A Retrospective On The 2021-22 SDA Pro Doubles Tour
By Rob Dinerman

Dateline May 25, 2022 — Trailing 14-10 in the pivotal third game of the final round of the North American Open Doubles championship at the Field Club of Greenwich, with the No. 1 team ranking having come down to the climactic final match of the season, Manek Mathur and Chris Callis surged through the game’s final five points and never looked back, breaking open the close-out fourth game with a six-point run from 5-all to 11-5 en route to a 13-15, 15-12, 15-14, 15-8 victory over top seeds James Stout and Scott Arnold. Their match-closing 20-8 burst enabled Mathur and Callis to capture the SDA pro doubles tour’s biggest crown and conclude on a dramatic note a ten-stop 2021-22 SDA season whose first six tournaments were won by six different player combinations (and eight of a theoretically possible 12 different players) but whose torrid springtime stretch was dominated by the Mathur/Callis pairing, which annexed all four of the tournaments they entered during the final eight weeks of the season to end the campaign on a 14-match winning streak and bring their tour-leading tournaments-won total to five overall. They posted an 18-1 record for the season and won every match that was played to completion, their only loss occurring when Mathur defaulted after being accidentally hit in the back of the head with a racquet follow-through at 1-1, 11-13 in a semifinal match against Michael Ferreira and James Bamber at Sleepy Hollow in mid-November.

   No other pairing was able to earn more than one tournament championship during the season, although Arnold did manage to win the Big Apple Open with Mathur, the David C. Johnson Memorial tournament at Heights Casino with Stout and the Buffalo Club Pro Doubles with Adam Bews, all three of whom were partnering up with Arnold for the very first time. There were a number of other first-time occurrences during the season as well, including the Omicron-forced postponement of all four originally scheduled January tour, three of which repositioned themselves in the spring months, making for a hectic, time-compressed  dash to the tape once the tour reconvened after a two-and-a-half-month hiatus that began before Thanksgiving and extended into early March. That an SDA tour of considerable substance even took place at all in 2021-22 (after the Covid pandemic ended the 2019-20 season prematurely and forced the cancellation of the entire 2020-21 tour) is a tribute to the perseverance of a multitude of players, tournament chairmen, organizations and sponsors associated with the sport.

  The season began in what appeared to be reasonably routine fashion with defending champions Mathur and Callis fulfilling their No. 1 seeding by triumphing at the Racquet Club of St. Louis in a four-game final with Greg McArthur and Zac Alexander. But a few weeks after that event and shortly before the Big Apple Open at the New York Athletic Club was slated to begin, Callis tore ligaments in his right foot while playing a practice singles game, forcing Mathur to scramble to find a replacement partner. Fortunately for him, Arnold hadn’t entered the event and was therefore available. This hastily constituted first-time partnership looked overpowering in their first match against qualifiers Chris Binnie and Jaymie Haycocks but then became enmeshed in a torrid two-hour semifinal with Alexander and McArthur, who forged an 11-5 lead in the fifth game, showing extraordinary discipline by sticking to their game plan of lobbing Arnold to force him deep and then attacking the front-right, eliciting tins from both a fatigued-looking Arnold and an over-anxious Mathur.

   It is therefore to the enduring credit of this besieged pair, who were clearly looking down the gun barrel of an impending defeat against elite opponents who were playing at the top of their games and had by that juncture commandeered all the momentum, that they were nevertheless came up with their best production of the day right when it was needed the most. They picked up the already-high pace to an even greater level, covering for each other whenever they had been moved out of position and successfully going for a series of nervy winners that actually had them leading 13-12 (a 7-1 spurt) before Alexander hit a winner to knot the score at 13-all. So much of the Alexander/McArthur offense had been directed at Arnold that it seemed inevitable that he would decide the match, one way or another, and he rose to the occasion with a pair of point-winning volleys that dead-rolled out of the front-left nick, the first on a blasted cross-court and the second on a three-wall off an Alexander cross-court, the only time in the entire match in which he had tried this shot under those circumstances and an emphatic exclamation point on a game that ended a full 38 minutes after it began.

