Just a few hours before his first match in the $25,000 World Series of Squash, a tournament he won last month at the Yale Club in New York City, Michael Desaulniers stood on the floor of the commodities exchange in the World Trade Center 3½ miles away and proclaimed, "I love this place. It's got such a jock atmosphere."
That's his opinion. Another view holds that the COMEX has the ambience of a nuthouse. Whichever, Desaulniers certainly had been a winner that day. As a floor broker trading in the gold "pit," his deals had earned about $350,000 for his employer, Niederhoffer, Cross & Zeckhauser, Inc., which speculates in commodities. "Sometimes it goes like that," said Desaulniers. "I could lose that much the next day."
Win or lose, the chaotic commodities exchange didn't seem to be the ideal place for the world's No. 1 hardball squash player to prepare for the climactic event of the World Professional Squash Association tour. "You get used to it," says Desaulniers. Apparently so. He lost only one game in his five best-of-five World Series matches, including a 15-5, 15-12, 15-6 rout of Gordy Anderson in the finals. His performance was a show of mastery that once was reserved for the legendary Sharif Khan, and it only added an exclamation point to what Desaulniers' fellow players have known since the beginning of the year: The 25-year-old, Vancouver-born, Harvard-educated Desaulniers, not the fierce, 38-year-old Pakistani Khan, is the game's No. 1 player.
Hardball squash is primarily a North American game. The ball is harder than that used in softball, the more popular game worldwide, and is therefore much faster and ideally suited to Desaulniers, who is jackrabbit quick, aggressive and attack-oriented. "He's the Jimmy Connors of squash," says Clive Caldwell, a Toronto pro who this year edged out Khan for second place behind Desaulniers in the WPSA rankings. "He just keeps coming and coming."
Like Connors, Desaulniers uses his quickness to take the ball early. "It's the same as playing an entire basketball game against a full-court press," says Frank Satterthwaite, a touring pro from New York City. "You can't get your best shot against him." That was evident in the World Series final when Desaulniers, who earned $5,000 for his victory, squelched the tough double boast—a shot that hits the two side walls before brushing the front wall and dying—that Anderson had employed in a 12-15, 15-13, 12-15, 15-7, 15-11 semifinal win over Khan. "Michael simply didn't allow me the time to try it," said Anderson.
Though, again like Connors, Desaulniers makes many unforced errors for a top player, he augments his repertoire of shots every year, and his conditioning is at least as good as anyone else's on the tour. "He's reached that nirvana where he doesn't have to worry about being in shape," says Victor Niederhoffer, the chief operating officer of NCZ and a former squash champion. "For him, it's simply a matter of making the shot."
But the key to Desaulniers' success may be his concentration and intensity. During his match against Anderson, play was stopped to allow Desaulniers to wipe up a wet spot on the court with a towel. When he finished, he wiped his face with the same towel and looked puzzled when the gallery laughed. "I didn't even know I'd done it," he said later.
Though Desaulniers was long recognized as a star on the rise—in his four years at Harvard he never lost an intercollegiate match—King Khan was not to be dethroned easily. In the 1980-81 season, for example, Desaulniers beat Khan five of the seven times they played, but it was Khan who won the North American Open, the tour's most prestigious event, and it was Khan who finished the season atop the rankings, with Desaulniers second and Caldwell third.
Desaulniers started slowly in 1981-82, losing to Khan in two tournament finals in November. During that month he also faltered in the second round of the MAAA Invitational in Montreal and in the semifinals of the New York Boodles Gin Open, the only occasions on which he failed to make the finals this season. However, from early December until mid-April, Desaulniers embarked on a tear that can best be described as Khan-like. He won seven of eight tournaments and finished second to Caldwell in the other. For good measure, he and partner Maurice Heckscher won two doubles titles. Khan lost to Desaulniers the three times they played during the streak. One of those meetings came in the final of the North American Open, which Khan had won 12 of the last 13 years.
