The new ruler of hardball squash is a knight-errant who traces his ancestry to the fields of Runnymede and has brought chivalry back to the court. Mark Talbott wanders along the picaresque paths of the pro tour, a Lancelot out of Dayton, slaying opponents with hair-trigger reflexes, unsteadying steadiness and a disarming politeness.
Disgracefully young—Talbott turned 23 two weeks ago—he's the first American to be top-ranked in a sport that has been dominated by the Khan clan out of Pakistan for two generations. Going into the season's final event, which ended earlier this week, Talbott had won 85 of 86 matches and 17 of 18 tournaments, including the North American Open, the Wimbledon of the game, last month. No one, not even a Khan, ever had such an outstanding year. What's more, Talbott has been on the circuit only since 1980.
For the last decade or so squash has been a sport of intimidation, aggression and confrontation. The game has produced a lot of nervous gunsels, players who jitter and jerk around the court like Elisha Cook Jr. defying Humphrey Bogart. But Talbott is as friendly as a puppy dog. He even says "Nice shot!" when an opponent hits a winner, and "Thank you" when complimented. "He's so gentle and unantagonistic," says Clive Caldwell, the fifth-ranked pro. "You start to get fired up, and he just smiles and hands you the ball. Everybody's looking for a way to dislike him—without much luck. The guy was born at E.T.'s knee."
With the reference to E.T., Caldwell has more in mind than Talbott's qualities of endearment. Talbott is an extra-terrestrial in the eyes of many other players. They think he has a treeful of squirrels frisking about in his head. His family calls him neasalistically tranqueesled. They're speaking Glinglish, a language Mark made up when he was six. The Talbotts have used it ever since.
"Most people are pretty reality oriented," says Talbott. "Most squash players are into man-made kind of stuff. I'm more into nature and my family." But even though he is something of a homebody—his favorite pit stop between tournaments is his parents' house in suburban Atlanta—Talbott leads a tumbleweed existence. He doesn't have a place of his own, and he tours the circuit in a pickup truck with a sort of cabin on the back. He built the cabin out of boards that had once been part of a squash court. In Glinglish, he says, his mobile home is called a truckalson.
Inside is a mattress, a propane stove and heater and his Grateful Dead tapes (tunalsons). Sometimes he crashes at the apartments of friends; sometimes, like Blanche DuBois, he depends on the kindness of strangers. As he was heading off for international team competition in Pakistan in 1980, Talbott was adopted by a Pakistani family he met at JFK Airport in New York. He sat with them the entire flight, looking after the children. Upon landing in Karachi, the family honored him with a nine-course dinner.
On the North American circuit, Talbott often bivouacs in parks and vacant lots and on golf courses. In a Toronto parking lot last year, a couple of construction workers woke him.
"Look at that big doggie house," said one.
"That's got to be a big, big dog in there," said the other.
"There's feets in there!"
"Yes, sir. There's feets in there, and they ain't dog feets, neither. Those feets are people's."
Presumably, Talbott could afford a more luxurious habitat. What with prize money and endorsements, he'll earn about $75,000 this season. But he doesn't care how much he makes. Talbott has never even added up his money. He leaves high finance up to his mother. "I've never been too good dealing with serious situations," he says. "I'm a day-dreamer, basically."
"Mark doesn't like anything too real or too ugly," says Sue Talbott, his sister-in-law. "Everything for him is magical." Says Larry Hilbert, the No. 10 pro, "Friends laughed when he was presented with a Rolex after winning the U.S. Open in March. I don't know anyone who has less concern for time."
"As much as Mark's a space cadet," says Caldwell, "he's remarkably relaxed and outgoing." The tour stopped in Guatemala last year, soon after the military coup. Truck drivers shouted anti-American slogans, and the atmosphere was menacing. "Most of us stayed near our hotels," recalls Hilbert. "But Mark drove to the countryside where we heard they were cutting off peasants' hands. He'd hold out his hand in friendship and say, 'Hi, how're ya doing?' "
Talbott has the look of a late-blooming flower child. Everything about him is long and droopy. His clothing fits poorly. Off the court he practically lives in a secondhand naval bridge coat, and his hair falls nearly to his shoulders. All this and a slightly twisted smile tend to give Talbott the air of a preppie turned hippie, but he lacks the spiritual smugness that gave hippies a bad name. In fact, he did go to boarding school at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy and then dropped out of Trinity College in Connecticut after one semester. "I wasn't into studying," he says. And he looks suitably insouciant, lounging outside his parents' home, swatting pine cones with his racket at their white shepherd, Zuma.
Actually, Talbott works diligently. "No one in squash is more dedicated than Mark," says Hilbert, "and no one is as fit. In Detroit this year I had him down two games to none. He won mainly because he was as strong in the fifth game as in the first." At the Canadian Open last month, Talbott finished first among 16 players in a treadmill test. According to tournament director Ralph Gardiner, "Mark's in the shape of a world-class marathoner."