   The ensuing final between Mathur/Arnold and defending Big Apple Open champs Stout/Yvain Badan (3-1 semis winners over Ferreira and Bamber) was a struggle as well for Mathur and Arnold, who lost the first game and were two points (at 13-all) from going down two-love before salvaging that game 15-13 en route to a four-game victory in what turned out to be the last match of Badan’s outstanding 15-year SDA career in light of his post-match decision to retire from competitive play. In the one remaining Calendar 2021 tour stop at Sleepy Hollow, Ferreira and Bamber survived a close (15-12 in the fifth) final over McArthur (the head pro at the host club) and Alexander, 3-2 semis winners over Suzie Pierrepont (pinch-hitting for Badan after the latter’s unexpected retirement announcement) and Stout.

  With no tournaments scheduled for December and the January/February portion of the scheduled emptied out due to the Covid spike, it felt like a whole new season when the SDA resumed at Heights Casino (site of the longest continually running doubles tournament in North America) in early March, and everyone was thrilled to be back playing. Mathur, who contracted the virus during a visit with his family in his native India, was a late scratch, and Josh Hollings, Callis’s substitute partner, tore his right Achilles tendon in the second game of their semifinal match with Bamber and Ferreira, marking the second consecutive tournament (albeit with nearly a four-month gap in between) in which Callis had a mid-match default due to something that had befallen his partner (preceded by Mathur/Sleepy Hollow). By contrast, the top-half semi between Stout/Arnold and the swiftly-improving Aussie pair of recently- retired PSA top-15 players Ryan Cuskelly and Cam Pilley (quarters winners over Clive Leach and Adam Bews) was a brutal, lengthy and exhausting five-game battle-of-attrition marathon in which Cuskelly and Pilley won the first two games by a combined three points (15-13, 15-14) only to be tortuously overtaken by 15-11,13 and 9 tallies, with the top seeds, who had been pressed to the limit throughout their rally, finally asserting themselves with an 8-2 closing run from 7-all in the fifth, largely due to a shot-making spree by Arnold that accounted for five of those points.

  The question coming into the final was how much, if any, influence the widely differing course of the respective semis would have. Ferreira and Bamber appeared to have provided an emphatic answer when (as had happened throughout the tournament) they burst from the gate, burying Stout and Arnold under a blizzard of winners, most of them sharply-angled backhand reverse-corners or front-side cross-court nicks off Ferreira’s blazingly-hot racquet. It marked the fifth time in the eight combined completed games that Ferreira and Bamber had played to that point in which they had held their opponents under 10 points, and their series of spectacular shots elicited ringing applause from the crowded gallery, most of whose members were vocally supporting Bamber, who just a few months earlier had been named the Head Adult and Doubles pro at the host club.

  Although Stout and Arnold seemed a step slower than their road-runner fast opponents during that first game, they wisely controlled the pace at the outset of the second, focusing not on power but rather on height and depth, lengthening the exchanges and thereby both establishing better rhythm for themselves and inducing some impatience-caused tins from Ferreira and Bamber. Each of the match’s final three games was hard-fought and marked by riveting all-court exchanges, several mid-game tactical adjustments and some extraordinary shot-making and retrieving. This was especially true of the close-out fourth game, throughout which no team ever held more than a two-point lead. Ferreira and Bamber forged their way to 12-10, a fifth game clearly beckoning — but a Stout forehand overhead into the front-left nick launched a 4-0 spurt to 14-12. Ferreira blasted a ball down the middle past Arnold to close the gap to 14-13, but the ensuing point ended when Ferreira’s backhand volley, which had accounted for so many winners during this match, this time ricocheted off the tin, thereby marking a successful title defense for Stout, who had won this event in 2020 with Badan, shortly before the schedule was shut down in deference to Covid.

  It was a very exciting way to launch the Calendar 2022 portion of the schedule, one that jump-started a memorable stretch during which there was never more than one tournament-less weekend during the subsequent 11 weeks. At the Ox Ridge Open in Darien, CT, Cuskelly, who had been ensconced as a host site’s head pro just a few weeks earlier, teamed up with Pilley on a three-match sweep through the draw whose most salient result was the advance of qualifiers Josh Hughes and B.G. Lemmon to the semis that was highlighted by their straight-game quarterfinal victory over No. 1 seeds Graham Bassett and Clive Leach. After terminating the Hughes/Lemmon run in the top-half semi, Cuskelly and Pilley then rose superior to Clinton Leeuw and Hamed Anvari (semis winners over Chris Binnie and Chris Hanson) in the final.

