women's Open without the loss of a game. McKay (pronounced muhkigh) had never before played tournament hardball.
In their wake, the Aussies left Americans reevaluating their own game. But in order to understand their shock, you must first understand softball squash. In every squash country but Mexico, Canada and the U.S., the game is played with a small, squishy ball that must be struck with great force. The ball rebounds with less speed than its larger, harder American counterpart, and therefore must be chased all over a court that is 2½ feet wider than ours. Games are nine points instead of 15, but an international point can be won only on service. What results is a delicate, seemingly endless game of attrition, position and patience, a kind of physical chess. The longest softball squash tournament match on record lasted two hours, 35 minutes. The American hardball game rarely lasts half that long.
February 7, 1977
Because international players must be better conditioned for the long siege, they usually adjust to the American game faster than Americans adjust to theirs. International champions like Hashim Khan and Janet Morgan Shardlow have won American tournaments. In the Wightman Cup of women's squash, the Wolfe-Noel series, the British have won three of eight team hardball matches, but the Americans have never won a single individual softball match.
Still, the transition to hardball is not easy. Would the Aussies adjust to the speed of the American ball? Would they learn such shots as the hard serve and the reverse corner placement that are virtually nonexistent in their game? Would they have the touch to hit the volatile American ball softly enough to keep it from overrebounding?
Hunt arrived in America two weeks before the Open. He had pretty well cleaned out the rest of the world in softball in 1976, having won 17 of 22 tournaments and earned nearly $40,000. Beginning his American tour, Hunt won the William White tournament in Haverford, Pa. against a middling field. Then he asked the two leading U.S. pros, Victor Niederhoffer and Peter Briggs, to show him their skills. They obliged, Niederhoffer winning five of five practice games, Briggs four of five.
Hunt's first-round opponent in the Open was John Reese, the top U.S. amateur. Well prepared, Reese drew on his experience for every shot he could muster, but the agile Hunt ran them all down and kept the ball deep. Often Hunt reached behind himself for backhands he somehow lashed directly to the front wall. Even when he slipped, he seemed to come down with the grace of a ballet dancer. "He covers so well he makes immaturity creep into your game," said the drenched, exhausted Reese after losing 15-11, 15-17, 15-8, 18-17. "You get frustrated and try for shots you can't make. It's a form of crying 'help!' "
By contrast, Hunt was slightly damp and breathing easily. "The standard of fitness for all our players is excellent," he said, relating that he runs eight to 10 miles up and down the Melbourne area dunes on the days he isn't doing half-mile sprints. "You've got to keep yourself in shape if your matches are going to last two hours."
"It's not just his conditioning and patience," said University of Pennsylvania Coach Al Molloy, "but his position, stroking and concentration. They have time for that in their game, and he's not changing here. It's instructive. We get away with a lot of sloppiness in our game." Frank Satterthwaite, an American pro and racquets writer, said, "We have to learn to generate power the way they do—with a high, golflike backswing that not only gives them a bigger arc but also enables them to really get their hips and shoulders into the stroke."
Hunt easily won his next two matches, but now he surely faced his comeuppance—the semifinals with Niederhoffer. Hunt won the first game 15-7. Niederhoffer adjusted and took the second 15-9, but when Hunt retrieved enough drops, sidewalls and deep cross-courts to take the third 15-13, the five-time U.S. national champ was through. Utterly exhausted, Niederhoffer watched Hunt run out the match 15-6.
On to the finals against defending champion Sharif (King) Khan, the Pakistani-turned-Torontonian who had won seven of the previous eight titles. Having undergone some humbling experiences with softball players, Khan had been in serious training for perhaps the only time in his life. A wise move, for he needed stamina to survive a five-game semifinal against unseeded Princeton sophomore Tom Page. It was strategy, though, that carried Khan to wins in two of his first three games with Hunt. Mixing his pace, floating, smashing, lobbing, once even taking a double swing, he scored on passing shots after drawing Hunt into the forecourt. When Hunt made a couple of fatigue errors early in the fourth game, Khan seemed fully in control, the $5,000 first prize all but pocketed.
