Dateline May 1st — The 2015-16 Squash Doubles Association (SDA) tour, which featured an unprecedented number of high-achieving teams, new faces late in draws, prominent in-season retirements, both permanent and temporary, and 15-14 fifth-games, can nevertheless be divided fairly evenly, both chronologically and statistically, into two parts, bisected by the four-week Christmas holiday break. There was the Autumn 2015 portion, during which Damien Mudge and Ben Gould rampaged through the draws of all five tournaments they entered — namely the Maryland Club Open, the Big Apple Open, the PDC Cup in Atlanta, the Jim Bentley Cup in Toronto and the biennial Briggs Cup in Rye, immediately prior to which Gould announced that that event would be his swan song — followed by the Winter/Spring 2016 portion, which saw Manek Mathur and Yvain Badan, the second-best team on tour throughout most of the five-year Mudge/Gould reign, finally break through with a dominant extended performance.
The two former Trinity College teammates captured the Boston tournament, the North American Open in Greenwich and the Baltimore Cup, compiling a calendar 2016 record of 10-1, with the first two of those final-round wins coming at the expense of Mudge and his new/old partner Viktor Berg, with whom Mudge had teamed up throughout the three-year period from 2007-10 (during which they won 17 tournaments) and with whom he reunited in the wake of Gould’s retirement. Though they lost the Boston and Greenwich finals to Mathur/Badan, Mudge and Berg won titles this past season in Wilmington, St. Louis and Brooklyn, which latter accomplishment, incredibly, marked the 15th straight Heights Casino crown for Mudge: no one else in the history of North American professional doubles has a consecutive-years streak even half that long, in any venue. Mudge, the tour’s “all-time leading scorer”, whose tournaments-won count surpassed the milestone 150 mark this past season, won a tour-leading eight tournaments and reached a tour-leading 11 finals in 12 attempts in 2015-16, the only exception occurring at the Baltimore Cup in late February when his partner Berg suffered mid-match muscle pull in the quarterfinals against Matt Jenson and Hamed Anvari and could not continue.
Berg and Mudge were also involved in perhaps the most intriguing competitive tableau of the season, or, for that matter, of the last SEVERAL seasons, in the final full-ranking stop on the schedule, the Tavern Club Invitational in Cleveland in mid-April. There, just 124 days after the Briggs Cup final, Gould came out of retirement, this time teaming with Mathur and ultimately resulting in a riveting five-game final whose intensity level, abetted by the historical backdrop of Mudge and Gould opposing each other for the first time after their five and a half seasons of SDA domination, as well as the cozy confines of the host arena, the raucous engagement of an enraptured gallery and the event’s positioning as the last major tournament on the schedule, all added up to a very special and memorable evening. Each player left a major hand-print on the undulating action, with Mathur and Gould intent on holding front-court position and inflicting constant high pace to open up the court, while Mudge and Berg in the games they won did a great job of slowing the play down and creating up-and-back movement for their opponents.
They especially applied this stratagem against Gould, who in his return after a four-month hiatus was having to deal with both this event’s compressed playing schedule (three matches in 24 hours) and a level of tightness and eventual cramping in his calves and hamstring muscles, especially when he backpedaled to field lobs after he had previously been maneuvered to the front of the court, that steadily increased as the fifth game moved along. Mudge and Berg determinedly cut into what had been a sizable early-game deficit, eventually creeping to 11-12, but at this crisis juncture a visibly hobbled Gould, who had been forced to take an injury time-out just a few points earlier, came up with two of his team’s three-straight match-ending winners, including the forehand overhead that he spiked into the front-left nick for a dramatic ending to the match’s final exchange.
