A Look Back At The 2023-24 SDA Pro Doubles Season   By Rob Dinerman

When Clinton Leeuw and Jaymie Haycocks, trailing Mohsin Khan and Nku Patrick two games to one in the opening (quarterfinal) round of the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) Challenger tournament on Mother’s Day Weekend, rallied to take the next two games and then the next two matches, it was a fitting conclusion to a 2023-24 SDA season in which the eventual tournament winners extricated themselves from daunting predicaments an unprecedented number of times. This phenomenon began in the very first men’s tournament of the season, the milestone 20th edition of the Big Apple Open, hosted as well by the NYAC, in which the two finalists — and top two seeds — fended off a total of seven match balls against them in their respective semis: James Stout and Scott Arnold defeated John Russell and Chris Callis 11-15, 15-6, 9-15, 15-14 (from 13-14), 15-5 when at 14-all in the fourth, Stout hit the single most perfectly placed shot of the day, a laser cross-court serve-return (the only serve-return winner of the entire match) that cleanly passed Callis and dead-nicked just behind him on the right wall. In the bottom-half semi,  Zac Alexander and James Bamber, down two games to one against Adam Bews and Matthew Henderson and behind 14-12 in the fourth game and 14-13 in the fifth, managed to win both of those games 15-14.

In the ensuing final, Stout and Arnold, though pushed to a fifth game for the third time in as many days (having failed to convert a match ball in the fourth game of their quarterfinal match with Ryan Cuskelly and Cameron Pilley), ran away with the final game 15-2 against Bamber and Alexander, who was able to play on after spraining his right ankle early in the opening game only after being provided with an ankle brace by Stout, the fully deserving recipient of the 2022 SDA Sportsmanship Award. Although it was originally thought that Alexander’s injury would keep him out of the Sleepy Hollow Open three weeks later — which used the alternate scoring system where each game is to 11 points (rather than 15), with a clear margin of two — he was able to recover in time to partner Bamber to another final when they out-played Josh Hughes and Lucas Rousselet (11-9 fifth-game quarterfinal winners over Bews/Henderson) in the semis. In the top-half semifinal, Callis and Michael Ferreira, after losing the opening game to top seeds Cuskelly and Pilley, conjured up two-point wins (11-9, 14-12 and 13-11) in each of the next three games to advance to the finals, which they won handily 3-0 over Alexander (who injured his left knee in the second game, sidelining him until January) and Bamber.

THE DEBUT OF THE CHALLENGER TOUR

Early December marked the debut of the SDA Challenger Tour (for players not ranked in the top 15), which was created at the outset of this season, at least in part to balance out the SDA Board’s decision to not have qualifying draws for its full-ranking events. The inaugural Challenger event, hosted by The Squash House in Cos Cob, CT, was won by Trinity College alums Elroy Leong and Chris Binnie, whose final-round opponents, Sam Fenwick and Omar Allaudin, had reached that stage with a 15-14 (from 13-14) semis win over Alex Noakes and Thijs Van der Pluijm when on the final point Allaudin, after shaping for a forehand straight drive, instead snapped his wrist at the last moment to produce a cross-drop that rolled out of the front-left nick. There were a total of six men’s SDA Challenger events sprinkled throughout the season, with six different winners — Leong/Binnie at the Squash House, John White and his former Drexel player Rousselet in Pittsburgh, Sergio Martin and Carter Robitaille (saving a final-round third-game match-ball-against vs. Andrew Muran and Charles Culhane) at the University Club of New York, Will Mariani and Thomas Brinkman at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (in the midst of a big Chinese New Year’s parade, with fireworks blasting away on nearby Powell Street), Fenwick and Jeff Osborne at the Creek Challenge Cup in Long Island, and, as mentioned, Leeuw and Haycocks at the NYAC  — a bit of wealth-spreading that graphically demonstrates how many quality teams there are just below the top tier of the SDA tour.

In the final event of the men’s autumn schedule, the Diamond State Open, held at the Wilmington Country Club, Stout and Arnold, who had been forced to withdraw from Sleepy Hollow when Stout strained his left Achilles tendon, resurfaced as the No. 1 seed, and they reached the final with a pair of straight-game wins over Ferreira/Colin West and Bews/Henderson. In the semis of the draw’s far-more-competitive bottom half, Osama Khalifa — who had not planned to play before Bamber secured him as a substitute partner just prior to the entry deadline in the wake of Alexander’s knee injury — and Bamber survived two match-balls-against in the 15-14 fourth game against Russell and Callis before winning the last two points of the 15-13 fifth game as well. In the ensuing Khalifa/Bamber vs. Stout/Arnold final, Khalifa and Bamber became enmeshed in their second consecutive match that seesawed to 13-all in the fifth game. After Arnold hit the ball out of court, Stout went for the same type of crosscourt serve-return winner at match-ball-down that had played such a vital role in his and Arnold’s Big Apple Open triumph six weeks earlier — but his time his salvo caught the top of the tin, a dramatic ending to the Autumn 2023 men’s SDA campaign, and a result that temporarily elevated Bamber to No. 1 on the SDA men’s ranking list.