Khan, 32, has acquired a reputation for his hard-hitting, relentless pursuit, and a stare that would melt Evil-Eye Fleagle. Now he was leading—and clowning. "Allah, help me," he cried at 13-5 when his shot hit the tin. But Allah only helps those who help themselves. Hunt drew closer on several more Khan errors. Sharif made it 14-8 on an overhead, but Hunt kept chipping away, a drop shot here, a forced error there. Suddenly, it was 14-13. The overflow crowd at Penn's Ringe Courts sensed a moment of great drama. Khan's reputation—and that of the American game—were under attack. He responded with the most important shot of his life—a three-wall beauty that nicked off the left side.
Meanwhile, New York's Uptown Racquet Club prepared for the first American women's tournament ever to be played for money. And prepared for Heather McKay. She is known as the Chris Evert of women's squash, a description that doesn't quite fit. Chris Evert rarely loses matches, Heather McKay rarely loses games. Since taking up squash at age 18 as an off-season conditioner for field hockey, she has lost two matches—most recently in the 1962 Scottish Open. She lost her last game in 1972. Her record is unmatched by any woman in any sport: 15 straight British titles, 14 straight Australian, the one and only women's world championship (she won the final 9-2, 9-2, 9-0). When McKay plays, the only score kept is her opponent's. "If I lose a few more points than I usually do," McKay says, "they ask, 'What's wrong, did you have a bad day, are you on the way out?' Once I played a girl, and her husband or father bet a bottle of champagne for each point she made. She got four bottles and gave one to me. I said, 'Why didn't you tell me? We'd have got a lot more.' "
It was said before the tournament that McKay could stand in the backcourt and whip a precision ball off the front wall one foot above the tin and back to the rear wall without a bounce. That, after warming up by bouncing the ball 100 straight times with the edge of her racquet. "They do tell stories," she said. Less omnipotent players might have had worries. After all, hadn't she cut down her playing schedule in the 19 months since she and her husband Brian had moved to Toronto to accept teaching jobs? And hadn't she just begun to play hardball? Worry not, said her fans: she was a tennis star at 13, an all-Australian field hockey player in her 20s and a softball squash champion forever. Why not hardball?
Why not, indeed? McKay disposed of Gail Ramsay, the fourth-ranking American, 15-4, 15-7, 15-6 and national champion Gretchen Spruance 15-5, 15-10, 15-3. McKay didn't use all the American shots, but she didn't need to. Reading the ball perfectly, whipping it with her full, powerful stroke, she stood at the center-court T as casually as if she were giving a lesson. A genial woman of 5'6", she gets her power from her well-developed right arm and thick, field-hockey legs. "So fast, so accurate and so low," Ramsay said after absorbing McKay's shots. "A phenomenon," said Spruance.
McKay was one of three Aussie women in town to try the American game. Margaret Zachariah finished fifth. Sue Newman, powerful at 150 pounds and deceptively fast from a Huntlike training program, shut out America's leading squash junkie, Philadelphian Barbara Maltby, in the semis. The Americans' placement-oriented strokes had been reduced to cracking twigs. In the finals McKay unceremoniously dismantled Newman in 28 minutes 15-7, 15-9, 15-12 for the $2,000 winner's share. It was the first time a player had simultaneously dominated hardball and softball, but the triumph seemed anticlimactic. "She's so far ahead of the field that you can't really appreciate her talents watching her play another woman," said Satterthwaite, who had practiced with McKay. "She can dig for short balls and recover from a misstep better than all but the very top men."
Heather's feathers are rarely ruffled. There had been a single story about her in the Toronto press—the one announcing her arrival. "If I walked out on the street and people stopped me, I'd hate it," she says. In New York she never mentioned the lack of tournament coverage in that paper of record, The New York Times, nor bemoaned all the years women couldn't make a living from squash. Her only complaint was, "Geoff should have been named Australian Sportsman of the Year. He's world champion, he should have it."
What Heather neglected to mention was that she has already received the honor.