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Jim Kaplan
April 14, 1980
Heather McKay, unbeaten in squash since 1962, has switched to racquetball, barely missing a stroke
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April 14, 1980

Mckay Has A New Racquet

Heather McKay, unbeaten in squash since 1962, has switched to racquetball, barely missing a stroke

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Call her Wendy Trendy. She's the archetypal racquetball player: affable, outgoing, au courant. No shrinking violet, she knows where she's going and how to get there. She exudes confidence. But when asked about Heather McKay, the Australian squash star who has joined the racquetball tour, Wendy shudders. "Heather McKay," she says slowly, pushing aside her backgammon game. "When you play Heather McKay, you're down 5-0 before the start of the match."

Since learning racquetball a scant year and a half ago, McKay has moved inexorably toward dominating it. Eight weeks after losing her first match on the tour, she reached the quarterfinals of the 1979 U.S. Open. Then in quick order she won the U.S. women's amateur, took a tour event, reached the finals of another and whipped defending national champion Karin Walton in an exhibition. Now wait a minute. What business does anyone—much less a 38-year-old woman, a foreigner, an interloper from another sport—have whipping up on the homegrown practitioners of our all-American game of speed and youth?

Well, for one thing, McKay has done this sort of thing before. In fact, she's spent her life in transition. From local tennis star to international squash sensation. From cleaning up at the Australian version of squash to wiping out the opposition in the slightly different British style of the game to blitzing her opponents in the markedly different American brand of the sport. For most of her 20-year squash career (1959-79), McKay kept switching back and forth between that game and field hockey, at which she was twice All-Australia. And now she's in transition from the top of the squash world to the highest levels of racquet-ball. In the process she's letting America in on a secret the international racquet crowd has known for years—that McKay is one of the most extraordinary athletes of our time.

The switch from squash to racquetball is not as simple as it seems. True, squash and racquetball are indoor, four-wall racquet sports; true, racquetball is an easier game to learn than squash. But there are important differences. Racquetball is played on a large court with a short racquet and a large, bouncy ball. Squash is played on a small court with a long racquet and a small, less lively ball. A shot that hits the ceiling is in play in racquetball but not in squash. But the most important difference between the games is the standard putaway shot. In racquetball a shot that hits anywhere on the front wall and bounces twice before a play is made on it is a winner. A player can shoot for winners—usually very low shots—from anywhere on the court with a reasonable chance of success. But in squash the ball must hit the front wall above a sheet-metal "tin" or "telltale" that can be from 17 to 19 inches above the floor. Because squash shots, therefore, must be kept high, the ball cannot be put away as easily. A player must patiently maneuver his or her opponent out of position to win a point. Accordingly, to become expert at racquetball, a squash player must learn to go for winners at every opportunity, keep the ball lower, gauge new angles, hit and return a variety of unfamiliar serves and play the ceiling. The transition is by no means easy.

McKay is still making it. Though she has mastered most aspects of her new game, she almost invariably hits her kill shots too high off the front wall. Yet she wins. Astounding the racquetballers, she beats them at their own game by mixing in squash strategy. Standing near midcourt—pigeon-toed and bowlegged, swaggering a little—she directs traffic. A shot to one side. A shot to the other. A cross-court. A multiwall shot. Scrambling wildly, the opponent is pressed merely to keep the ball in play. Eventually McKay takes the rally with a quick shot to an opening.

"The only thing squash helps me with is my passing shot," insists McKay. "I have a lot to learn about racquetball." But because of her competitive experience, she has a significant edge. "She's 20% better than most of the other women," says Steve Keeley, a racquetball pro who has instructed her, "because she reads shots so well and hits unexpected placements. Nobody can match her anticipation, racquet control and court sense."

Because rallies in women's pro racquetball are generally shorter and less tiring than those in squash, McKay should remain among the top players for several years despite her age. So McKay-watchers are already suggesting another transition. Forget about Heather's place among racquetball players, they say, and consider where she stands among the century's best athletes.

She stands tall. Her squash career is legendary. Until withdrawing from tournament competition in 1979, she had lost only two matches in two decades, a feat unmatched by any athlete, male or female, in any individual sport. Between 1962 and 1979 she lost none. "Many of us feel that Heather is the greatest squash player of all time," says U.S. pro Frank Satterthwaite, whose book, The Three-Wall Nick and Other Angles (A Squash Autobiography), is the word on the game. "Certainly her record is unparalleled, probably unapproachable."

Intelligent athletes who have watched McKay on the court say she could star in almost any sport. In January she won an invitational racquetball tournament in which all the competitors were pros from other sports (McKay entered as a squash pro, having decided to remain an amateur in racquetball until the end of the tournament). The other finalists were men—three from football, one from basketball, one from baseball. After losing to her in the round robin, they agreed that her skills were those of a formidable all-round athlete.

In a Superstars competition that was telecast in March, McKay finished third among 14 women, some of whom were young enough to be her daughters. She placed among the top five finishers in six of seven events. The seventh was the 440, in which she ran seventh. Yes, McKay is human. She has excellent reflexes but only average speed. As her husband, Brian, puts it, "She couldn't disappear on a dark night."

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