The 2012 Heights Casino Qualifying: Where You Had To WIN A Tournament Just To Be IN The Tournament  
by Rob Dinerman, for

Dateline February 28th, 2012
– There were no trophies handed out to the winners late this past Friday afternoon, but there were two draining three-day seven-team tournaments that came to riveting conclusions as the $35,000 David Johnson Memorial, the last major full-ranking stop on the 2011-12 ISDA pro doubles tour, completed its qualifying rounds prior to the commencement of main-draw play later that evening. The 64th holding of this tournament, hosted as always in the cozy confines of the Heights Casino Club on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, like many of the events on the ISDA circuit, was utilizing a 12-team format, with the top 10 teams “straight in” to the main draw and the other team entries, 14 in this case, vying for the two remaining spots.

With the schedule lighter this season than in the past for several reasons --- the biennial Kellner Cup originally slated for this April has been moved to the spring of 2013 to be incorporated into the World Doubles, as one example, another being that one site that has always occurred in the spring has been taken off the schedule since the tournament organizers still haven’t paid the players for last season’s edition --- the events that HAVE taken place as planned have drawn even more entries than usual, resulting in some of the most brutally high-level qualifying rounds in the history of the Association, with qualifying draws that require whichever teams emerge to have won more matches against higher-quality opponents than has ever been true in the past.

Nowhere was that latter phenomenon more in evidence than at the recent Johnson, where neither of the top-seeded teams in the two respective brackets survived their opening-round match AND where the teams that ousted them were themselves so strong that those results were not even viewed as true “upsets.” Shaun Johnstone and Eric Christiansen, who not only qualified into the Briggs Cup a few months back but made it all the way to the quarterfinals (winning their round-of-16 match against Paul Price and James Hewitt) of the main draw, lost Thursday night to Jacques Swanepoel and Shane Coleman, semifinalists in the season-opening Pittsburgh Cup Challenger tourney and winners earlier in the day over recent Trinity College grads Chris Binnie and Travis Judson, who led, 2-love, 14-12, lost that game but closed out the fourth in convincing 15-8 fashion.

The other seeded team in that bracket, Steve Scharff and Phil Barker, have had an excellent first season as partners, including qualifying into last month’s North American Open and then defeating Dan Roberts and Greg McArthur to reach the quarters. They were heavily favored to win their first match, against Yale alums Julian Illingworth, the reigning seven-time U. S. National singles champion and a PSA top-25 who was entering the Johnson almost as a lark (indeed, he played in the North American Open singles event in Richmond on Tuesday, losing to Olli Tuominen in his first-round match), and 2010 Eli captain Todd Ruth, who on his train ride up to New York from his Philadelphia home base for the Thursday-noon match found himself wondering which late-afternoon train back home he would catch after their presumed defeat. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Illingworth and Ruth prevailed, 15-13 in the fourth, over Barker/Scharff, then won in five that evening over early-2000’s Harvard teammates Tim Wyant and David Barry, who saved a third-game match-ball-against and took the fourth as well before Ruth and Illingworth eked out the fifth game 15-11.

Meanwhile, in the other mini-tournament, Mark Price and 2002 Intercollegiate Individual singles champion Bernardo Samper, the pros at the Westchester Country Club, handily defeated a pair of opponents (John Musto/Ned Marks and Carl Baglio/Brett Erasmus) to advance to their qualifying final. Samper and Price had qualified into the main draw of this event a year ago, then gone from 6-all to 15-9 in the fifth game of their round-of-16 match against Willie Hosey and Hamed Anvari, and they had similarly become quarterfinalists last month in Greenwich by qualifying in and then out-playing Briggs Cup semifinalists John Russell (a Heights Casino finalist with Preston Quick in 2009) and Greg Park.

In Brooklyn last year, Samper had played the right wall before switching in Greenwich to the left, which latter alignment they decided to maintain this past weekend. Graham Bassett (who with Josh Schwartz had successfully qualified into the main draw at the Racquet Club of Philadelphia ISDA stop just two weeks earlier by TWICE rallying from love-two down) and Ian Power were the top-seeded pairing in this qualifying bracket, and hence byed into Thursday night, where they faced a formidable duo – namely James Stout and Whitten Morris --- who had already gathered considerable momentum when they had rolled through Yasser Kamel and Heights Casino pro Mustafa Essam one round earlier.

Morris won the U. S. National Doubles in 2008 and 2009 with Trevor McGuinness, and earlier this season he teamed with Addison West to capture the Silver Racquets in November and with McGuinness to do the same in another high-end Open tourney, the William White, in early January, where they won in a fifth-set tiebreaker against Coleman and PSA former No. 1 John White. Stout, a multi-racquet-sports star, is the current Rackets world champion who also triumphed at the U. S. Open in court-tennis when that prestigious competition was held at his home Racquet & Tennis base a few years ago. The two of them complement each other beautifully and followed their opening-round victory over Kamel/Essam with a straight-set win as well against Bassett and Power that earned Stout/Morris the right to face Samper and Price for a position in the main draw.