Early on, the 6-foot, 145-pound Talbott was essentially a retriever. "I was a running fool," he says. His game was always under control, but it was predominantly passive. Last year he was ranked fifth. The top player was Michael Desaulniers, a hyperactive Canadian who makes his living trading gold on hyperactive Wall Street. This season Talbott won all four of their meetings. "Suddenly Desaulniers was getting slapped in the face by Mark," says Caldwell. "And not so passively." To be fair, Desaulniers played most of the season with injuries. Nevertheless, Talbott had begun to attack the ball. "Now I chase it," says Talbott, "instead of letting it chase me." Usually, when a player becomes more aggressive, he sacrifices consistency. Not Talbott. "Mark still almost never makes an error," says Hilbert. "You have to hit 15 winners to win a game."
Talbott plays the angles of the court like Willie Mosconi at a pool table. His best shot is the double boast, probably the most difficult in the game. To pull it off, the player must drive the ball into a side wall so that it hits the other side wall and then just grazes the front wall before dribbling to the floor, unplayable. If the shot isn't struck exactly right, the ball either fails to reach the front wall or hits it too hard and becomes a setup for the other player. Talbott didn't invent the double boast, but he executes it better than anybody ever has.
"He has a very good temperament for one so young," says sixth-ranked Sharif Khan, whose own court demeanor is threatening and unyielding. Khan sees the court as a boxing ring and Talbott as a gifted counterpuncher. "Mark doesn't drill the ball," says Khan. "He feeds off the pace others set. He'll do it all day. Just crank him up and away he goes."
Khan admits a grudging respect for Talbott, but he doesn't consider him a true champion. "The mark of a great player is consistency," says Khan. "He has to stand the test of time." How long is that? Hint: Khan is somewhere between 37 and 42—he'll never tell—and was ranked No. 1 from 1969 to 1981.
Khan appears to have grown old in the game ungracefully. Despite his vaunted racket control, he's the most feared player on the circuit. He has smashed Talbott in the face with his racket three times. In January, Talbott lost a tooth to Khan's racket. The two last met in the semifinals of the Canadian Open. Sharif no longer has great speed and power; instead, he relies on guile and tricky rhythms. He beat Mark's brother. Dave, who's ranked 16th, in three straight games in the second round. Against Mark, there were occasional bursts of bluster and rage from Khan. Fixing his Rasputin stare on Talbott. Khan tried to break Talbott's concentration, and he made frequent appeals to the officials for the same purpose. However, the wrath of Khan had little effect on Talbott, who won in straight games. Time and again he scurried up behind Khan like a cat on velvet, trading slam for slam, dink for dink. He cut off Khan's canniest shots, forced mistakes and just plain wore him out. By the third game. Khan would have been better off phoning in his moves from the gallery. Talbott beat him with quickness, agility and youth.
"I really enjoyed playing your son, Dave," Khan told Talbott's parents afterward. Then he turned grim. "But playing Mark is no fun at all."
"Mark reminds me of my father," says Mark's father, Doug. "The same mental discipline. Dad never lost his temper or his cool under fire. And like Dad, Mark is very sweet and very sensitive."
Mark's grandfather, Nelson Talbott, was one of Dayton's leading citizens. He got rich buying and selling small businesses, and he once ran TWA for Howard Hughes. Nelson's wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of the founder of the National Biscuit Company, and she thought up the acronym Nabisco. The Talbotts' lineage dates back to the Magna Charta. At Runnymede King John ceded a tract of land to a knight named John Talbott. Nelson christened the street outside his baronial Dayton estate Runnymede Road.
Nelson was captain of the Yale football team and an All-America in 1913. He was also a champion polo player, but his great passion was squash. Next to his three-story mansion he built a sunken court that could only be reached by ladder. At a tournament in Lexington, Ky. in the mid-1930s, Nelson was taken with the escutcheons on the blazers of the well-born players. He designed his own. He eschewed the usual lions, unicorns and dragons for the lowly skunk and the motto SEMPER SKUNKUS. Now the entire family wears blue blazers with the crest on them. Doug wears his to Mark's matches, and even carries a little skunk hand puppet, which he manipulates during play as a kind of talisman. "I just want Mark to skunk his foes," says Doug.
Doug grew up in the house Nelson built and became a cardiologist in Dayton. He married Polly Snyder and they had six children and adopted another. All the kids were raised in the old house, and they all wound up with nicknames. Doug himself is known as Doccy, Polly is B.J., Mark's siblings are Bean, Scruffy, Chili, Poo, Princess and Babaloo. Mark is sometimes Gee, sometimes Genghis. The latter sobriquet was, to say the least, portentous. In squash circles, predictably enough, he's known as Mork.
Mark, the second youngest, and his brother, Bob, a year older, were inseparable as kids. They rambled through the trap doors and secret passageways of the mansion, filling it with fantasy. They idolized their older brother, Dave. He used to lead them with a flashlight through the intricate network of tunnels beneath the house to escape the resident monster, Claw. Dave painted a basketball bright red and told Mark and Bob it was Claw's egg. Dave would stand on the roof and toss off old clothes stuffed with newspapers to make his brothers think he could fly. Bob abandoned the world of make-believe at about age 10, when he began to drink coffee and read the Dayton Journal Herald at the breakfast table, but Mark is still trying to fly.
