Kicking Off The Pro Doubles Season Amidst A Transformed Competitive Landscape 
by Rob Dinerman

Dateline September 26, 2018 ---- Of all the venues that have established themselves on the North American professional doubles tour during the past nearly two decades of its existence, the Maryland Club Open (MCO), which began in 2003 and is now entering its 14th edition (there were hiatuses in 2009 in deference to Baltimore hosting the U. S. National Doubles that season and in 2017 due to an extensive club renovation) has delivered by far the most significant innovations, memorable results and player-friendly services. The confluence of its early-autumn positioning on the SDA calendar, extraordinary facilities (now even more so with the introduction of a third doubles court), enthusiastic membership participation and support, and the dedication and business acumen of Director of Squash Andrew Cordova, has made the Maryland Club one of the most popular tour stops of the entire season and a deserving three-time recipient of the SDA’s Event Of The Year Award to the site “that has made a significant contribution to the tour and its players.”
   The 2018 MCO will be the first one in which Damien Mudge, a nine-time winner (from 2003-05 with Gary Waite and from 2010-15 with Ben Gould) and by far the “all-time leading scorer” in the history of professional squash doubles, will not participate. Mudge, whose narrow 15-13 fifth-game setback in the 2016 MCO final to Michael Ferreira and Yvain Badan in his debut appearance with Manek Mathur represented the one and only loss sustained by this duo, which subsequently has  won 16 straight tournaments and 54 consecutive matches during past two years, underwent a major knee operation on his right leg in mid-August (his seventh knee surgery overall) and will be sidelined until at least January 2019. Their undefeated path throughout the 2017-18 season marked the first time that a team has gone undefeated for an entire tour season in the seven years since Mudge and Ben Gould did so in 2010-11, and all five times that this has occurred in the 18 years since a pro doubles association was formed in 2000, Mudge has been a team member, having achieved this feat with Gary Waite in 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2004-05 and once each with Gould and now with Mathur. Mudge’s absence for the next several months, combined with a reshuffling of several of the partnerships in the tour’s top tier in the wake of a 2017-18 season that featured an unprecedented number of breakthrough performances and unexpected results at all levels of the draws, has resulted in a transformed competitive landscape whose defining tone could well be set this weekend as a plethora of new pairings jockey furiously for early position in this opening foray on the schedule.
   Mathur, the reigning two-time winner of the SDA Player of the Year Award, will be playing with Chris Callis throughout the autumn months while Mudge goes through an extensive rehab regimen. Callis,  a co-captain of the Princeton team that wrested the national college team championship from Trinity College’s 13-year grip in 2012, has partnered up with Mathur only once before, at the Big Apple Open in 2015, when they defeated Hamed Anvari and Viktor Berg in the semis before losing, 15-14 in the fourth, to Mudge and Gould. Like Mathur and Callis, Badan and Ferreira, five-time finalists last season, will also be playing this weekend with partners with whom they have teamed up only once before. Badan is matched up with John Russell (a three-time MCO finalist with Preston Quick during the first decade of the 2000’s) with whom Badan co-authored a run to the final in Germantown in 2017, and Ferreira and his MCO partner Whitten Morris advanced  to the semis at Heights Casino in 2014 in their lone prior SDA collaboration. This latter pair were finalists that year in the U. S. National Doubles as well, and are three-time winners (in 2004, 2005 and 2008) of the Silver Racquets, a highly regarded Open tournament in New York. Other teams who could contend for the title in Charm City include the ageless Clive Leach (who partnered Chris Walker to the 2007 MCO crown) and the agile James Bamber, as well as James Stout and Greg McArthur (who followed a Challenger tournament triumph in New York last April with a final-round upset win over the top-seeded Russell and Scott Arnold in Buffalo in last season’s final tour stop) and first-time partners Zac Alexander, the reigning U. S. National hardball champion and a finalist with Steve Scharff in the U. S. National Doubles this past spring, and Jonny Smith.
