Call her Wendy Trendy. She's the archetypal racquetball player: affable, outgoing, au courant. No shrinking violet, she knows where she's going and how to get there. She exudes confidence. But when asked about Heather McKay, the Australian squash star who has joined the racquetball tour, Wendy shudders. "Heather McKay," she says slowly, pushing aside her backgammon game. "When you play Heather McKay, you're down 5-0 before the start of the match."
Since learning racquetball a scant year and a half ago, McKay has moved inexorably toward dominating it. Eight weeks after losing her first match on the tour, she reached the quarterfinals of the 1979 U.S. Open. Then in quick order she won the U.S. women's amateur, took a tour event, reached the finals of another and whipped defending national champion Karin Walton in an exhibition. Now wait a minute. What business does anyone—much less a 38-year-old woman, a foreigner, an interloper from another sport—have whipping up on the homegrown practitioners of our all-American game of speed and youth?
Well, for one thing, McKay has done this sort of thing before. In fact, she's spent her life in transition. From local tennis star to international squash sensation. From cleaning up at the Australian version of squash to wiping out the opposition in the slightly different British style of the game to blitzing her opponents in the markedly different American brand of the sport. For most of her 20-year squash career (1959-79), McKay kept switching back and forth between that game and field hockey, at which she was twice All-Australia. And now she's in transition from the top of the squash world to the highest levels of racquet-ball. In the process she's letting America in on a secret the international racquet crowd has known for years—that McKay is one of the most extraordinary athletes of our time.
The switch from squash to racquetball is not as simple as it seems. True, squash and racquetball are indoor, four-wall racquet sports; true, racquetball is an easier game to learn than squash. But there are important differences. Racquetball is played on a large court with a short racquet and a large, bouncy ball. Squash is played on a small court with a long racquet and a small, less lively ball. A shot that hits the ceiling is in play in racquetball but not in squash. But the most important difference between the games is the standard putaway shot. In racquetball a shot that hits anywhere on the front wall and bounces twice before a play is made on it is a winner. A player can shoot for winners—usually very low shots—from anywhere on the court with a reasonable chance of success. But in squash the ball must hit the front wall above a sheet-metal "tin" or "telltale" that can be from 17 to 19 inches above the floor. Because squash shots, therefore, must be kept high, the ball cannot be put away as easily. A player must patiently maneuver his or her opponent out of position to win a point. Accordingly, to become expert at racquetball, a squash player must learn to go for winners at every opportunity, keep the ball lower, gauge new angles, hit and return a variety of unfamiliar serves and play the ceiling. The transition is by no means easy.
April 14, 1980
McKay is still making it. Though she has mastered most aspects of her new game, she almost invariably hits her kill shots too high off the front wall. Yet she wins. Astounding the racquetballers, she beats them at their own game by mixing in squash strategy. Standing near midcourt—pigeon-toed and bowlegged, swaggering a little—she directs traffic. A shot to one side. A shot to the other. A cross-court. A multiwall shot. Scrambling wildly, the opponent is pressed merely to keep the ball in play. Eventually McKay takes the rally with a quick shot to an opening.
"The only thing squash helps me with is my passing shot," insists McKay. "I have a lot to learn about racquetball." But because of her competitive experience, she has a significant edge. "She's 20% better than most of the other women," says Steve Keeley, a racquetball pro who has instructed her, "because she reads shots so well and hits unexpected placements. Nobody can match her anticipation, racquet control and court sense."
Because rallies in women's pro racquetball are generally shorter and less tiring than those in squash, McKay should remain among the top players for several years despite her age. So McKay-watchers are already suggesting another transition. Forget about Heather's place among racquetball players, they say, and consider where she stands among the century's best athletes.
She stands tall. Her squash career is legendary. Until withdrawing from tournament competition in 1979, she had lost only two matches in two decades, a feat unmatched by any athlete, male or female, in any individual sport. Between 1962 and 1979 she lost none. "Many of us feel that Heather is the greatest squash player of all time," says U.S. pro Frank Satterthwaite, whose book, The Three-Wall Nick and Other Angles (A Squash Autobiography), is the word on the game. "Certainly her record is unparalleled, probably unapproachable."
Intelligent athletes who have watched McKay on the court say she could star in almost any sport. In January she won an invitational racquetball tournament in which all the competitors were pros from other sports (McKay entered as a squash pro, having decided to remain an amateur in racquetball until the end of the tournament). The other finalists were men—three from football, one from basketball, one from baseball. After losing to her in the round robin, they agreed that her skills were those of a formidable all-round athlete.
In a Superstars competition that was telecast in March, McKay finished third among 14 women, some of whom were young enough to be her daughters. She placed among the top five finishers in six of seven events. The seventh was the 440, in which she ran seventh. Yes, McKay is human. She has excellent reflexes but only average speed. As her husband, Brian, puts it, "She couldn't disappear on a dark night."
