A History Of The Atlantic Coast Championships

by Rob Dinerman

July 4, 2001  -"Match Point" was the way the managers of Atlantic City's venerable Resorts Squash Club billed their farewell party, and finding a more fitting sobriquet would be an almost impossible task for a facility whose pair of fabled and delightfully eccentric courts have probably hosted more match points, and certainly hosted them at more disparate times of the day or night, than those of any other club in the world.

More than 125 die-hard loyalists, most of them either members of the club or longtime attendees of the longest continuously running hardball invitational, the Atlantic Coast Championships, turned out on the evening of June 23 to bid a fond but wistful good-bye to a cherished and soon-to-be-departing friend and linchpin of the American hardball game.

Master of Ceremonies Jim Copsey, who has been actively involved in organizing this tournament for more than 30 of its 59 consecutive annual editions, gave an emotional speech from the spacious gallery, in which he singled out some of the club's longest-serving members (like the 80-year-old Bob Gill, who has played there for the past 35 years, and the much-beloved Paul Karch, who was first a club member and then the pro from 1946 until his death in 1992) and cited a few of the highlights of the Invitational's history

And what highlights they were! In its tenured position on the third weekend in January, the event became a major cog in the crucial stretch of amateur invitationals that during the hardball sport's glory days culminated in mid-February with the U. S. National Championships.

Perched between the early-January William White event at the Merion Cricket Club and the month-concluding Harry Cowles tourney at the Harvard Club of New York, the Atlantic Coast Championships provided not only a competitive and prestigious challenge in its own right but also an important bridge between these two well-spaced aforementioned events, thereby enabling the top contenders and the rest of the field to create or sustain impetus for the big push to the Nationals.

There are in fact a number of instances in which the Atlantic Coast winners rode their momentum to victories in the Cowles or the Nationals, or both.

There were also several occasions in which a budding star had his much-awaited breakthrough performance in the Resorts International Hotel's top-floor venue---in 1979, for example, Penn junior Ned Edwards, whose noteworthy firepower had elicited high expectations which he had never to that point been able to fulfill, saved a total of six fifth-game quarter-final match-points against '76 Champion (and '77 and '78 finalist)David Page, gratefully accepted a fortuitous wood winner on simultaneous match-point, surmounted a 2-1 deficit in the semis the following morning against the favored (and '77 titlist) John Bottger and romped through the final to record his first significant title.

Buoyed by this result, Ned dominated Bottger (three single-figure games) in the semis of the Cowles en route to also winning that title, and his marvelous career was thus truly launched. North American Open Champion, three-time winner of the Boston Open, perennial No. 2 ranking on the WPSA Pro Tour---it all began in the boisterous confines of the Atlantic City courts.

That rowdiness had a certain charm to it as well, constituting as it did a kind of refreshingly earthy interlude between the much more sedate and structured circumstances that invariably attended most of the other invitationals, nearly all of which were hosted by exclusive private clubs, with whites-only ambiance to match. By contrast with the foregoing, in Atlantic City the jockeying for the next available court was more overt, the galleries noisier and more emotive, the referees somehow a little more vocally involved, the play more overtly physical and competitive and the entire atmosphere more viscerally charged.

 It was almost as though the rough edges of the city itself were able to impose themselves on the tenor of the action on court, ripping away the veneer of forced courtesies, a welcome respite for many, a contrast similar in tone to that in major-tournament tennis between Wimbledon and the U. S. Open.

This dissonance was doubtless abetted both by the round-the-clock continuity of play that characterized the period between late Friday afternoon and early Saturday evening (necessitated by the presence of 100+ entrants having to forge their competitive destinies on only two courts) and by the state of the courts themselves, which were usually quite warm (hard to lay the ball down) and exceptionally gritty (good for the traction, bad for those seeking a predictable or consistent bounce, very bad for the ripped-open skin of those who dove or fell).

If a vote were ever taken among squash aficionados as to which squash courts anywhere in the world came closest to recreating the dynamics that prevailed in the gladiator's pits of the Roman Coliseum, there is no doubt that the Resorts courts would win in a walk---and that the voters would feel that they were HONORING the club with their vote rather than in any way denigrating it.

In the last 25 years alone, there were a plethora of significant results that became conversation-pieces during the subsequent summer and benchmarks of the tournament's already-swollen legacy. In addition to the Edwards breakthrough these included: a three-year appearance by the WPSA Pro Tour from 1979-81, with Sharif Khan winning the first two finals (reprising his '71 U. S. Pro title-winning march on these courts) but losing in the '81 semi to Gordy Anderson., who, as he did all too often during this period following his wins over Sharif, Gordy lost in the ensuing match, this time to an opportunistic Stu Goldstein, for whom this would turn out to be the last title of his WPSA career; twilight-of-their-career performances by Michael Pierce and Scott Ryan, both of whom had vainly vied for the championship for several decades (in Ryan's case beginning when he was an underclassman at Navy in the early 60's) and each of whom finally gained their coveted victory at a time when it seemed well beyond their reach; David Page winning the '76 final over older brother Palmer Page, losing the '78 final to younger brother Tom Page, with John Bottger defeating BOTH Palmer and David in winning the interceding '77 tourney; Gil Mateer continuing this family theme by adding a pair of Atlantic Coast championships in the 80's to the septet his father Diehl annexed a few decades earlier; and Tom Harrity seeing his mid-90's bid for a what would have been a record fifth consecutive title fall one agonizing point short when he lost the '97 final by that excruciating margin to Rob Hill, who one month later would punctuate this achievement by winning the first of his three straight Nationals.

All of these noteworthy moments, plus a horde of others we are prevented by space considerations from enumerating, played an important role in the history of the American hardball game during the past six decades --- a history the organizers of this Championship are determined to continue to contribute to by moving the event to the new Shore Club at nearby Somers Point and holding it, still as a hardball event, on their thirty-inch-wider softball courts, possibly with a doubles competition thrown in as well.

But everyone recognizes that the flavor and distinct character that has permeated this event and this venue can never be truly replicated. The Atlantic Press eloquently summarized the (more bitter than sweet) bittersweet circumstances of this club's "farewell tour" and "Match Point" festivities, when it concluded its front-page article on the club's imminent demise by describing two of the club's old-timers walking off the court after a work-out thusly: "It is a walk they took many times over the past 36 years. A walk they will no longer do. Game over."

This first appeared on squashtalk.com

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