Dateline June 7, 2018 — One of the most noteworthy developments in US doubles squash in recent years has been the ascent of Ed Garno, who this past March became, at age 49 years, 5 months and 21 days, the oldest player ever to win the U.S. National Doubles championship when he teamed up with his six-year partner Alex Stait to defeat, sequentially, Ricky Weisskopf and Richard Dodd, Alex Luque and Imran Khan and the Round Hill Club pairing of Steve Scharff and Zac Alexander in a four-game final in Philadelphia that ended with Garno knifing a forehand reverse-corner winner at match-ball. The previous oldest-ever winner of this tournament, the late Victor Elmaleh, was also 49 when he and Vic Niederhoffer won in St. Louis in 1968, but Garno was two months older when he and Stait triumphed than Elmaleh was when the tournament was held 50 years ago.
Remarkably, Garno did not take up squash until he was well into his 30’s. Although he attended Haverford School during the mid-1980’s, a time throughout which the school squash team, featuring such future stars in college and beyond as Morris Clothier, Russ Ball and Chris Spahr, was in the midst of a dynastic run that extended from the late 1970’s until the early 1990’s, Garno’s primary sports during his middle-school and high-school years were football (as the team’s starting quarterback and punter), baseball (he played shortstop) and tennis. He then went to the University of Virginia, where he was the first-string punter on teams that played in bowl games in each of his last three years (namely the Florida Citrus Bowl against Illinois in 1990, the Sugar Bowl against Tennessee in 1991 and the Gator Bowl vs. Oklahoma in 1992) and made all-Academic ACC all of those three years, as well as all-ACC and Honorable Mention all-America during his senior year. He then returned to tennis and spent the next dozen-odd years winning numerous (more than two dozen) Merion Cricket Club, Waynesborough Country Club and regional singles and doubles championships on both grass and clay in that sport.
Although Garno started playing squash midway through the first decade of the 2000’s, initially more as a way of keeping fit during the winter months than as a game to pursue with competitive aspirations, it was his connection with former WPSA superstar and US SQUASH Hall of Famer Ned Edwards approximately seven years ago which caused the sea-change in Garno’s improvement in and commitment to doubles squash that led to his stellar recent results. Fortuitously, it was also right around this time frame that the British-born Stait, a former PSA pro singles player who had attained a ranking just outside the top 50 before a recurring knee injury forced him to retire from the tour and shift his energies to coaching, moved to America after being hired as an assistant coach at Merion in January 2012. A standing game developed featuring Edwards/Garno against Stait and former WPSA standout (and extraordinarily successful Harvard squash coach from 1992-99) Bill Doyle during the spring and summer of 2012, throughout which this foursome would play several times per week. Garno and Stait made swift and steady progress in learning the nuances of doubles from the two decorated veterans Edwards (a three-time North American Open Doubles Champ from 1989-91 with Alan Grant) and Doyle, a North American Open finalist with Hugh Labossier in 1987).
The following autumn, Doyle relocated to Boston and Edwards was forced by a lingering knee injury to reduce his playing, but by then Stait and Garno felt they were ready to join forces and enter Open tournaments. Although their SDA debut at an event at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia in February 2013 had a disappointing ending — with a 15-14 fifth-game loss to Carl Baglio and Gilly Lane — they played well enough in that match and those that followed to convince them that they belonged at this level. It took them a few years to learn their way around the tour, absorbing some close losses along the way but also starting to earn their way into main draws and occasionally attaining the quarterfinals. Throughout that time, Garno doggedly tracked down games with top-level players, occasionally even traveling back and forth to New York when an especially strong practice game presented itself, and by Spring 2016 they were ready for a breakthrough performance at the season-ending Challenger tournament at the Racquet & Tennis Club in midtown Manhattan.