  This weekend’s season opener, as noted, is taking place against the backdrop of a 2017-18 pro doubles season that was replete with upsets and thrillers, notwithstanding the Mathur/Mudge domination, as it seemed that virtually every weekend featured at least one noteworthy result. In the very first event, the biennial World Doubles in September in St. Louis, the winning teams in both the Men’s and Mixed Doubles tournaments had to survive at least one final-round match-ball against them. The men’s final between defending champions Russell and Leach of England and Canadians Robin Clarke and Thomas Brinkman came down to simultaneous-championship-point, at which juncture Brinkman hit a drive back at himself for a stroke call, and in the Mixed Doubles final, the Canadian team of Berg and Steph Hewitt, after earning a 2-1, 14-10 advantage, faltered in the final five points of that game and were then out-played in the fifth by Americans Callis and Natalie Grainger. In the several weeks after that, Mathur and Mudge had to extricate themselves first from a 2-1, 12-7 deficit against Alexander and Raj Nanda in the quarters of the Big Apple Open, and then when they were brought right to the brink in the semis of the Bentley Cup in Toronto by Clarke and Scott Arnold, who led 14-13 in the fifth (double-match-ball) before first Mathur and then Mudge hit cross-court winners into the nick on the last two points. The final-round opponents they then subdued, Berg and Brinkman, had themselves needed to fend off multiple-match-balls against them in an earlier tilt against Fred Reid Jr. and Aaron Luque.
   The final tournament before the Christmas-holidays break was the biennial Briggs Cup at the Apawamis Club in early December. Adam Bews and Will Hartigan, who had lost in the first round of the qualifying the last time this event was held in 2015, this time came up with a pair of praiseworthy five-game wins over first Reid and Bobby Burns and then Ferreira and Badan to advance to the semis. There they lost in four games to Russell and Arnold, who then took the first game of their Mathur/Mudge final (despite Russell severely spraining his right ankle late in that game) and led 13-10 in the second before Mathur and Mudge engineered their third successful comeback effort of the fall with a 5-0 run to salvage that pivotal game in their eventual 3-1 triumph. Though Russell was able to get through the remainder of the final on adrenaline, he was subsequently found to have torn ligaments in his ankle, putting him in a boot-cast for the next month and sidelining him from competitive play until March.
    It is a tribute to how extensive the tour’s top tier had become that Mathur and Mudge had played --- and won --- their four autumn finals against the theoretical maximum of four completely different teams (i.e. eight players), namely Bernardo Samper/Callis, Ferreira/Badan, Berg/Brinkman and Russell/Arnold. Furthermore, through the six Autumn 2017 pro tournaments, there had been no fewer than 22 players attaining at least the semifinal round, an unusually high number for that juncture of the season and a sign of the depth among the playing membership. What is truly extraordinary is that that number would nearly double by season’s end, with 19 additional players reaching the semifinal stage during the winter and spring months for a total of FORTY-ONE overall, which is by a substantial margin the most in the  history of the professional doubles tour. Similarly the total of 25 players advancing to an SDA final (12 before Christmas and 13 in the Calendar 2018 portion of the tour) is an all-time single-season high.
    The field was wide open during the first few events in January 2018, since Mathur spent several weeks in his native India while attending a friend’s wedding, during which time Mudge was traveling in Thailand. The tournament at the University Club of Boston during the opening days of the year was nearly capsized by a ferocious snowstorm that pounded the entire northeast corridor and prevented some of the entered teams from participating. There was plenty of on-court drama as well, with both the opening match on a snowy Thursday night (in which the Graham Bassett/John Roberts Boston pairing eked out a 15-14 fifth-game win over the Tyler Hamilton/Rob Nigro Toronto duo when Bassett mis-hit a winner on the last exchange) and the closing match on a much more temperate Sunday afternoon (in which reigning four-time Canadian National Doubles champs Clarke and Arnold out-lasted Ferreira and Badan) coming down to a fifth game.