In a noteworthy historical twist, in the last SDA tournament one year ago, the biennial World Doubles at the Onwentsia Club in suburban Chicago, Gould had been at the other side of a five-game final that ended in eerily similar fashion when he and Mudge had rallied from 4-9 to 11-12 against Clive Leach, who had been immobilized by leg cramps from mid-game onward, and John Russell, only to have their comeback attempt stymied when Leach somehow conjured up daring reverse-corner winners on two of the final three points, including on match-ball. Russell and Leach began this past campaign on a solid note when they reached the final of the Maryland Club Open in early October and Russell then teamed with Berg several weeks later to win the Missouri Athletic Club Open later that month, defeating Preston Quick and Matt Jenson in the final. But Russell and Leach would advance to only one more final, at the Baltimore Cup in late February, as they found themselves frequently hampered by other commitments (Russell is the head coach of the varsity squash team at Episcopal Academy) and injuries, first to Russell’s back in December and then to Leach’s right knee in January that necessitated surgery in mid-March and ended his season. Leach should be fully recovered in time for the outset of the 2016-17 tour, when he and Russell, World Doubles finalists in 2009 and 2011 in addition to their winning effort in 2015, will likely resume their standing as a formidable contending team.
So should the Toronto-based Robin Clarke/Scott Arnold partnership, which began in the most low-key circumstances imaginable while they were sharing a cab-ride one night, during which they decided on a whim to enter the 2014 Canadian National Doubles after one of them mentioned almost in passing that the entry deadline was less than 24 hours away. Their choice of walls (Clarke on the left, Arnold on the right) resulted not from any meticulous analysis of their relative forehand/backhand strengths and weaknesses, as is true of most newly forming partnerships, but rather was based solely on their having played those respective walls in a Toronto league match in which they had opposed each other earlier that evening. Overwhelming underdogs in their quarterfinal match-up against defending champions Gary Waite, a legendary figure in the sport, and his hard-hitting young partner Thomas Brinkman, Clarke and Arnold, meshing seamlessly for ANY team, much less a debuting one composed of players both of whom were playing in not only their first doubles tournament as partners but their first doubles tournament, period, won handily and then knocked off first Will Mariani and Colin West in the semis and then Michael Pirnak and Fred Reid Jr. in the final.
Deciding to give the SDA tour a try in the wake of that unexpected accomplishment, they have steadily ascended up the pro rankings during these past two seasons (in both of which they repeated as Canadian National Doubles champs) to the point where they have now cracked the top ten. They have lost to no team other than Mathur/Badan, Mudge/Gould and Mudge/Berg, frequently reaching the semis — including in the Briggs Cup via a three-love win over Russell and Leach — and advancing to their first full-ranking SDA final (they had previously won a Challenger event in Pittsburgh during the Winter 2015) in Toronto this past April, at the inaugural Cricket Club Open, where Clarke is based. There they received a walk-over win when Greg Park, who had badly injured his knee late in his and partner Jonny Smith’s semifinal tally over Reid and Mariani, had to default the final. It was an unfortunate ending to what was otherwise a very productive season for Park and Smith, who got to the semis of the Big Apple Open, the PDC Cup, the Bentley Cup and in Boston. Park also teamed with Imran Khan to reach the North American Open semis, the same round that Smith attained with Russell in Cleveland just a few days after Park had hurt himself in Toronto.
Throughout the season there were a slew of matches that came down to simultaneous-match-ball, with several players being on both ends of the outcome on multiple occasions. Michael Ferreira, one of 11 Trinity College alumni among the SDA’s top 31 ranked players, and Chris Callis lost by this margin on consecutive early-December weekends, first at Wilmington, when Ferreira tinned an open ball against Bernardo Samper and Antonio Diaz, and then in a Briggs Cup quarterfinal against Mathur and Badan. Undaunted by those agonizing near-misses, Ferreira and Callis beat Quick and Jenson (simultaneous-match-ball winners one round earlier after trailing Mathur and Badan 12-3!), 15-14 in the fourth, in the Heights Casino semis, leading into a frenetic first three weekends of March that began with Reid and Brinkman winning the U. S. National Doubles final, 15-14 in the fifth, against Quick and Graham Bassett, on a Brinkman cross-court past Bassett, and continued with yet ANOTHER simultaneous-championship-point conclusion just seven days later at the Hashim Khan Open. The host venue for this latter tournament, the Denver Athletic Club, was the squash stomping ground for the Quick siblings, Meredeth and Preston, both of whom earned their way into their respective finals.
