History Of The US Nationals In New York City

by Rob Dinerman

November 24, 2001  -When the Harvard Club of New York hosts the still continuing U S National Hardball Championships in late February 2002, it will mark the 90th playing of this prestigious tournament and the seventh time it has been held in New York. The US Nationals is traditionally a revolving tournament, having been held at virtually all of the important squash centers in the USA during its history.

It will be a first for the 44th Street venue, though, since on all previous occasions it had been the main gallery courts of the University Club, with their majestic galleries, cool temperatures and distinguished ambiance, that had provided the setting in which the mutitudinous battles were joined.

Vintage New York Crowd
The solid maple walls that were constructed more than 75 years ago by Brunswick, the renowned bowling-alley company, at the behest of Arthur Lockett, a multi-millionaire squash enthusiast after whom the famed annual Tri-City competition between New York, Boston and Philadelphia was named, characterized those now long-gone arenas. Just as was the case with the William White Invitational and the cathedral-like courts at the Merion Cricket Club, the horde of contestants at those New York Nationals were always inspired not only by the competitive forum the University Club provided but also by its rich legacy in the overall history of the National Championship.

New York hosted the Nationals six times in the past 62 years, the first of which was won in 1940 by a 29-year-old Philadelphian named Arthur Willing Patterson. Eight years earlier, Patterson had captained a Harvard squad that featured two-time ('32, '33) National Champ Beekman Pool and Jack Barnaby, destined to become the greatest college coach in squash history until his retirement in 1976 after 44 glorious years at the helm.

Though somewhat obscured during his undergraduate days by those prominent teammates (as well as by a freshman on that '32 team named Germain Glidden, who would sweep to three straight National titles in the mid-30's), Patterson quietly developed a solid game based on sound fundamentals, excellent conditioning and great cool. This latter attribute would serve him well in his Nationals semi-final with Dick Wakeman of Boston, especially in a do-or-die fourth-game overtime which Patterson survived 18-14 before pulling through the fifth 15-9.

Patterson's appearance in the finals of this 18-man field, while not shocking, was a surprise to some. He had always been a consistent player who frequently hovered near a draw's late rounds, but was thought not to possess the firepower needed to win this championship, especially against a power-hitting opponent like Sherman Howes of Boston, whose severe drives had always brought him victory over Patterson in the past, and who was accompanied throughout the weekend by his personal coach (a decided rarity in those understated days), Eddie Standish.

But for this match, Patterson devised the unique strategy of hitting everything at an angle, and breaking the ball sharply in on the less nimble Howes, forcing him to extemporize from these unusual positions. This novel approach enabled Patterson to grab two quick games and reach another fourth-game overtime, which he knocked off to emerge with an unexpected 15-10, 15-8, 9-15, 17-14 triumph. Underrated throughout much of his career, Patterson parlayed his several traits to victory in this prestigious tournament and thereby finally gained the enduring fame that had previously eluded him.

One decade after Patterson's achievement, the action returned to the University Club, where a virtual unknown from Detroit named Eddie Hahn shocked the experts by becoming the first midwesterner ever to win the national title, a feat even more surprising for his being 37 years old at the time. Forced to rally from a 2-1 deficit in a second-round encounter with the formidable Calvin McCracken, Hahn then benefited greatly from a stunning quarter-final upset of the top-seeded Diehl Mateer at the hands of Pittsburgh's Jack Isherwood, who was spent by this great effort and offered little resistance to Hahn in their straight-set semi. Hahn then faced the local favorite Dick Rothschild, who himself had pulled off a major upset over Philadelphia's four-time national champion, Charlie Brinton, which Rothschild followed with a four-game victory over highly-regard Roger Bakey of Boston.

However the much-anticipated clash between this pair of unheralded finalists turned out to be anti-climactic, as Rothschild was fatigued and jaded by his long weekend of play while Hahn, despite his advanced years, inexorably pounded his way to a 30-minute 15-4, 15-10, 17-14 win to earn the title which he would successfully defend one year later (disproving the "fluke" theory that initially arose) in Chicago. Hahn was aided not only by his excellent conditioning but also by the unseasonably warm weather, which gave the ball a lively character that blunted Rothschild's normally effective short game.

