The Demer Holleran/Alicia McConnell Partnership

by Rob Dinerman

April 18, 2002  -One exudes the frisky energy of a hyperactive puppy, while the other maintains an on-court tranquillity that belies her hatred of defeat, which she has said she finds a more galvanizing motivation than joy in victory, perhaps because she has experienced the latter so overwhelmingly often over the past 20 years.

One has fine racquetwork but has always relied primarily on her extraordinary athleticism, while the other moves deceptively well and can hit hard but is better known for her incredible touch and immaculate stroke production. One is extroverted and engaging, while the other is circumspect, thoughtful and understated. One has at various points put her squash career on hold for extended stretches while pursuing other sports like tennis, field hockey and lacrosse, while the other has concentrated solely on squash since her teenage years began. One once entered the court on Halloween night for a tournament match clad in a full-body orange-and-black costume, while the other always appears in classic all-white tennis apparel. Alicia McConnell, the first-referenced in all of the above contrasts, and Demer Holleran, the two greatest American woman squash players in the history of the game, are one-time rivals turned doubles partners who late last month won the USSRA Women's National Doubles title without coming close to losing a single game.

This was the seventh consecutive year in which they won this tournament, shattering the previous record of four set by Carol Thesieres and Joyce Davenport from 1979-82, and the ease with which they cruised past youngsters Meredith Quick and Dana Betts (Class of 2001 alumnae from Princeton and Bowdoin respectively) in the semis and veterans Karen Jerome and Jessie Chai in a very straightforward final points up the dominance they currently enjoy and makes it difficult to believe that they were pressed to a fifth game by the Jerome-Chai pairing in last year's version of this event.

Holleran, who won the '94 Women's Doubles with Berkeley Belknap before beginning her partnership with McConnell two years later, also teamed up in early April with fellow former Princetonian contemporary Keen Butcher to regain the USSRA Mixed Doubles Open crown which they had won throughout the record seven-year period from 1994-2000 before being dethroned by Gary Waite and Chai last year. In addition to this septet each of consecutive National Women's and Mixed Doubles titles, she has won a host of junior, intercollegiate, hardball and softball national titles, making her by far the most decorated non-age-group woman's champion in the history of American squash, and she showed her versatility by also coaching the women's varsity at the University Of Pennsylvania to their first-ever Intercollegiate Team championship in 2000.

The daughter of a former Harvard captain and older sister of her successor as Intercollegiate Singles champion, she has been steeped in a family tradition of excellence in racquet sports that has influenced her approach since she was a small child.

McConnell was never driven by any family precedent in competitive athletics, but early in her teenage years she became involved in the famed junior program at the Heights Casino club, located just a few blocks away from her Pierrepoint Avenue home under the tutelage of Fred and Carol Weymuller in the mid-1970's, and her exceptional athletic gifts quickly marked her as a prodigy.

At age 17, she defeated her Finnish contemporary Katja Sauerwald in the final of the World Junior Individual championship while also leading a U. S. team that included her older sister Patrice (later dubbed "the best captain I ever had" by legendary Princeton women's squash coach Betty Constable) to the Junior Team Championship. By the end of that 1979-80 season, McConnell had reached her first Open final, the Boodles Squash World Cup Round-Robin, where she lost to just-crowned USSRA Champion Barbara Maltby, whose edge in experience and mental toughness would enable her to defeat McConnell in the Boodles and Nationals finals the following season as well, when she was still a high-school student at Loyola High.

But during the 1981-82 season, when McConnell was a freshman at Penn, Maltby retired to racquetball and doubles, and McConnell swept through the women's schedule, winning the first of her five straight Boodles Opens (later changed to the Chivas Regal Open) in November, the first of her seven straight Carol Weymuller Invitationals at her home club in December, the first of her record seven consecutive USSRA National hardball titles in February and the first of her three straight Intercollegiate Individual crowns in March.

McConnell almost certainly would have emulated her '82 and '85 Nationals final-round victim Gail Ramsay in winning this latter tourney all four of her college years had she not turned pro during her senior year, which rendered her ineligible for that year's competition---but whether she would have been able to extend her run of seven hardball Nationals had she not stopped playing in that event after the 1987-88 season will never be answered. After surviving five-game scares in both the semi-final and final rounds of the '86 event at the University Club of New York against Nina Porter (who led two games to love and took the third game to a tiebreaker) and the British born Sue Cogswell (her chief hardball rival for two mid-1980's seasons, during which she won five of their 12 matches), McConnell then won her sixth and seventh championships in Philadelphia and Denver respectively, both via four-game final-round wins over Holleran, an underclassman at Princeton at the time, who was increasingly emerging as the biggest threat to the dominance McConnell had enjoyed for more than a half-dozen seasons.