   To that juncture of the season, Mathur and Callis had been stymied on three consecutive attempts from playing an SDA event to completion, since, as noted, Callis had hurt his foot right before the Big Apple Open, there had been the mid-match default in Sleepy Hollow and Covid had sidelined a quarantining Mathur for the Johnson. This snake-bit stretch was an unwelcome reminder of what had happened to the pair in 2019-20, when Mathur sprained his right ankle late in a Westchester Country Club semifinal  that swelled up overnight, necessitating a final-round default to Alexander and Robin Clarke, following which first Callis (flu) and then Mathur (left hamstring) had had to withdraw from Greenwich and Brooklyn respectively. That situation was about to change dramatically, though, beginning with the late-March Boston Pro-Am event at the University Club of Boston, the site of some of the most exciting SDA matches over the years. All of The Big Four — consisting of the Mathur/Callis, Stout/Arnold, Alexander/McArthur and Ferreira/Bamber duos — resurfaced for this tournament, and all of them made it to the semifinals, whereupon Alexander and McArthur, leading Stout/Arnold two games to one (having won the first two games by a combined three points) but behind 12-8 in the fourth, rallied to bring that game to 14-all, at which juncture McArthur rifled a forehand winner down the middle (Arnold tried in vain to return his shot with a behind-the-back swing) to clinch their place in the final. The balancing semi between Mathur/Callis and Ferreira/Bamber, played throughout at a red-hot pace that noticeably contrasted with the more positionally-oriented tactics that characterized the Alexander/McArthur victory, was even closer, coming down to a simultaneous-match-point that was decided when Callis hit a tight backhand reverse-corner winner. The second half of the ensuing final round’s fourth and last game (after Mathur/Callis had earned a two games to one lead) was significantly affected by a right foot injury to McArthur that he actually initially incurred late in the semis and that rendered him increasingly compromised throughout a 9-0 match-closing Mathur/Callis skein that wiped out a 9-6 fourth-game deficit and brought the weekend to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.

   There followed the first two Mixed Doubles events in the history of the SDA on consecutive weekends in early April. At the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles,  Bews and Suzie Pierrepont won 15-5, 11 and 9 over Will Mariani and Latasha Khan. Both Bews and Pierrepont were fresh off having won their respective Open divisions of the U. S. National Doubles a few weeks earlier at the Specter Center in Philadelphia, where Bews and Bamber had straight-gamed Lyell Fuller and Lockie Munro, while Pierrepont and Narelle Krizek had out-lasted the defending-champion Landman twins, Elani and Lume, in five games. Then, in the final round at the Onwentsia Club in suburban Chicago, John White and Gina Stoker dropped the first two games to Bamber and Elani Landman but won the next three 15-9, 9 and 11, creating in the process a momentum that would then carry them to the U. S. Mixed Doubles title a few weeks later at the final-round expense of Lauren West and Chris Longman.

  The Tavern Club tournament in Cleveland saw the first-time-ever advance to an SDA final by 2017 Intercollegiate Individuals champion Osama Khalifa and Kyle Martino, one of a number of new teams that greatly enhanced the SDA product this season. Khalifa and Martino had already recorded a breakthrough win by beating Bews and Leach in a round-of-16 match in Boston, and this time they followed up with a five-game (15-3 in the fifth) semifinal victory over Leeuw and Hameed Ahmed, the Associate Head Coach at Harvard (which has won both the college national men’s and women’s team championship for each of the last three seasons), before losing the final to Mathur and Callis, semis winners over Alex Domenick and Travis Judson.