This would not be the last time that the court conditions of the University Club's two exhibition courts (which were relatively exposed to the outside weather) would affect the tenor of a National's competition. This is not a denigration of but rather a tribute to the achievements of the eventual champions, who were thereby able to demonstrate the crucial capacity to adapt and adjust to all aspects of the competitive environment that confronted them.

One other noteworthy detail about this final concerned the distinctive footwear of both participants. Hahn was clad in high-top, coal-black canvas basketball sneakers, while Rothschild's feet were covered by old-fashioned saddle-soled shoes of white leather bound by a brown-leather band across the middle. Neither man was responding to any orthopedic difficulty or other medical exigency; both simply felt more comfortable in their various selections, which seemed respectively more suited to a Harlem playground or country fair than the sacred turf of the University Club's main gallery court. The presence of unusual sneakers would resurface several decades later in this thematic history of the New York Nationals, of which more anon.

While the 1940's and 1947 Nationals were both well-planned and beautifully orchestrated, the 1957 affair was dropped onto the MSRA with just two months' advance notice due to a strike among construction workers in Maryland, which prevented the new courts at Annapolis from being completed in time to host the event as scheduled. An ad hoc committee was thereupon hurriedly formed, consisting of a number of the MSRA's prominent squash aficionados (including Treddy Ketcham, Stewart Brauns, Braman Adams and Tournament Chairman Bob Dewey), which swiftly made the necessary arrangements and rescued what had become an uncertain situation.

The Wily Henri Salaun
In marked contrast to this somewhat hectic administrative backdrop, the matches themselves proceeded in tidy totem-pole fashion, with three of the top four seeds reaching the semis and the top two seeds, defending champion Diehl Mateer and the swift, accurate Henri Salaun, meeting for the second consecutive year in the finals.

This time Salaun prevailed, though the highly competitive Mateer saved a pair of third game match points in the 15-12, 18-14, 16-17, 15-11 battle between these two long-time rivals, whose matches always devolved into a clash between Mateer's great attacking power and Salaun's frustrating retrieving and shotmaking. The latter would successfully defend this crown one year later at Annapolis, incidentally, whose courts were eventually constructed in time to host the Nationals not only in 1958 but in 1964 and 1974 as well.

By 1966, when the National Singles next took place in New York, a whole new generation of talent had replaced the veterans of the previous decade, and the resulting 32-man competition was probably the deepest and hardest-fought of all. Though second-seeded behind Steve Vehslage --- whose top seeding, in spite of his relatively inactive 1965-66 schedule, reflected the British "courtesy" custom of automatically according this honor to the defending champion --- Victor Niederhoffer, who had dropped a severely disappointing final to Vehslage the previous year, was expected to atone for this failure and come away with his first National title.

Though he would eventually live up to this expectation (and thereby gain the opportunity to make what he ruefully referred to as "the acceptance speech I had planned on making last year"), his ultimate victory would require his surviving a murderous pair of battles with the Howe brothers, Ralph and Sam, the fourth and third seeds respectively.

Victor's match with his former collegiate nemesis Ralph Howe was undoubtedly the most memorable match of the tournament, a contentious, grinding five-game marathon in which the warm weather and packed gallery created such humid conditions as to cause slipping sneakers, skidding balls, severe cramps and several tension-building stoppages of play. The gripping drama had aspects of a morality play for some, and elements of Darwin's fabled doctrine of natural selection for others. Suffice it to say that it made a lasting impression on everybody present, especially given the bad blood that was known to exist between these prideful warriors, and when Niederhoffer closed out the 15-12 fifth against an opponent who had been immobilized by yet another mid-thigh cramp the tournament's emotional apex had been reached.

Although the next-day final was both more sportsmanlike and less dramatic than the foregoing, it was a fine match in its own right, with Sam Howe, after splitting the opening pair of games, finally being undone by one of his most noticeable eccentricities; namely, his insistence on always calling "no-set" when an overtime arose. (Younger brother Ralph's affection for this briefest possible suffix was nearly as pronounced as Sam's; on the rare occasions --- including the 1968 North American Open final --- when they faced each other, one could be absolutely certain that no circumstance would extend a game past the 15-point minimum requirement!)