With Garno having come up short three times in the finals of Open events earlier that season — with Stait in the William White to Josh Schwartz/Tim Wyant, with Edwards in the Century event to Dominic Hughes/Nigel Thani and with Narelle Krizek in the US Mixed Doubles in five games against James Stout and Suzie Pierrepont — and with Stait having recently missed some time with a shoulder strain, the pair entered the Challenger event just hoping that they would be able to get through the tough qualifying draw that awaited them. They did, surmounting a 14-11 first-game deficit en route to a straight-game win over Stout and Barney Tanfield and then out-playing Travis Judson and James Bamber. Building on the momentum they thereby generated, Stait and Garno ambushed the top-seeded Randy Lim/Hamed Anvari duo in the quarters and followed up with a semifinal win over qualifiers Lane and Fred Reid Jr., five-game first-round upset winners over fourth seeds Andres Vargas and John Roberts.
In the final against Imran Khan and Greg McArthur, Stait and Garno, after dropping the opening game, took both the second and third 15-14. Khan and McArthur rallied to force a fifth game, but Stait and Garno raced off to an early lead and never looked back, sprinting to the finish line with a 15-8 tally that made them the first qualifying team to win a ranking event since the pro doubles association was renamed the SDA (after a 12-year run as the ISDA) in 2012. Afterwards, they explicitly praised and thanked Edwards and Doyle for having, as Stait phrased it, “taught us how to play a few summers ago at Merion. We learned together and have played together ever since. That’s really the key for us, playing together all the time and enjoying it.” Indeed, they are the team on the SDA tour that has stayed together the longest as partners by a substantial margin: no other SDA team has been intact even as long as TWO years, let alone six, other than the top-ranked pairing of Manek Mathur and Damien Mudge, who have only been partners dating back to September 2016, three and a half years after Stait and Garno became teammates.
During the subsequent 2016-17 season, after losing in the final of the William White the previous two years, Stait and Garno captured this prestigious title in a three-game final over Merion pros Scott Devoy and Dane Sharp, which made Garno, who had teamed with Rob Whitehouse to win the William White 40-and-over flight in 2012, perhaps the only player to have won the White Open division AFTER having won a White age-group category. Later that winter they achieved perhaps their best SDA win at the Baltimore Cup at the expense of the highly regarded Jacques Swanepoel and Shaun Johnstone, which elevated them to the cusp of the top 20 in the SDA rankings. A few months after that, Garno and Krizek won the US Mixed Doubles with a four-game triumph over Dave Rosen and Victoria Simmonds in the defining match-up of that five-team round-robin.
This past season, after winning the US National Doubles, Stait and Garno reached the semis of the Racquet & Tennis Challenger event via a 3-0 quarterfinal over Baglio and Kyle Martino. Their attempted title defense in this biennial event was then foiled by the eventual champs Stout and McArthur, who would go on to defeat Swanepoel and Jordan Greenberg in the final. Although Stait and Garno play a somewhat limited SDA schedule (seven tournaments this past season) due to Stait’s commitments as Director of Squash at Agnes Irwin — a position he has held for the past five years at this private all-girls school in suburban Philadelphia, which he led to the Inter-Ac pennant and a second-place finish at the US National High School Championships in 2018 — they are nevertheless both listed in the top 35 of the SDA rankings and fully plan to be an active partnering presence on the 2018-19 tour (which begins shortly after Garno’s 50th birthday this coming September 11th) and for the foreseeable future.
“Having twenty-four young doubles players make the trip to Rye from locales ranging from Toronto to South Carolina was really a neat thing to experience,” Scharff said. “All the participants showed a passion and enthusiasm for doubles that made the day fly by. While everyone had a strong squash background, the amount of doubles that each player had experienced varied. Everyone took advantage of having the coaches there and you could see remarkable improvement in the strategies and tactics being utilized by the end of the day.”
The players were divided into four teams consisting of three pairs with a coach leading each team. At the end of the day, the Grey team topped the standings thanks to Chris Fernandez & Alexander Ma, Ryan Mullaney & Greg Crane and Dane Sharp & Freddy Hernandez, each earning SDA rankings points as a result.
“I took a lot away from the combine, it was great to be able to get coaching in between games and matches from some very good and established doubles players,” said Fernandez, a recent graduate of St. Lawrence. “They definitely see the game from a completely different perspective and to have them share their knowledge and wisdom with us was something I don’t take from granted. I will definitely look Into playing more events next year.”
