A History Of The ISDA Tour: A Ten-Match Anthology
By Rob Dinerman

August 15, 2010 -As the ISDA tour, which was founded in January 2000, kicks off the first full season of its second decade of existence in the autumn of 2010, it seems timely to salute this milestone with a history piece that focuses on 10 matches --- culled by logistical necessity from a list that could have run two or three times as long --- that stand out not only for the quality of squash and significance of the occasion, but also for the role they came to play as markers in the tour's development. The first of these selected matches occurred during the tour's inaugural 2000-01 season, while the last finished off the 2009-10 campaign this past spring. As it happens, both matches involved a former North American Open Doubles champion persevering their way to an unprecedented achievement. But what this pair of matches, like the eight in between, really share is the quality of having played or highlighted some important role in the tour's ongoing evolution.

No. 1 Giant-Killers
Wilmington Country Club, January 5, 2001

U. S. Pro Quarterfinal: Scott Stoneburgh/Anders Wahlstedt d. Gary Waite/Damien Mudge, 12-15 15-10 15-10 9-15 15-8.

At the time of this historic-in-several-ways result in suburban Wilmington top seeds and defending champions Gary Waite and his fellow University Club of New York pro Damien Mudge had an unblemished 12-for-12 run as partners, having built on their undefeated 1999-2000 record by barging through the fall 2000 portion of the schedule and overwhelming their increasingly intimidated opponents under an avalanche of powerful blasts from both flanks. They were therefore viewed by many to be unbeatable, while by contrast Scott Stoneburgh and Anders Wahlstedt, five years removed from their 1996 North American Open crown (their attempted title defense in '97 was stymied by Waite and Mark Talbott on simultaneous-championship-point), had been forced to win two qualifying matches just to earn their way into the Wilmington main draw, which was regarded as the outward limit of their capacity for advancement in this event, given their compassion-less first-round Waite/Mudge assignment.
However, the pair of preliminary-round matches had given Stoneburgh and Wahlstedt both some momentum and a level of familiarity with the Wilmington courts, whose cooler-than-normal temperatures and tendency to “play slow” reward the shot-making skills that this pair possessed, while mitigating, at least somewhat, the fearsome Waite/Mudge power game. All of this, plus some sluggish mid-match play by the top seeds and a few rashes of tins from Mudge (who had returned just days earlier from several weeks' vacation in his native Australia), enabled Stoneburgh and Wahlstedt to earn a two games to one advantage. Alarmed by the hole they unexpectedly found themselves in, Waite and Mudge took the fourth game, but even in doing so they never seemed to be fully in control, and when Stoneburgh and Wahlstedt sharp-shot their way to a sizable lead midway through the fifth, spurred on by the enticing opportunity in front of them and by considerable support from the gallery, they closed out the game 15-8 and hence came away with a monumental upset win.

The outcome had a galvanizing impact on both teams, immediately in the case of Stoneburgh and Wahlstedt, who went on to defeat David Kay and Josh McDonald in the semis and second seeds Jamie Bentley and Willie Hosey in a four-game final, thereby becoming the first – and still the only --- qualifying team to ever win an ISDA tournament. The disarray that had characterized the Waite/Mudge effort on that misadventurous Friday evening was compounded less than a week later when Mudge sustained a disabling injury to his left (non-playing) wrist while rollerblading on a mid-town Manhattan sidewalk, necessitating the insertion of a supportive pin into the area and sidelining him for the Boston tournament two weeks later (in which Waite teamed up for the first and only time with Wahlstedt to win the event without dropping a game) and for the next several months. But when Mudge finally was able to return to action just in time for the season-ending Kellner Cup in April, he and Waite would erupt on a winning streak that wouldn't end until 22 months, 24 tournaments and 76 matches had passed, all three of which are records that, barring an absolute miracle, will never be approached, much less equaled.

No. 2 Double Trouble
Heights Casino Club, February 24, 2002

David C. Johnson Memorial Final: Gary Waite/Damien Mudge d. Michael Pirnak/David Kay, 14-15 15-11 15-14 15-10.

