The progress of Victor B. Niederhoffer, Harvard '64, among American squash players has surprised a lot of people, but not Vic Niederhoffer. Beaten only once in the past two years as No. 1 on Harvard's undefeated squash team and the winner of three major squash championships this year, Niederhoffer thinks he is unbeatable and clamors loudly for justice when his shots go awry. Consequently, on those rare occasions when he loses a tournament, squash lovers are delighted. Niederhoffer could not care less. "He's the Ty Cobb of squash," says his coach at Harvard, Jack Barnaby. "He'd chew glass to win. Nothing matters but victory."
The phenomenal thing about Niederhoffer, now captain of the Harvard team, is that four years ago he had never played squash, nor did he even know the name of the game. He had been an outstanding tennis player at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and so, when he arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1960, he looked up Barnaby, who doubles as tennis coach.
"I'd like to take up this what-do-you-call-it, the other game you coach," Niederhoffer told him. Barnaby blanched but led him to a court, where he handed him a racket and showed him how to swing it. Squash is a game of sudden angles and consternating spins. As several members of the Harvard squash team watched in delight, Niederhoffer ran around the court like a mouse in a maze, trying to catch up to a ball that was always out of reach. "He was always headed the wrong way," recalls Barnaby. "We really had a laugh."
Vic Niederhoffer didn't think it was very funny, however. Squash is an excellent game to practice alone, and Niederhoffer began to spend almost as much time on the court as he did in class. "I play classical piano and the clarinet," he explains. "I looked upon squash as another art form. I practiced it the way I would practice Hanon finger exercises—straight drop, rip corner, slice corner, Philadelphia boast, cross-court drop. All of them, over and over, until I could hit them all well." One afternoon Barnaby found him on the court trying to follow instructions from a book on English squash that he had borrowed from the library. English squash is about as close to American squash as Rugby is to pro football. Barnaby confiscated the book.
Barnaby noted, however, that Niederhoffer's drive for perfection was beginning to show results. By the time the season started he had become good enough to make the Harvard freshman team.
In those early days of his squash career Niederhoffer's court conduct was as primitive as his strokes. The usual behavior of squash players is necessarily honeyed with courtesy, since the game is played in a small room with a racket that can lay open a man's cheek like a scythe. If, in the small confines of a squash court, a player blocks his opponent's path to the ball, the point is generally replayed. Except when Niederhoffer was playing. Niederhoffer, according to Freshman Coach Corey Wynn, was always "handballing it," that is, intentionally blocking off opponents from the ball—a legitimate tactic in handball.
It is not unnatural that Niederhoffer should have hit upon handballing as a squash tactic, for as a youth he spent his summers at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where one-wall handball and one-wall paddleball were—and still are—the reigning games. He was a natural. At 10 he could beat all the local champions at paddleball, and it was at this age he picked up his rough and ready tactics. "You learned to get up quickly after falling," he recalls. "Most players would step on your hands if you left them there. It was also routine to argue about questionable decisions. If you didn't, you lost."
When Vic was 12 his father bought him a tennis racket and before long he was winning local tournaments. His reflexes and daring were such that, in doubles, he became noted for charging forward when a lob was about to be smashed by an opponent, volleying the ball rather than playing it defensively.
At Harvard, Niederhoffer's instinct for putting pressure on his squash opponents, combined with his natural ability at racket games, helped him move up from No. 60 player to No. 2 by the end of his freshman year. He got so he liked squash better than tennis, because it required more thinking. "In tennis," he says, "one or two shots generally end the point—you make your placement or you miss. In squash, you initiate a combination of shots, gradually working your opponent out of position, and then slam home, or drop in, the winner."
In his sophomore year Niederhoffer became Harvard's No. 1 player and, to the astonishment of Barnaby, won the National Junior championship. He also won the intercollegiate invitation championship and the Massachusetts State title—the first college player to win that tournament in 28 years.
Realizing he had not just a good, but a great, squash player under his nose, Barnaby began teaching Niederhoffer the difficult up-and-back game (as opposed to a retriever's or a slammer's game).
The up-and-back game consists mainly of mixing up long shots that hug the side walls with soft touch shots that glance off the side and front walls.
Armed with his up-and-back game, Niederhoffer won the Gold Racquets and the Harry Cowles Invitation tournaments in his junior year. This year he entered the U.S. Open, losing a close match in the semifinals to Hashim Khan, considered by most people to be the greatest squash player in the world. A fierce competitor, Khan complimented Barnaby on Niederhoffer's obsession to win. "You coached that boy good," he said. "He takes the game serious."
Niederhoffer's court temperament has improved with his game, but he still has to wrestle with it. He protests volubly whenever he thinks an opponent has blocked his way, a carryover from his old Brighton Beach days. If he misses a shot he feels he should have made, he flings his left arm toward heaven and raises his head in an arabesque of despair. "He's the most competitive player I've ever faced," says Canadian Champion Smith Chapman. In the National Squash . Racquets tournament at Annapolis last February, Niederhoffer made squash history during his semifinal match with Henri Salaun, four-time national champion. Feeling he should be winning, Niederhoffer repeatedly shouted "Let!" to the referee, claiming that Salaun got in his way, was stepping on his heels when he moved toward the ball and interfering with his racket when he swung. "He wants me to get out of the court," Salaun murmured on one occasion. Salaun is a notably courteous player—to the point where, against many opponents, he places himself at a disadvantage. He has not hit anybody with his racket in years, but one of his swings caught Niederhoffer in the forehead, and time was taken for it to be bandaged. Finally the referee, as flustered as the players, stopped play and told the pair their conduct was disgraceful. The crowd applauded. "I'm getting gypped!" Niederhoffer cried a moment later. This was like spilling a Martini on a duchess. Barnaby rasped from his seat, "Stop fighting the referee and fight Salaun." Niederhoffer's concentration was off, however, and he lost in five hard games. The next day a weary Salaun lost to Ralph Howe of Locust Valley, N.Y. in the final.
Since Niederhoffer's game is still improving, it is not unreasonable to sup-pose that someday he will be the best player in the world, amateur or pro. There are not many more refinements that Coach Barnaby can teach him, except to have more faith in referees. After one outburst a couple of years ago, Barnaby told his young star: "It's better to be a good person than a good squash player." Vic Niederhoffer is not quite convinced.