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And You Think You've Got a Great Racket

Savoir-Faire on Vegetables

By Michael K. Savit

I mean everybody was a big deal in high school. Even you. Editor of your yearbook, right? Maybe a three-sport, nine-letterman. Maybe both, with a little class valedictorian thrown in for good measure.

But then you came to Harvard, and you weren't a big deal anymore. You weren't even a "Let's Make A Deal." You were a freshman, you had to walk three miles for a meal on weekends, and everybody in the dorm was a high school yearbook editor. I'll take the door in front of which Carol Merrill is now standing.

Of course, that's not your fault. You knew what you were getting into, you knew you would run into people here who would make you feel as smart as an eight-year-old, as athletic as Woody Allen, as creative as today's ed page. You knew you would run into people like Mike Desaulniers.

But probably only at Hemenway Gym, where Desaulniers, a freshman, established himself this winter as Harvard's top squasher, faster than it takes the bus boys at 33 Dunster St. to clear away the empty mugs.

But Desaulniers is more than just the best squash player at Harvard, a title he will no doubt hold for the next three years. He's also the best collegiate racquetman in North America, the best amateur softball player in his native Canada, and according to Racquet Magazine, which is to squash what The New Yorker is to prep school, the eighth best hardball player in the world.

(If you're confused as to the distinction between hardball and softball, don't worry about it. I'd explain but I spilled beef stroganoff over my notes at lunch yesterday.)

How good is Desaulniers? He's so good that he has yet to and will probably never lose a collegiate match. That last Sunday in Annapolis he put to rest any doubts that he was the best around the campus by disposing of Western Ontario's Phil Mohtadi (Western Ontario imports racquetmen like Russia does wheat). That he plays with the likes of Sheriff Khan, who is the best in the world.

Basically, we're talking about talent, because few 19-year-old are the eighth best anything in their House entry (especially Winthrop-J--it's a tough crowd over there this year), never mind the world.

Desaulniers's status really comes as no surprise, though. I mean, if you played with a racquet instead of a rattle in your crib you'd probably be in the top ten as well.

Actually, Desaulniers first started playing competitive squash at age 12. His father had played, and by the time Mike moved from Vancouver to Montreal four years later, tournaments had become part of his daily schedule.

What wasn't part of his schedule was work, as in academics. Throughout high school--which ends after 11th grade in Quebec--and a two-year junior college stint, Desulniers ate, slept and played squash (two out of three isn't bad), usually playing up to five matches a week. "Last spring, in fact," he said between bites of a tunaburger, "I took the second semester off, strung racquets and played squash."

When it came to deciding upon the next step, it was either Harvard or Western Ontario. Squash-wise, "I would probably have been better off not going to school at all," Desaulniers said. This winter, he spent less time practicing than ever before, and if you want to be the best in the world that's not the best strategy to pursue.

On the other hand, "I decided that if I was going to go, I might as well do it right." So Desaulniers is in Cambridge, studying economics and psychology during the week--"I had never been into school before"--jetting off to professional squash tournaments during the weekend. Does he miss much?

"Sure, leaving like that every weekend does mess things up a bit," Desaulniers said, "but I'm not sure what I miss. I have to get the report every Sunday night when I get back."

The funny thing is that you just knew you'd meet people like that. Flying all over the place, winning national tournaments, the whole jazz. But big deal. Desaulniers wasn't even on the staff of his high school yearbook. For that matter, neither was I. You figure it out.

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