The best measure of Desaulniers' dominance is provided by the WPSA points standings. Khan finished the 1979-80 season on top, with an average tournament score of 144.17, while Desaulniers was second with 130. In 1980-81 it was 164.7-161 in favor of Khan. But this season Desaulniers averaged a remarkable 183.8 points, well ahead of Caldwell (141.1) and Khan (138.6). "Statistically, it was like a baseball team winning its division by 30 games," says Rob Dinerman, the tour's 18th-ranked player, who calculates the WPSA rankings.
Desaulniers accomplished this feat despite having one arm in squash, the other in gold. The job with Niederhoffer's firm was waiting for him in the spring of 1981, when he graduated from Harvard with a degree in psychology and economics. Niederhoffer is also a Harvard alumnus, but more than the old-boy network got Desaulniers his job. Niederhoffer—the only player to wrest the North American Open title from Khan in the '70s, which he accomplished in 1975—thinks there are similarities between playing squash and dealing on the commodities market: the pressure, the necessity for making quick decisions, the elbowing for position. "Trading commodities is very, very physical," says Desaulniers.
On weekday mornings Desaulniers leaves his Brooklyn apartment, where he lives with his girl friend, Louise Laberge, and takes the subway to 4 World Trade Center. For the next six hours he wins or loses a few hundred thousand for NCZ. After the gold pit closes at 2:30, Desaulniers takes the subway uptown to the NCZ offices for his daily conference with Niederhoffer.
At about 3:30 Desaulniers can at last think about his "second job," which this year will earn him some $70,000, divided almost equally between prize money and endorsements. (Desaulniers and Khan are the only squash pros handled by Mark McCormack's high-powered International Management Group. With more prize money being added to the tour next year, Desaulniers hopes to become the first $100,000 hardball squash player.) From the NCZ offices he can walk to the Lincoln Squash Club for a few hours of practice, which could be more accurately described as bloodletting, considering the intensity of his workouts with Mario Sanchez, Stu Goldstein and other top pros who play out of New York City.
What does it say for squash that a part-time practitioner can be its champion? Says Tom Jones, the publisher of Squash News, "Though Mike has another job, he's the most professional player I know. He might spend fewer hours on the court than some of his colleagues, but those hours are more productive."
Niederhoffer, who became a millionaire in business while playing squash at the highest level, adds, "I think it gives you a little bit of character to have something else going besides squash, and that character will help you as a player."
Fittingly for a commodities trader, Desaulniers is bullish about the prospect that he can pull off a Niederhofferian double. But even he admits this could get tougher if the tour continues to grow and become more competitive; tournament prize money, for example, has increased 500% in the last two years. "Perhaps soon I'll have a tough career decision," says Desaulniers. "Right now I think I can do both. I don't think of myself as a commodities trader who also plays squash, or the other way around. I think of myself as both a squash player and a commodities trader."
The idea of Khan trading anything but forehand drives to the front wall is almost unthinkable. Week after week, year after year, Khan has made his living through squash—prize money and fees for exhibitions, endorsements and teaching—while playing every event on the tour. Desaulniers, on the other hand, enters only those tournaments that interest him—translation: the ones with the most prize money—and those that don't make him miss too many days of work. He missed 15 working days last year, which doesn't exactly qualify him as a goldbrick. His picking and choosing is also a psychological ploy. "I think it inspires fear in these guys if they don't know when I'm coming," he says. "Then all of a sudden they see me staring down majestically from the top of the draw." Desaulniers smiled but he wasn't kidding.
Some observers think Khan could still test Desaulniers for No. 1, and would certainly be a clear No. 2, if he'd play fewer tournaments and use the extra time he'd thereby gain to train. Khan's notion of fitness is one of the standing jokes of the tour. "Well, my wife, Jackie, has this little exercise bike in the basement and I did about three miles a day," says Khan of a recent attempt to get in shape. "For me, that's a milestone."
"It seems to me that Sharif is just taking it easy, not really serious about the game," says his father, Hashim, 67, who is considered the finest all-around squash player in history. "He needs to play two to three hours every day, and he needs to be in better shape. It looks to me that he gets tired at the end of his matches. I think Sharif can beat him [Desaulniers] again if he gets serious."
He'll have to, because Desaulniers is very serious about playing his daily double for a long time.
Desaulniers' capacity to concentrate is as useful in the hectic gold pit as on the court.