"You do what has to be done," McKay says simply from time to time. Oh, that succinct Aussie play ethic. It's no wonder that Australia has turned into a nation of jocks. And jockettes: many of the country's top athletes—Margaret Court, Dawn Fraser, McKay—have been women.
McKay's background is a classic one for an Aussie athlete: large family, small town. Heather Blundell was born on July 31, 1941 in Queanbeyan, a town of about 5,000 in the sheep and cattle country outside the capital city of Canberra. She is the eighth of Frank and Dulcie Blundell's 11 children. Once one of New South Wales' best Rugby League fullbacks, Frank supported his family by working from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in a bakery. Until his retirement, he routinely spent most of his waking hours playing with his kids. "Six of us—my parents, two brothers, a sister and I—would play Sunday tennis tournaments at the club," says Heather. "If they wanted somebody to throw the ball in cricket, I'd do it. If they wanted somebody to kick it in soccer, I'd do that."
A sister, Kay, was a local tennis star. A brother, Kenny, was a standout in tennis and cricket. Three other sisters excelled in field hockey. But Heather was plainly the best. She took up tennis at age 10 and six years later was Queanbeyan's junior and senior women's champion, titles she would hold for three years. Though she stoutly denies it, her father and others who watched her play feel she could have been another Court. She learned field hockey at 13, and it was not long before the hustling left inner was the best player on her high school squad and a regular on the town team as well.
When McKay was 18 an auto dealer named Leo Casey added a couple of squash courts to his showroom as a publicity gimmick. Looking for a way to keep their legs in shape during the field-hockey off-season, McKay and some teammates began playing squash. McKay quickly ran out of competition and started practicing with men. As luck would have it—and there is a certain amount of luck, mixed with considerable opportunism in her story—Vin Napier, head of the Australian Squash Racquets Association, happened to see her in a tournament. Afterward, he suggested she play in the upcoming New South Wales Championships. "Those girls are too good for me," said McKay, a bashful teen-ager. "You might be surprised," said Napier. McKay reluctantly agreed. Indeed, she surprised herself—and her opponents—by winning the junior title.
She also reached the senior quarterfinals against Yvonne West, the eventual winner. McKay built up a big lead—2-1 in games and 8-2 in the fourth game. Because Australian squash matches are played best-of-5 nine-point games (in the U.S., the games go to 15), she had six match points to fritter away. And that's what she did. To overcome her considerable fatigue and to end the match as quickly as possible, she started trying placements she hadn't mastered and lost. It was the last time she would ever play unconservative squash.
Her strong showing earned her a place on the state team for the 1960 Australian nationals. It was quite a feat just to be there, especially since she had been playing squash for less than a year. Incredibly, she won the tournament. It mattered not that she was little more than a retriever, she got to everything. "To my mind, winning that tournament was the best thing she ever did," says Jean Walker, who played with McKay on one national and six state teams. "To be unknown and win a national tournament is unheard of."
An Australian team was going to Great Britain the following winter. According to Napier, had McKay been on it, she might have been rushed into international competition before she was physically or emotionally ready. But, by prior agreement, the Australian team was to consist exclusively of state champions. Because West was the New South Wales champion, McKay stayed home. "That was probably the best thing that ever happened to her," says Napier. "Before she went to Britain, she was able to settle down and learn something about the game."
McKay had some learning to do. She knew little about shotmaking but had a quick grasp for such things. She never had to be told anything twice. Napier handed her a technical manual he had written, and she all but memorized it. When Pakistan's celebrated Hashim Kahn, who was touring Australia, told her to go for more winners when she was in good position, she never forgot it.
Now committed to squash, McKay hung up her tennis racket and moved from Queanbeyan, where she had been working as clerk in a stationery store, to Sydney, where she supported herself as a receptionist at the Bellevue Hills Squash Club.
It was there that she met Brian McKay, a lathe operator by day, who taught squash at the club in the evenings. They were married four years later. Though Brian had been an outstanding rugby and cricket player and has always been able to hold his own against Heather on the squash court, he has never made a living in competitive sport.
When the McKays met, Heather was tense, overtrained and smoking. Brian got her to reduce her training and concentrate instead on practicing shots for no more than an hour at a time. "If you work out too hard," he told her, "you get exhausted. And then where's your strength?" Heather eventually relaxed and cut out smoking on her own.
By early 1962 Heather was ready to travel. She had won her second Australian national title, and the British were waiting. The citizens of Queanbeyan passed the hat and collected ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£231 to pay for her plane fare.
