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It was hard, but easy
Jim Kaplan
February 07, 1977
Two well-conditioned Aussies gave the Americans a lesson in their own game
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February 07, 1977

It Was Hard, But Easy

Two well-conditioned Aussies gave the Americans a lesson in their own game

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It was the most awesome Australian invasion since Rupert Murdoch hit Gotham. Here they came, smiling at one and all, calling their hostesses "mums," and then whipping us at our own game. You want an analogy? All right, imagine the King and His Court beating the Cincinnati Reds—at baseball.

Here's what happened during the last two weeks: the world's best Softball squash players came to America to compete in our hardball squash tournaments. Because the transition is not unlike that from softball to baseball, you might have expected them to learn the new game. Instead they taught it.

First Geoffrey Hunt, the 29-year-old world champion, rode into Philadelphia to play in the $16,000 North American Open. Hunt had played serious hardball squash only once before, at age 16. So he toppled the best amateur and professional players in the U.S. before losing a thrilling final to the world's best hardball player. A week later the legendary women's champion, 35-year-old Heather McKay, stopped in New York just long enough to sweep through the $6,500 Bancroft Women's Open without the loss of a game. McKay (pronounced muhkigh) had never before played tournament hardball.

In their wake, the Aussies left Americans reevaluating their own game. But in order to understand their shock, you must first understand softball squash. In every squash country but Mexico, Canada and the U.S., the game is played with a small, squishy ball that must be struck with great force. The ball rebounds with less speed than its larger, harder American counterpart, and therefore must be chased all over a court that is 2� feet wider than ours. Games are nine points instead of 15, but an international point can be won only on service. What results is a delicate, seemingly endless game of attrition, position and patience, a kind of physical chess. The longest softball squash tournament match on record lasted two hours, 35 minutes. The American hardball game rarely lasts half that long.

Because international players must be better conditioned for the long siege, they usually adjust to the American game faster than Americans adjust to theirs. International champions like Hashim Khan and Janet Morgan Shardlow have won American tournaments. In the Wightman Cup of women's squash, the Wolfe-Noel series, the British have won three of eight team hardball matches, but the Americans have never won a single individual softball match.

Still, the transition to hardball is not easy. Would the Aussies adjust to the speed of the American ball? Would they learn such shots as the hard serve and the reverse corner placement that are virtually nonexistent in their game? Would they have the touch to hit the volatile American ball softly enough to keep it from overrebounding?

Hunt arrived in America two weeks before the Open. He had pretty well cleaned out the rest of the world in softball in 1976, having won 17 of 22 tournaments and earned nearly $40,000. Beginning his American tour, Hunt won the William White tournament in Haverford, Pa. against a middling field. Then he asked the two leading U.S. pros, Victor Niederhoffer and Peter Briggs, to show him their skills. They obliged, Niederhoffer winning five of five practice games, Briggs four of five.

Hunt's first-round opponent in the Open was John Reese, the top U.S. amateur. Well prepared, Reese drew on his experience for every shot he could muster, but the agile Hunt ran them all down and kept the ball deep. Often Hunt reached behind himself for backhands he somehow lashed directly to the front wall. Even when he slipped, he seemed to come down with the grace of a ballet dancer. "He covers so well he makes immaturity creep into your game," said the drenched, exhausted Reese after losing 15-11, 15-17, 15-8, 18-17. "You get frustrated and try for shots you can't make. It's a form of crying 'help!' "

By contrast, Hunt was slightly damp and breathing easily. "The standard of fitness for all our players is excellent," he said, relating that he runs eight to 10 miles up and down the Melbourne area dunes on the days he isn't doing half-mile sprints. "You've got to keep yourself in shape if your matches are going to last two hours."

"It's not just his conditioning and patience," said University of Pennsylvania Coach Al Molloy, "but his position, stroking and concentration. They have time for that in their game, and he's not changing here. It's instructive. We get away with a lot of sloppiness in our game." Frank Satterthwaite, an American pro and racquets writer, said, "We have to learn to generate power the way they do—with a high, golflike backswing that not only gives them a bigger arc but also enables them to really get their hips and shoulders into the stroke."

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