New joint world No. 1’s Manek Mathur & Damien Mudge ended their first, nearly flawless season together with a ninth title out of ten tournaments—the $35,000 Tavern Club Invitational in Cleveland, Ohio.
Four days after emphatically winning the $50,000 Kellner Cup in New York City Monday, April 24, Mathur & Mudge returned to the court with a three-game quarterfinal win over Alex Domenick & Aaron Luque. Elsewhere in the draw, the top four seeds advanced to the semifinals with only Canadians Will Mariani & Fred Reid needing more than three games to progress.
A difficult Saturday included both semifinals in the early afternoon and final later that evening. Mathur & Mudge stepped up in the first semifinal to handily defeat Mariani & Reid 15-7, 15-7, 15-8. The ensuing second semifinal went the full distance, however, as two seeds John Russell & Raj Nanda came back from two games down to defeat three seeds Imran Khan & Jacques Swanepoel 12-15, 10-15, 15-8, 15-11, 15-8.
In the final, Russell & Nanda took the second game off the top seeds, but it wasn’t enough as Mathur & Mudge bounced back to claim the title 15-11, 11-15, 15-7, 15-8.
The final ended what had been an exhausting fortnight for Mathur & Mudge.
“Organizing and playing in the Kellner was extremely fatiguing,” Mathur said. “Damien and I were sitting at dinner on Monday night after the Final and both our shoulders dropped and we embraced our exhaustion. It took a good two days to feel refreshed and it was time to head to Cleveland.”
“It was quite challenging to get up for it mentally and physically,” Mudge said. “At this stage of the season, it was our last push knowing we have almost five months off.”
Mathur successfully defended his 2016 title with Mudge’s long-time partner Ben Gould, while Mudge augments yet another tournament record with his eighth Tavern Club title since his first in 2008. Mathur & Mudge complete their ten-tournament season just one loss all season, the season-opening Maryland Club final in October.
“I think we’re lucky to be able to have such good experiences off the court,” Mathur said. “There’s nothing better than traveling around with one of your best friends and exposing yourselves to new cities. We both really enjoy Cleveland and the Tavern Club so we were looking forward to finishing our season up there. Ian Sly and his members make us feel at home and do a great job with the tournament. Maryland was obviously a tough loss, but we were not the better team that Sunday. I still feel that this has been an unbelievable season with a couple dominant and solid performances on our end. I can say we are both pretty excited to have some time off and enjoy the off season, but at the same time, I am looking forward to getting back out there with the 215lbs, 6’4” Australian next season!”
“I think our season was very strong, Manek was a stud all season and played amazingly well,” Mudge said. “We very rarely dropped many games during the season, which is challenging to do within itself let alone winning nine events. It’s a little bitter-sweet not to have an undefeated season. They are very special and don’t happen much in one’s career, but all in all extremely happy!”
The 2016-2017 SDA Pro Tour season concludes with the $25,000 Buffalo Club Pro Doubles, May 12-14.
Damian Mudge may be the old man of the doubles circuit but tonight at the Cambridge Club he showed why he has been top man for so long with so many tournament notches on his belt. Yes, he had a partner, Manek Mathur, a new match this season, but as Michael Ferreira and Yvain Badan had decided on targeting the older man in an attempt to wear him out, it seemed Mudge had to hit most of the balls and Mathur (Badan’s former partner) was reduced to that of a supporting role.
The first game was no indication of what was in store for Ferreira & Badan as they more than held their own, probably encouraged by their first meeting this season when they beat Mathur & Mudge 15-13 in the fifth. (Mind you, at their next meeting they lost 3/0)
Mudge was firing a barrage of balls back at Ferreira on the left wall and his two-handed backhand was given a lot of work. On some shots Ferreira added a sort of snapped slice, sending the ball into the front right nick – it was unreadable and promised much grief for his opponents – but ultimately caused grief to himself with a high error count.
There were few long rallies as both teams were looking for opportunities to go short. There were some wonderfully dynamic rallies with displays of lightning reaction that caused cheers from the packed bleachers. At 13-13, it was still anybody’s game when the ball broke. The warmed up ball was Mudge’s lucky charm – he won the next points with a fluke nick off the frame and then an outright winner on a reverse nick – 15-13 after 18 entertaining minutes.
Sadly that was about it. The first point of the second game was another lucky nick, the next point went to him and his partner when Badan was denied a let and from that moment they just raced away. Mudge was hitting screaming cross-courts that were too fast for Ferreira to scrape off the wall: he was cutting in surprise drops and disguised drops for which his opponents had no answer. And always Mathur was there as solid backup. Mathur & Mudge were 8-3 up and with the help of eight outright winners took the game 15-6 in 16 minutes – which included time out for a broken ball.
Now Ferreira & Badan are known for their determination, their never-say-die attitude and coming back from match ball down, so there was anticipation for the third game, despite the evidence of the second game.
Alas, it was not to be and once again Mathur & Mudge raced away to lead 8-2 and although Badan hit three winners to give hope at 5-8, the race was virtually over and after just 13 minutes Mathur & Mudge had the game (symbolically the last point was on an unforced error from Ferreira ) and the match as well as then their names on the Jim Bentley Cup.
In the changing room Mudge said he’d had a good work out during the day “…and opened my hips. So when I’m feeling good in my body, I’m more confident.” Tomorrow he will be undergoing his third knee operation: he certainly did not play like a one-legged man.
For Mike and Yvain it was a bad day at the office, and scant reward for all the hard work of the weekend when they had to ground out victories, in contrast to the winners who had a comparatively easy route to the final. Roll on 2017.
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.
It came with little surprise last year when the then world No. 1’s Damien Mudge & Ben Gould earned their fifth-consecutive Tavern Club Invitational title without dropping a game in the tournament’s ten-year anniversary. In February, the Australians graced the cover of Squash Magazine with Gould announcing his retirement from the full-time tour after the partnership won its first Briggs Cup title in December on top of five other tournament wins in the fall. Thus ended the most dominant partnership of the last five years with a 189-7 record and fifty-five titles, which included each major title on the tour, the 2013 World Doubles title and the $100,000 Briggs to cap it off.
Mudge continued full-time on tour with former partner Viktor Berg, who won the inaugural Tavern Club Invitational in 2006 with Chris Walker and the 2008 and 2009 Tavern Club titles with Mudge. Mudge & Berg’s rekindled partnership reached five finals, winning two of them since January.
When the Tavern Club draw was released last month, the tour was in for a shock expecting Mudge & Berg to head the draw, but instead seeing a new top seed and first-time partnership in the form of Gould on the right wall and world No. 3 Manek Mathur on the left wall. The draw predicts the first match in which Gould and Mudge would face off since the 2010 Kellner Cup in the final.
The top two sides must get through a difficult draw first before relishing the Mudge & Gould reunion. The top seeds are predicted to meet Trinity tandem Jacques Swanepoel, who won the Hashim Khan title last month, & Shaun Johnstone. The top half of the draw involves a family affair with the three Roberts brothers facing off in the same match against each other in the first round. The eldest of three state-side brothers (the eldest of four remains in England), Dan pairs with SDA veteran Greg McArthur against his younger brothers and Yale graduates, John & Joseph. In the bottom half of the draw 2012 Tavern Club finalists Jonny Smith & Greg Park weigh in as three seeds with a semifinal predicted against Mudge & Berg.
The Tavern Club Invitational’s draw is set to be one of the most unpredictable of the season, with the only certainty being the spectacle of world-class squash doubles.
Qualifying begins Thursday afternoon at 12pm local time. Watch main draw matches on SDA Live.