Mark Talbott: a 'common man' who is dominating pro squash this year

For years squash has been the domain of prep school and Ivy League types. But there are signs that the ''common man'' is getting into the game. Take Mark Talbott, who has been totally dominating this season's World Professional Squash Association tour.

Mark learned his trade in the basement of his home in Dayton, Ohio.

''My grandfather built our house and included a squash court in the basement, '' he explains. ''I guess I was pretty lucky, because it's unusual for somebody to grow up with a court in his house.''

That's putting it mildly, but making this court even more peculiar was its mode of entry.

''You needed a ladder to get into it,'' he says. ''When I was a kid my mom would give us some rackets and a ball, then leave us in the court for a few hours.''

Mark now plays in $15,000 and $25,000 tournaments that generally attract a maximum of 300 spectators per session, attendance being limited by the court design. He has won 11 of the 12 major tournaments so far on the current September through May circuit, losing in the finals the other time, and at age 22 he is expected to continue as one of the tour's top players for the next several years.

Unlike many of his fellow pros, Talbott makes his entire living competing.

''Most of the players teach during the week or manage clubs,'' he says. ''Only the top four or five can live entirely on their earnings. Since I can practice during the week, it's to my advantage right now. If I was teaching I really couldn't work on my game.''

The lanky, long-haired Talbott has a unique lifestyle too. He drives around the country in a pickup truck with a camper on the back. This serves as his home.

''I haven't stayed in one place for a long, long time. I'm always on the move,'' he says, explaining that to practice he pops into clubs each day for a few hours. ''I love the lifestyle. I get to travel a lot, meet people, camp out, and see places I normally would not see if I worked at a regular job each day.''

Mark's reach and ability to cover the court make him a natural, and his concentration is also a key to his success.

''There is a lot of psychology involved in squash,'' he observed at this year's Boston Open. ''If you lose your concentration or get upset by a player who keeps asking for a let (a replayed point caused by player interference) you can quickly fall behind. Since you don't have to serve to win a point, in no time you can go from a lead of three or four points to being four or five behind.''

When Talbott began playing the tour, many of the other pros thought he lacked intensity. He frequently acknowledged his opponents' good shots, an unusual practice in such competitive surroundings. ''But then we all realized that his appearance was misleading, because Mark has great concentration,'' said one rival. ''He is just so friendly that he always compliments others if they are playing well.''

Tournament purses are relatively small compared to those in tennis. For example, the Boston event had a total purse of only $15,000, of which Talbott's first place share was $3,000.

There aren't that many players on the circuit so the better ones can anticipate meeting again and again, which doesn't bother Mark a bit. ''Playing the same people every weekend never gets boring,'' he claims, ''because sometimes your game is on, and sometimes it's off, so the results always change.''

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