 

A DISRUPTION OF THE STATUS QUO

For each of the previous two years, former Greenwich Academy teammates Kayley Leonard and Maria Elena Ubina have been the clear-cut No. 1 SDA women’s team, having lost only one time in each of those seasons. At the outset of the first women’s tournament of 2023-24, it appeared that there would be more of the same when they convincingly earned their way with a pair of 3-0 victories into the final round of the season-opening event, the Czar League/Frank Reidy Open at the Germantown Country Club in suburban Philadelphia. But at that stage they were rocked — and nearly defeated — by Suzie Pierrepont (making her return to the SDA fray after missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury) and Nikki Todd, who followed a five-game semifinal win (from two-one down) against Lauren West and Georgina Stoker by going up two games to love in the final as well before Leonard and Ubina were able to win the final three games. Although it was clear by the end of that weekend that both they and their recent-years frequent final-round opponents — Elani Landman and her twin sister Lume, who were dealt a rare first-round ouster at the hands of Pierrepont/Todd — would be challenged far more strongly this season than ever before, no one could have guessed that this would be the last SDA ranking event all season that Leonard and Ubina would win.

In the very next women’s SDA tournament, the NYC Open, held at the University Club of New York, both Leonard/Ubina and the Landmans had to repulse strong challenges in their respective five-game semifinal matches. The Landmans outlasted Katie Tutrone and Vic SImmonds, 15-9 in the fifth, while Leonard and Ubina lost the fourth game of their match with Pierrepont and Stoker before asserting themselves in the 15-6 fifth. In the final, after Lume Landman knifed a reverse-corner winner at 14-13 to win the first game, the second came down to a 14-all point that had even more of a match-defining feel to it than normal, since Leonard and Ubina have a history of winning those points, and the Landmans had played too well throughout those two games to afford only coming away with a one-all tie. After a lengthy and intense exchange, Lume Landman, rather than trying to pass Leonard with a wide forehand cross-court, instead intentionally hit a cross-court that hit the left side wall early and broke treacherously across Leonard’s body at too severe an angle to be returned.

Buoyed by the two-games-to-love lead they now enjoyed, the Landmans broke the third game open with a five-point run from 4-all, part of an 11-2 sprint to the finish line. The tour then moved from midtown Manhattan a few express subway stops south to Brooklyn Heights, where Pierrepont and Stoker, after rallying from a two-games-to-love deficit in their opening-round match against Rachel Maskek and Jana Shiha, then won their semifinal 3-0 over the Landmans. Waiting for them in the final was the top-seeded, defending-champion Leonard/Ubina duo, who were in total control of the 15-7 first game and led 14-12 in the second. But Stoker and Pierrepont responded with a trio of audacious winners — the last of them a Pierrepont forehand touch volley that slid just above the tin near the right wall — that swung the match permanently in their direction throughout the pair of 15-8 games that followed. For the most part, the points were fast-paced, intense and of short duration (the entire four-game match consumed less than 45 minutes), to some degree resulting from the topography of the host club’s court, whose famous beam hanging well down from the ceiling picks off enough balls to make high lobbing an adventure and whose floor and walls tend to “hold” the ball, making it stay low and die early. This set of factors rewards attacking play, and, along with more than 80% of the points ending relatively early with either winners (many of them spectacular nick-finders) or errors, there was also a number of exciting “scramble” points (with both sets of partners covering superbly for each other) and few conservative drawn-out exchanges. This result had to have been especially pleasing to Pierrepont, the SDA CEO, for coming on the same court where she had sustained her season-ending knee injury one year earlier.

The Heights Casino Open results marked the first time in the past two-plus years that Leonard and Ubina had lost in two consecutive tournaments, and it also meant that the first three tournaments of the 2023-24 SDA women’s tour had been won by three different teams — something that had not occurred in women’s pro doubles in more than a decade. At the next scheduled women’s event, the “World’s Best At Westchester,” held at the Westchester Country Club in early December four weeks later, which utilized the 11-point scoring system, all but two of the nine pre-finals matches — including semifinal wins by Stoker/Pierrepont over Leonard/Ubina and by the Landmans over Tutrone and Todd — were settled in the three-game minimum. However the final went all the way to a fifth-game overtime in which Stoker and Pierrepont, trailing 10-8, swept the final four points to emerge with a 12-10 victory. Their late surge represented the third time in Autumn 2023 — preceded by Stout/Arnold in the Big Apple Open and Khalifa/Bamber at Wilmington — that the eventual tournament champions survived multiple match balls against them. It also marked the second time (along with the Khalifa/Bamber final against Stout and Arnold) that an SDA final was decided by two points in the fifth game, and in two of the other tournaments — the Frank Reidy and Heights Casino Opens — the eventual champions had to rally after trailing two games to love along the way.