Perhaps the closest that Waite and Mudge came to defeat in their wire-to-wire 2001-2002 spotless slate came in late February in the 64th edition of the “Johnson,” held as always in the venerable three-story Heights Casino brick structure on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, diagonally across the street from the Bossert Hotel, where the Brooklyn Dodgers had celebrated their lone World Series victory over the Yankees in 1955. An achievement of nearly equal dimension was almost engineered by Michael Pirnak and Kay, who throughout that weekend had teamed up with a degree of cohesiveness that belied the fact that this was the first time they had ever been partners. This was especially true earlier that Sunday morning, when they had solidly out-played second seeds Hosey and Viktor Berg, while Waite and Mudge had encountered considerably more difficulty in their balancing four-game semifinal against Blair Horler and Clive Leach.

By the time the final began, Waite was understandably having second thoughts about his ambitious pre-weekend decision to go for a singles/doubles “double” by also playing in the concomitant U. S. National Hardball Singles championship, which was being held at the Harvard Club in mid-town Manhattan, and which had required him to play four-time S. L Green champion Marty Clark (whom Waite handily defeated) in the final round in between his Johnson semifinal and final matches. The Pirnak/Kay match was therefore Waite's third of the day and sixth of the weekend, during which he had compounded his burden by coming down with a bad head cold. His and Mudge's cause was further set back when Pirnak (who with Berg had won the '01 Johnson tourney) and Kay (appearing in his first-ever ISDA final and hence motivated by the prospect of possibly gaining his first such title) took the first game by one point and, after dropping the second, played their way into a 13-all, no-set third-game tiebreaker, the first point of which they earned on an accidental but nick-finding Pirnak forehand reverse three-wall. At that double-game-ball stage of the third game, Pirnak and Kay appeared to be younger, stronger, healthier, hungrier and even luckier than their besieged foes, and very much on the cusp of taking what would have been a two games to one lead.
But Kay first tinned a perhaps over-anxious forehand three-wall and was then (controversially) denied a let on a Waite shallow cross-court that did find a front-right semi-nick but which Kay appeared to have a chance to retrieve. Stung by this reversal but still carrying the action, Kay and Pirnak forged their way to a 10-7 lead in the fourth, again poised to take the game and maybe the match as well --- only to then fall victim to an out-of-the-blue match-ending 8-0 Waite/Mudge run that for the second time in as many games graphically depicted the ability that The Champs displayed throughout their record-shattering eight-year partnership to come up with the goods even when they were struggling and even when everything seemed to be going against them.
This Brooklyn final both facilitated the eventual Waite/Mudge undefeated 2001-02 campaign (launching in the process a Mudge Johnson-winning consecutive-years streak that has now reached a record nine straight) and also established Kay and Pirnak as instant contenders, a standing they would fully live up to throughout the subsequent spring 2002, during which they reached the finals in Buffalo, Chicago, Denver and St. Louis before being derailed not by an on-court defeat but by Kay's September '02 ruptured right Achilles tendon, which sidelined him for virtually the entire remainder of that 2002-03 season and forced Pirnak to find another partner.

No. 3 Breakthrough
Racquet & Tennis Club, April 28, 2003

Kellner Cup Final: Blair Horler/Clive Leach d. Gary Waite/Damien Mudge, 11-15 14-15 15-10 15-9 15-13.

After surviving the foregoing stiff challenge from Pirnak and Kay, Waite and Mudge, as noted, proceeded unchecked through the remainder of that 2001-02 campaign as well as the first several months of 2002-03, though increasingly showing signs of vulnerability, particularly against Blair Horler and Clive Leach, perhaps the only team on the tour able at the time to go toe-to-toe with them in terms of generating both pace and interpersonal enmity. As the early 2000's moved along and the Horler/Leach duo inexorably advanced from qualifying-round losers at the outset of the decade to final-round-reaching contenders, they commandeered the respect, as well as to some extent the mutual dislike, of their leading nemesis, to the point where the matches between these two teams became torrid clashes with lots of heat and very high entertainment value.