The two Friday-afternoon “finals,” witnessed by only the two-dozen or so hard core doubles aficionados who were fortunate enough to be on hand, were nothing short of epic. First on were Ruth and Illingworth, already the Cinderella team, who sprinted out to a two games to love lead over a Coleman/Swanepoel pairing that seemed out-of-synch and tin-prone early on but shaped up dramatically after that, winning the third easily and the fourth 15-13 when on the last point Swanepoel hit a tightly-angled forehand roll-corner that barely eluded Illingworth’s attempt to get his racquet on the ball. There were SEVEN lead changes as the fifth game seesawed tensely along, with neither team having more than a two-point advantage. A tin-defying backhand reverse-corner by the strapping Aussie Coleman got his team to 14-13, match-ball, but Ruth caught a front-right nick on a volley, leading to 14-all, simultaneous match-point, whereupon a savage series of swings ended with Coleman lashing a cross-court which a lunging Ruth, his arm fully extended and his racquet starting to slip out of his hand, got just enough of for the ball to slide malevolently barely above the tin for a shallow winner as Coleman and Swanepoel, their one hundred minutes of effort stymied by this one mis-hit stroke of fate, froze in disbelief and dismay.

If possible, there were aspects of the remaining final-round qualifying match that were even more compelling than its down-to-the-last-point predecessor. Morris and Stout swarmed a slow-starting, lethargic-appearing Samper and Price 15-5 in the first game, the seventh straight game won by the Racquet & Tennis torch-bearers, six of them in single figures. But beginning with the opening point of the second, an untouchable drop-shot by Samper, he and Price noticeably elevated their games, gaining a clear advantage both statistically and territorially in taking the next two games 15-10, 15-11 and moving out to a daunting 14-7 edge in the fourth as well. Stout and Morris were losing points all sorts of ways --- including once when Morris’s glasses fell to the floor after one of his diving retrievals, which by rule means that the point is awarded to the opposing team --- and when the latter hit a bad tin to make the score 14-7, the match appeared surely to be over, even after Stout pulled off a winning drop shot and Price caught the top of the tin with a reverse-corner attempt.

Stout then surprised and flat-footed Samper with a drop shot winner from the back wall (10-14) and urgently whispered “Come on!” to his partner Morris, who responded by blasting a forehand down the right wall for 11-14. Morris has been part of some back-from-the-dead rallies in the recent past --- he and Michael Ferreira had been down 14-5 in the first game of the ’07 Silver Racquets final, and he and McGuinness had trailed 14-7 in the first game of the ’08 William White semi and 14-5 in the first game of the ’08 U. S. National Doubles final, yet had rallied to win all three of those games en route to winning each of those tournaments --- but EIGHT consecutive match points down against a team like Samper/Price? The eleventh-hour comeback continued when Samper tinned a backhand reverse-corner and Price couldn’t fend off a blast off Morris’s racquet. At 13-14, Samper hit a nick-finding backhand three-wall, which Morris not only got to but flicked for a nervy out-of-the-blue topspin forehand reverse-corner winner for 14-all, following which he brandished his fist at Stout, who on the ensuing point drove a rail winner to perfect length down the left wall that, prohibitively improbably, forced a fifth game from the seeming oblivion of 7-14 in the fourth.

They won the first point of the fifth game as well, and made ANOTHER substantial 6-1 run from 3-11 to crawl back to 9-12 – but two comebacks of those dimensions against an opponent of that caliber was more than even Stout and Morris could pull off, as Samper and Price were able to finish off the match in a 15-9 tally. Forced by an improvident bit of match scheduling to go back on court just a few hours later (and before Illingworth/Ruth played their round-of-16, even though the Illingworth/Ruth qualifying final had preceded Samper/Price earlier in the day) they then duplicated their Brooklyn ’11 and Greenwich ’12 accomplishment with a five-game round-of-16 win (again 15-9 in the fifth, their 10th game of the day) over a fresh Anvari and Schwartz before running into the tour’s dominant team, top-seeded defending champions Ben Gould and Damien Mudge, in the quarterfinals early Saturday afternoon, the FIFTH match of the tournament (and the first for Mudge/Gould, who as a top-four seed were byed into the quarters) for the pardonably exhausted Samper and Price in the 66 hours since their odyssey began late Wednesday evening.

Ruth and Illingworth, similarly playing remarkably well in their round-of-16 match against Imran Khan and Raj Nanda, might well have prevailed had they won the 14-all point in the opening game, since they did take the second 15-11 before grudgingly ceding the subsequent pair of games 15-9 and 15-11. All four seeded teams captured their quarterfinal matches in straight games, with Mudge and Gould ultimately winning both their semifinal and final-round matches, 15-12 in the fourth in each case, over first Chris Walker and Mark Chaloner and then Manek Mathur and Clive Leach (semis winners in five over Yvain Badan and Matt Jenson) to finish off this eighth and last full-ranking tournament of the 2011-12 campaign with seven ISDA tournament wins and a 23-1 match-play record (this after going 12 for 12, 38-0 in 2010-11).

The 2012 edition of this longest-ever continually running event in the history of hardball doubles squash will deservedly best be remembered for Mudge capturing this coveted crown for the 11th consecutive time, breaking the record of 10 that he had co-held with Gary Waite, Mudge’s Johnson partner from 2002-2007 before the latter teamed up with Viktor Berg from 2008-2010 and with his Australian compatriot Gould last year and this. But no one who witnessed all or part of the frenzied and furious qualifying-round play-down that began early Wednesday evening and carried all the way until late Friday afternoon will soon forget the effort and the excellence that 28 exceptional players evinced in valiant bids just to make it into the main draw of one of the highest-quality tournaments in the history of the ISDA tour.


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