Leaving Australia was a frightening prospect for McKay. The "girl from the bush," as other players called her, was still only 20. Fortunately, when she got off the plane in London, "shy and bloody near tongue-tied," the grande dame of British squash, Janet Morgan, was there to greet her. Morgan had won the British championship 10 consecutive times. The first of McKay's international "mums" took the kid under her wing, tutoring her in the social graces as well as changing her backhand grip to rid her of a lingering tennis elbow. Ten years later, when McKay won her 11th straight British title to break Morgan's record, Morgan presented her with an engraved bowl.
Before playing for her first British championship, McKay warmed up in the Scottish Nationals, which began just 10 days after her arrival in London. She was unaccustomed to the British ball, which is spongier and deader than the Australian one, so it was no surprise that she lost a five-game final to Fran Marshall, Great Britain's No. 1 player. "Don't worry," McKay wrote home, "it won't happen again." What she meant was that she wouldn't lose again on her 1962 trip. What she didn't realize was that she would never lose again, period.
The following week she beat Marshall 3-1 in the North of England finals. There followed two weeks of practice under the famous Egyptian coach, Dardir Ali El-Bakary, who honed the skills that eventually made McKay unbeatable—footwork, anticipation and her special ability to read where an opponent's shot will go even before it's hit. Then she shut out defending champion Marshall to win the British nationals.
After that it was into the record books: 14 Australian championships, 16 British titles, the only two women's world tournaments ever played, every major trophy in North America. And all the while she played field hockey in her spare time. In 1967, the first of the two years in which McKay was voted all-Australia in hockey, her two-sport parley proved irresistible to Aussie sportswriters. They voted her the nation's highest athletic honor, Australian Athlete of the Year. Her competition included record-breaking runners Herb Elliott and Ron Clarke and world bantamweight champion Lionel Rose.
Winning everything in sight wasn't without its challenges. How, for openers, to stay interested? McKay once let up and nearly lost. Never again. Playing weaker opponents, she resolved to get off the court as quickly as possible. "I would usually give away one point so that it wouldn't be 9-0, 9-0, 9-0," she says. "But if I gave away any more, the other player wouldn't have gotten any satisfaction. People would've said, 'Well, Heather wasn't trying.' This way they knew that my opponent earned the extra points." If McKay did anything at all to extend a match, it was to practice shots she wasn't entirely comfortable with or to perfect subtle things—hiding pain and fatigue, disguising shots until the last possible second. She developed two personalities: open and gregarious off the court, hard-nosed and deceptive on it, as befits an avid player of Liar Poker. Her philosophy was: There is always something to work on—and it made even the easiest win a profitable one.
For the longest time, though, that was the only profit McKay got out of squash. Until the British opened their national championships to professionals in 1974, McKay remained an amateur. Because her jobs as a receptionist and bookkeeper at squash clubs paid poorly, she was obliged to supplement her income. At one point she moonlighted as a telephone dispatcher for a cab company. Not even by combining her pay with her husband's could McKay live in real comfort.
Finally the McKays came up with a money-making gambit. They would go on tour, bringing squash to the outback and picking up pocket money in the process. So they hit the road—first in Australia, later in Britain and South Africa. The script rarely varied. They would arrive in town in time to attend a tea the delighted small-town mayor would throw for them. Then they'd squeeze in a couple of interviews, rest a bit at the hotel, have dinner and head over to the club for their show. First, Heather would take apart the local champion, usually a man. Brian would come out and play her. They would keep the score as close as possible. If Heather was off, Brian would hit a few tins. If Brian was off, Heather would keep her shots high. They would then demonstrate some of the game's fine points and afterward mingle with the townfolk. If Heather had any shyness left, she soon outgrew it in the process of charming a new crowd every night. "It was important to socialize," says Brian. "If they had any doubts about what we were saying, we could make our points more personally. And it was good to meet other people. Otherwise we'd have gone for weeks speaking to no one but each other."
The next day they would be off to another town. On one tour through New South Wales and Victoria, they had one free night in six weeks. "The trips were great for both of us," says Brian. "We got to sightsee, pick up expense money and publicize squash. It was wonderful for Heather's squash, too. Every night she had a new opponent. And you wouldn't have believed the condition of the courts. We played on one in South Africa where the paint hadn't dried. There was talcum powder all over the front wall, and every time the ball hit the wall the powder came off. Pretty soon the floor was covered. On another court there were wooden beams and cobwebs where there was supposed to be a ceiling. Great training."
But not great compensation. As the years passed, McKay grew increasingly bitter about the lack of recognition in her home country. Her only tangible reward was a TV deodorant commercial. Covering her tournaments, Australian writers counted not her wins or losses but the number of games she gave up. When it became obvious she wouldn't lose more than one or two games a year, they took to adding up her opponent's points. "If someone got five or six in a game, they'd write that I was over the hill," McKay says. "They thought I was a machine."