Meredeth Quick and Tarsh McElhinny prevailed over Suzie Pierrepont and Tina Rix in the WSDA pro women’s final, but in the men’s, the hope for a Quick family “double” was dashed, albeit barely, when Preston Quick and partner Jenson came up just short against Jacques Swanepoel and Ferreira, who blasted a backhand cross-court winner to perfect width at 14-all. Never before had consecutive-week tournaments of this dimension both culminated with a simultaneous-championship-ball, and had that last point in Colorado instead landed in the Quick/Jenson column, it would have made for a storybook career ending for Preston Quick, the SDA Director of Development, who announced his retirement during the trophy presentation. One week later at the Germantown Cricket Club in suburban Philadelphia, Ferreira notched his second SDA title in as many weeks when he and Callis won in five games against Swanepoel (who in February had won the Pittsburgh Challenger tourney with Jenson) and James Stout.
Fittingly in light of all these springtime consecutive-tournament route-going finals (capped off by the spectacular denouement in Cleveland), the very last tournament of the season, the Racquet & Tennis Club Challenger event in mid-town Manhattan, was resolved in a five-game final as well when qualifiers Alex Stait and Ed Garno rose superior to Khan and Greg McArthur. All told, no fewer than 21 different players advanced to SDA finals this past season, 15 of them in full-ranking events, a far greater total than in prior years, and this level of depth and opportunity augurs well for the 2016-17 tour season and beyond.
Rob Dinerman was the Official Writer for the professional doubles tour throughout the 12-year period from 2001-13 and has played on the tour for the past 15 years. He recently authored “A History of Harvard Squash, 1922-2010,” published in October 2015, and has also written a squash anthology, “Selected Squash Writings,” available on Amazon.com.
|17||Jacques Swanepoel||South Africa||9||1565.625||17|
Before playing their first qualifying match in the 2016 Racquet & Tennis Club Challenger—the final event of the 2015-2016 SDA Tour season—Ed Garno was planning on flying to Florida Saturday or Sunday for a business meeting on Monday. Garno went on to foil his own plans as he and partner Alex Stait shocked the $15,000 R&TC draw to go on and become the first qualifiers to win a title during the SDA era.
The champions began their title run in what could be considered the deepest qualifying pool on the SDA tour with twelve teams vying for two sports in the eight-team main draw. Their first-round opponents were Germantown Cricket Club finalist James Stout, who Garno faced just a few weeks ago in the Mixed Doubles Open final, and partner Barney Tanfield.
“James is such a great player so we were really just hoping to get through that,” Stait said of the world racquets champion and world No. 35. “We did, but we were 14-11 down in the first game against them. If we lost that who knows what could have happened. We were pretty relaxed the whole way through. We just wanted to play and enjoy it. I hadn’t actually played since the last tournament because I had shoulder problems, so we really didn’t expect too much. To get past James, that was really the best we could have expected before the tournament.”
Stait, thirty-six, & Garno, forty-seven, then advanced to the main draw in three games over a significantly younger side in the form of James Bamber & Travis Judson.
In the top half of the main draw, both qualifiers wreaked havoc on the one and four seeds. Qualifiers Gilly Lane & Fred Reid recovered from losing the first two games to upset four seeds Andres Vargas & John Roberts in five. Stait & Garno shocked top seeds Randy Lim & Hamed Anvari in three games to set up an all-qualifier semifinal. Stait & Garno dropped their first game of the tournament against Lane & Reid, but turned the semifinal around to reach the final in four.
In contrast, the bottom half of the draw played out according to seeding until three seeds Imran Khan & Greg McArthur took down two seeds Bernardo Samber & Antonio Diaz in four games to reach the final.
