Khan admits a grudging respect for Talbott, but he doesn't consider him a true champion. "The mark of a great player is consistency," says Khan. "He has to stand the test of time." How long is that? Hint: Khan is somewhere between 37 and 42—he'll never tell—and was ranked No. 1 from 1969 to 1981.
Khan appears to have grown old in the game ungracefully. Despite his vaunted racket control, he's the most feared player on the circuit. He has smashed Talbott in the face with his racket three times. In January, Talbott lost a tooth to Khan's racket. The two last met in the semifinals of the Canadian Open. Sharif no longer has great speed and power; instead, he relies on guile and tricky rhythms. He beat Mark's brother. Dave, who's ranked 16th, in three straight games in the second round. Against Mark, there were occasional bursts of bluster and rage from Khan. Fixing his Rasputin stare on Talbott. Khan tried to break Talbott's concentration, and he made frequent appeals to the officials for the same purpose. However, the wrath of Khan had little effect on Talbott, who won in straight games. Time and again he scurried up behind Khan like a cat on velvet, trading slam for slam, dink for dink. He cut off Khan's canniest shots, forced mistakes and just plain wore him out. By the third game. Khan would have been better off phoning in his moves from the gallery. Talbott beat him with quickness, agility and youth.
"I really enjoyed playing your son, Dave," Khan told Talbott's parents afterward. Then he turned grim. "But playing Mark is no fun at all."
"Mark reminds me of my father," says Mark's father, Doug. "The same mental discipline. Dad never lost his temper or his cool under fire. And like Dad, Mark is very sweet and very sensitive."
Mark's grandfather, Nelson Talbott, was one of Dayton's leading citizens. He got rich buying and selling small businesses, and he once ran TWA for Howard Hughes. Nelson's wife, Elizabeth, was the daughter of the founder of the National Biscuit Company, and she thought up the acronym Nabisco. The Talbotts' lineage dates back to the Magna Charta. At Runnymede King John ceded a tract of land to a knight named John Talbott. Nelson christened the street outside his baronial Dayton estate Runnymede Road.
Nelson was captain of the Yale football team and an All-America in 1913. He was also a champion polo player, but his great passion was squash. Next to his three-story mansion he built a sunken court that could only be reached by ladder. At a tournament in Lexington, Ky. in the mid-1930s, Nelson was taken with the escutcheons on the blazers of the well-born players. He designed his own. He eschewed the usual lions, unicorns and dragons for the lowly skunk and the motto SEMPER SKUNKUS. Now the entire family wears blue blazers with the crest on them. Doug wears his to Mark's matches, and even carries a little skunk hand puppet, which he manipulates during play as a kind of talisman. "I just want Mark to skunk his foes," says Doug.
Doug grew up in the house Nelson built and became a cardiologist in Dayton. He married Polly Snyder and they had six children and adopted another. All the kids were raised in the old house, and they all wound up with nicknames. Doug himself is known as Doccy, Polly is B.J., Mark's siblings are Bean, Scruffy, Chili, Poo, Princess and Babaloo. Mark is sometimes Gee, sometimes Genghis. The latter sobriquet was, to say the least, portentous. In squash circles, predictably enough, he's known as Mork.
Mark, the second youngest, and his brother, Bob, a year older, were inseparable as kids. They rambled through the trap doors and secret passageways of the mansion, filling it with fantasy. They idolized their older brother, Dave. He used to lead them with a flashlight through the intricate network of tunnels beneath the house to escape the resident monster, Claw. Dave painted a basketball bright red and told Mark and Bob it was Claw's egg. Dave would stand on the roof and toss off old clothes stuffed with newspapers to make his brothers think he could fly. Bob abandoned the world of make-believe at about age 10, when he began to drink coffee and read the Dayton Journal Herald at the breakfast table, but Mark is still trying to fly.
"He lives very much in a fantasy world," says Dave, who works as a squash pro at the Detroit Athletic Club. Mark has read most of Tolkien. He also likes Carlos Castaneda novels, sword-and-sorcery films like Excalibur and acting the skeegler. That's Glinglish for someone who wears grotesque Halloween masks to formal dinner parties. He's a sentimentalist, the self-appointed preserver of his grandfather's trophies and caretaker of the Talbott legends. He delights in sending his family on treasure hunts and lavishing expensive gifts on them. He joins them to stalk seashells in Florida and hunt morels in the mushroomy woods of Ohio and Northern Michigan. "You blow a whistle when you come upon a strike," says Mark. "Then you sneak up on the mushrooms and attack."
The one harsh reality of Mark's life has been squash. Doug, a former Ohio champ, taught Mark the game on the sunken court. "I guess it's unusual to grow up with a squash court in your house," says Mark innocently. He got pointers from Hashim Khan, Sharif's father and a friend of Doug's. "I've got to talk to Dad about that," says Sharif with a laugh. "He's giving away too many tips to the opposition."