In the early '70s squash was beginning to boom in Toronto, New York and Philadelphia. There was even talk of big-money tournaments. So when the Toronto Squash Club offered the McKays teaching jobs in 1975, they took off for Canada. They first rented an apartment in the Beach section of Toronto so they could jog along Lake Ontario. But the neighborhood soon became too noisy—"too in," as Heather puts it—and they looked for the quietest place they could find. They settled for a two-bedroom house on a sedate, middle-class street of nearly identical bungalows.
There's a world of difference between the retriever-oriented international squash game, which is played on a spacious court with a slow ball and a high, 19-inch tin, and the U.S.-Canadian game, with its small court, lower 17-inch tin and" faster ball that puts a premium on placements. Heather made the change in a few weeks and spent the next four years cleaning up at American tournaments. Unfortunately, "cleaning up" is something of an overstatement. Men's champion Sharif Khan can make good money by winning tournaments such as the Mennen Cup ($13,500 for first place) and the North American Open ($10,000). McKay's biggest purse was $2,000, and in her most profitable year, she netted a little more than $5,000.
Nonetheless, she didn't switch to racquetball strictly to make money. "There was nothing left for me to accomplish in squash," she says, "except to do it over again." Having long since determined to get out of squash before losing another match, McKay decided the time had come when she suffered a rare case of nerves at the 1979 World Open and dropped two games. The previous year she had been invited to an invitational racquetball tournament. Though she had never played the game, she learned it on the spot and reached the semifinals.
In February 1979 McKay entered the U.S. squash nationals, a tournament she had never played. She won it, earning $500, to complete an unofficial squash Grand Slam. McKay may have played in her last squash tournament—unless, suddenly, the money becomes right.
If McKay expected to realize wealth beyond her dreams, courtesy of the National Racquetball Club, she's been sorely disappointed. To be sure, she has made a couple of killings—$19,600 for finishing third in Superstars, $40,000 for winning the all-pro celebrity racquetball invitational, a promo for a beer company—but those are incidental trash sports, not the professional racquetball tour.
That 40 grand is more money than any other female racquetball player has made in her entire career. Racquetball grew out of handball, a game traditionally played by men at the neighborhood Y. The male racquetball players' view of their female counterparts is a haughty one, roughly akin to that of the boys who let the girls into their clubhouse on the condition that they keep their mouths shut. At most tournaments the total purse had been $15,000 for men and $6,000 for women, with the men getting prime time on the exhibition courts. The males justify this arrangement by arguing that neither sponsors nor spectators are particularly interested in the women.
Depending on whose version you believe, early this year the increasingly restive women either chose to leave the NRC tour or were thrown off it. In either case, their lot hasn't improved. Dan Seaton, the commissioner of the Women's Professional Racquetball Association, conducted a tournament on Long Island, but he forgot to ask McKay if she could play. The dates of the tournament coincided with those of the beer-company invitational. Lacking their most famous athlete, the women were ignored by the New York media. Seaton has scheduled another tournament in California and hopes to have a national in June. In the meantime McKay is playing exhibitions against Karin Walton as an adjunct to the men's tour.
Typically, Heather and Brian have found cause for hope. "The sport still isn't very well known," says Brian. "If I could learn it, maybe we could go on tour and give exhibitions, as we did in squash. It would be a new challenge."
But at this stage it's more important for Heather to play racquetball than to promote it. Eventually either Seaton will start a separate. Virginia Slims-style women's tour or, as seems more likely, the women will rejoin the men's tour. When order is restored, McKay will face the one major challenge that she has never encountered in sport—learning to play under pressure.
In field hockey she was just one of 11 women on her team. In squash she was invariably too good to be pressed. The textbook she co-wrote—Heather McKay's Complete Book of Squash—is filled with sound, conservative advice. "[To regain lost concentration] Don't hit any stupid shots or take any risky moves.... When you cut out the frills and theories, what you're trying to do on the court is move your opponent deep with one shot, then take him short with another, and somewhere between the rushing around smack a winner past him or in front of him or around him.... I don't advocate that you go for anything fancy in the way of an answer to a serve."
A restrained approach is understandable for someone who is invariably the favorite; McKay didn't have the best short game in women's squash for the simple reason that she has never had to learn one. But her advantage in racquetball is by no means as pronounced as it was in squash. She has lost some close racquetball games by missing simple ceiling shots and making other unforced errors. It's just another challenge, just another transition, but it will be interesting to see how she adjusts to it.
"You have to play perfectly to beat her," says Sarah Green, one of three tour players who has. "You know you can't psych her or wear her down. She hasn't completed the changeover from squash yet, but when she does, it will be all over for the rest of us."