"He lives very much in a fantasy world," says Dave, who works as a squash pro at the Detroit Athletic Club. Mark has read most of Tolkien. He also likes Carlos Castaneda novels, sword-and-sorcery films like Excalibur and acting the skeegler. That's Glinglish for someone who wears grotesque Halloween masks to formal dinner parties. He's a sentimentalist, the self-appointed preserver of his grandfather's trophies and caretaker of the Talbott legends. He delights in sending his family on treasure hunts and lavishing expensive gifts on them. He joins them to stalk seashells in Florida and hunt morels in the mushroomy woods of Ohio and Northern Michigan. "You blow a whistle when you come upon a strike," says Mark. "Then you sneak up on the mushrooms and attack."
The one harsh reality of Mark's life has been squash. Doug, a former Ohio champ, taught Mark the game on the sunken court. "I guess it's unusual to grow up with a squash court in your house," says Mark innocently. He got pointers from Hashim Khan, Sharif's father and a friend of Doug's. "I've got to talk to Dad about that," says Sharif with a laugh. "He's giving away too many tips to the opposition."
In the mid-'60s Doug had trouble with drugs and liquor. He was in and out of treatment centers and lost his practice and his inheritance. "Mark took it all very hard," says Dave. "He blamed himself for what was happening to Doccy." But Doug recovered and moved to Baltimore. He lived by himself for a time, managing a clinic and two halfway houses for down-and-out alcoholics. Today, Doug runs a treatment center outside Atlanta for drug addicts and alcoholics and, with the help of Polly, 10 recovery houses for people suffering from these ailments. Doug and Polly have done well enough to afford a second home in the Keys, where they've installed what Mark claims is the southernmost squash court in America.
"Doccy's sickness brought us closer together," says Mark. "It made us realize how important the family is." Doug now keeps a daily journal in which he jots down such homespun homilies as: "Only Robinson Crusoe got things done by Friday," and "Even Jesus couldn't pick 12 good friends." He has them printed up every year in a pocket calendar that has A THOUGHT FOR THE DAY FOR THE TALBOTT FAMILY emblazoned in gold on the cover. Doug hands out copies of the calendar at Christmas. Mark carries his with him to tournaments. The entry on the eve of his match with Khan at the Canadian Open was: "You can tell more about a man in 30 minutes in a duck blind or a squash court than seeing him in the office for two whole months."
As a rookie on the tour, Talbott was devastated by the conduct of his fellow pros, i.e., the blocking, the lethal swings, the psychological ploys. After one particularly galling defeat, he told Dave, "I'm never going to lose to those bastards again. Squash doesn't have to be this way. I'm going to set an example."
And he did. "He's changed the nature of the sport," says Hilbert. "We used to scratch and claw for points. He brought sportsmanship and integrity to the court. His style of play has affected others."
On match point in the finals of one tournament this year, his opponent, second-ranked Ned Edwards, stopped after hitting a shot he thought was out. But Talbott played the ball and easily put it away. Realizing that Edwards could have gotten to the putaway if he had not stopped, Talbott insisted that they play the point over. He wound up losing the game—"I didn't want to win that way," says Talbott—but winning the match. Edwards, by the way, is the only player to have beaten Talbott this season. Edwards also happens to be one of his best friends on the tour. Talbott was magnanimous in that defeat. "I'm so pleased Ned won," he told Doug.
The three dozen players on the tour sometimes seem like an extended family, sometimes like warring clans. The 56-year-old World Professional Squash Association regulates the game and oversees events. Nevertheless, Mennen, the toiletry company, has been able to run an unsanctioned tournament in Toronto. For the last four years the WPSA has asked its members to boycott the event. Talbott was the first player to decline Mennen's invitation, and a sure shot at the $12,000 first prize. "It was a question of honor," he says. "Squash is an important part of my life, but not as important as my friends or family."
Talbott celebrated his brother Bob's birthday in February with an elaborate treasure hunt at their parents' house. The first clue, partly in Glinglish, was fastened to the back of a Grateful Dead button: "Her emporyous is surrounded by many brilliant knights. She sees as they grow and then retreats and gains strength."
That led to the front lawn, where another riddle was folded in the petals of a solitary daffodil. Bob and Sue, whom Mark calls the elfie stumpletons, which is long for "short elves," spent the next four hours wending through hills and glades outside Atlanta until they came to a ring of "power trees" on a ridge of Stone Mountain. Hidden in a mound of pine needles was a clue about a "stysle place" that pointed them back to the Talbott home. There, the final clue was tied with red cellophane ribbon to Zuma's tail: "My love for you blazes above all."
Buried under the gray ashes of the fireplace was a pouch bulging with silver dollars. Bob and Mark embraced and wept. It wasn't until after Mark left that the stumpletons counted their treasure—1,000 coins.
"Giving us silver dollars made it like it wasn't money," says Sue. "It's more like a toy."
"People often ask me when Mark's going to grow up," says Dave. "I'm not sure he ever will, or even has to. For all I know, he may pull it off forever." That would be delicilson with Mark. That's Glinglish for just fine.