The Two Swedes

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Anders Wahlstedt (L) has taken his passion to the art world and now buys and sells modern American and Scandinavian art. Rick Wahlstedt turned some early humbling experience working in restaurants into a small empire of successful restaurants as an owner.

By James Zug

New York was the crucible and Uptown was its red-hot center. Opened in the mid-1970s on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Uptown was the flagship of a new era. It had glamour (Woody Allen filmed a scene for his 1979 film Manhattan there; Alan Alda and Brian DePalma played there and more than once Mick Jagger dropped in to have a game.) It was a scene: dancers, models, a successful pornographer. And it was good squash: it had fourteen courts (today an unsurpassed number for an urban club in the U.S.) and a fleet of great pros (from Stu Goldstein onwards) and galvanic tournaments (it hosted the first women’s pro event in the country).

It is hard to imagine today, nearly forty years later, when Uptown has four courts, but there was a moment when it was an object of global yearning and exerted such a centrifugal force on squash that it brought two young Swedes into town. First some facts. The Wahlstedts have been here for more than thirty years and yet no one gets this right. Anders and Rick are not brothers. They are first cousins. Their fathers were brothers.

Secondly, diction. Anders is pronounced “and-ers” not “on-ders.” Back in Sweden Rick is really Rickard and Anders is pronounced “un – desch,” but no one can handle that in the States, so they go by Rick and Anders. The last name is also usually mangled. In English they go by “wall-stet;” in Sweden it is “Val-stet.” Now don’t get it wrong again.

Thirdly, Anders is the last foreigner to win the National Singles. Since the tournament was created in 1907, more than a dozen men and women from overseas have captured our national singles championship—ranging from the forty-six year-old Englishman Gerald Roberts in 1934 to Australian legend Heather McKay in 1979—but Anders will always be the last.

In 1990 the National Singles was closed to players able to represent the U.S. in international play, and prize money was added (from the start of the softball nationals in 1983 through the 1989 event, anyone could enter, amateur or pro, American or foreigner, but there was no prize money). In 1995 US Squash changed the rule and only U.S. citizens were allowed in.

In between, in October 1994 in Baltimore, Anders became eligible for the National Singles, since five years had elapsed since he had last played for Sweden. He won the title in heroic fashion: twice he teetered within three points of losing matches in fifth games.

After the rule change, Anders instantly became the only player in U.S. squash history to be barred from defending his national title.

Rick is the older cousin. Born in Stockholm in March 1960, his father moved Rick and his older sister down to Linkoping, a town in southern Sweden when Rick was three. Anders was born in July 1964 and grew up in Ostermalm, a neighborhood in eastern Stockholm.

The boys spent summers together: the families had adjacent islands in the Baltic Sea, mucking about in boats, fishing, waterskiing. Their fathers’ sister, Margit Wahlstedt Morgan, was thirty-seven when she was on board El Al Flight 402 that was shot down over Bulgarian airspace in July 1955; all fifty-eight people on board were killed.

Rick was ten when his older sister’s boyfriend opened a six-court squash club in Linkoping. Rick played tennis and soccer and was a goalie in ice hockey but eventually he found himself biking most days to the boyfriend’s squash club to play.

The American connection of the Wahlstedts stems from a year Rick spent in high school on a Rotary exchange in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He played football for the Wildcats (left end on offense—“It was difficult and I would not say I had any chance of getting drafted.”) and fell in love with the U.S., vowing to return someday. After a year of military service, Rick moved to Paris and lived with a couple of other Swedish squash pros playing on the pro tour. In 1983 he migrated to Dallas for a job as a pro at a YMCA. A few months later he moved to New York to work at Uptown.

At Uptown he became friends with a member named Keith McNally. An Englishmen who had just star ted the Odeon, McNally was the leader of a new generation of restaurateurs. The Odeon, a restaurant in TriBeCa, was immensely popular and the New York Times said that McNally “invented downtown.” McNally took Rick on as a waiter at his Upper West Side hotspot, Café Luxembourg.

It did not go well. Rick got fired after the cork from a bottle of champagne he was opening torpedoed a woman in the face. He then worked at the Odeon, but that didn’t last too long either. “I was better behind the scene,” Rick said. Learning the industry, ropes, Rick decided to launch his own restaurant. It was called Punsch, a Swedish fusion place that he opened on Columbus Circle in February 1990. At first it was exhilaratingly successful. Rick’s first wife was a ballet dancer and a Lincoln Center crowd came over and Rick’s downtown friends streamed up to see the new thing. But then the restaurant wasn’t hot. Devastated, Rick had to close it in 1991.

Like a politician who needs to lose an initial campaign, Rick learned from the trauma of a failed business “Consistency is the key,” he said. “You have to have excellent food and service all the time, so that it is always, always an excellent experience. If you are a businessperson and have some clients to take to dinner, you want to know that this place, it will always be very good.” He continued to play on the pro hardball tour (he was ranked in the top forty for many years) and worked for awhile selling bonds in South America but realized he loved restaurants.

In 1993 he opened Le Colonial on East 57th Street. Le Colonial, now in its twenty-first year, was a revolutionary place: it had a bar upstairs—noise didn’t over whelm the diners. It served French-Vietnamese food in an atmosphere of rattan chairs, palm trees and a tinned ceiling that recalled Saigon in the 1920s.

The restaurant formed the foundation of what is now a spectacular restaurant empire. There are now Le Colonials in Chicago and San Francisco. In 2003 he opened Japonais, a Japanese restaurant in Chicago that again blew up the usual conventions. Since then, he’s opened a Japonais in the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas and one in New York (now closed). The original Japonais in Chicago now has a new partner, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Rick’s also opened restaurants in Philadelphia, Houston, Boca Raton, Bal Harbor, Greenwich. Finally merging restaurants and squash, he is also planning a new restaurant and hotel with one squash court in West Hartford, CT.

