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The new ruler of hardball squash is a knight-errant who traces his ancestry to the fields of Runnymede and has brought chivalry back to the court. Mark Talbott wanders along the picaresque paths of the pro tour, a Lancelot out of Dayton, slaying opponents with hair-trigger reflexes, unsteadying steadiness and a disarming politeness.
Disgracefully young—Talbott turned 23 two weeks ago—he's the first American to be top-ranked in a sport that has been dominated by the Khan clan out of Pakistan for two generations. Going into the season's final event, which ended earlier this week, Talbott had won 85 of 86 matches and 17 of 18 tournaments, including the North American Open, the Wimbledon of the game, last month. No one, not even a Khan, ever had such an outstanding year. What's more, Talbott has been on the circuit only since 1980.
For the last decade or so squash has been a sport of intimidation, aggression and confrontation. The game has produced a lot of nervous gunsels, players who jitter and jerk around the court like Elisha Cook Jr. defying Humphrey Bogart. But Talbott is as friendly as a puppy dog. He even says "Nice shot!" when an opponent hits a winner, and "Thank you" when complimented. "He's so gentle and unantagonistic," says Clive Caldwell, the fifth-ranked pro. "You start to get fired up, and he just smiles and hands you the ball. Everybody's looking for a way to dislike him—without much luck. The guy was born at E.T.'s knee."
With the reference to E.T., Caldwell has more in mind than Talbott's qualities of endearment. Talbott is an extra-terrestrial in the eyes of many other players. They think he has a treeful of squirrels frisking about in his head. His family calls him neasalistically tranqueesled. They're speaking Glinglish, a language Mark made up when he was six. The Talbotts have used it ever since.
"Most people are pretty reality oriented," says Talbott. "Most squash players are into man-made kind of stuff. I'm more into nature and my family." But even though he is something of a homebody—his favorite pit stop between tournaments is his parents' house in suburban Atlanta—Talbott leads a tumbleweed existence. He doesn't have a place of his own, and he tours the circuit in a pickup truck with a sort of cabin on the back. He built the cabin out of boards that had once been part of a squash court. In Glinglish, he says, his mobile home is called a truckalson.
Inside is a mattress, a propane stove and heater and his Grateful Dead tapes (tunalsons). Sometimes he crashes at the apartments of friends; sometimes, like Blanche DuBois, he depends on the kindness of strangers. As he was heading off for international team competition in Pakistan in 1980, Talbott was adopted by a Pakistani family he met at JFK Airport in New York. He sat with them the entire flight, looking after the children. Upon landing in Karachi, the family honored him with a nine-course dinner.
On the North American circuit, Talbott often bivouacs in parks and vacant lots and on golf courses. In a Toronto parking lot last year, a couple of construction workers woke him.
"Look at that big doggie house," said one.
"That's got to be a big, big dog in there," said the other.
"There's feets in there!"