The 2019-20 SDA Pro Tour featured an undulating mix of sparkling performances, a bewildering series of ill-timed injuries to top-tier players, a host of unexpected results and a kaleidoscope of changing faces in or near the winner’s circle. The first four tournaments were won by four different teams (as well as the theoretical maximum eight different players) and only once during the 12 ranking tournaments did the same team win consecutive tour stops. That pairing, consisting of Manek Mathur and Chris Callis, won a tour-leading four tournaments but only played five of the eight tournaments they entered to completion. This was yet another indication of how present the element of caprice was as the SDA season progressed, culminating in the most capricious development of all, namely the dizzyingly swift proliferation of the Coronavirus pandemic that caused the cancellation of the final three scheduled tour stops in Cleveland, New York and Buffalo.
For both Mathur and Callis, the season-opening Maryland Club Open in late September represented a return to tournament competition after each had undergone surgery. Mathur ruptured his left Achilles tendon in his Big Apple Open final-round match in October 2018, causing him to miss the remainder of that season, while Callis had a torn meniscus in his left knee repaired this past July. Neither showed any ill effects in Baltimore, where they successfully defended their 2018 title with a final-round victory over John Russell and Scott Arnold, who had won the final two tournaments of the 2018-19 season in New York and Buffalo. Both finalist teams had advanced to that status through mid-match semifinal defaults, in each case fairly early in the second game. Greg McArthur’s wrist inflammation caused him and James Stout to default to Mathur/Callis, and Bernardo Samper suffered a right hamstring pull in his and Yvain Badan’s match with Russell/Arnold.
When neither of those injured players was able to recover in time to participate in the Big Apple Open four weeks later at the New York Athletic Club, their respective partners Stout and Badan, winners in their only prior foray one year earlier at the Westchester Country Club, decided to again team up, an extemporaneous decision that resulted in a second trip to the winner’s circle. This one was via a four-game final in which they won each of the last two games 15-14 over their opponents, the reigning North American Open champions Robin Clarke and Zac Alexander, who had defeated Mathur and Callis in the semis. Badan came up with the winning shots in each of those 14-all points. Having lost their last two games in the Big Apple Open final by a single point, Clarke and Alexander then WON the last two games of their Westchester Country Club semi one week later against Russell and Arnold by that same airtight tally, running off the last three points after trailing 14-12 in the fifth on a Clarke forehand drop shot to the front-right on the final exchange that caught Arnold leaning back. The stage appeared set for what would be a much-anticipated rematch between Clarke/Alexander and Mathur/Callis, who had won their semifinal against John Roberts and Hameed Ahmed. But Mathur had rolled his right ankle when he jumped for a volley and landed awkwardly on Hameed’s left foot. He was able to get through the end portion of that match, but the overnight swelling prevented him from answering the bell for the final.
One week later in St. Louis, first-time teammates Russell and McArthur rolled to victory, defeating 2019 Canadian National Doubles finalists Adam Bews and Colin West in the final. In the last two events of the autumn schedule, Callis and a fully-healed Mathur, who had been stopped short of their goal in three of their past four tournaments (one loss and two defaults) dating back to the 2018-19 season, strongly reasserted themselves by barging through the fields at both the Sleepy Hollow Open and the biennial Briggs Cup (seven matches overall), in each case without losing a single game and in each case defeating Stout and McArthur in the final. The rest of the Sleepy Hollow draw went mostly according to plan, but at the Apawamis Club in Rye, where the tournament honoree Peter Briggs was completing his 30th year as the head pro, some of the top teams were ousted well ahead of schedule. Russell and Arnold, the No. 1 seeded team, lost 15-12 in the fifth, to Bews and West in the round of 16; Clarke and Alexander were similarly eliminated in their opening match by Clinton Leeuw and Omar El Kashef; and Samper and Badan exited in the quarter-finals, courtesy of Will Mariani and James Bamber.
Eric Bedell and Whitten Morris opportunistically advanced to the semifinals without playing a seeded team, there to lose to the eventual champs, while in the bottom-half semi, Stout and McArthur ended the Mariani/Bamber run. After dropping the first two games of the final, Stout and McArthur then had several game-balls in the third, but at 14-all, Mathur ended the autumn portion of the season by rifling a low cross-court serve-return that rolled out of the right-wall nick too severely for McArthur to steer it back into play. In the six tournaments that were contested prior to the Christmas-holiday break, 14 different combinations of players attained at least the semifinal round, and seven pairings reached the finals (Stout and McArthur were the only players to reach finals with two partners).
