Dateline May 14, 2019 — When John Russell and Scott Arnold won the final two tournaments of the 16-stop 2018-19 SDA pro doubles tour by first edging (15-13 in the fourth game after a 15-14 third) Robin Clarke and Chris Callis in the late-April Kellner Cup final in Manhattan and then saving two third-game match-balls against them to overtake James Stout and Greg McArthur in the Buffalo Club Pro Doubles final on Mother’s Day, it enabled Russell, a reigning two-time World Doubles champion with Clive Leach and the recipient of the 2015 SDA Player of the Year Award, to ascend to the No. 1 season-end ranking for the first time in his 15-year pro-doubles career and marked the only time throughout the entire season that the same team captured two tournaments in a row. This latter fact is in marked contrast to what happened just a year earlier, when one team, consisting of Manek Mathur and Damien Mudge, went wire-to-wire undefeated, thereby stretching their undefeated skein to 16 tournaments and 54 matches dating back to their sole setback in the first tournament of their partnership at the hands of Michael Ferreira and Yvain Badan way back in September 2016.
Mudge is by far the most accomplished player in the history of North American doubles squash and a dominant figure on the pro doubles tour for nearly 20 years, as well as a paragon of consistency and durability throughout the 2000’s, having never previously been sidelined for more than a few weeks, the lone exception being when he incurred a fluke injury to his left wrist while roller-blading in Manhattan in January 2001 that required the insertion of a steel pin and kept him out of action for several months that winter and spring. He has been ranked No. 1 virtually uninterrupted since the 1999-2000 season, when he and Gary Waite had the first of their three undefeated seasons (also 2001-02 and 2004-05). After seven years (and 75 tournament wins, the most all-time of any combination) with Waite, Mudge switched to the left wall and led the tour in wins first from 2007-10 with Viktor Berg and then from 2010-15 with Ben Gould before joining forces (and returning to the right wall) with Mathur prior to the start of the 2016-17 season.
They received the SDA Doubles Team of the Year Award after each of their two seasons together, but when Mudge sustained a severe injury to his right knee during the last tournament of the 2017-18 season (the Tavern Club Invitational in Cleveland), he was forced to undergo a major operation this past summer. It was Mudge’s seventh knee surgery, the fifth on his right leg, but this procedure was far more significant and invasive than any of its predecessors, and, although he had hoped to recover quickly enough to play in the late-January North American Open (the tour’s most prestigious title), by mid-autumn Mudge realized that he would be sidelined throughout the entire season.
In his absence, Mathur didn’t miss a beat, beginning the season with first-time partner Callis (whom Mathur had rallied to defeat 3-2 ten years earlier at the No. 2 position as part of Trinity College’s epic 5-4 victory over Princeton in the final of the 2009 national-college-championship tournament, the Potter Cup) and roaring through the Maryland Club Open without coming close to dropping a single game. Mathur then partnered Zac Alexander through the Denver Club Open draw (again with a string of 3-0 tallies) and teamed back up with Callis in a sprint to the Big Apple Open final, where they steamrolled Badan and Bernardo Samper 15-5 in the first game. To that point, Mathur, the reigning three-time SDA Player of the Year, had opened the season by reeling off 28 straight games, and on that particular night (his consecutive-wins numbers by then having expanded to 18 tournaments and 63 matches) he was playing at his absolute peak, pouncing cat-like on every ball, scorching his drives and catching a half-dozen nicks, a superstar in all his glory, with his parents visiting from India watching proudly from the gallery of the host New York Athletic Club.
The pace and level of play were extraordinary, and there was tremendous energy coursing both on court and through the crowd — until in an instant it all came to a saddening and screeching halt midway through the second game when Mathur suddenly pulled up lame, having ruptured his left Achilles tendon as he started forward to retrieve a shallow Samper forehand cross-court. Mudge was in attendance, sitting on a bench just outside the host venue’s glass back wall, and it seemed a cruelly ironic symbol of how much things can change in a short time and in light of how full of energy and health both he and Mathur had been throughout their undefeated 2017-18 season that it was Mudge’s crutch that Mathur had to lean on in order to exit the court after incurring his injury. Mathur then underwent successful reattachment surgery and is expected to make a full return in autumn of 2019.