The top two teams with the best records, Tim Lasusa & Elroy Leong and Fernandez & Ma, also received bonus rankings points for the best games won record.
“The main take away for me from the combine for me was just having the opportunity to meet other great doubles players who are also interested in joining the tour,” said Ma, a recent graduate of Harvard. “Getting on court with such high-quality players, combined with the advice of the coaches, really helped me understand the areas where I need to improve my game in order to win matches on the doubles tour. It was a great experience that will me develop further as a player and more importantly, expand my network in the doubles scene.”
In addition to exposure to elite coaching, the participants were provided with the full network of SDA professionals in hopes of securing future partnerships.
Overall it was a very inspiring day and I will definitely be playing some more events this coming season as a result,” said Tim Lasusa, a recent St. Lawrence graduate and PSA player. “Hopefully we can get more young guys playing after they graduate. It’s an amazing game and it’s a great time to join. Eventually the top guys are going to retire and it’s up to us to step up and create a great product.”
May 13, 2018 —- The 2017-18 Squash Doubles Association (SDA) pro doubles tour featured 17 sanctioned tournaments, an all-time high number of faces in the winner’s circle and, notwithstanding that latter phenomenon, the dominant and undefeated season-long performance of Manek Mathur and Damien Mudge, who swept through all seven of the tournaments they entered and came away with the most important titles that doubles squash in North America has to offer. After barely losing in the final round of their partnership debut 20 months ago —- by a 15-13 fifth-game score to Michael Ferreira and Yvain Badan at the 2016 Maryland Club Open, the first event of the 2016-17 season — Mathur and Mudge have now won 16 straight tournaments and 54 consecutive matches, including the 24 they played this past season. It was the first time that a team has gone undefeated throughout an entire pro-doubles tour season in the seven years since Mudge and Ben Gould did so in 2010-11, and all five times that this has occurred in the 18 years since the pro doubles association was formed in 2000, Mudge has been a team member. He achieved this feat with Gary Waite in 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2004-05 and once each with Gould and now with Mathur.
To be sure, Mathur and Mudge had to navigate their way through several treacherous predicaments, especially during the autumn portion of the schedule, beginning with their very first match of the season, when they fell behind Zac Alexander and Raj Nanda, 2-1, 12-7 in the Big Apple Open, before responding with an 8-1 surge that rescued that game, leading to an anticlimactic 15-7 fifth. Mathur and Mudge then straight-gamed Whitten Morris and Eric Bedell (one of several teams during the course of the season to advance to main-draw semis after first having to fight their way through qualifying rounds) and won the final, 15-14 in the fourth, over Bernardo Samper and Chris Callis, semis winners over second seeds Ferreira and Badan. At the Westchester Country Club event less than a week later, the bottom-half semi again matched up the Samper/Callis and Ferreira/Badan pairings, with Ferreira and Badan prevailing this time before losing to Mudge and Mathur in the final.
At the following event, the PDC Cup at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta, John Russell and Scott Arnold made a highly successful season debut appearance as partners by achieving consecutive five-game victories over first Jonny Smith and Viktor Berg in the semis and then Ferreira and Badan in the final, in each case after trailing two games to one, and in the final due to a match-ending four-point run from 11-12. In their only prior foray together, they had won the 2016-17 season-ending event in Buffalo, so the Atlanta win made them two for two. Arnold then teamed up with Robin Clarke in the Bentley Cup in Toronto, where they took The Champs to the very brink, earning a 14-13 fifth-game advantage, double-match-ball, in a riveting semifinal that ended with Mathur nicking a deep cross-court behind Arnold and Mudge then nicking a shallow cross-court that rolled out in front of Clarke. Their final-round opponents, Berg and Thomas Brinkman, had been forced to weather a multiple-match-balls-against moment of their own in their quarterfinal match against Fred Reid Jr. and Aaron Luque, who led 12-8 and 14-12 before grudgingly ceding the last three points. Berg and Brinkman then out-played Smith and Nanda in the semis but were subdued by a Mathur and Mudge in the final. It was already the third time in the young season that an eventual SDA tournament winner had to fend off at least one match-ball against them: at the SDA-sanctioned but non-ranking biennial World Doubles in September in St. Louis, Russell and Leach successfully defended their 2015 title with a simultaneous-championship-point win over Robin Clarke and Brinkman (who hit a forehand rail back to himself for a stroke call at 14-all), and in the Mixed Doubles portion of the Worlds, Callis and Natalie Grainger rallied from 2-1, 14-10 and overtook Berg and Stephanie Hewitt.
