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.