In both the third and fourth games, Howe held 13-11 leads and, after being caught at 13, he chose this short tiebreaker span, losing all four crucial points and ceding by an 11-15, 15-12, 15-13, 15-13 score the title he would win in four straight-set matches the next year in Chicago. One important gain that Howe would take from this event, however, was his four-game quarter-final triumph over Bob Hetherington, the lanky Buffalo resident who to that point had always had Howe's number. This breakthrough would prove an important psychological precedent for Sam when the two met twelve months later in that Chicago final.

If Niederhoffer's conquest of the Howe family (as well as being runner-up to Mohibullah Khan in that season's North American Open) comprised the storyline of the 1966 Nationals, it could be said with equal verity that his absence from the Nationals picture the following year (caused by his bitterly-voiced, and hotly debated, viewpoint that the Chicago clubs were depriving him of membership due to their anti-Semitic bias), and the self-imposed exile that that followed through 1971, cast a pall over the championships which, perhaps unfairly, obscured and diminished the significance of the achievements of those who did paticipate.

What is clear is that Niederhoffer's return to competition in 1972, when he won the first of his record four consecutive National titles prior to turning pro in autumn in 1975, infused the tournament with an aura of existential spice that had been palpably absent during his controversial boycott.

By 1975, when the Nationals returned to Gotham, he was, along with Sharif Khan (whom Niederhoffer had defeated one month prior to the '75 Nationals in the finals of the North American Open), clearly the sport's most visible figure, and a New York Times article accurately summarized the prevailing scenario when it referred to Victor as the "Caesar of Squash." The sneaker motif, dormant since the aforementioned Hahn-Rothschild encounter back in 1950, reappeared in a new light in Niederhoffer's tournament-long insistence on wearing sneakers that matched in neither color, brand nor design, but his eventual triumph was so foregone a conclusion (five matches, fifteen games, including wins over soon-to-be champs Michael Desaulniers and Peter Briggs) that his several unusual mannerisms were little more than diversionary grist within the perspective of his dominance.

In fact. the tournament's most memorable match was a rousing semi between the durable veteran Jay Nelson (once Niederhoffer's teammate at Harvard) and the charismatic young charger Peter Briggs, who would sweep through the 1976 Nationals in Philadelphia without losing a single game. After trailing 2-1, Nelson, who had dropped a five-game semi to Gordy Anderson the previous year, scratched and clawed his way to a huge 12-4 lead in the fifth, before falling victim to an extraordinary exhibition of Briggsian brilliance, resulting in a ten-point run and a 15-13 ticket for Briggs to the finals. There Niederhoffer, whose first National title had come nine years earlier in New York, recorded his fifth and final championship on the same court by throttling his flashier foe in a well played but convincing 15-10, 15-3, 15-12 triumph.

In 1986, when the Nationals last appeared in New York, another Harvard alumnus and Intercollegiate champion was trying to win his fourth consecutive Nationals and thereby emulate the feat Victor had achieved eleven years earlier.

Kenton Jernigan who was finishing off the senior season of a sparkling intercollegiate career, came roaring into town determined to duplicate his Nationals-winning exploits in San Francisco, Cleveland and New Haven. It was known that Jernigan was planning to turn pro right after his graduation (as Niederhoffer had done right after his fourth straight Nationals title) and he badly wanted to cap off his amateur career in victorious fashion. He was accompanied in his consecutive-nationals quest by Alicia McConnell, who was seeking a record fifth straight women's Nationals, and their streak-extending strivings happily could be viewed simultaneously since, for the first time ever in New York Nationals history, both draws were being contested at the same venue.

But while McConnell succeeded in keeping her streak alive (though only after rallying from an 0-2 deficit and surviving a crossroads third-game overtime in her semi with Nina Porter and then winning a five game final with her most dangerous rival, Sue Cogswell), Jernigan fell just short in his final with Yale star Hugh LaBossier, who got to within two points of victory in a fourth-game five-point tiebreaker and gratefully accepted two impatient Jernigan tins to seal the deal. It should be noted that neither Alicia's airtight triumph nor Kenton's agonizingly close defeat kept either from forcefully moving their careers forward.