   Mathur and Mudge --- fully worthy successors to the M&M salutation bestowed  57 years ago on Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris when both chased Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 61 home runs during the 1961 baseball season --- resurfaced in Greenwich to defend the North American Open title they had won in 2017 (and, in Mudge’s case, to try to win this flagship championship for a milestone 15th time) and they rolled through the draw with a four-game final-round tally over Ferreira and Badan, who then reached the final of the Baltimore Cup one week later, only to be turned away by 2013 World Doubles finalists Smith and Leach. It was the fifth and last final-round advance of the season for the Ferreira/Badan pairing, none of them victorious, and they seemed listless both in the 15-3 close-out third game of this match and in a round-of-16 elimination at the Heights Casino Club in Brooklyn at the hands of James Stout and Greg McArthur in the next tour stop, which turned out to be their last joint appearance of the season. Stout and McArthur then followed up with a four-game win over Bews and Hartigan before losing in the semis to Samper and Callis, whom Mathur and Mudge then beat in the final. It was, incredibly, the 17th time that Mudge has won this, the longest continuously held doubles tournament in the world, all of them in a row. This consecutive-wins figure in this venerable event is more than twice  the total compiled by any other player, past or current, in any pro-doubles tour stop in the history of professional doubles squash on this continent.
    Mathur and Mudge then missed the next three events on the SDA schedule, each of which was distinctive in its own way. At the Denver Athletic Club, Burns and Eric Bedell strung together a trio of 15-14 games at the expense of 2017 U. S. National Doubles champs Bassett and Preston Quick to reach the final, where each of them secured his first-ever SDA title when they defeated Greg Park and Matt Jenson. One week later in Germantown, Samper and Callis, runners-up several times in recent years, were able to break through with wins in the semis over Jenson and Park and in the final over Russell (making his return from his mid-December ankle injury) and Arnold. Then at the Challenger event hosted by the Racquet & Tennis Club in midtown Manhattan, Stout and McArthur built upon their excellent showing in Brooklyn by conquering recently-crowned U. S. National Doubles champs Ed Garno and Alex Stait in the semifinals and first-time partners Jacques Swanepoel  and Jordan Greenberg (semis winners over Marks/Judson) in the final. Swanepoel was making his first SDA appearance since the end of the college season, during which the Columbia men’s squash team, which he has coached for the past nine years, won the Ivy League pennant for the first time in the history of the program.
     Russell experienced success as a coach this past winter as well when he guided the Episcopal Academy boys team to its first Philadelphia-area Inter-Ac pennant in six years in a performance highlighted by a 6-3 dual meet win over a Haverford School team that was the reigning U. S. High School Championships title-holder at the time. He and Arnold then reached the final at the Tavern Club in Cleveland, defeating Greenberg and John Roberts in the semis, before losing to Mathur and Mudge in a four-game final that swung on the forehand drive that Mathur lashed down the left wall for a clear winner at 14-all in the third game that put his team ahead to stay. However, it was a Phyrric victory, as it was in the latter stages of that match that Mudge, who had undergone a relatively minor “cleaning out” knee operation a few months earlier, incurred a more serious injury, necessitating the much more comprehensive procedure that had to be performed last month. During the Cleveland weekend, Roberts and 2010 Intercollegiate Individuals winner Colin West (who with partner Bews lost the top-half semi to Mudge and Mathur) became the 40th and 41th SDA semifinalists of the season.
     If history is any guide, Mudge, who over the years has weathered not only a half-dozen knee surgeries but multiple concussions, a neuroma in his right foot, a balky right (i.e. playing) shoulder and wrist issues in both arms (including one involving his left wrist that required the insertion of a pin for several months to stabilize the joint), will come back as strong as ever. In the meantime, the SDA tour for a number of reasons has a new and changed dynamic, the first markers of which will be established right here on Eager Street during the next several days.
Rob Dinerman has written the feature article for every MCO Program, beginning with the inaugural edition of this tournament in 2003, and he served as the pro doubles tour’s Official Writer throughout the 12-year period from 2001-13. A former top-10 ranked player on the WPSA pro hardball tour, Dinerman has spent the past five years writing Histories of squash at Harvard, Exeter, St. Paul’s and Episcopal Academy, and his latest books, “The Sheriff Of Squash: The Life And Times Of Sharif Khan” and “A History Of Squash At Princeton University, 1928-2013”, are both scheduled to be released in Autumn 2018.