With both Mudge and Mathur thus out of action for the rest of the season — and with Callis shortly thereafter joining them on the sidelines with a left knee injury that prevented him from playing in any of the last three events of the Fall 2018 portion of the schedule — the tour became (and remained right till the very end) a kaleidoscope of constantly-changing top-tier partnerships, with a correspondingly undulating set of faces in the winner’s circle and late stages of the draws. There were 43 different semifinalists (10 of them after New Year’s Day), 21 finalists and 16 different tournament winners, seven of whom didn’t reach that stage until Calendar 2019. Only three distinct pairings (Samper/Badan, Stout/McArthur and Russell/Arnold) won as many as two tournaments (none of them won a third) and, beginning with the Big Apple Open, the top-seeded team wound up winning the tournament in only two of the SDA circuit’s last 14 events.
There were also numerous five-game matches and airtight finishes further back in the draws, starting right with the season-opening Maryland Club Open, which had three straight rounds in which there was a five-game match, and there would have been a fourth were it not for Stout and McArthur salvaging the close-out fourth game after trailing Russell and Badan 14-12 in the bottom-half semi. At the Big Apple Open, both bottom-half quarterfinals (Samper/Badan over Stout/McArthur, who themselves had to rally from 2-1 down in their round-of-16 vs. Jacques Swanepoel and Shaun Johnstone, and qualifiers Andres Vargas/Hamed Anvari over Clive Leach and James Bamber) went the full distance, which latter result was especially praiseworthy since it represented the fourth win of the tournament for Vargas/Anvari. In a sign of how change-prone the season’s results were already becoming even at this early juncture, one week later both Vargas (with Carl Baglio) and Anvari (with Johnstone) were then eliminated in the qualifying rounds at the Westchester Country Club event, during which there were four straight rounds with at least one five-game match. The most notable of these was a quarterfinal in which Clive Leach and James Bamber, trailing 2018 U. S. National Doubles champions Alex Stait and Ed Garno 14-8 in the fifth, somehow conjured up a 7-0 match-closing run that culminated in an inside-out forehand volley into the front-right nick off Leach’s racquet.
He and Bamber then grudgingly ceded their semifinal, also in five games, to Ferreira and Callis, who lost the ensuing final to makeshift first-time partners Stout and Badan. The latter had planned to play with his season-long partner Samper but promptly contacted Stout when Samper had to travel to his native Colombia when a family commitment unexpectedly arose. Stout initially demurred — citing his wish to rest up for the following weekend, when he and Jonathan Larken would have to defend their World Doubles title in Rackets — but eventually agreed to play with Badan. They wound up winning the tournament, after which Stout (who is also the World Singles Rackets champion) and Larken successfully retained their Doubles Rackets title and Callis, whose knee condition worsened as the weekend wore on, was diagnosed with a minor cartilage strain and instructed to sit out the remaining autumn tour stops.
At the Bentley Cup in Toronto a few weeks later, top seeds Fred Reid Jr. and Graham Bassett were ousted in the first round by Tyler Hamilton and Rob Nigro, who then led Robin Clarke and Thomas Brinkman 2-1, 12-10, before losing that game 15-13 and the anticlimactic fifth 15-5. Hamilton, a pro at the host Cambridge Club, was just two weeks removed from having recorded a time of 2:37 at the New York City Marathon, where he placed 125th (3rd among Canadian runners) out of multiple tens of thousands of entrants. Clarke and Brinkman (who badly sprained his ankle early in the close-out third game) then lost the Bentley Cup final to their Canadian compatriots Will Mariani and Justin Todd, who in their sole earlier foray on the SDA tour this season had lost 3-0 in the first round in Denver to Baglio and Greenberg.
Then, after a one-week break for Thanksgiving, the inaugural Sleepy Hollow Country Club Open was highlighted by a pair of five-game quarters (Ferreira/Morris over Leach/Bamber and Stout/McArthur from love-two down at the expense of Clarke and Alexander) and a final between Samper/Badan and Stout/McArthur that was just as close as their 15-13 fifth-game quarterfinal Big Apple Open battle six weeks earlier had been. McArthur, the head pro at the host club, and Stout were unable to convert two match-points in the fourth game (after barely winning the third 15-14) but pulled ahead in the fifth, which they won by a score of 15-7. Badan and Samper were back in the final the following week in Atlanta, where they prevailed in four well-played but convincing games against first-time partners Russell and Ahmed. It was to be the first of Russell’s six finals (with five different partners) this past season, and the only one he wouldn’t win.