The Calendar 2020 schedule kicked off with a first-time tour stop at the Ox Ridge Club in Darien, CT, where first-time partners Michael Ferreira and James Bamber triumphed in a four-game final over Mariani and Thomas Brinkman. One week later, at the 26th edition of the MFS Pro-Am Boston tournament, Ferreira and Bamber played AGAINST each other in the quarterfinals, with Ferreira and Will Hartigan prevailing over Bamber and Adam Bews. Ferreira/Hartigan then led Mathur and Callis, two games to love, and later 9-7 in the fifth, only to surrender an 8-1 match-closing run that Mathur/Callis carried through their four-game final with Stout and McArthur, semis winners over Clarke and Alexander. It marked three titles in as many attempts for Mathur and Callis, who extended their consecutive-matches-won streak to 11 (a season-end tour-leading total by far) and seemed to have acquired a substantial amount of momentum heading into the important tournaments that lay ahead. No one suspected that their decisive win at the University Club of Boston on the second weekend of January would represent their last joint foray of the season.
They were seeded No. 1 in both the late-January North American Open in Greenwich and the mid-February David C. Johnson Memorial in Brooklyn Heights. But they were unable to make it to the starting gate either time; Callis had to withdraw with a bad case of the flu just before play began in Greenwich (too late for Mathur to get a replacement), and Mathur suffered a severe left hamstring pull during the O’Reilly Invitational one week after Greenwich that prevented him from playing at Heights Casino. In Greenwich, eventual finalists Badan and Samper were nearly knocked out in the round of 16 before rallying from 10-14 to 15-14 in the fifth game against Clinton Leeuw and Omar El Kashef, who one week earlier had been runners-up to Ryan Cuskelly and Chris Binnie in Pittsburgh. Badan and Samper, buoyed by their narrow escape, then recorded consecutive straight-game wins over Alex Dominick/Travis Judson and first-time partners Graham Bassett and Clive Leach, quarters winners over defending champs Alexander and Clarke. Meanwhile Russell and Arnold advanced through the top half of the draw, staging a rally of their own after trailing Stout/McArthur two games to one in the semis. In the final, Samper and Badan won the opener 15-14 on a Samper front-right nick, but Russell and Arnold persevered through the final three games. At the trophy presentation, Badan and Samper announced that the just-completed final constituted their last match as partners that season, and a few days later, Samper posted on Facebook that he would not be playing any more tournaments during the remainder of the 2019-20 tour.
In Brooklyn Heights, the oldies-but-goodies team of Clive Leach and Chris Walker, winners of consecutive tour stops (in St. Louis and Baltimore) during the fall of 2007 and now 99 years old between them, reunited for the first time in more than a decade and pushed Ferreira and Hartigan deep into a fifth game in a memorable round-of-16 match. With Russell (who guided Episcopal Academy to the finals) and McArthur both unavailable due to coaching commitments that weekend at the concomitant U. S. High School National Championships at Trinity College, Mathur out with his hamstring pull and Samper having shut his game down for the balance of the season, this tournament was attended by a shuffling of partners among the top players. This might explain why the semifinal teams were composed of two pairs of first-time partners (Callis and Eric Bedell and Alexander and his Australian compatriot Arnold), one first-year duo (Ferreira and Hartigan) and one pair that had only played together twice before. That latter team was Badan and Stout, who, as mentioned, had triumphed in each of their previous two attempts and would do so this weekend as well, albeit barely. After getting past Callis and Bedell in a four-game semifinal, they lost the first game of the final badly to Alexander and Arnold (straight-game semis winners over Ferreira/Hartigan), but won the remaining three games, all of them close. The fourth seesawed hair-raisingly to 13-all, at which point Stout came up with two nervy winners, the last a shallow backhand cross-court from deep in the back that died in front of Alexander. One interesting new SDA team to watch is Cuskelly and Cameron Pilley, both of whom retired from the PSA pro singles tour in late autumn. They reached the quarterfinals in Brooklyn before losing in an airtight four games to Ferreira and Hartigan.
In what would prove to be the last SDA event of the season before the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the tour (and the rest of the sports world) in early March, former Princeton teammates Kelly Shannon and Dave Letourneau won the Hashim Khan Invitational at the Denver Athletic Club, beating Bedell and Jordan Greenberg in the final. Shannon and Letourneau thereby became the eighth different combination to win at least one of the 12 SDA tournaments in 2019-20. Russell was the only player to win an SDA event with two different partners (McArthur in St. Louis and Arnold in Greenwich) and Stout (who also won the non-SDA Silver Racquets with Barney Tanfield and the U. S. National Doubles with Dylan Patterson) led the tour in SDA final-round appearances with five. All told, 14 different teams attained at least one SDA final and 29 advanced to at least the semifinal stage of the draw. These latter figures make for a compelling statement about how strong and deep the SDA field has become, which can only augur well for the 2020-21 SDA tour and beyond.
Rob Dinerman was ranked as high as #10 on the WPSA pro hardball tour and served as the ISDA/SDA Official Writer throughout the 12-year period from 2001-13. He has authored seven books, all but one of them involving squash, including Histories of squash at Harvard, Princeton and four leading prep schools. He is currently writing a History of tennis at Princeton University. His book “The Sheriff Of Squash: The Life And Times Of Sharif Khan,” and two volumes of his “Selected Squash Writings” anthologies, are available on amazon.com.