The final tournament before the Christmas-holidays break was the biennial Briggs Cup at the Apawamis Club in early December. Adam Bews and Will Hartigan, who had lost in the first round of the qualifying the last time this event was held in 2015, this time came up with a pair of praiseworthy five-game wins over first Reid and Bobby Burns and then Ferreira and Badan to advance to the semis. There they lost in four games to Russell and Arnold, who then took the first game of their Mathur/Mudge final (despite Russell severely spraining his right ankle late in that game) and led 13-10 in the second before Mathur and Mudge engineered their third successful comeback effort of the fall with a 5-0 run to salvage that pivotal game in their eventual 3-1 triumph. Though Russell was able to get through the remainder of the final on adrenaline, he was subsequently found to have torn ligaments in his ankle, putting him in a boot-cast for the next month and sidelining him from competitive play until March.
It is a tribute to how extensive the tour’s top tier had become that Mathur and Mudge had played — and won — their four autumn finals against the theoretical maximal four completely different teams (i.e. eight players), namely Samper/Callis, Ferreira/Badan, Berg/Brinkman and Russell/Arnold. Furthermore, through the six Autumn 2017 pro tournaments, there had been no fewer than 22 players attaining at least the semifinal round, an unusually high number for that juncture of the season and a sign of the depth among the playing membership. What is truly extraordinary is that that number would nearly double by season’s end, with 19 additional players reaching the semifinal stage during the winter and spring months for a total of FORTY-ONE overall, which is by a substantial margin the most in the nearly two-decade history of the professional doubles tour. Similarly the total of 25 players advancing to an SDA final (12 before Christmas and 13 in the Calendar 2018 portion of the tour) is an all-time single-season high, as virtually every weekend it seemed as if one or more teams or players came up with a breakthrough result.
The field was wide open during the first few events in January 2018, since Mathur spent several weeks in his native India while attending a friend’s wedding, during which time Mudge was traveling in Thailand. The tournament at the University Club of Boston during the first few days of the year was nearly capsized by a ferocious snowstorm that pounded the entire northeast corridor and prevented some of the entered teams from participating. There was plenty of on-court drama as well, with both the opening match on a snowy Thursday night (in which the Graham Bassett/John Roberts Boston pairing eked out a 15-14 fifth-game win over the Tyler Hamilton/Rob Nigro Toronto duo when Bassett mis-hit a winner on the last exchange) and the closing match on a much more temperate Sunday afternoon (in which reigning four-time Canadian National Doubles champs Clarke and Arnold out-lasted Ferreira and Badan) coming down to a fifth game. Having been denied on match-point in Boston, Hamilton and Nigro weathered a match-point AGAINST them one week later in Wilmington in winning their quarterfinal with Bobby Burns and Hamed Anvari. They then lost to Smith and Badan, who won the ensuing final against Will Mariani and Greg Park. Then at the Challenger event hosted by Pittsburgh Golf Club one week later, Graham Bassett and Adam Bews defeated first-time SDA finalists Clinton Leeuw and Omar El Kashef.