 

AN EXTENDED RIVALRY

When the Calendar 2024 portion of the men’s tour got underway, Russell and Henderson triumphed in the OX-NC Open in Stamford, defeating Cuskelly and Pilley in a four-game final — but the remainder of the SDA men’s season devolved into an extended rivalry over several months between longtime partners Stout and Arnold and never-before partners Callis and Khalifa, who teamed up for the first time (other than in a non-ranking invitational event in Minnesota one year earlier) in a victorious run through the late-January North American Open that was capped off by a pair of four-game wins over Stout/Arnold and Alexander/Bamber respectively in the semifinal and final rounds. It marked the second straight tournament that Khalifa won with a first-time partner (previously, as mentioned Bamber at Sleepy Hollow) — and there would be more to follow. A few weeks later Khalifa and Callis lost the Heights Casino final to Stout and Arnold — who had previously saved three first-round match-balls-against in their round-of-16 win over Leong and Columbia head squash coach Chris Sachvie — before then overwhelming Stout and Arnold in three single-figure games in the final round of the mid-March tournament at the University Club of Boston. That latter event had originally been scheduled in January but was postponed seven weeks after the tragic death of club member (and SDA top-30 player) Will Hartigan at the grievously young age of 34. There was an enormous turnout at Hartigan’s memorial service that included many SDA tour members and others from the larger squash community. Sadly as well, during the rescheduled tournament weekend it was learned that Lenny Bernheimer — the event’s Tournament Chairman for many years and an active SDA Board of Directors member since 2019 — had suffered a severe stroke. He died the following week at age 82.

The degree and split-results nature to which the Stout/Arnold vs. Khalifa/Callis rivalry had come to define the second half of the men’s SDA season meant that the late-April Kellner Cup in Manhattan would be for overall supremacy in 2023-24, just as had been the case the last time that this biennial tournament had been held in April 2022, when Callis and Manek Mathur had outlasted Stout and Arnold in five games, thereby clinching the No. 1 end-of-season team ranking. The much-anticipated summit was almost prevented from happening when Leong and Sachvie again led Stout/Arnold late in the fifth game of their quarterfinal match-up before Stout and Arnold escaped with that game 15-13. They then straight-gamed recent Tavern Club Open champions Russell and Henderson in one semi while Khalifa and Callis were doing the same to Ferreira and West in the other.

In the ensuing clash between the two top teams before a full gallery at Racquet & Tennis, Callis and Khalifa won the first game and led 13-4 in the second. They wound up winning that game 15-11 but the momentum that Stout and Arnold acquired late in the game continued when they took the first six points of the third (a 13-2 run overall), which they then closed out 15-12. Khalifa and Callis bootstrapped their way to an imposing 13-8 lead in the fourth, but Stout and Arnold, who for years have clawed their way out of major trouble at crunch-time — including, as noted, saving multiple match balls against them in each of their two prior tournament wins this season at the Big Apple Open and Heights Casino — made yet another eleventh-hour charge to 13-14. Callis and Khalifa, who had been so sharp and energetic during the match’s first two games, looked depleted by the toll that the two-hour battle had taken, and, by their own subsequent admission, would have been at a significant disadvantage had the match extended into a fifth game, especially in light of how assertive Stout had become by that juncture and the degree to which Arnold had almost completely eliminated his early-match racquet errors.

 

NO-MAN’S LAND

But at this crisis moment Khalifa, circling around an over-hit Arnold cross-court, conjured up a forehand reverse-corner from the back wall that slowly and mesmerizingly drifted into no-man’s-land, creating just enough momentary confusion between his opponents as to who should retrieve it for neither of them to react in time to prevent the ball from taking a second bounce. The Kellner Cup has had some memorable endings over the years — particularly when, as happened this time, the No. 1 team ranking hangs in the balance — but this one ranks right with the top of that list. The outcome also vaulted Khalifa to the No. 1 individual ranking, making him the first Egyptian-born player to attain that standing.

