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.”