Horler's powerful bulk and lethal backhand power were a perfect complement to Leach's exceptional all-around game and creativity, and they kept getting closer and closer, all the way to simultaneous-match-ball in the late-January 2003 North American Open semis. They lost that point on a Waite blast down the middle that just eluded Horler's diving retrieval attempt (after which Waite and Mudge won an anticlimactic final against Hosey and Pirnak), but by the time the Horler/Leach and Waite/Mudge tandems met the next time in early February at the Mayfair Club in suburban Toronto, a Horler/Leach breakthrough had become almost inevitable, and it came in that Canadian Pro final in almost routine fashion, 15-8 in the fourth. Waite and Mudge avenged that loss a few weeks later in Chicago, but Horler and Leach kept flexing their muscles by winning the Creek Challenge Cup in Long Island, which Waite missed due to the impending birth of his and wife Natalie's third child, and in which Mudge (playing with Preston Quick, who reached his first career final that weekend) incurred a match-ending concussion late in the final round's second game.

The 2003 Kellner Cup two weeks later therefore represented an opportunity both for Waite/Mudge to re-assert their superiority by winning this prestigious title for the fourth straight time, and for Horler/Leach, quarterfinal losers the prior two years in this event, to build upon tournament wins in Toronto and Long Island and, more importantly, to consolidate their Canadian Pro victory over Mudge and Waite. In the white-hot glare of the New York Racquet & Tennis Club forum and playing before a roaring and enthusiastic crowd shoehorned into every available crevice of the gallery, Waite and Mudge surged through the first game 15-11 and escaped with the simultaneous-game-ball second when Mudge uncharacteristically tried a forehand reverse-corner serve-return at 14-all and buried it for a winner. Surprisingly unfazed at being forced into a two-love deficit by such an unexpected and potentially disheartening salvo, Leach and Horler not only dominated the third and fourth games, mercilessly working a visibly-embattled Waite front and back, but bullied their way to a 14-10 lead in the fifth game as well.

However, Mudge crushed a forehand cross-court winner (his cross-court battle with Horler all night was nothing short of epic, fast-ball pitcher vs. home run hitter, with both players alternating in both roles), Horler hit a tin, Waite nicked a three-wall, and suddenly it was 13-14. What would have been a mind-bending tiebreaker seemed imminent, but any thoughts on what would have transpired were summarily truncated when Horler, undeterred by his error a few points back, came up with a perfectly-struck tin-defying backhand reverse-corner that an out-positioned Waite had no chance of tracking down to close out the 15-13 fifth-game classic. This result give rise to a summer spent speculating as to whether Horler and Leach, clearly the hottest, baddest team on the circuit, would carry their winter/spring '03 run forward and displace Mudge and Waite at No. 1.

It was not to be. After getting off to a slow start in autumn '03 (including losing in the first round to qualifiers Alex Pavulans and Chris Deratnay in an early-season tilt in Baltimore), Horler and Leach were just righting themselves in January, reaching the final of the North American Open, when a devastating right knee injury befell Horler, requiring midseason surgery, sidelining him for months thereafter and eventually bringing his career, which was right in its prime at the time of the injury, to a premature end barely two years later. Suddenly deprived in this disquieting fashion of his power-hitting partner, Leach extemporized his way through the remainder of that 2003-04 season, actually teaming with Hosey to win the inaugural Big Apple Open that spring via a 3-0 final-round defeat of Mudge and a wrist-injured Waite, who however recovered fully in time for himself and Mudge to regain their Kellner Cup title (with a blow-out three-game final over Berg and McDonald) one week thereafter.
Ultimately, Horler and Leach had too small a body of work to be considered one of the great all-time doubles teams --- but what they accomplished in Toronto, Long Island and New York during that adrenalized 12-week span in the winter/spring of 2003 has been equaled by very few teams in the history of the ISDA, and at the very least it provides an tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

No. 4 Landscaping
New York Athletic Club, November 7, 2005

Big Apple Open Final: Preston Quick/Ben Gould d. Gary Waite/Damien Mudge, 18-16 9-15 15-9 15-14.

