by Rob Dinerman
Dateline June 5th — The 2016-17 SDA pro doubles tour promised a markedly changed competitive landscape even before it began due to the fact that that no fewer than six of the top eight ranked players from the previous campaign were entering the season-opening Maryland Club Open with first-time-ever partners, and one of the two exceptions was the retired Ben Gould. This situation was most graphically symbolized that weekend in Baltimore when Manek Mathur and Yvain Badan, former Trinity College teammates whose seven years of partnership (from 2009-16), many of them as the No. 2 team behind Gould and Damien Mudge, had finally culminated in their ascent to the No. 1 team ranking during the spring of 2016, were presented with the 2016 Team of the Year Award — less than 24 hours before they then competed AGAINST each other in the final! A certain amount of interpersonal tension understandably animated the ensuing extremely closely contested action, from which Badan and his first-time partner Michael Ferreira emerged triumphant, albeit barely (15-13 in the fifth), over Mathur and his first-time partner Mudge. This was the first of two tournament wins (Atlanta being the other) amassed by the Ferreira/Badan pairing, with five runner-up finishes as well, making them the second most successful team on the circuit.
But that one late-September setback was to be the only one that Mathur and Mudge sustained all season, as after this initial misstep they then embarked on a nine-tournament, 30-match winning spree during which they were never pushed to a fifth game and won all but five of their matches three games to love. Mudge, returning to the right wall — on which he had played with Gary Waite from 1999-2007, winning 75 tournaments, the most ever for one duo, and compiling three wire-to-wire undefeated seasons — after nine extraordinary years on the left, played with a level of power and fitness that belied his May 2016 fortieth birthday, while Mathur’s athleticism and deadly shot-making led to countless front-court winners throughout their blemish-free run. Their final-round opponents included Ferreira/Badan at the Big Apple Open in Manhattan, Bentley Cup in Toronto, MFS Pro-Am in Boston and David C. Johnson Jr. Memorial Doubles in Brooklyn (which latter event Mudge won for the 16th consecutive year with his fourth different partner); John Russell and Viktor Berg in St. Louis and at the North American Open in Greenwich; Russell and Badan in Germantown; Jonny Smith and Chris Callis (another first-time pairing this season) at the Kellner Cup in New York; and Russell and Raj Nanda in Cleveland. Even the arthroscopic right-knee surgery that Mudge underwent immediately prior to the month-long Christmas holidays break seemed to make virtually no discernible impact on his mobility or effectiveness, given the no-nonsense efficiency with which he and Mathur blew through the draw when the schedule resumed in early January in Boston, where they yielded only 24 total points in their 3-0 final with Ferreira and Badan.
Other tournament winners in addition to the top two teams were Bernardo Samper and Baset Chaudhry (two of six Trinity College alumni ranked in the SDA top 13) at the Missouri Athletic Club Open in St. Louis (over Matt Jenson and host club pro Adam Bews in the final), Smith and Chaudhry in the Challenger event in Pittsburgh, Jenson and Scott Arnold (over Callis and Smith) at the Baltimore Cup, Samper and Callis (over Ferreira and Badan) at the Tompkins Invitational in Philadelphia, Russell (who played in a total of five finals with a tour-leading four different partners) and Arnold (over Will Mariani and Thomas Brinkman) in the season-ending event in Buffalo, and Chaudhry and Whitten Morris (over James Stout and Eric Bedell) in the Long Island Open Challenger event in which both final-round teams had had to earn their way into the main draw by first winning several rounds of qualifying matches, one of many signs of how deep the SDA tour has become in recent years. All told, 11 of the top 13 ranked players won at least one sanctioned SDA tournament, 19 players attained at least one final and more than two dozen players made it to at least the semis, all of which figures represent all-time highs during the 18 ISDA/SDA years of North American professional doubles squash. And of the seven sanctioned tournaments this past season which Mudge and Mathur didn’t enter, only twice — in Atlanta and Buffalo — did the No. 1 seed wind up in the winner’s circle.
The Mathur/Mudge dominance aside, there were noteworthy breakthrough wins and a number of near-misses throughout the season, beginning right with the opening weekend, when Ferreira and Badan let a fourth-game match-ball get away in their semifinal with Berg and Nanda before winning the fifth game and then taking the aforementioned route-going final, in which four of the five games were decided by two points or less. Before autumn had ended, Ferreira (who the prior year had similarly been involved in a trio of simultaneous-match-point matches) and Badan had had to save two quarterfinal fourth-game match-balls against them (courtesy Samper/Chaudhry) en route to winning the tournament in Atlanta, then rallied from 7-11 to 15-14 against Nanda and Smith at the same stage of the very next tour stop in Toronto. A few months after that pair of narrow escapes, they survived a 15-14 fifth game with Nanda and Russell at the Philadelphia Racquet Club in the semis.
In addition to their advance to the Buffalo final (featuring solid victories over Nanda/Samper and Imran Khan/Greg Park), Mariani and Brinkman, winners of the Ontario regional championship in December and runners-up to Arnold and Robin Clarke each of the past three years in the Canadian National Doubles, scored impressive victories over first Chaudhry and Clive Leach and then Jenson and Arnold to reach the semifinal stage at the University Club of Boston. In Brooklyn, Bobby Burns and James Bamber accentuated their already-praiseworthy qualifying-round win over Morris and Stout and round-of-16 four-gamer over Nanda and Hamed Anvari by then triumphing, and doing so convincingly (15-8 in the fourth) in their quarterfinal with Berg and Russell, who just a few weeks earlier had reached the North American Open final. Burns also reached the quarterfinals in both Greenwich (when he and Bamber prevailed over Khan and Park) and Germantown, where he and Travis Judson out-lasted Alex Stait and Ed Garno in one of nearly a dozen matches this past season that had a 15-14 fifth-game conclusion. The emergence of these and other newly-forming partnerships was one of the foremost themes of this past season, as were the return to the SDA schedule after a several-years hiatus of tour sites in Philadelphia, Long Island and Buffalo, and both of these phenomena should augur well for the 2017-18 season and beyond.