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"Yes, sir. There's feets in there, and they ain't dog feets, neither. Those feets are people's."
Presumably, Talbott could afford a more luxurious habitat. What with prize money and endorsements, he'll earn about $75,000 this season. But he doesn't care how much he makes. Talbott has never even added up his money. He leaves high finance up to his mother. "I've never been too good dealing with serious situations," he says. "I'm a day-dreamer, basically."
"Mark doesn't like anything too real or too ugly," says Sue Talbott, his sister-in-law. "Everything for him is magical." Says Larry Hilbert, the No. 10 pro, "Friends laughed when he was presented with a Rolex after winning the U.S. Open in March. I don't know anyone who has less concern for time."
"As much as Mark's a space cadet," says Caldwell, "he's remarkably relaxed and outgoing." The tour stopped in Guatemala last year, soon after the military coup. Truck drivers shouted anti-American slogans, and the atmosphere was menacing. "Most of us stayed near our hotels," recalls Hilbert. "But Mark drove to the countryside where we heard they were cutting off peasants' hands. He'd hold out his hand in friendship and say, 'Hi, how're ya doing?' "
Talbott has the look of a late-blooming flower child. Everything about him is long and droopy. His clothing fits poorly. Off the court he practically lives in a secondhand naval bridge coat, and his hair falls nearly to his shoulders. All this and a slightly twisted smile tend to give Talbott the air of a preppie turned hippie, but he lacks the spiritual smugness that gave hippies a bad name. In fact, he did go to boarding school at Mercersburg (Pa.) Academy and then dropped out of Trinity College in Connecticut after one semester. "I wasn't into studying," he says. And he looks suitably insouciant, lounging outside his parents' home, swatting pine cones with his racket at their white shepherd, Zuma.
Actually, Talbott works diligently. "No one in squash is more dedicated than Mark," says Hilbert, "and no one is as fit. In Detroit this year I had him down two games to none. He won mainly because he was as strong in the fifth game as in the first." At the Canadian Open last month, Talbott finished first among 16 players in a treadmill test. According to tournament director Ralph Gardiner, "Mark's in the shape of a world-class marathoner."
Early on, the 6-foot, 145-pound Talbott was essentially a retriever. "I was a running fool," he says. His game was always under control, but it was predominantly passive. Last year he was ranked fifth. The top player was Michael Desaulniers, a hyperactive Canadian who makes his living trading gold on hyperactive Wall Street. This season Talbott won all four of their meetings. "Suddenly Desaulniers was getting slapped in the face by Mark," says Caldwell. "And not so passively." To be fair, Desaulniers played most of the season with injuries. Nevertheless, Talbott had begun to attack the ball. "Now I chase it," says Talbott, "instead of letting it chase me." Usually, when a player becomes more aggressive, he sacrifices consistency. Not Talbott. "Mark still almost never makes an error," says Hilbert. "You have to hit 15 winners to win a game."
Talbott plays the angles of the court like Willie Mosconi at a pool table. His best shot is the double boast, probably the most difficult in the game. To pull it off, the player must drive the ball into a side wall so that it hits the other side wall and then just grazes the front wall before dribbling to the floor, unplayable. If the shot isn't struck exactly right, the ball either fails to reach the front wall or hits it too hard and becomes a setup for the other player. Talbott didn't invent the double boast, but he executes it better than anybody ever has.
"He has a very good temperament for one so young," says sixth-ranked Sharif Khan, whose own court demeanor is threatening and unyielding. Khan sees the court as a boxing ring and Talbott as a gifted counterpuncher. "Mark doesn't drill the ball," says Khan. "He feeds off the pace others set. He'll do it all day. Just crank him up and away he goes."