Mark Talbott used to be one of the more unorthodox spirits on the pro squash tour, a college dropout who scrounged around in his Ford pickup, sleeping in a doghouse he built in the back; a shaggy-haired Deadhead who read Tolkien, lived in a secondhand navy bridge coat and spoke a private language he invented, called Glinglish; a gentle, disarmingly polite presence in a sport known for cut-throat confrontation.
For eight years Talbott has dominated the sport with a Zen bravado, reaching the finals of 90% of the tournaments he has entered and winning 96 of them, including five World Professional Squash Association Championships. The latest of those WPSA titles came last Thursday night at the World Financial Center near Wall Street.
"Mark used to be an honest vagabond," says fellow pro Ned Edwards ruefully. "Now he's a family man." These days Talbott is a 30-year-old homebody with well-barbered locks and a cedar-shingled house off Worden Pond in Wakefield, R.I. He got hitched to Juilliard-trained cellist Michelle Djokic last May. They met five years ago on a flight to Boston. He was returning from a tournament, she from an audition. "Neither of us did very well," she recalls.
Michelle and her cello were sitting behind the bulkhead when she noticed the rackets poking out of his bag and the eyes peering over his newspaper. She asked him about squash, he asked her about cellos, and zing went the strings. Mark, Michelle and the cello now fly to nearly every tournament together. The cello, a 1686 Francesco Gofriller, has its own frequent flier account with U.S. Air. "It's always perfectly behaved," says Mark, "and I get to eat its meals."
May 13, 1990
It even serenades him with Bach suites and Beethoven sonatas. "Unfortunately, Mark usually falls asleep," says Michelle.
"The cello is a mellow instrument," he says.
Mellow Michelle is not. She's shrewd and determined and displays a bounty hunter's will. "She's like a hard steel rocket that's been bolted together and pointed at a precise target," says John Nimick, the world's third-ranked player. "Her aim is to drive her man to the top, protect him and ensure that he stays there."
Michelle runs Mark's affairs off the court, arranging his tournament schedule, travel and endorsements. She has become a fixture on the circuit and his practice partner when they are at home. Some of his old tour buddies resent her, and his friendships with them have waned. A few think she encouraged this distance. One or two even call her Yoko. "She acts as if Mark's the king of the court and the rest of us are just pretenders," says Edwards. "Sometimes when I'm playing him, I feel like I'm playing her, too."
In a way, playing Team Talbott provides a much-needed edge. "Mark is such a wonderful guy that players find it hard to build up a healthy animosity against him," says pro Larry Hilbert. "Making Michelle out to be a Dragon Lady gives them a reason to dig in a little more."
Nimick thinks Talbott's game has suffered. "Objectively," he says subjectively, "Mark's marriage hasn't lifted it to new heights."
The 1988-89 season was Talbott's best. He won 14 of 17 tournaments and became the first player in the 62-year history of the circuit to sweep the four Grand Slam events (the North American Open, Boston Open, Canadian Open and World Professional Squash Association Championships). This season he has won nine of 15 tournaments, but he came into the WPSA Championships 0 for 3 in the slam events. "He's not quite the player he was," says Nimick. "He's playing competently, but not nearly as explosively as before. His game is missing snap. For the first time, the other guys sense there's meat in the water."
The glass booth in which the final was played had the air of a shark tank. A frenzied school of stockbrokers, insurance executives and investment bankers watched hungrily as Todd Binns of Australia swatted the ball away from Talbott at near-impossible angles, making him scramble and retrieve. Talbott effortlessly covered the court with a cool grace. For more than an hour, Binns fired while Talbott fetched. "It was gun versus run," says Nimick. Run won 18-14, 6-15, 15-12, 15-11.
After the final point, Michelle jabbed the air with her fist. She had spent the afternoon rehearsing for her own competition uptown at Columbia University two days later. "I loved that look in your eyes when you won," said Michelle. "What a great inspiration for me."
Mark took her hand. "Let's go out tomorrow to celebrate," he said. "Maybe you can bring the cello."
There's always room for cello.