After successfully repulsing the Horler/Leach threat, Waite and Mudge proceeded to go undefeated through the 2004-05 season, the third and last time (preceded by 1999-2000 and 2001-02) that they would go wire-to-wire through an entire tour without losing a single match, and the last time to date that any team has been able to accomplish the feat, or, for that matter, has come even close to doing so. They then began the 2005-06 season by winning the Maryland Club Open, defeating Quick and Ben Gould in straight sets in the final and extending their undefeated streak to 19 consecutive tournaments and 64 consecutive matches won. Quick and Gould had reached five finals in 2004-05, their first season as partners, hence were zero for six in finals entering the Big Apple Open in New York in early November (and zero for 11 against Waite/Mudge overall), and neither player had ever won an ISDA tournament to that point in their careers with any other partner either.
But from 5-10 in the first game of their Big Apple semifinal against Hosey and Horler, Quick and Gould rallied to a tiebreaker win en route to a 3-0 advance to the final, where they faced a Waite/Mudge pairing that had barely emerged from their own semi, in which they had trailed Berg and '01 British Open finalist Chris Walker two games to love before grimly bootstrapping their way through in five. They then let leads of 7-1 and 12-9 get away in the first game of the final, which was resolved by a best-of-nine tiebreaker in which after six evenly divided points Quick delivered first a hard serve that hit a flummoxed Waite in the ribs and then a backhand cross-court that nicked on the right wall before Mudge could react. Even after then losing the second game and dropping the first four points of the third, Quick and Gould ripped off a 12-1 hot streak that not only gave them the third game but helped carry them as well to 14-11 in the fourth.

Waite and Mudge were experiencing all sorts of difficulties, including with their racquets (!), several of which either broke (including once when Waite's racquet smashed Mudge's on a play down the middle in which both of them simultaneously swung) or had strings pop, creating a situation in which by the end of that game both of them were using racquets they had borrowed from spectators in the gallery. Equipment malfunction, aroused opponents and daunting deficit notwithstanding, they still had one last prideful rally in them, with a Waite drop-shot winner, a Quick over-hit out of court and a shallow Waite backhand reverse-corner that eluded a diving Quick to even the score at 14-all. Winning a fifth game after failing to convert triple-championship-point might well have been beyond the Quick/Gould capabilities, but Gould rendered that point moot when on the ensuing no-set call he nailed a cross-court serve-return at such a wicked, shallow angle that it died well in front of Waite to finish off the 18-16 9-15 15-9 15-14 tally.

Buoyed by their landscape-changing triumph (which they came within one point of duplicating in the Toronto final six days later before Quick tinned what would have been a winning overhead volley at 17-all in the fifth), Quick and Gould would go on to early-January titles in Wilmington and Boston, and even briefly held the No. 1 position in the ISDA rankings before Waite and Mudge regained it with a powerful second half of the season. The latter team, after barely (as noted) getting their revenge in Toronto, decided they needed an unprecedented several-months' break from the tour in order to regroup, which they emphatically did when they resurfaced in time to win their seventh (and last) North American Open title in Greenwich in late January and dominate the remainder of the 2005-06 tour in what would prove to be their last run of sustained excellence.

No. 5 Launch-Pad
Creek Club, April 7, 2006

Creek Challenge Cup Quarterfinals: Scott Butcher/Clive Leach d. Preston Quick/Ben Gould, 15-12 4-15 9-15 15-14 15-7.

Most of that aforementioned Waite/Mudge undefeated surge throughout the spring of 2006 was immensely hard-earned and came in the teeth of superb opponents playing at their peak and in several instances forcing The Champs to five games. The lone exception to this pattern occurred in early April in their Creek Challenge Cup final, which essentially ended before it began when Walker, who with partner Viktor Berg had defeated Waite/Mudge in an early-February Cleveland semi at the Tavern Club en route to capturing that event and who had earned their way into the Creek final, was undone by a freak but severe thumb injury while bowling at a local alley on Saturday evening after the semis. This accident rendered him unable to grip his racquet or hit the ball with any accuracy or authority in the 15-5, 6 and 8 walkthrough that ensued on Sunday afternoon.

The irony is that the early rounds of that tournament had been filled with upsets and down-to-the-wire contests, with three of the quarterfinals going the five-game limit. The most noteworthy of these had been between the Quick/Gould duo, which had had (as noted directly above) such an explosive first half of the season, and the team of Leach and Scott Butcher. The latter pairing had only formed in February, by which part of that 2005-06 season Leach had reached the Cambridge Club final with Quick and the Boston final with Pirnak, while Butcher had shuttled between four different partners in his first five events without clearing the quarterfinal round. Despite a solid two months in which they had pushed Waite/Mudge to a fifth game in a Brooklyn semi and reached the U. S. Nationals semis with a convincing 3-1 win over Walker and Berg, Leach and Butcher were not expected to advance past the quarters in Long Island, given their placement at that juncture against Quick and Gould, who after losing the first game, had won both the second and third in single figures and seemed safely in the saddle when they advanced to 14-11 in the fourth.