McConnell won the women's Nationals each of the next two years, pushing her total to a record seven National hardball championships (and all in a row!) and even as recently as last year, by which time she was 37, she combined with Demer Holleran to win the Women's National Doubles, while Jernigan rebounded from his narrow setback to have a wonderful WPSA career in singles, doubles and softball, rising in fact all the way to #2 WPSA ranking (behind only Mark Talbott, younger brother of LaBossier's coach Dave Talbott and easily the greatest American player in the history of the game) and winning the 1991 WPSA Championship, also held in New York at the World Financial Center's famous Winter Garden.

It is neither appropriate nor within the scope of this essay to infer from this sextet of National Championships any sweeping conclusions about the character of past New York Nationals or their impact upon the overall history of this tournament. Certainly the Harvard and Philadelphia influences, which permeate the history of squash in the USA, are solidly represented in the persons of Patterson, Mateer, Niederhoffer, Briggs, Jernigan and the Howe brothers, but neither Eddie Hahn nor Henri Salaun fits into either of these two categories, and Hahn especially proved a pioneer of sorts, given his age and atypical background. Surprise finalists such as Rothschild, Hahn, Patterson and LaBossier gave an unpredictable quality to this history, but Salaun, Mateer and especially Niederhoffer confirmed that for the most part the top players rise to the sport's most momentous occasions. Great rivalries (Mateer-Salaun, Niederhoffer-Howe, McConnell-Cogswell) had important details woven into their undulating patterns, but clearly no decisive denouements are ever finalized in one isolated confrontation, no matter how major the occasion.

Losing finalists Briggs and Mateer, for example, would recover to win subsequent Nationals finals, while Patterson, whose playing prime was interrupted for several years almost immediately after his 1940 championship by military service, would never really return to the top competitive level. Some of these men (Briggs, Howe, Niederhoffer, Jernigan) would turn pro and gain distinction in that rarified milieu, while Henri Salaun is still winning titles at the senior and now upper-senior levels; the two National age-group losses he absorbed in New York in '75 (in a thrilling five-gamer with eventual champ Pete Bostwick) and '86 (in a one-point-in-the-third battle with Tony Crociata, who played the match of his life) were among the very few he has suffered over the last few decades and the little maestro's total of age-group titles dwarfs that of anyone else.

What this writer will best remember from researching this project and constructing this thematic retrospective are the remarkable personalities of the men who ran and competed in these championships, for it is in the character of this large body of individuals, rather than in the statistical tale of the drawsheets, that the true richness of this tradition is most vibrantly found. The obvious relish which which Arthur Willing Patterson, who lived well into his '80s in gentlemanly retirement in a Philadelphia suburb, recalled his triumphant weekend nearly a half-century back in a charming interview he granted in 1986, his memory of details still evergreen yet tempered with praiseworthy modesty and enduring respect for the opponents he conquered; the charming anecdotes that had filled Stewart Brauns' remarkably detailed recounting of many of the events; the flamboyance of Diehl Mateer, the unparalleled concentration of Victor Niederhoffer, Eddie Hahn's twinkle-eyed manner belying his on-court determination, the human drama of Peter Briggs' eleventh-hour charge against Jay Nelson in '75 and the clash of warring wills between Niederhoffer and Ralpha Howe nine years earlier; Henri Salaun, approaching his fortieth birthday, playing in the '66 event only as a favor to the MSRA committee and turning back the clock by advancing all the way to the semis --- these are the vignettes that linger long after the official tally has been taken.

For it is in this marvelous mixture of personalities and styles that these six tournaments on the New York stage gained their enduring vitality, and it is within the uplifting perspective of this legacy that the 2002 Hardball National competition, though somewhat diminished in stature by the softball game's near-total takeover of singles squash during the past decade, will gain their true meaning. What began then as a historical review winds up as a personal tribute to the men and moments that have defined and enlivened the history of the USSRA Hardball Nationals in New York.

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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