  Coming into the final few days of April,  none of the Big Four teams had been stopped short of the semis at any point of the season — but that would change in the first round of the biennial Kellner Cup in New York (whose most recent edition had actually been contested three years ago in 2019) when Haycocks and Chris Walker eked out a narrow and somewhat contentious round-of-16 win (in which three of the four games were decided by two points or fewer) over Ferreira and Bamber. At that stage they lost to Bews and Colin West (another Intercollegiate Individual champion, in his case in 2010), whom Stout and Arnold then vanquished in a three-game semifinal, while Mathur and Callis were winning their semifinal as well over Alexander and McArthur.

  In the final, played before a raucous crowd that packed the spacious Racquet & Tennis Club gallery, Mathur and Callis were in command through the 15-8 first game, but Stout and Arnold, who throughout the late rounds of their triumphant Johnson run had shown an uncanny ability to reverse an opponent’s early-match advantage — having rallied, as noted, from love-two against Ryan Cuskelly and Cameron Pilley in the semis and then defeated Ferreira/Bamber in the final after losing the first game 15-6 — seemed well on their way to duplicating that achievement as the match wore on. This seemed to especially be the case when, after winning the second game 15-11 but falling behind 14-12 in the third game, they came up with two winners and gratefully accepted a bad Callis tin on simultaneous-game-ball. The Stout/Arnold pair similarly made a late-game run to tie the fourth at 13, but at this stage Stout, whose error count for the match was the lowest of any of the four players and whose ability to “stay in the moment” at crunch-time has defined his racquet-sports career — which includes long runs as the World Champion in both singles and doubles in Rackets for well over a decade, as well as his triumph in the 2008 U. S. Open in court tennis — unaccountably tinned on each of the ensuing pair of points.

  The first half of the climactic fifth game seesawed hair-raisingly along on even terms until Mathur and Callis were able to wedge open just enough of a cushion to get them across the finish line. Mathur, whose passion about winning this match seemed to be markedly more visible than in any match he has ever played in his sparkling SDA career, was his usual intimidating self, cat-quick, ready to pounce on and punish any loose ball and extremely creative in his shot selection and precise in its execution. But it was Callis’s ability to both withstand (and then some)  the unrelenting pressure that the Stout/Arnold pairing directed his way and conjure up a trio of front-left nicks sprinkled among the last dozen points that may have spelled the difference. For sheer drama and competitive intensity, this match was right up there near the top in the two-decade history of this tournament, a two-hour pro drama featuring long and all-court points and an ever-changing  kaleidoscope of smashes, lobs, nicks and astonishing retrievals.

   In its wake, many of the tour’s top players rested during the weekend in between the Kellner Cup and the North American Open, but Arnold, a former two-time winner of the tour stop in Buffalo (in 2017 and 2019 with the now-retired John Russell) teamed with Bews to the Buffalo Club, where they justified their No. 1 seeding with a trio of four-game wins over, sequentially, Torontonians Scott Austin and Mike Green, Field Club of Greenwich pros Scott Young and Ricardo Lopez Valdivia and Ahmed and Chris Sachvie, semis winners over the Henderson brothers, Matthew and Drew. The siblings had rallied from a two games to one quarterfinal deficit to edge Imran Khan and Sergio Martin, who had similarly staged a five-game comeback win over Matt Dukarm and Oscar Lopez Hidalgo in the round of 16.

   All eight opening-round matches in Greenwich were decided in fairly convincing fashion, but first-time partners Khalifa and Haycocks, first-round winners over Bernardo Samper (appearing in his first SDA event in the 28 months since he and Badan had lost the 2020 North American Open final to Arnold and Russell) and Martino, took the second game of their quarterfinal match against Mathur/Callis and challenged them through much of the remainder as well. Just as had happened two months earlier in Brooklyn, Cuskelly and Pilley took an early lead (in this case by winning the first and third games over Stout/Arnold), only to be overtaken in the final laps. The remaining top-half quarterfinal also went the distance, with Ferreira and Bamber nearly succumbing to Elroy Leong and Tor Christofferson, who, after barely (15-12 in the fifth) surviving their final-round qualifier match against Dukarm and Tim Lasusa, defeated Dave Letourneau and Judson in the round of 16 and then forced Ferreira and Bamber deep into a fifth game. Leong and Christofferson crept from 10-14 to 13-14 before Ferreira courageously knifed a backhand serve-return into the front-right nick before Christofferson could react.

