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.