At this stage, Butcher and Leach saved three match-balls-against, eliciting a no-set call from their opponents that seemed to have a panicky feel to it, in the wake of which Butcher cleanly passed Gould with a backhand cross-court winner, presaging a never-in-doubt 15-7 fifth game for Leach and Butcher over the reeling second seeds. This reversal would mark the beginning of a swift curtain for Quick and Gould, who would then similarly fail to convert a multiple-match-ball advantage (2-0, 14-13 vs. Walker/Berg, who won both the fourth and fifth 15-7) shortly thereafter in a Kellner Cup semi, following which they ended their partnership. Conversely, though Butcher and Leach would lose their Creek semi to Walker/Berg (3-2 quarters winners over 2000 British Open finalist and former PSA No. 4 Paul Price and Jamie Bentley), they would use their rallying win over Gould and Quick as a launch-pad to a praiseworthy Kellner Cup performance, in which they thrashed Jonathon Power/Mark Chaloner and Pirnak/Hosey and posted consecutive 15-5 scores over Waite/Mudge in the third and fourth games of the semis before losing the fifth. Butcher and Leach would then have an excellent 2006-07 tour together, including reaching the final of both the Cambridge Club event and the U. S. Nationals (featuring an 18-17 fifth-game semi in which they saved three match-balls-against in that best-of-nine tiebreaker against Hosey/Gould) before Butcher returned to his native Australia in autumn of 2007.

No. 6 Turf War
Field Club of Greenwich, January 14, 2007

North American Open Final: Paul Price/Ben Gould d. Gary Waite/Damien Mudge, 11-15 6-15 18-16 15-13 15-11.

As strong as the Butcher/Leach 2006-07 season was, it would have been even better if they had been able to win their portion of a pair of frenetic North American Open semifinals that thrilled a packed gallery at the Greenwich Country Club on the second weekend in January and set the stage for perhaps the defining match of that entire campaign. Their opponents in that semi, Price and Gould, had thrown the doubles squash world for a loop with an October surge through the season-opening Baltimore and Big Apple Open events, defeating Waite and Mudge first in a four-game semi (preceding a final-round win in Maryland against Quick and John Russell) and then in a devastating 15-11, 11 and 7 final which made them both the first team to beat Waite and Mudge twice in a row and the first team other than Waite/Mudge to ever win two ISDA tournaments in a row. Waite and Mudge had then responded by winning in Vancouver (which Gould missed to take care of some family obligations) and Wilmington, where Price defaulted late in the semis with their opponents, Berg and Walker, ahead 2-0, 12-7.

This undulating backdrop placed a tremendous amount of importance on the mid-January North American Open, historically the most coveted title in doubles squash on this continent to begin with, and the one which seven-time champions Waite and Mudge had always defended with the utmost determination. The Waite/Mudge vs. Price/Gould Sunday summit which everyone was so ardently anticipating only came about when each of these top two seeds rallied from two games to one down in their respective semis. Tied at 9-all in the fifth against '06 finalists Walker and Berg, Waite and Mudge closed it out with a 6-2 run in which all six winners came from the 40-year-old Waite, while, by contrast, Price and Gould saw a 14-10 fifth-game lead over Butcher and Leach completely evaporate, necessitating a best-of-five tiebreaker which almost inevitably seesawed to simultaneous-match-point before a Gould cross-court that died in front of a backpedaling Butcher finally resolved the issue and ensured the dream match-up in the final.

