Stu Goldstein sat eating an egg-salad sandwich at New York's Uptown Racquet Club. The man and the milieu are made for each other. Uptown is the architectural showpiece of squash, a five-story building of gentle curves, bold white walls and natural light. Goldstein is the showpiece's showpiece. Like the duplex restaurant, catwalks, pipe railings and spiral staircases, he is a fixture in the place, a sight to be seen. And a beautiful sight he is—darting about the court like a scared minnow, unleashing his lefthanded power game, putting away balls with his uncanny three-wall nick.
At 28, after only three full seasons on the pro squash tour, Goldstein has won the North American version of the world pro championship and is second-ranked to Sharif Khan. Goldstein is perhaps the fastest and fittest player on the continent.
Now, looking down on Uptown's main exhibition court, he saw a young man, lanky, mustachioed, tattooed, and a young woman, prim and blonde. The man is a pornographer-turned-novelist. The woman's name is often associated with the running of the state of Delaware. The two were playing a sociable game, and their conversation and laughter drifted up to Goldstein. He smiled, and he seemed to be telegraphing his thoughts: "This is the bright new world of squash; it's beautiful, and someday I am going to own it."
He already has come close. Late last year he was leading Sharif Khan in the Grand Prix point standings and had a 2-2 record against him for the year. After a particularly inspiring victory over Khan in the Montreal finals, Goldstein began intimating that a changing of the guard was at hand. The Boodles Open, to be played at Goldstein's home club, seemed a good time to prove his point. As usual, he and Khan made the finals. They split two games and Goldstein took a 9-3 lead in the third, always a pivotal game in a best-of-five match. But then, as often happens to him, he suddenly weakened. Khan won the game 15-11 and ran out the match. Soon afterward, Goldstein hurt his back during a round-robin tournament in San Francisco.
When he returned in January to play in the North American Open—the World Series of squash—more heartbreak awaited. After surviving two close matches, he led Gordon Anderson 2-2, 13-8 in the semis. Alas, Goldstein again wilted and lost the match in overtime, 18-16. The next day Khan blew out Anderson to take his 10th North American Open in the last 11 years.
Goldstein was left to ponder the subtle inadequacies of his game. "I need more experience and shot selection," he said. According to his peers, the problem is not so simple. They say every torment he experiences is caused by, of all things, his fanatical approach to the game.
Consider Stu Goldstein. He often trains three to six hours a day. Weight lifting has paid off—at 5'7", 138 pounds, he resembles a football halfback. (Height is insignificant in squash. It is one of the game's anomalies that the smaller they are the harder they seem to hit.)
"Stu is cat-quick and incredibly fit, and he's totally dedicated to improving himself as a player," says his friend Frank Satterthwaite, the third-ranked U.S. pro. "But he's a little brittle—both physically and psychologically. Perhaps because he's so intense, he gets more than his share of muscle pulls, and he sometimes gets so tight in a match, his game snaps. When he's hot he can blow anyone off the court, even Khan, but he has yet to develop that capacity to dominate that all champions have."
"Stroke for stroke he's probably better than Khan," says Vic Niederhoffer, a former North American champion, "but not under match conditions. He hasn't had a gradual process of learning the way most other players did, so he's not as collected in his game."
In response Goldstein argues, "People talk as if I haven't done anything in the last two years, but I have. I've won every major tournament I've played in but the Boodles, North American and Boston opens, and I've been second or third in those. And the reason for the change has been mental. You can't win unless you concentrate. When I'm on, I see the spin of the ball as it comes off the wall."
Even if Goldstein overstates his case, this much is true: for the first time since Niederhoffer, now retired, upset Khan in the 1975 North American Open, someone has given the U.S. game a tremendous push (the other leading pros—Sharif and Aziz Khan, Clive Caldwell, Rainer Ratinac and Anderson—come from Pakistan, Australia and Canada).
Like Niederhoffer, Goldstein is a New Yorker who came from outside the U.S. squash mainstream. Each man has changed the game. Though a Harvard graduate and a power on Wall Street, Niederhoffer reminded the squash crowd of its hypocrisies and helped modernize the pro tour. Goldstein, who attended a non-Ivy school (Stony Brook) and plays out of a commercial rather than private club, has taken squash yet another step. "Stu symbolizes the future of squash," says Satterthwaite. "Like leading athletes in other sports, he puts all his time into improving his game. The old amateur ethos was to say, 'Squash isn't everything. I don't train, I don't really care.' Stu not only tells you he trains, he tells you he trains harder than you do. He makes people who are new to the game and aren't Ivy Leaguers feel squash is their game, too."
As a child, Goldstein chased away his anxieties playing racket sports in Little Neck, on Long Island. As a teen-ager he was a local table-tennis champion and among the top 10 junior tennis players in the East. He happened upon squash as a 19-year-old Stony Brook freshman. By the time Goldstein graduated in 1973, he was both the undefeated No. 1 player on his tennis team and the seventh-ranked college squash player in the country.
The choice was simple. There was little money in pro squash at the time and Goldstein had his eyes on the European clay-court tennis circuit. While teaching tennis at a Long Island club, he cast about for a sponsor. None was forthcoming. Stu stewed. Meanwhile, a bright young entrepreneur named Harry Saint was looking for teaching pros at the commercial squash clubs he was building in New York City. When he opened the first of his ventures, the Fifth Avenue Racquet Club, in 1974, Saint hired Goldstein. Unveiling Uptown two years later, Saint transferred Goldstein there.
With Saint's blessing, Goldstein soon devoted himself full time to playing. The problem was getting invited to major tournaments. To this day Goldstein feels there was a conspiracy against him. Actually, the conspiracy was against professionals in general. At the time players advanced almost exclusively through amateur tournaments, and pro Goldstein wasn't good enough to be invited to the few open events.
Establishing a reputation was difficult. He had had little coaching and hadn't been through the usual junior or international grounding, so squash people doubted the outsider was as good as he said he was.
His response, characteristically, was to bear down, practice twice as hard and take on all comers. He was like an unknown boxer attracting attention by knocking off one big name after another. Niederhoffer called him Kid Goldstein. In the 1977 U.S. Pro, the Kid became a contendah. In that tournament he knocked off two ranking players, Caldwell in the quarterfinals and Niederhoffer in the semis, before losing the first of his numerous final-round clashes with Sharif Khan. Goldstein quickly advanced from ninth to second in the pro rankings. In 1978 he was one of the most consistent players on tour. In nine official 1978 tournaments he finished first three times, second five and third once. This year Goldstein's record is second only to Khan's. Stu finished third in the North American Open and second in both the pro tournament and a five-nation round robin. Yet his future is problematic.
Sharif Khan says, "Stu's a fine player and if the game needs a new hero, fine. But I've seen so many players come and go that it would take a lot to amaze me." Vic Niederhoffer says, "Everything's in place so that if Stu relaxes and develops creativity and flows with it, varying and diversifying his game...."
As ever, Goldstein has his own view. "I felt I played at the bottom of my game in the North American Open," he says. "Worst in two years. If I can play at the bottom of my game and still beat just about everyone, imagine what I can do when I'm on."
His voice was firm. His eyes asked, "Are you convinced?"