Rob Dinerman’s Most Memorable Performers/Performances Of 2011

December 29, 2011

I have had the honor and privilege of being court-side at some remarkable squash matches throughout the course of this past calendar year, during which so many major tournaments were held in the metropolitan New York area. Here, not necessarily in any particular order, is my list of the players who in 2011 had the greatest impact on me as of this writing, midway through this, my 40th competitive season playing and covering the sport.

RANEEM EL-WELEILY, whose spectacular run through the Carol Weymuller draw in September entailed four straight wins over top-10 ranked players, all of whom had winning records against her, en route to capturing her first-ever Gold-level WISPA tournament. Viewed for years as a precocious talent who however had heretofore been unable to maintain her top level all the way through a tournament of this stature, the 22-year-old almost had her tournament end before it began when her first-round opponent, 2010 Weymuller finalist Laura Massaro, got to match-ball. Even after El-Weleily salvaged both that match and a two-games-to-one deficit in her quarterfinal against Camille Serme, then earned a straight-set semifinal win against WISPA No. 3 Madeleine Perry, she was given little chance in her final-round match against two-time defending champion Jenny Duncalf, whose presence in her fourth Weymuller final in the past five years was in marked contrast to El-Weleily’s never previously having advanced past the semis of a Gold-level event.

   But El-Weleily reduced that historical backdrop to irrelevancy in an 11-7 15-13 11-4 final during which she combined a degree of creative genius and compelling ball placement that (especially after her successful rally from 6-10 in the second game) overwhelmed the top seed under an avalanche of parabolic un-volleyable lobs, drop shots that seemed to nearly melt on the front wall and a dizzying array of unpredictable patterns. By the end of that unseasonably warm early-autumn weekend in Brooklyn Heights, a star had been born and the WISPA competitive top tier had a new and fully deserving member.

  El-Weleily’s heroics, which challenged the journalists covering the event to produce write-ups that did justice to her performance, capped off a praiseworthy summer for Egypt, whose Men’s team won the biennial World Team Championships and whose Girls team, led by Individuals winner Nour El-Tayeb and her final-round opponent (and 2009 Individuals champ) Nour El-Sherbini, defeated a highly touted American team on their “home” turf in Boston, two matches to one, in the final round of the Team championship.

DAMIEN MUDGE/BEN GOULD, who in their first season as partners went undefeated wire-to-wire during the 2010-11 ISDA pro doubles tour, the first time that had happened in the six years since Mudge and Gary Waite accomplished the feat in 2004-05. Mudge and his Australian compatriot Gould, fierce rivals for years before deciding during the summer of 2010 to partner up, had several close calls --- Preston Quick and John Russell led them 2-1, 14-11 in an October 2010 semifinal and Russell and Clive Leach were up two games to one in the World Doubles final in Toronto this past May --- but Mudge and Gould would wind up amassing 14 straight tournaments, and 46 match wins, before being finally defeated in the semis in Rye earlier this month by Manek Mathur and his mid-2000’s Trinity College teammate Yvain Badan, who faced down a match-ball-against crisis in the third game and an 8-4 deficit in the fourth, before winning in five and then conquering Leach and Matt Jenson in the subsequent final.

   This was a provocative ending to the calendar 2011 portion of the ISDA schedule, as was the post-tournament decision by all four of the players who participated in the final to play with different partners this coming winter. It should make for an intriguing set of dynamics when the tour resumes in mid-January, as the new alignments establish themselves and the now-chastened Mudge/Gould duo attempts to regain its temporarily-misplaced supremacy.

PRESTON QUICK, who by winning the U. S. Hardball Nationals in Boston in January 2011 (with a terrific and hard-hitting four-game final-round win over three-time defending champion Eric Pearson) became the only person ever to earn the U. S. Squash national titles in all three major disciplines of the sport, namely doubles (in 2003 and 2004 with Eric Vlcek and in 2007 with John Russell), softball singles (he notched the S. L. Green tourney in 2003 and 2004) and now in hardball singles. Quick, who also won the 2006 U. S. National Mixed Doubles with his younger sister Meredeth (a National Doubles champ in her own right, having won the event in 2007 with Fiona Geaves, while reaching the finals in softball singles in 2002, 2004 and 2005), switched both partners (from Russell, with whom he reached 15 other ISDA finals during their five-year partnership in addition to their 2007 National Doubles win, to Jonny Smith) and careers (from being the head pro at the Union Boat Club in Boston to his new role in New York as U. S. Squash Director Of Doubles), and has made a smooth transition on both fronts.