This was really a classic case of the proud and endlessly decorated longtime champions attempting to hold their turf against the insurgence of a hot and hungry challenger in the harsh crucible of perhaps the sport's most important proving ground, and early on it was Waite and Mudge who were seizing the moment with a 7-1 run from 8-11 that not only gave them that first game but carried them through a one-sided 15-6 second. Gone was the tentative play that had plagued them 11 weeks earlier in their sub-par Big Apple Open final, and as the third game moved tensely along they came closer and closer to adding yet another North American Open crown to their impressive collection. Price, irked by some refereeing calls that had gone against him, was tinning, Gould was unable to impose his game, and Waite and Mudge held 13-12 leads in both the third and fourth games, just two points from victory in each case.
After losing the third game in the maximum (i.e. best-of nine) tiebreaker, they opted instead for the minimum (best-of-three) in the fourth, on the first point of which Mudge daringly went for a volley backhand drop shot that likely would have put his team at double-championship-point (with Price stuck way in back) had it not barely caught the top of the tin. Emboldened by this turn of fortune, Price then successfully buried a drop shot in front of a boxed-out Waite to even the issue, and he and Gould forged small but consistent leads (of 4-1, 7-3 and 9-6) throughout the fifth game which Waite and Mudge, who were just a little too spent and deflated to ever quite make it over the hump, were unable to overcome. They drew to 11-13, whereupon Gould rifled a forehand winner down the middle and Waite tried a cross-court drop that almost had a despairing quality to it and that Gould would have swallowed up had it not first hit the tin to conclude the forced-transfer-of-power 12-15 6-15 18-16 15-13 15-11 tally.
This outcome gave a legitimacy and permanence to the Price/Gould ascent to the No. 1 standing that had theretofore been lacking, and which they accentuated several weeks later by defeating Waite and Mudge in four games in the final of the Briggs Cup at Apawamis. Waite and Mudge would close out their glorious run by winning their milestone 75th ISDA title (more than triple the total of any other team) in Brooklyn, where they defeated Price and Gould in a straight-set final, and their 76th in the season-ending Creek Challenge Cup in April, following which Waite announced his retirement and Mudge switched both walls and partners, enormously successfully in both cases, as future passages of this chronicle will detail. Their record in North American Open competition will never be challenged both for its quality and its longevity, but this '07 final, where they twice came so close to winning but which they ultimately surrendered, will be remembered as their last stand.

No. 7 Back From The Dead
Racquet Club of St. Louis, October 14, 2007

St. Louis Semifinal: Chris Walker/Clive Leach d. Paul Price/Ben Gould, 10-15 12-15 17-14 17-14 15-8.

It is a tribute to the extreme longevity of the Waite/Mudge reign that their successors' time at the top seemed so ephemeral. After wresting the No. 1 standing from its seven-year captivity, Price and Gould were deservedly regarded as the best team in the sport entering the 2007-08 season-opening tour stop in St. Louis, where this pair of Australian contemporaries confidently moved to an imposing 2-0, 14-9 semifinal lead over the newly formed English pairing of former PSA No. 4 Walker and Leach, seemingly home free for a spot in the final against Mudge and Hosey. The latter was pinch-hitting for Berg, whom Mudge had chosen to become his right-wall partner during the intervening summer but who had pulled a hamstring muscle shortly before the St. Louis tournament, and they had eked out a win over Quick and Russell in four games (the last two of which were one-pointers) in their semifinal.

No one in the arena would have expected the stunning turnaround in the top-half semifinal that began in the form of an 8-0 game-saving Walker/Leach third-game spurt (five straight match-balls-against repelled), continued through a 17-14 fourth game and a never-looking-back 15-8 fifth, then culminated in a 16-15 (on a feathery Leachbackhand drop shot to the front-right nick) 15-7 15-8 final at the expense of Mudge and Hosey, who switched walls to begin the third game in a desperate and futile attempt to reverse the unstoppable Walker/Leach charge to the tape.

The momentum engendered by the British pair through their back-from-the-dead heroics in Missouri was enough to engulf the field one week later in Maryland, where they would again surmount a deficit against Price/Gould, this time in the final, to record their second consecutive tournament win. Price and Gould, semis winners over Russell and Quick while the eventual champs were subduing Mudge and a still-subpar Berg, managed to earn a two games to one lead in the final, only to be out-played 15-12, 15-11 in the last two games. By the end, Price and Gould were frustrated enough by this second straight late-match slump against the same adversary only seven days apart to take their anger out on their respective racquets --- Gould hurled his racquet 40 feet to the front wall after his tin at 9-13 effectively sealed his team's imminent defeat, while Price smashed his in the alcove just outside the court in the match's immediate aftermath (an act clearly audible to the gallery), where its splintered shards lay until they were swept up by a janitor several hours later.