Rick lives in Bedford, NY, with his second wife, Darrah (originally from Milan, Italy) and five children with ages ranging from six to eighteen. He is still very connected to Sweden. He owns a harness-racing stable in Stockholm and someday might open a restaurant there. A member of the Union Club, Rick plays doubles regularly. In 2013 he and John Conway won the A draw at the U.S. Century. But he has struggled lately with an Achilles injury.

Anders first came to New York in 1986. Rick had begged him to come for years but it only happened after he wangled Anders a spot in the U.S. Pro, a softball tournament that Frank Stella ran at Park Place Squash Club. “Rick had kept on telling me how amazing New York was, all these incredible stories, this amazing vibe,” Anders said. “He picked me up at JFK in a Ford Mustang convertible on a beautiful May day. We went to Uptown to play squash. We went to Indochine to eat. I was blown away.”

Anders got to the finals of the event, losing 3-1 to his fellow countryman Freddie Johnson. It was no surprise. Anders had been a world-class player for years. Growing up a five-minute walk from Stockholm’s oldest squash club—his school was across the street—Anders started playing at ten years of age after his older brother started playing. He won Sweden’s BU14 in 1978, BU16 in 1980, and the BU19 in 1981 and 1983. (In the finals of the 1982 BU19s, he lost narrowly in five games to Johnson).

After high school and his military service, Anders turned pro and moved to Germany. He had a breakthrough at the 1986 French Open, coming through qualifying to beat Kelvin Smith and Ross Thorne (both top ten players) to reach the semis where he barely lost to Hiddy Jahan. “I remember coming off the court,” Anders said, “feeling that the squash ball was larger than usual. There was complete silence—I was in the zone.”

Anders’ best ranking was eighteen, notched in January 1988. He won the 1986 Brazil Open and the 1987 Uruguay and Paraguay opens. He played Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan a couple of times. In 1989 he beat Geoff Hunt in five games (saving a match ball) in Hunt’s final appearance in the British Open. “In my career I beat five guys who were ranked in the top ten at the time,” Anders said, “but I wasn’t consistent enough. My training regimen wasn’t focused enough. I lacked the consistency to get to the very top.  I remember after the French Open, I went to Hamburg for a week to celebrate.”

Rick kept on putting pressure on Anders to come back and, in the summer of 1988, he spent a couple of weeks with Rick in New York. That settled it and, in 1990, Anders took a job at the Printing House in the West Village. “My father took me to the airport in Stockholm,” Anders said. “I had two bags with me. He asked, ‘When are you coming back?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I’ll be back in a year.’” He landed on a Saturday and went to work on a Monday. For the first three months, he lived in Rick’s apartment, though they hardly ever saw each other: Rick was running his first restaurant and coming home just before dawn, right when Anders was getting up to teach his morning lessons at the Printing House.

Anders spent eighteen months at the Printing House, then sojourned at the Vertical Club on 62nd Street and at the Yale Club on 43rd Street before landing the head pro job at the Union Club on 69th Street, replacing the legendary veteran Scotty McLernon. He started playing hardball as the pro tour waned. He kept on playing softball, winning events in Manitoba, Rochester, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that were a part of the Grand Prix circuit; in 1992 he topped the Grand Prix rankings.

In September 1994 at the National Singles in Baltimore, Anders was down 0-2 and 6-3 in the third to Grant Pinnington in the quarters but pulled it out in five. In the semis he was down 6-3 in the fifth to Damian Walker and again managed to slip past with a victory. In the finals he beat Simon Taylor 9-5, 9-6, 9-1. His trophy is on display at the Union Club.

While at the Union Club, Anders took up doubles. He partnered with Peter Briggs and later with Scott Stoneburgh. His most famous tournament win with Stoneburgh was in the U.S. Pro in Wilmington in January 2001. They overcame Gary Waite & Damien Mudge in the semis in five, breaking Waite & Mudge’s three-year unbeaten streak. A couple of weeks later Anders partnered with Waite to win in Boston. Waite and Anders also played against each other in the finals of the last official pro tour hardball event, in January 1996 (Waite won).

Both Rick and Anders have lived dual lives, playing pro squash and yet having another field of interest.

For Rick, it’s been restaurants; for Anders, it has been art. He loved going to art galleries and museums and was fascinated by the industry. He left the Union Club after five years and became an art dealer. Except for a five-year period when he worked for Rick, assisting him in the restaurant business, Anders has been buying and selling modern American and Scandinavian art ever since. He has clients around the U.S. and in Europe. He goes to gallery openings on Thursday nights. He goes to art fairs. He attends auctions. “I’m in the field because I am passionate about art,” he said. “I love finding an artist, researching them.” Anders’ wife, Rokhee, who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, works in the fashion industry; they have one daughter.

The cousins play doubles together (they got to the finals of the Gold Racquets one year) and sometimes face each other in singles. “He goes into the court thinking he’s going to win,” Anders said of Rick. “I tell him, ‘I was a world-class player.’ He says, ‘Yes, but that was then.’” Never does a week go by without talking on the phone. Both go back to Sweden three or four times a year but both never give into the temptation of returning there to live. “One of the reasons I think we both stay in the States is the squash community,” Rick said.

“I agree,” said Anders. “There is a continuity in the game. It is a unique thing. You’ll make new friends at a tournament but at the same time see someone you’ve known for twenty years. It is like the scene at Uptown thirty years ago, but now it is for us all over the country. Life is a dance and squash is the music.”