A see-saw final put the qualifiers at an early disadvantage, dropping the first game 15-11. Stait & Garno stormed back by winning the second and third games at 14-14 on simultaneous game balls. Khan & McArthur forced a fifth game, in which Stait & Garno played their best squash of the tournament according to Stait.
“I think we just got on a roll,” Stait said. “We felt qualifying would be as hard as the main draw so we just got on a roll. We had a strategy and stuck to it. In the fifth game of the final we played our best squash of the weekend, and actually felt better then compared to the rest of the tournament.”
“We wanted to win a couple of qualifying matches as we always aim for, and just take it one match at a time,” Garno said. “We seemed to be playing pretty well winning each in three and kept building. After playing together for a few years now, we’ve noticed that we just can’t hit the ball hard so we need to use our shots and lobs to play smart so I think we’re finally starting to find that rhythm. Half of the fun was just being there and playing together. It’s thrilling for us because we never set the expectation of winning the tournament. We’ve really just been trying to get better as a partnership to tell the truth.”
Philadelphia-based Stait & Garno learned doubles together under the tutelage of Ned Edwards & Bill Doyle at Merion Cricket Club, and have played exclusively with each other on the SDA tour for the past few seasons.
“I think the most satisfying thing about it is the fact that Ed and I learned doubles together from Ned Edwards,” Stait said. “He and Bill Doyle taught us how to play a few summers ago at Merion. We learned together and have played together ever since. I think that’s really the key for us, playing together all of the time and enjoying it. It’s so much fun for us. R&T is probably the most prestigious club in America. The tournament was really well run. Manek did a great job. The crowd is always very knowledgeable. If you look at the winner’s boards there, it’s absolutely outrageous. Some of the best players in the world are on there so to win a tournament there is extremely special.”
“I’m speechless, it’s really hard to believe,” said Garno, who is also an R & T member. “For me personally, over the last three and a half years, the people I’ve met, the relationships I’ve made, the clubs I’ve visited traveling all over the country. That’s almost bigger than squash. I’ve enjoyed playing the game and learning the game. I’ve endured a few final losses recently in the Mixed, Century and William White, but I get right back on court on Monday. I truly love the game and the people associated with it. For me, I just enjoy it. It was an incredible event thanks to the professionalism of the staff, Manek Mathur and Addison West, the facilities and the fan support. I’ve never seen so many people stay so late for these matches. We couldn’t thank the pro staff and tournament committee enough.”
The final full ranking event of the 2015-2016 SDA Pro Tour season ended in climactic fashion, as world No. 1 Ben Gould returned to the tour in a first-time partnership with world No. 3 Manek Mathur to defeat his partner of five years and world No. 2 Damien Mudge & Viktor Berg in a five-game Tavern Club Invitational final in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mathur & Gould weren’t the only new partnership making waves in the $35,000 draw. Twenty-year-old and 2015 Mixed Doubles finalist James Bamber entered the draw in qualifying with first-time partner Robert Burns. After reaching the main draw, Burns & Bamber went on to recover from 2-1 down in games and upset Canadians Fred Reid & Justin Todd.
The main draw seeding held otherwise with three seeds Jonny Smith & John Russell meeting two seeds Mudge & Berg in the semis, and four seeds Jacques Swanepoel & Shaun Johnstone meeting Mathur & Gould in the semis. The top two seeds then recorded three-game semifinal victories to set up a historic final between the two players that had been the most dominant partnership of the past five years.
“It was a tough one,” Mathur said of the final. “I think that was the best I’ve seen Damien and Viktor play since they started playing together this year. Damien was himself, making himself three times bigger to cover so much of the court. Viktor was very sharp with his attacking game, and very precise moving the ball around. Going into it, the two of us wanted to insure that we picked up the pace pretty high, and give them as little time as possible to shoot the ball. That worked well and we won the first game pretty confidently. The second was completely different, they came out with a different game plan and slowed the pace down, trying to work Ben up and down to see how match fit he was.”