Mathur and Mudge resurfaced in Greenwich to defend the North American Open title they had won in 2017 (and, in Mudge’s case, to try to win this flagship championship for a milestone 15th time) and they rolled through the draw with a four-game final-round tally over Ferreira and Badan, who then reached the final of the Baltimore Cup one week later, only to be turned away by 2013 World Doubles finalists Smith and Leach. It was the fifth and last final-round advance of the season for the Ferreira/Badan pairing, none of them victorious, and they seemed listless both in the 15-3 close-out third game of this match and in a round-of-16 elimination at the Heights Casino Club in Brooklyn at the hands of James Stout and Greg McArthur in the next tour stop, which turned out to be their last joint appearance of the season. Stout and McArthur then followed up with a four-game win over Bews and Hartigan before losing in the semis to Samper and Callis, whom Mathur and Mudge then beat in the final. It was, incredibly, the 17th time that Mudge has won this, the longest continuously held doubles tournament in the world, all of them in a row. This figure is more than twice as long as the total compiled by any other player, past or current, in any pro-doubles tour stop in the history of professional doubles squash on this continent.
Mathur and Mudge then missed the next three events on the SDA schedule, each of which was distinctive in its own way. At the Denver Athletic Club, Burns and Bedell strung together a trio of 15-14 games at the expense of 2017 U. S. National Doubles champs Bassett and Preston Quick to reach the final, where each of them secured his first-ever SDA title when they defeated Park and Matt Jenson, rebounding from losing the third game 15-14 to win both the fourth and fifth 15-6. One week later in Germantown, Samper and Callis, runners-up several times in recent years, were able to break through with wins in the semis over Jenson and Park and in the final over Russell and Arnold. Then at the Challenger event hosted by the Racquet & Tennis Club in midtown Manhattan, at the outset of which Ned Marks and Travis Judson shocked top seeds Reid and Leach in the opening round, Stout and McArthur built upon their excellent showing in Brooklyn by conquering recently-crowned U. S. National Doubles champs Ed Garno and Alex Stait in the semifinals and first-time partners Jacques Swanepoel and Jordan Greenberg (semis winners over Marks/Judson) in the final. Swanepoel was making his first SDA appearance since the end of the college season, during which the Columbia men’s squash team, which he has coached for the past nine years, won the Ivy League pennant for the first time in the history of the program.
Russell experienced success as a coach this past winter as well when he guided the Episcopal Academy boys team to its first Philadelphia-area Inter-Ac pennant in six years in a performance highlighted by a 6-3 dual meet win over a Haverford School team that was the reigning U. S. High School Championships title-holder at the time. He and Arnold then reached the final at the Tavern Club in Cleveland, defeating Greenberg and John Roberts in the semis, before losing to Mathur and Mudge in a four-game final that swung on the forehand drive that Mathur lashed down the left wall for a clear winner at 14-all in the third game that put his team ahead to stay. During the weekend, Roberts and 2011 Intercollegiate Individuals winner Colin West (who with partner Bews lost the top-half semi to Mudge and Mathur) became the 40th and 41th SDA semifinalists of the season.
Russell and Arnold were expected to successfully defend their 2017 Buffalo Club title and consolidate their standing as the second-best SDA team behind Mathur/Mudge in the season-ending tour stop, all the more so when second seeds Reid and Leach were ousted right away by Burns and El Kashef. Russell and Arnold earned their spot in the final with a pair of four-game wins over first Leeuw and Harvard assistant coach Hameed Ahmed and then Mariani and Brinkman. But there they encountered a buzz saw in Stout and McArthur, who were still riding the wave of their three-week-old championship run in New York and their three convincing pre-final wins (over Hamilton/Nigro, Bews/Alexander and Burns/El Kashef) in Buffalo. They were razor-sharp and brutally efficient throughout their 15-8, 7 and 6 sprint through the final, the effectiveness of their attacking style abetted by their growing confidence as the score swiftly mounted in their favor, as well as by Russell’s hobbled state in the wake of an early-match back strain that clearly affected his mobility and effectiveness.
It was yet another surprising ending to a season that had more than its share of them and, with several of the tour’s top 10 players planning to pair up with new partners next season, it is anybody’s guess as to which new or returning team will emerge as the foremost challenger to the supremacy that Mathur and Mudge (fully worthy successors to the M&M salutation bestowed 57 years ago on Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris when both chased Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 61 home runs during the 1961 baseball season) have established during the past two seasons.