The following season, 1988-89, McConnell, who had been increasingly faced with balancing WSPAsoftball pro events in Europe with hardball events in the USA, decided to focus on the softball pro tour and passed up further hardball competition, including that year's Nationals, which took place at Jadwin Gymnasium, Holleran's home turf. McConnell's abdication of the title left the field to Holleran, who mowed four outclassed opponents down without losing a single game, then did the same several weeks later in culminating her sparkling college career by capturing her third Individual Intercollegiate title.

Although McConnell occasionally dabbled with squash singles in between her pursuits first of a pro tennis career and later on the WISPA pro women's softball circuit, her decision not to make a serious return to the hardball game unfortunately meant that USA squash aficionados did not get the enjoyment of witnessing what would have been a riveting rivalry with Holleran, who cruised to six consecutive USSRA hardball crowns, one short of McDonnell's total, which Holleran assuredly would have surpassed had the Women's Hardball Nationals not ceased after the 1993-94 season when, as noted, Holleran captured both the USSRA Singles and Doubles crowns, a parlay no woman had accomplished since Gretchen Spruance did so 17 years before, in 1976-77.

McConnell, who first played on the senior U. S. Women's teams as early as 1983, maintained her presence on these prestigious biennial squads all the way through 1996, when she badly rolled her ankle during a World Team Championships competition in Malaysia and returned home on crutches.

Though the injury healed in a little more than a month's time, she then decided to no longer compete in softball, partly because since '93 she had been the head pro at the Heights Casino club that had been her squash stomping ground, partly because lower back problems had by then become a lingering condition and partly because, at age 33 and with nearly 20 years of competitive squash behind her, she had had her fill of the grueling singles game.

McConnell's record in softball is still unmatched by any American woman. She reached an all-time best (for an American) world softball ranking of 14 (achieved in May 1988, the year she decided to focus on softball) while competing with the likes of Susan Devoy, Michelle Martin (against whom she scored two wins), Lucy Souter, Danielle Drady and other famous figures of the women's softball game.

By the time, McConnell hung up her softball racquet for good, she was a few months removed from the '96 U.S. women's doubles title that she and Holleran had won for the first time the previous spring, when they dethroned the '95 champs Joyce Davenport and Julie Harris, who had also teamed with Ramsay to win the '91 and '92 versions of this event.

Holleran had lost with her younger sister Jenny to Harris and Ramsay in '91 and with Lolly Gillen in the '92 final, when they had straight-gamed Dawn Friedly and Jody Law in the semis, only to lose to this pair in their rematch in the '93 final, following which Gillen underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Holleran played the '94 Women's Nationals with '91 Intercollegiate champion Berkeley Belknap, whose twin sister Mary had been a teammate on the '89 Princeton squad, and they defeated defeated Harris and a toothache-plagued Davenport in a close five-game final.

Unfortunately, the following spring the Pan Am Games was scheduled at the same time as the National Doubles, and with McConnell, Holleran and Belknap all playing in South America, Davenport and Harris surmounted a somewhat diluted field, the ageless 53-year-old Davenport's record ninth title with three different partners and Harris's third. Wary of how formidable and savvy a pairing these two veterans were, and with Belknap by this time relocated to the West Coast, Holleran successfully recruited her erstwhile singles rival McConnell, who had never played in this event since one semi-frivolous foray as a teenager more than a decade earlier.

As noted, McConnell had always evinced a restless curiosity and a tendency to seek new athletic challenges, even during her lengthy time at the top of the women's game. She sometimes seemed bored with her dominance, which is why Cogswell's brief but sturdy challenge was such a godsend for those two years before a serious hip injury incurred in a freak subway accident abruptly removed her from the competitive scene.

McConnell had over the years pursued not only squash and tennis, but also field hockey, lacrosse, basketball and break-dancing, and had excelled at all of them. When the call came from Holleran to play in the '96 National Doubles, she was only too eager to take on another adventure and the new life to her squash career that it represented. The '96 win was consolidated in a final-round rematch one year later, which was followed in a '98 final over Chai and Phoebe Trubowitz and by a successive pair of final-round wins first over the Belknap twins, Mary and Berkeley, in '99 and 2000 and then over Chai and Jerome during the last two years.

Only the aforementioned 2001 final in Portland required a fifth game, and the dominant 15-6, 15-6 fashion with which they responded to the rare two games to one deficit confronting them on that occasion suggests that misplaced concentration had at least as much to do with that circumstance as anything else.