“The third and fourth was a good mix with some good hard points at a faster pace, but also some with lots of lobs and drops moving everyone around the court,” Mathur continued. “Ben and I adjusted late on so I was covering more of the back court to relieve him of some pressure and allow him to hold his position where he’s most dangerous moving forward and finding the openings. Those two boys didn’t give us much and we had to work really, really hard to win. In the fifth at 10 all or so, Ben started to cramp so we decided that he should take a neutral position in the back of the court because he couldn’t lunge. That forced Damien to put some balls in the front right which I was able to cover. We shot off a few winners when we needed to and were able to win the match by the skin of our teeth. I think that was one of the most fun and high quality matches that I’ve ever played in.”
“I have played against Damien and Victor many times in the past,” said Gould, recalling their past match ups with former partner Paul Price. “We’ve had some incredible battles over the years and this was no exception. Having so much time off definitely took it’s toll. Everything felt like it was off; timing, fitness, movement, ball control, confidence. I struggled the entire match so it was a difficult day on court for me. It was great to win, but it was a mentally difficult to try and stay composed when I felt like nothing was right with my game. I’m fortunate that Manek played so well and was able to insert himself enough to make up for my performance.”
“It was awesome playing with Manek,” Gould said of his first-time partner. “He is an exceptional player. One of the best I’ve ever seen play the game. He is very aggressive, stays forward, moves brilliantly and can hit the ball extremely hard and accurately.”
“Even though we’re friends, it’s always different communicating on court,” Mathur said of Gould. “He was really easy to talk to and understand. We had a couple of really close moments in the final where we really had to dig deep, communicate clearly, and really understand each other at a deep level. He was very motivating, which gave me a lot of confidence. It was a lot of fun.”
Mathur ends what has been his most successful season to date, collecting three titles with Yvain Badan in addition to the Tavern Club title.
“I’m really excited to head into the off season with a couple of wins and some good results with Swiss,” Mathur said. “Having played for so long now, always being on the cusp of winning was tough. Losing is always tough, but when you’re so close it’s really difficult to consistently being number two. There’s definitely a little fire in the belly to do some good work in the off season, and try to keep up the good momentum moving forward next season.”
With the 2016 title, Gould ties Mudge as the all-time tournament title holder with seven. Mudge & Gould won the last five editions of the tournament, and Gould won with Price in 2010. Mudge & Berg won the event in both 2008 and 2009.
For Gould, who is based in Colorado, the TCI was the first tournament he competed in since announcing his retirement from a full-time tour schedule following his Briggs Cup victory with Mudge in December.
“I had always said that I would still play an event from time to time if it worked for my schedule and if I still thought I could win,” Gould said. “Cleveland is a great tournament. I really enjoy playing it and it is also is short in duration so enables me to be away from my home and family for less time. Manek was an obvious choice of partner. He and Damien are the two best left-wallers playing the game today and they are the two players I feel I can still win events with.”
The champions saluted the Tavern Club Invitational’s organizers in the event’s eleventh year.
“The guys at the Tavern Club are so passionate,” Mathur said. “They’ve run this event for eleven years now. They’ve always raised their prize money and really get behind the Pro-Am and Saturday night final. They’re definitely one of the most engaged, vocal and fun crowds. They do such a good job promoting the game, the tour and the tournament. It shows year after year.”
“I believe I have played this event for all 11 years—and my body is feeling like it,” Gould said. “It’s been fun to see the event grow from its small beginnings to what it is today. The club only has 200 members, but the crowds, attendance and professionalism is as solid as anything I’ve seen on tour. Congratulations and thanks to Ian, Jack, Mike, Matt and the members for their continued and ongoing support for all eleven years.”
The 2015-2016 SDA Tour season concludes in New York City, April 22-25, with the $15,000 R&TC Challenger.