Niederhoffer Gains Squash Supremacy
Late in the fall of 1960, Harvard squash coach Jack Barnaby took one of his better freshman tennis players up to Hemenway Gym and introduced him to the game of squash.
The freshman, Vic Niederhoffer, developed into one of the nation's top squash players in little more than two years, and by the time of his senior year, he was clearly a class above all other collegians.
But Niederhoffer never won the national squash championship while at Harvard, though he reached the semi-finals twice. In the 1963 nationals, he upset former champ Sam Howe in the second round, 15-14, 15-14, 15-14. In each game, Howe reached 14 points, Niederhoffer tied the game. Howe called for one point rather than three, and Niederhoffer won. But in the semis Niederhoffer was outclassed by the eventual tournament winner, Ben Heckscher '57, 3-1.
In the 1964 tournament, no one outclassed Niederhoffer. Once again, though, he lost in the semi-finals, this time by the narrow margin of 15-12 in the fifth game to four-time champion Henri Salaun. Niederhoffer could not quite equal Salaun'sl gamesmanship in a match interrupted by so many lets that the referee reprimanded both players for unsportsmanlike conduct.
1965 looked like Niederhoffer's year to win. Salaun, still aching from a gruelling loss to Bob Hetherington in the Massachusetts State finals a week before the nationals, defaulted out of the tournament, leaving a final round spot open to a less dangerous player, Steve Vehslage.
Niederhoffer, though suffering with the flu, eked past Hetherington on the semi-finals and needed only to top Vehslage for the title. He breezed past Vehslage in the first game, 15-7, but then nearly collapsed from exhaustion and lost the next three games with hardly a struggle.
The championship finally arrived for Niederhoffer last Sunday. The USSRA tournament was held in New York, the nation's squash center, and so all the best players were able to compete.
Niederhoffer, despite strong competition from Canadian champion Colin Adair, advanced to the semi-finals without losing a game. There he faced the old nemesis of his college days, Ralph Howe, in what must be considered a classic match.
The contest lasted an unbelievable hour and 40 minutes; rallies often lasted a minute and a half, countless lets and appeals were made by both players, and they both temporarily halted play in the fifth game to alleviate leg cramps.
It was a great exhibition of gamesmanship as well as squash. Niederhoffer, who mixes drops, smashes, and three-corner shots beautifully, is a master of strategy, deception, and anticipation. Howe, an extremely poised player, is perhaps a little faster.
They split the first four games and things were getting hot as the final game began. The temperamental Niederhoffer, who will not tolerate the slightest interference with his stroke, has always been a gallery villain because of his frequent let calls. The indignant Howe, just as relentless on lets, tends to give less than sufficient room for his opponent to manipulate as a match tightens.
The result of this combination was a tense 35-minute fifth game, with Howe taking a 10-minute break to massage a cramped leg at 14-12 for Niederhoffer. Howe resumed play, only to be aced on a hard serve which nicked off the back wall.
Niederhoffer won the finals over Sam Howe (Ralph's older brother) 11-15, 15-12, 15-13, 15-13, in a match of equal calibre, though dramatically a bit of an anti-climax. Sam Howe is probably the slowest of the top players, but he possesses the most accurate placements in the amateur game.
In the final two games at 13-all as in the 1963 tournament, Sam Howe called for no set rather than nine points, Niederhoffer came through this year.