Fighting exhaustion while playing Hashim Khan in the inaugural US Open squash tournament in 1954, amateur Henri Salaun pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport.
After baffling the legendary Pakistani professional with “corner shots, drops, and quick volleys,” the Globe reported at the time, Mr. Salaun broke a 14-all tie with a forehand ace to sweep Khan in three games.
Mr. Salaun’s perseverance and will to succeed had been just as evident 14 years earlier, when he escaped from France during the Nazi occupation. Relocating to Boston, he learned to speak English by going to the movies and enrolled at Deerfield Academy, where he learned to play squash.
By 1958, Mr. Salaun was on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with his archrival, Diehl Mateer. It is the only squash cover story in the magazine’s history.
“Henri was one of the greatest and most memorable players in the history of US squash, and he also epitomized the fact that squash is a lifetime sport by continuing to play and compete at the highest level throughout his life,” said James Zug, author of “Squash: A History of the Game.” “He was known as a brilliant counter-puncher, with superb touch from all corners of the court. Fast and agile, he got to almost every ball no matter how well-placed.”
Mr. Salaun, who also had been an All-American soccer star at Wesleyan University and a New England age-group tennis champ, died June 4 after a fall at his home. He was 88 and had lived in Needham for more than 50 years.
In 2000, he was a member of the first class to be inducted into the US Squash Hall of Fame. He won 23 age-group titles, placing him third in US squash history, and also was inducted into the US Tennis Association/New England and Wesleyan University halls of fame.
The 1954 Open victory was especially meaningful for Mr. Salaun, a longtime member of the University Club of Boston.
“The club presented him with a gold watch after that win, and my father wore it his entire life,” said his son, Georges of Dedham. “He actually lost it once on a train, and luckily someone saw the engraving and mailed it back to him.”
Mr. Salaun met his rival Mateer seven times in US amateur singles finals and won four of them.
A Mateer-Salaun match “is invariably one which by its sheer power and virtuosity time and again lifts the gallery off its collective seat and drops it back limp,” Sports Illustrated reported in its cover story.
“In theatrics, Salaun has Mateer licked hands down. A missed shot or one that hits the tin brings muttering, head-shaking and supplications to the heavens,” the magazine reported, adding that after an opponent bloodied Mr. Salaun’s nose in a 1958 Open semifinal, former national champion Ed Hahn of Detroit “remarked that ‘when Henri goes down, you never know whether to send for a doctor or a drama critic.’ ”
Mr. Salaun’s son said that “it was either win or lose with my dad, and maybe there were some demons from World War II that drove him that way. Someone once asked him,
‘How do you win so much?’ And he said, ‘I always get the last point.’ ”
Mr. Salaun had been a member of the New England Lawn Tennis Association since 1949 and was a lifetime member of the US Squash Racquets Association. His loss in the US 70-and-over final in 2002 came 51 years after his first national tournament appearance.
Len Bernheimer, a friend and fellow US Squash Hall of Fame member, said he learned much just by playing with Mr. Salaun. “Henri’s understanding of how to use the court was superb. He’d move you around until he won the point,” Bernheimer said.
He added that Mr. Salaun was “very disciplined about his conditioning” and never left the University Club “until he was at his ‘magic’ weight. And that would mean running on the track above the pool, and it was pretty hot up there, and hitting the steam room.”
Profiling Mr. Salaun in 1957, Globe columnist and squash player Harold Kaese noted that “to make a living, he sells racquets, driving a car around the Northeast corner of the country four or five days a week. . . . His shadow can hardly keep up with him.”
Henri Raoul Marie Salaun was born in Brest, France, on April 6, 1926.
While attending Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where he was the school’s No. 1 squash and tennis player, he was drafted into the Army. The Middletown Press reported in 2012 that Mr. Salaun survived a German ambush while serving as an interpreter in France as a sergeant with the Third Army.
“I was surrounded by Germans, and I somehow ended up in the middle of this big field,” Mr. Salaun told the Press. “All of my mates were dead. And there was a little cabin — filled with tools and farming equipment. I got in unnoticed and hid there.”
After the war, he remained in France and played on a professional soccer team in Nice, but did not accept money. He later reenrolled at Wesleyan, graduating in 1949.
“My father coveted his amateur status,” Georges said. “He always admired Olympians for achieving greatness from the heart.”
Mr. Salaun met Emily Macy at a social at the University Club and they married in 1956.
In 1969, Mr. Salaun founded Henri Salaun Sports in Portsmouth, N.H., a business now run by his son Henri of Greenland, N.H.
Despite his fierce competitiveness, winning wasn’t everything when he coached his sons in the Needham youth soccer program.
“He was very kind to those 10-year-old kids,” Georges said. “He insisted everyone get a chance to play, and that took precedence over winning.”
In 1968, Mr. Salaun bought a cottage on Squirrel Island, Maine, that his family still owns.
“He loved it there,” Georges said. “He’d sit on the rocks and look out at the ocean, and I’m sure it reminded him of Brest and his boyhood home. It was his little corner of the world and that’s where he truly found peace and solitude.”
A service has been held for Mr. Salaun, who in addition to his wife and two sons, leaves six grandchildren.
Former Globe tennis writer Bud Collins said that based on ability and competitiveness, Mr. Salaun would rank among the top 100 tennis players in the country today.
That combination was sometimes beyond belief, even to Mr. Salaun’s family. In 1970, when he was 44, he won his age-group singles tennis championship in Stratton Mountain, Vt., and then drove for nearly five hours to make it just in time to run the mile at a Needham Track Club meet at Memorial Park.
“He jumped out of the car, had a sip of water, then finished third in under five minutes,” Georges recalled. “That was against much younger competition, and he was disappointed he didn’t win.”