  This backdrop made it almost preordained that the Ferreira/Bamber and Stout/Arnold semi would be resolved in a fifth game, which Stout and Arnold, rallying for the second time in a row after falling behind two games to one, salvaged by winning the final two games 15-8 and 15-10. That proved to be the only match of the day, since Alexander was jolted badly enough (especially in his ribs and left arm) from a minor automobile accident the previous evening to make him unable to answer the bell the following afternoon. The final strongly resembled the Kellner Cup final 14 days earlier in the sense that both matches went to 1-all, 14-all, and in both cases the Mathur/Callis pairing won an airtight game that spring-boarded them to a more decisive close-out ensuing game. In Manhattan the crucial turning point, as noted, came in the fourth game, when they were only two points from losing but escaped with that game 15-13 and were never headed in the fifth. This time the decisive moment came in the third game, when Stout and Arnold were unable to convert any of the five game-balls they held after leading 14-10. On the 14-all point, Callis actually lost his grip on his racquet, which skittered away, leaving Mathur having to cover the entire court – which he did by racing to retrieve a shot in the back-right. By the time their opponents were ready to hit the ball, Callis had repossessed his racquet and in fact it was he who delivered the winning shot on a forehand reverse-corner a few exchanges later, his third front-court winner in the last five points, with Mathur accounting for the other pair.

  Although throughout the season (most notably in Brooklyn) and throughout the weekend Stout and Arnold been able to overcome mid-match setbacks and deficits, asking them to do for the third time in as many days proved to be one request too many, as the consequences of a season’s worth of challenges — and possibly some psychological carryover from what had occurred in the fifth game after they had barely failed to close out the match in the fourth just two weeks earlier at Racquet &Tennis — came hurtling down on them, causing an extended mid-game slump in the fourth game that effectively settled the issue. Mathur and Callis, sensing the vulnerability, made it count for all it was worth, playing errorless squash, forcing openings and relentlessly converting them. Mathur, judiciously mixing up power drives with severe front-court angles, was indomitable, while Callis, who received the brunt of the Stout/Arnold attack, confidently repulsed everything that was thrown at him and hit a number of winners (including a backhand roll-corner from deep in the back on championship-point) as well. By the end, Stout and Arnold were too far behind to catch up as Mathur and Callis galloped across the finish line.

   They therefore ended the season in a fully triumphant manner by winning their last four tournaments, thereby clinching the top two spots in the end-of-season rankings — with Mathur ranked No. 1 and Callis right behind him, followed by Arnold and Stout, with, sequentially, Bamber, McArthur, Alexander (tied with McArthur), Ferreira, Bews and Cuskelly filling out the top 10 — and no doubt ensuring that they will be voted SDA Team of the Year by their colleagues when that tally is taken. But it is worth noting as well that, even during this impressive undefeated stretch, they were one point from losing in the semis in Boston, two points from losing in the finals in New York and had a quintuple-game-point against them that would have put them two games to one down in Greenwich. The Stout/Arnold (Johnson champions, Kellner Cup and North American Open finalists and final-round opponents in the Big Apple Open), Ferreira/Bamber (winners at Sleepy Hollow,  finalists in Brooklyn and one point from being at least finalists in Boston) and Alexander/McArthur (finalists in St. Louis, Sleepy Hollow and Boston) teams all had outstanding seasons as well, and there were a host of pairings just behind them, including in several cases those composed of a bunch of new faces, who will be vying to crack the top tier during the 2022-23 season. Despite the unique set of challenges that confronted professional doubles squash during the past seven months, the SDA tour navigated its way in praiseworthy fashion and the hope is that an even better future beckons come this autumn.

Rob Dinerman was the Official Writer for the professional doubles tour throughout the 12-year period from 2001-13 and has written extensively about squash for four decades. He has authored more than a dozen books about squash, most of which are arrayed on the robdinerman.com website. The book he is currently writing, Brothers And Champions: Ralph And Sam Howe — Stories From The Golden Age Of Racquet Sports, a racquet-sports biography of the Howe brothers, is scheduled to be released in September 2022.