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The Squabbler of the Squash Courts
Rex Lardner
April 06, 1964
Vic Niederhoffer brought a touch of Brooklyn rowdiness to Harvard and a traditionally genteel game
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April 06, 1964

The Squabbler Of The Squash Courts

Vic Niederhoffer brought a touch of Brooklyn rowdiness to Harvard and a traditionally genteel game

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The progress of Victor B. Niederhoffer, Harvard '64, among American squash players has surprised a lot of people, but not Vic Niederhoffer. Beaten only once in the past two years as No. 1 on Harvard's undefeated squash team and the winner of three major squash championships this year, Niederhoffer thinks he is unbeatable and clamors loudly for justice when his shots go awry. Consequently, on those rare occasions when he loses a tournament, squash lovers are delighted. Niederhoffer could not care less. "He's the Ty Cobb of squash," says his coach at Harvard, Jack Barnaby. "He'd chew glass to win. Nothing matters but victory."

The phenomenal thing about Niederhoffer, now captain of the Harvard team, is that four years ago he had never played squash, nor did he even know the name of the game. He had been an outstanding tennis player at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and so, when he arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1960, he looked up Barnaby, who doubles as tennis coach.

"I'd like to take up this what-do-you-call-it, the other game you coach," Niederhoffer told him. Barnaby blanched but led him to a court, where he handed him a racket and showed him how to swing it. Squash is a game of sudden angles and consternating spins. As several members of the Harvard squash team watched in delight, Niederhoffer ran around the court like a mouse in a maze, trying to catch up to a ball that was always out of reach. "He was always headed the wrong way," recalls Barnaby. "We really had a laugh."

Vic Niederhoffer didn't think it was very funny, however. Squash is an excellent game to practice alone, and Niederhoffer began to spend almost as much time on the court as he did in class. "I play classical piano and the clarinet," he explains. "I looked upon squash as another art form. I practiced it the way I would practice Hanon finger exercises—straight drop, rip corner, slice corner, Philadelphia boast, cross-court drop. All of them, over and over, until I could hit them all well." One afternoon Barnaby found him on the court trying to follow instructions from a book on English squash that he had borrowed from the library. English squash is about as close to American squash as Rugby is to pro football. Barnaby confiscated the book.

Barnaby noted, however, that Niederhoffer's drive for perfection was beginning to show results. By the time the season started he had become good enough to make the Harvard freshman team.

In those early days of his squash career Niederhoffer's court conduct was as primitive as his strokes. The usual behavior of squash players is necessarily honeyed with courtesy, since the game is played in a small room with a racket that can lay open a man's cheek like a scythe. If, in the small confines of a squash court, a player blocks his opponent's path to the ball, the point is generally replayed. Except when Niederhoffer was playing. Niederhoffer, according to Freshman Coach Corey Wynn, was always "handballing it," that is, intentionally blocking off opponents from the ball—a legitimate tactic in handball.

It is not unnatural that Niederhoffer should have hit upon handballing as a squash tactic, for as a youth he spent his summers at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where one-wall handball and one-wall paddleball were—and still are—the reigning games. He was a natural. At 10 he could beat all the local champions at paddleball, and it was at this age he picked up his rough and ready tactics. "You learned to get up quickly after falling," he recalls. "Most players would step on your hands if you left them there. It was also routine to argue about questionable decisions. If you didn't, you lost."

When Vic was 12 his father bought him a tennis racket and before long he was winning local tournaments. His reflexes and daring were such that, in doubles, he became noted for charging forward when a lob was about to be smashed by an opponent, volleying the ball rather than playing it defensively.

At Harvard, Niederhoffer's instinct for putting pressure on his squash opponents, combined with his natural ability at racket games, helped him move up from No. 60 player to No. 2 by the end of his freshman year. He got so he liked squash better than tennis, because it required more thinking. "In tennis," he says, "one or two shots generally end the point—you make your placement or you miss. In squash, you initiate a combination of shots, gradually working your opponent out of position, and then slam home, or drop in, the winner."

In his sophomore year Niederhoffer became Harvard's No. 1 player and, to the astonishment of Barnaby, won the National Junior championship. He also won the intercollegiate invitation championship and the Massachusetts State title—the first college player to win that tournament in 28 years.

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