Their firepower, both offensively and defensively, is simply much more than any other team has been able to handle throughout this seven-year (and counting) run. In classic doubles fashion, McConnell supplies enough pace from her right-wall position to force defensive responses and lots of open court, which Holleran's host of delicate front-court placements invariably exploit. McConnell seems to revel in the athleticism the considerable expanse of a doubles court elicits, and she frequently crosses over to cover short balls in her partner's territory, almost as if she has an appetite to hit the ball that cannot be slaked merely with balls hit to her region of the court. Holleran, by contrast, scores in quieter fashion, operating less like a kid let loose in a candy store and more like an expert but dispassionate surgeon, or perhaps like a dinner guest discreetly pocketing her host's best silverware, though that latter analogy should not occlude Holleran's well-deserved reputation as the fairest of competitors.

Demer Considers Her Future Directions
Both women have shown great respect for each other in their years as a doubles team. McConnell seems to keep much better control of her occasionally wander-prone concentration in doubles than she ever did during her singles career, partly no doubt from the maturing effect of the years but also clearly out of a sense of obligation to her partner. When Holleran injured her foot during the 2000 Mixed Doubles event in the Worlds competition in Philadelphia, she was forced to withdraw from the Women's event, leaving McConnell stranded and unable to win with the substitute partner she grabbed at the last minute. Mindful of the ramifications of that mishap, Holleran has decided this year to only play in the Women's event next week so as not to risk a recurrence of the unfortunate situation that arose two years ago.

The one time they played against each other in doubles during this period was in McConnell's only participation in the USSRA Mixed Doubles in '97, when she teamed with Eric Vlcek against Holleran and Butcher, who defeated them in a somewhat contentious four-game match marked by a physical battle for positioning between the two women on the right wall, especially in the pivotal and very close second game after Vlcek and McConnell had easily taken the first. McConnell had been playing brilliantly early on, and her distress both at this contact and especially at a referee's decision upholding an extraordinary Holleran retrieval of an apparently point-winning McConnell reverse-corner on a crucial point late in that game caused a rare tempestuous outburst followed by a noticeable accompanying drop in her level of play during the third and final fourth games, both of which Butcher and Holleran won convincingly to seal another in their run of titles in this specialized competitive realm.

Though there does not seem to be any lingering rancor from that one confrontation, what happened that day, combined with the dominance they showed in this year's Women's Doubles, does make one wonder what would happen if and when they split up as a team and continue with other partners.

It is probably the most compelling sign of the greatness each has long since realized in their intertwined competitive careers that the most exciting matches that potentially lie ahead of them, and the highest sense of fulfillment each can attain in what remains of their doubles careers, might require their playing AGAINST rather than with each other and thereby transferring to the doubles arena the rivalry that ended almost before it really began in singles, more than a decade ago. Whether such a substantial adjustment is in the cards obviously remains to be seen.

Holleran displayed a degree of heroism in her and Butcher's most recent USSRA Mixed triumph that she was never forced to attain in the Women's event when Butcher pulled a calf muscle late in their quarterfinal match. This mishap and the marked reduction in Butcher's mobility that it created forced Holleran to cover all of her injured partner's back-court territory as well as the entire right wall in subsequent wins over a pair of outstanding alignments, the Portland-based team of Trubowitz and Tony Catalan, against whom they went from 6-6 to 14-6, 15-8 in the fifth game of the semis after letting a match-point opportunity slip away in the fourth, and Doug Lifford and Chai in the final, which they won in a competitive four.

Holleran's versatility in playing the right wall as brilliantly in this tournament as she had played the left wall two weeks earlier in the Women's event is another sign of the grandeur of her game, as were the host of winners she hit in the crucial moments from all sectors of the court and the way she rose to conquer the exigencies posed by her partner's injury. Her combined total of 27 total USSRA Open titles (eight Doubles, eight Mixed Doubles, six hardball and five softball) is way ahead of anyone else's, male or female, while McConnell's tally of 15 (seven Doubles, seven hardball, one softball) trails only Holleran's. Whatever their considerable differences in style and personality, the excellence both have attained in all disciplines of squash has been their most salient shared characteristic, and one that they seem likely to continue to display for many victorious seasons to come.

WOMEN'S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIPS SUMMARY: Alicia McConnell and Demer Holleran' Seven Titles

1996 def Julie Harris/Joyce Davenport
1997 def Julie Harris/Joyce Davenport
1998 def Phoebe Trubowitz/Jessie Chai
1999 def Berkeley Belknap/ Mary Belknap McKee
2000 def Berkeley Belknap/ Mary Belknap McKee
2001 def Karen Jerome/Jessie Chai
2002 def Karen Jerome/Jessie Chai

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