Walker and Leach would advance to three subsequent finals (in Chicago, Toronto and Boston) during their 2007-08 season together before each would move on to a different partner. But the Mudge/Berg and Price/Gould duos, both of whom had lost to Walker/Leach in successive rounds on the white-painted floor of the exhibition court at the Maryland Club, would subsequently embark on perhaps the most enduring, intriguing and evenly matched rivalry in the history of the ISDA, a three-year back-and-forth that has landed one or the other in the winner's circle of every one of the 34 (equally divided, 17 each) full-ranking tour stops since Baltimore '07.

No. 8 Epic Struggle
Racquet & Tennis Club, April 28, 2008

Kellner Cup Final: Damien Mudge/Viktor Berg d. Paul Price/Ben Gould, 10-15 15-9 10-15 16-15 16-13.

This rivalry steadily heated up as the 2007-08 campaign, Mudge/Berg's first as teammates and Price/Gould's second, moved along. Price and Gould recovered from their aforementioned pair of disconcerting October losses to Walker and Leach by taking three of the following four events, while Mudge and Berg, after taking most of the fall months to get themselves squared away (and for Berg to regain full trust in his injured right leg while Mudge was getting comfortable in his new spot on the left wall), caught fire right around Thanksgiving, attaining the finals of all eight ISDA events from mid-November to the late-April Kellner Cup, winning six of them, two of which, in Greenwich and Brooklyn, came at the final-round expense of Price and Gould.

Each team came into the final week of the season knowing that by winning (and ONLY by winning) the Kellner Cup it would both clinch the No. 1 end-of-season team ranking and come away with that season's most lucrative winner's check and one of its most coveted trophies. Both semifinals were challenging tests --- Mudge/Berg were forced to a second-set tiebreaker by Russell/Quick and Price/Gould trailed Walker/Leach 10-7 in the fourth before their 8-1 close-out dash to 15-12 --- but both were at full strength for the final. At least they were at full strength for the BEGINNING of the final, during the course of which, however, both left-wall players rolled their ankles, Price when his feet got tangled with Mudge's in the fourth game, and Mudge when he went over on the side of his foot in the fifth. There were a number of other tension-building play stoppages as well (several balls broke; there were a number of urgent between-point partner consultations; the floor often had to be toweled off on this humid, rainy evening; the between-games breaks usually well exceeded the two-minute scheduled time span; and several of referee Larry Sconzo's calls were disputed by the players, though his decisions were almost always sustained by the line judges), all of which gave the lengthy evening a kind of dislocating quality as the match progressed erratically but rivetingly along to its conclusion.

The play itself among these remarkably contemporaneous (all being at the time more than six months past their 30th birthday, with none yet having attained his 32nd) and athletically gifted superstars, though always high-paced, alternated between bursts of brilliance and occasional miscues (the tin count was fairly high, especially at the very end, as we will see), which consequently led to wild swings in momentum. If the first three games (the first and third of which went to Price/Gould) were entertaining and engrossing, it must be said that ultimately they served mostly as a prelude for the terrific fourth and fifth, which elevated the overall competitive and spectating experience to an entirely different level of intensity and drama. After Mudge and Berg had jumped out to leads of 4-0 and 6-1 in the fourth game, Price and Gould embarked upon a sustained run of excellence (paradoxically ENHANCED by Price's ankle injury, which disrupted the Mudge/Berg game plan by luring them to concentrate on moving Price, who made them pay with countering winners) in an 11-3 surge, capped off by a pair of Price nick-winners, that put them at 12-9, just three points from the title.

A furious three-point Mudge/Berg rally (on a daring Berg serve-return drop shot, a Mudge rail past Price and a Berg three-wall nick) made it 12-all, but in a bit of terrible bad luck, Mudge's inside-out cross-court from the back wall hit his partner Berg's racquet, jarring it from his hand and putting Price and Gould at 13-12. Berg then cleanly passed Price with a cross-court winner, and on the first point of the best-of-five tiebreaker, Mudge scored on a shallow drop shot. His lob attempt on the ensuing point sailed just over the front-wall boundary, and on the next exchange, both Mudge and Berg were caught up front tracking down a Price three-wall, leaving Gould the whole court for a sizzling rail winner and double-championship-point. This golden opportunity was thwarted first by Mudge's off-balance and severely-angled reverse-corner (upon which Price threw up his hands in triumph, initially and perhaps wishfully thinking that it had caught the top of the tin) and then when Price tinned one of his wickedly angled roll-corner volleys that seldom are returned.

