by Rob Dinerman

Thoroughly out-played throughout the opening game and just two points from losing the second as well, top seeds and first-time partners Manek Mathur and Scott Arnold responded to the exigency of the moment like the champions they are by winning nine consecutive points (and 16 of 18), then staged a five-point run from 9-10 to 14-10 en route to a 10-15, 15-13, 15-4, 15-11 victory over defending champs James Stout and Yvain Badan Monday evening in the final round of the Big Apple Open, sponsored by JLL and held as always at the New York Athletic Club. At 13-all in that crucial second game, Arnold smashed a forehand cross-court into Stout’s body, forcing a return that sailed over the front-wall boundary line, following which Mathur blazed a forehand down the middle for a clean winner at a juncture in the all-court point when both of his opponents had been maneuvered too close to their respective side walls to react in time.

The outcome of the third game became preordained after Mathur and Arnold shot out to a 7-0 lead, but the fourth was a point-for-point dogfight, with the pace, intensity and quality of play all at an extremely high level and neither team able to muster more than a two-point advantage. Badan, a two-time defending Big Apple Open champion (having won in 2018 with Bernardo Samper and 2019 with Stout), played as well as he ever has during his entire outstanding career, making some spectacular retrievals and alternating power and depth with plenty of excellent corner-work, while Stout, who committed the fewest errors of the foursome, hit a multitude of daring winners and engaged in some prolonged and high-octane cross-court battles with Arnold. The latter’s powerful presence impacted virtually every rally, and Mathur, the SDA tour’s most lethal and creative shot-maker, scored repeatedly with a variety of his imaginative salvos and was cat-quick in his court coverage, as were the three other players as well. Three of the five-straight points that brought the eventual champs from 9-10 to quintuple-match-ball in the final stretch were nick-finding winners from Mathur’s racquet, following which he barely caught the top of the tin with a daring cross-drop from deep in the court. However, the ensuing exchange ended when Arnold buried a forehand reverse-corner to cap off a scintillating performance by both teams.

It marked the second tournament win in as many SDA tour stops this season for Mathur, who captured the season-opening event in St. Louis with Chris Callis in mid-October. It was also the second consecutive time that the Big Apple Open was won by a makeshift team that had to be hastily cobbled together due to injury. Callis, who had been scheduled to play with Mathur in New York this past weekend, suffered an ankle sprain a few days prior to the opening round, necessitating an emergency call to Arnold, the reigning Kellner Cup and North American Open champion (in each case with John Russell), who had not entered the tournament but willingly came down from Toronto to team up with Mathur. Badan and Stout had similarly not planned to partner up in the 2019 edition of this event but agreed to do so when each of their scheduled partners — Samper (hamstring) and Greg McArthur (wrist) respectively — were sidelined with injuries. Stout and Badan had actually won all three tournaments they had entered — the 2018 Sleepy Hollow Open, 2019 Big Apple Open and 2020 David C. Johnson Memorial at the Heights Casino Club in Brooklyn — prior to their narrow loss in this Big Apple Open final.

Although the top four seeded teams — Mathur/Arnold, Stout/Badan, Zac Alexander/McArthur and Michael Ferreira/James Bamber — all reached the semis, the top two seeds attained the final and the No. 1 seeded team ultimately made it to the winner’s circle, this couldn’t have been further from a business-as-usual “totem-pole” tournament. Mathur and Arnold were pushed to the absolute brink in their torrid 100-plus-minute semifinal with Alexander and McArthur, who led 11-6 in a fifth game that later was tied at 13-all before Arnold was able to first power a cross-court drive into the front-left nick and then volley a three-wall into the exact same spot to close out that 38-minute game on a memorably emphatic note. Mathur and Arnold had also salvaged the first game of that streak-filled match with a 10-2 burst from 5-11 prior to letting a 12-6 second-game lead get away, following which they won the third from 7-all with an 8-0 burst but lost the fourth. Ferreira and Bamber, winners at the tour stop at the 2020 Ox Ridge Club in their first foray together, barely (15-12 in the fifth, with a pair of split 15-14 games earlier on) survived their quarterfinal match against Adam Bews and Eric Bedell, round-of-16 victors over qualifiers Bobby Burns and Lyell Fuller. Ferreira and Bamber then lost, 15-12 in the fourth, to Stout and Badan, whose quarterfinal match with Graham Bassett and Clive Leach (15-14 fourth-game round-of-16 winners over Alex Domenick and Travis Judson) also lasted four games.

In the draw’s top half, Chris Binnie and Jamie Haycocks, leading Lockie Monroe and Kyle Martino two games to one but trailing 14-12 in the fourth game of the final qualifying round, rescued that game by winning the next three points and then prevailed in three games over two-time Massachusetts State champions Hameed Ahmed and John Roberts to advance to a quarterfinal match-up against Mathur/Arnold, while recently-retired former PSA standouts Ryan Cuskelly and Cameron Pilley edged out Clinton Leeuw, the head pro at the host club, and Will Hartigan, 15-14 in the fourth, before losing in four games to Alexander and McArthur. There was a total of nine games in the tournament’s main draw (and three in the qualifying) that were decided by 15-14 scores, including all four close-out games in the quartet of round-of-16 matches and two of the close-out games in the qualifying, as well as, for that matter, the close-out fourth game of the Pro-Am final, in which Bews and Alan Kanders eked out a victory over Arnold and Will Heffernan. Of the tournament’s 11 main-draw matches, all but one was either extended to at least a fourth game or had at least one game that was decided by two points or fewer. There remains one more Calendar 2021 ranking tournament, the Sleepy Hollow Open in two and a half weeks, before the schedule really picks up with four tour stops in January that will jumpstart a full slate throughout the winter and spring months of 2022.

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