To their credit, Stout and Arnold were able to rebound at the tour’s final full-ranking tournament, the Buffalo Club Open, which, after surviving a five-game semifinal challenge from Ashley Davis and Tor Christoffersen, they won in a straight-game final over Bews and Kyle Martino, a pair that just a few weeks earlier had won a thrilling Canadian National Doubles final over five-time champions Arnold and Robin Clarke. Stout and Arnold thereby finished the season having won three SDA tournaments, equaling the Khalifa/Callis total, but the latter pairing won the head-to-head battle 3-1 and both Callis (with Ferreira at Sleepy Hollow) and Khalifa (with Bamber in Wilmington) won a fourth SDA event as well.

 

SIX  FOR SIX

In contrast to a men’s SDA season that ended with the top two teams battling at the summit, the Calendar 2024 tournaments on the women’s tour — consisting of full-ranking stops in Greenwich, Boston and Los Angeles, a Challenger event in San Francisco and the U. S. and Canadian National Doubles in Philadelphia and Toronto respectively — had six different winning teams and the theoretical maximum 12 different players. At the North American Open, held at three clubs in Greenwich, both semifinals went the full five games, with the Landman sisters, who, as noted, had been unable to convert the two match balls they had held against Stoker and Pierrepont a few months earlier at the Westchester Country Club, this time reversing that outcome by winning the fifth game 15-9. The bottom-half semi between Leonard/Nikki Todd and Katie Tutrone/Line Hansen went literally all the way to 14-all in the fifth, at which juncture Leonard hit a winner to usher herself and her first-time partner Todd into the final, in which, after splitting the first two games, the Landmans won the final two by 15-13 tallies.

Their attempt to carry their momentum into Boston was derailed, however, when Elani Landman’s injured calf forced them to default early in their quarterfinal match against first-time partners Shiha and Hansen, who then rallied from a two-game deficit to overtake Tutrone and Todd in the semis. They ended the fifth game in emphatic fashion with a 10-1 spurt from 5-4 that carried into and through their four-game final-round win over top seeds Stoker and Pierrepont, 3-0 semis victors over just-crowned U. S. National Doubles champs Leonard and Ubina. The 22-year-old Shiha, who had only started playing doubles five months earlier, thereby became least doubles-experienced player (and one of the youngest) ever to win an SDA tournament in the nearly 25-year history of the Association, and her accomplishment — combined with the Khalifa/Callis championship run at the same venue — meant that Egyptians were on winning teams in both the men’s and women’s events in Boston, a phenomenon that happens virtually all the time on the PSA pro singles tour but had never previously occurred in SDA Doubles.

Shiha came close to duplicating that achievement at the women’s season-ending event, the LA Open, played at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, where she and Julia LeCoq advanced to the finals before losing to the Canadian pair of Jaime Laird and Jackie Moss, semis winners over defending champs Tutrone and Todd. These results meant that all four women on the winning teams in the final two full-ranking tournaments of the season were first-time SDA champions, a compelling demonstration of the growing depth of the women’s tour. For the season the only two-time tournament winners on the women’s tour this past season were Stoker/Pierrepont (Brooklyn and Westchester) and Elani and Lume Landman (University Club of New York and North American Open). There was also, as mentioned, a women’s Challenger event in San Francisco in February (a two-team affair in which Taryn Clary and Marie-Victoire Wickers edged Libby Eyre and Casey Wong, 15-14 in the fifth) and  three SDA Mixed Doubles tournaments on the schedule, namely the mid-October Onwentsia Mixed in suburban Chicago, won by Pierrepont and Davies over Celia Pashley and Rousselet; the early-March Hashim Khan Championships at the Denver Athletic Club, where Canadians Henderson and Todd defeated Martino and Stoker in a four-game final; and the late-May U.S. National Mixed Doubles, which was listed on the SDA Challenger schedule and in which Pilley and Hansen defeated Elani Landman and Alexander in a five-game final, thereby becoming the first husband-wife duo to win this championship in the 20 years since  James and Steph Hewitt did so in 2004 — yet another competitive category in which there was a different winner (and different finalists) in every tournament, just as was the case in the autumn for the men and in the winter/spring for the women.

Todd and Pierrepont teamed up to win the Canadian National Doubles, and Martino, by partnering Leong to the U. S. National Doubles title and Bews to the Canadian National Doubles crown, thereby became the first player to win both of those national doubles championships in the same year in the 23 years since Morris Clothier and Eric Vlcek accomplished the feat in 2001, and the only player ever to win both of those events in the same season with different partners. His double-achievement, as often depicted in this season recap, was one of many firsts liberally scattered throughout the 2023-24 SDA tour, and, with more quality teams and more tournaments than ever before, there is every cause for optimism that this trend will continue in 2024-25 and beyond.

 

Rob Dinerman has played on and written about the ISDA/SDA pro doubles tour for the past 24 years. His most recent book — A Century Of Champions: 100 Years Of College Squash, 1923-2023 — was released in March 2024. All of his books are arrayed on the home page of the robdinerman.com website.

 

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