He christened the 2019 portion of the schedule by teaming up with another first-time partner, namely the fully-recovered Callis, to conquer the field at the University Club of Boston, where Will Mariani and Bamber (first-round 3-0 losers in their only prior foray in Denver less than a year earlier) pulled off a four-game semifinal win over Samper and Badan. Then, after a Challenger event in Pittsburgh in the final round of which 2010 U. S. Intercollegiate Individuals champion Colin West and John Roberts dethroned defending champs Graham Bassett and Adam Bews, the North American Open in Greenwich featured a number of memorable matches. Stout and McArthur straight-gamed Mariani and Bamber in one semifinal, but in the other, Clarke and Alexander engaged Samper and Badan in a titanic battle whose fifth game torturously seesawed to 14-all, at which stage a lengthy point with all four players blasting away (it was well past the point where anyone would have attempted a front-court winner) finally ended when Alexander lashed a forehand cross-court to perfect width that Samper was unable to handle.
Thus reprieved, Clarke and Alexander survived an unconverted fourth-game match-ball and were able to draw away in a 15-9 fifth game against Stout and McArthur, who, however, rebounded from this setback to rise superior to the field a few weeks later at the Baltimore Country Club, where (as had happened a few months earlier at Sleepy Hollow) they out-played Samper and Badan in the final. Proof of the reach and reputation that North American pro doubles squash has attained can be found in the fact that the 16 North American Open quarterfinalists represent eight different countries — four from the U.S., three from England, two each from Colombia, Australia and Canada and one each from Switzerland, Bermuda and Scotland — and all four finalists were from different countries.
During the next few tour stops, Zac Alexander, a former PSA top-40, rode the momentum of his North American Open exploits, in the process displaying his squash versatility on multiple levels. Having won in Greenwich with Clarke while playing the right wall, he moved to the left and partnered Bamber to victory at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia via a 3-0 final-round win over Bassett and Greg Park. Then on February 24th, Alexander earned an exceedingly rare singles/doubles “double,” beginning the day by out-playing Anvari 15-11, 10 and 13 in the late-morning deciding match of the three-player round-robin Men’s Open flight of the U. S. Hardball Nationals at the Harvard Club of New York in mid-town Manhattan, in a rematch — and repeat — of last year’s final. Alexander then swiftly traveled south to the Heights Casino Club in Brooklyn for the early-afternoon final round of the David C. Johnson Jr. Memorial Doubles, where he and Callis defeated Stout and McArthur, 15-14 in the fourth, when at 14-all McArthur had to change racquets when he broke a string, which may have played a role when he then tinned a backhand drop shot on the ensuing point. Alexander’s two-borough, two-sport accomplishment had occurred only once before, when Gary Waite similarly defeated Marty Clark in the Hardball Nationals final, also at the Harvard Club, and then partnered Mudge to a final-round Johnson victory (also in a tight four games) over David Kay and Michael Pirnak 17 years ago in 2002. Remarkably, Mudge had won every interceding edition of the Johnson, with Waite through 2007, with Viktor Berg from 2008-10, with Ben Gould from 2011-15, back with Berg in 2016 and with Mathur in 2017 and 2018. No other player has won any pro-doubles tournament (much less one of the most high-profile stops on the tour) even half as many consecutive times as Mudge’s 17-straight Johnson titles, and this streak finally ended not through on-court defeat but by an injury.