It is POSSIBLE (can’t go beyond “possible” yet) that the Hardball Nationals at the Tennis & Racquet Club in Boston after eight straight years at Merion might signal a resurgence of the event and of hardball singles as a whole, as there were numerous first-time entries and more total entries than had been the case in recent years; the key question now is whether that phenomenon was a one-shot or whether it will have the staying power to result in a still larger turnout when the 2012 edition occurs this coming February at the Harvard Club of New York.

RAMY ASHOUR/NICK MATTHEW, for the scintillating Tournament of Champions final this past January on the portable four-glass-wall tour court at Grand Central Station. This one went by an 11-3 7-11 11-9 11-7 count to Ashour, who was doubly motivated (1) by his loss to James Willstrop in the 2010 ToC final and (2) by the presence on the teeming gallery of his mother, who was watching her younger son play a major match in a significant championship for the first time in five years. But Matthew (whose draining12-10 fifth-game semifinal win against Amr Shabana contrasted with Ashour’s straight-set semi over Willstrop) would have plenty of highlights as the year evolved, including regaining the world No. 1 ranking and becoming the first Englishman ever to win back-to-back World Opens when he defeated Greg Gaultier in a four-game final in early November.

Whenever Matthew and Ashour meet, their highly differing styles make for a fascinating spectacle. Ashour seems to play on instinct, his vivid imagination and sweet racquet-work combining to produce wondrous angles and eye-catching salvos, while Matthew is a blue-collar worker in the best sense of the term, playing the percentages while wearing his opponents down and grinding them into the turf with relentless retrieving skills and accumulated pressure, both offensive and defensive.  There is always a furious battle between this pair, especially in the early stages of their matches, and there is no doubt that they elevate each other’s games as each attempts to impose his own.

MORRIS CLOTHIER, who this past spring concluded a five-year stint as Chairman of the U. S. Squash Doubles Committee during which doubles has definitely enjoyed its greatest-ever extended stretch of popularity and expansion, largely due to Clothier’s dedication and leadership. A nine-time U. S. National Doubles champion himself (three with Jon Foster, then four with Eric Vlcek, then two with Gary Waite), a record for a right-wall player, Clothier, along with fellow Racquet & Tennis club member Simon Aldrich, has been Tournament Chair of the U. S. National Father & Son Championships ever since the event’s inception in 2005. Moreover, his handprint can be found on virtually all of the important doubles events on the annual calendar, whether amateur or pro, and the ambassadorial role he has played throughout the past two decades on behalf of doubles squash cannot be over-stated.

Though easy to overlook amid his achievements in and contributions to doubles, Clothier was an outstanding hardball singles player as well, reaching the semifinals of the U. S. Hardball Nationals in both 1986 and 1987, in an era when hardball singles was dominant and the Nationals draws had round-of-64 opening matches. He was an accomplished court-tennis player as well, having won the U. S. Open several times, the most recent of which was with Tim Chisholm in 2004.

NARELLE KRIZEK, who with older sibling Natarsha McElhinny became the first sister team to ever win the U. S. National Doubles when they defeated Canadians Steph Hewitt and Seanna Keating in Chicago in late March, and who with her regular WDSA pro women’s doubles tour partner Suzie Pierrepont engineered probably the most dramatic tournament-ending run in recent history in the fifth game of the Players Championship final at the University Club of New York in mid-April. Krizek and Pierrepont had been four for four in tournament wins entering the December 2010 Turner Cup, where they were thrashed in a straight-game final by first-time teammates Amanda Sobhy and Natalie Grainger, and in the Players Championship rematch the two teams had played each other to a 2-all, 5-all standstill in a battle that at that juncture seemed certain to seesaw point-for-point all the way to a climactic conclusion.

Instead, Pierrepont and Krizek, who only qualified for the final by rallying from two-one down in their semifinal against Hewitt and Meredeth Quick, ran off 10 straight points to cap off a 15-10 17-18 15-8 9-15 15-5 victory and avenge their four-month-old defeat. It culminated a triumphant few days for Krizek, who earlier in the weekend had traveled to Baltimore, where she and Pierrepont had won the 2010 U. S. National Doubles crown and where Krizek and her husband Rob had been based for several early-2000’s years, to be inducted into the Maryland Squash Hall Of Fame. The pair founded the WDSA in 2007 and has been largely responsible for the tour’s steady growth, in terms of membership, sponsorship and sites, over these past few years. Hewitt and Quick, after several near-misses, finally defeated Pierrepont and Krizek a few months ago at the season-opening tour event at the Philadelphia Country Club, thereby setting up a scenario in which at least three contending teams will be vying for supremacy in what will be a very full winter/spring portion of the 2011-12 WDSA slate.

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