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.