Callis and Stout played this final knowing that, depending on its outcome, one or the other would exit the arena in at least temporary possession of the No. 1 SDA ranking. But if it can be said that the season to that point consisted of mini-runs by different players — with Mathur dominating the early going prior to his injury, followed by Badan winning three late-autumn events and Alexander reaching a peak in mid-winter — then the closing stretch unquestionably belonged to Russell, who won each of the final four tournaments of the season; only two other players (Mathur and Badan) were able to win even two SDA tournaments in a row this past season. Russell’s springtime surge was achieved with, sequentially, Greg Park in Germantown, Bamber in Cleveland and, as noted, Arnold at the Kellner Cup and in Buffalo. There were distinguishing features in each case: the Germantown final-round win over Mariani and Thomas Brinkman occurred just three days before Russell’s 40th birthday and, immediately after it ended, Park, a native Philadelphian who learned the game as a youngster at the host site and has now won this title a record five times, announced his retirement from SDA tournament play. Incredibly, the Cleveland event, where Russell and Bamber defeated top seeds Badan and Samper 3-1 in the final, represented the record-shattering EIGHTH time this season in which the winning partners were teaming up for the first time in their careers: Mathur/Callis at the Maryland Club Open, Mathur/Alexander in Denver, Stout/Badan in Westchester, Russell/Callis in Boston, Roberts/West in Pittsburgh, Alexander/Bamber at the Tompkins Cup, Alexander/Callis at Heights Casino and Russell/Bamber in Cleveland.
In the biennial Kellner Cup, whose $50,000 purse was the largest of the season, Russell was reunited with Arnold, his SEVENTH partner in the nine tournaments he played this season. The pair had planned to team up all season but visa issues had prevented Arnold from traveling in the U. S. until this past spring. He and Clarke, exclusive SDA partners for several years, had won the Canadian National Doubles title in Toronto for the fifth time earlier in the month, and in the Kellner Cup final they opposed each other for the first-ever time in SDA play in the wake a pair of dominant semis in which Russell/Arnold overwhelmed recently-crowned U. S. National Doubles champs Ferreira and Whitten Morris, while Clarke/Callis did the same to Stout and McArthur. At 14-all in the third game after the teams had split the first two, a stroke call was called against Clarke, following which Russell and Arnold raced out to a 9-2 lead in the fourth. Callis and Clarke showed remarkable resiliency in knotting the score at 13-all, but Arnold scorched a backhand rail winner down the left wall and Russell lashed a backhand cross-court that Callis could not fend off to settle the issue.
The 2018-19 SDA tour’s final event occurred in Buffalo, where for the second straight year Russell and Arnold, the 2017 Buffalo winners, faced off against Stout and McArthur, who, surprisingly, had won the 2018 Buffalo final via a one-sided 15-8, 7 and 6 tally, their razor-sharp efficiency that day having been abetted by their growing confidence as the score swiftly mounted in their favor, as well as by Russell’s sub-par state in the wake of an early-match back strain that clearly affected his mobility and effectiveness. Russell, who knew before the match began that his team would have to win in order for him to displace Callis at the top of the SDA standings, had lost to Stout/McArthur both previous times he had faced them this season (with Badan at the Maryland Club and with Park in Brooklyn) and he and Arnold were right on the brink on this occasion as well after dropping the first two games and falling behind 14-13 in the third. Stout and McArthur were playing in their sixth final of the season, the most of any SDA pairing, and McArthur’s potent front-court game, complemented by Stout’s extraordinary ability to soak up pressure and execute his nick-finding overhead volleys, make them an extremely difficult match-up for any team. They had been faced with a two-love deficit of their own one round earlier against Imran Khan and Omar El Kashef before running off the last three games 15-6, 6 and 3, and they carried that late-match momentum to, and almost through, the final as well.
Even after saving those two match-balls against them — on a potentially winning Stout three-wall that instead barely caught the top of the tin, followed by a Arnold reverse-corner winner, in each case after a lengthy rally — Russell and Arnold had to dig deep in order to earn the hard-fought subsequent pair of games. Ultimately, however, and just as they had done 13 days earlier in the Kellner Cup final, Russell and Arnold were able to persevere with their game plan of keeping their opponents under pressure and behind them, thereby wedging open just enough of a margin, both territorially and statistically, to close out the match 15-10, 15-11. They have now reached the final of all eight SDA tournaments they have entered, winning five of them, and they exited this season solidly positioned to contend for the No. 1 team ranking next season, when hopefully both Mudge and Mathur will have recovered from their significant 2018 injuries and the multitude of players who left a substantial footprint on the just-completed 2018-19 SDA tour will be girding to duplicate and even exceed those accomplishments during the 2019-20 campaign.
Rob Dinerman was the ISDA/SDA Official Writer throughout the 12-year period from 2001-13. He has written six squash books in recent years, three of which, namely “The Sheriff Of Squash: The Life And Times Of Sharif Khan,” and Histories of squash at Princeton University and Episcopal Academy, were published during the 2018-19 season.