Two years earlier, as mentioned, Gould (partnering Quick at the time) had similarly had a Kellner Cup double-match-point chance slip away (in the third game of their semi against Walker and Berg) and wound up losing in five. It appeared that the same fate awaited him this time around as well when Mudge and Berg moved out to a 10-5 lead in the fifth. But a trio of Price winners, the last on a backhand cross-court that rolled out in front of Berg, made it 8-10, then 8-11 on a compelling Berg forehand reverse-corner. A mis-hit Price overhead that trickled just over the tin and a backhand cross-court drop nick that froze Berg keyed a 4-0 Price/Gould run (7-1 overall from 5-10) to 12-11, preceding a miraculous look-away reverse-corner winner from Berg (12-all), then a tinned Mudge reverse-corner counter-balanced by another Berg winner for 13-all.
To that juncture, after more than two hours of exhausting and pulsating action, the two teams had played each other to a total statistical and territorial standstill. Price had garnered far more winners (as well as more tins) than anyone else; Gould, who had committed only one fully unforced error to that juncture of the fifth game, had been relentlessly firing away with his scorching cross-courts and drives, making Mudge play more defense (which he had done brilliantly) than he has ever been forced into doing; and Berg, who like Price had had his ups and downs, had come up with his best sustained performance exactly when it had most been needed, in the testing end-portion of those fourth and fifth games. All three had been magnificent in their own individual way.

But if there was one overriding and outcome-determinative phenomenon in this gripping five-part, 140-minute epic drama that played out in the cathedral-like confines of Racquet & Tennis on this memorable Monday evening, then surely it had to have been Mudge's irrepressible fighting spirit, his incomparable athletic skills and his indomitable competitive ardor. These qualities have enabled him to switch both partners and walls as successfully as he has, while amassing an ISDA record 95 titles and richly earning the right (though no vote has ever been taken, nor does any such designation officially exist) to be regarded as the ISDA Player Of The Decade. Five years to the day removed from the only Kellner Cup defeat that he and Waite sustained, Mudge imposed his will on the turbulent final stretch of the match, wearing his Aussie-compatriot opponents down and playing at least a partial role in the trio of early-point tins (the first by Gould, who appeared to lose track of a Mudge cross-court, and then two in a row by Price, first on an attempted shallow rail winner and then on a routine-appearing cross-court) that accounted for the fifth-set best-of-five tiebreaker.

If it seemed poetically unjust that a match heretofore characterized by such captivating, lengthy all-court exchanges would end on three swift (consuming less than two minutes combined) unforced tins, like finding a badly misspelled word in the last paragraph of a cherished book, it must nevertheless be said that the story of the entire Mudge/Berg 2007-08 season was their ability to somehow find a way, just as had been the case with Price/Gould in 2006-07. Seen in that light, the rally that the eventual champions were able to generate from the late-game deficits they overcame in the fourth and fifth games constituted a fitting calling-card for the supremacy that became theirs that night and that lasted through the 2008-09 season (when they again nosed out Price/Gould for No. 1 by defeating them in the final event of the season in Vancouver) and well into 2009-10 as well.

No. 9 Brinksmanship
Heights Casino Club, February 21, 2010

David C. Johnson Memorial Final: Damien Mudge/Viktor Berg d. Paul Price/Ben Gould, 10-15 15-6 15-10 8-15 15-13.

Indeed, it would be Mudge who would again come up with the match-deciding blow 22 months later just as he and his partner had been pushed to the very precipice of losing a match in which they had stood at sextuple-championship-point. They had begun the 2009-10 season with an undefeated autumn run through the Briggs Cup and Big Apple Open, only to have Price and Gould defeat them in both of their midwinter finals in Boston and Cleveland. The race had therefore tightened considerably by the time that these two teams met in the final of the Johnson, the one annual tournament which neither Price nor Gould, either as a tandem or with other partners, had ever managed to win.

It looked like a similarly disappointing outcome would befall them this time around as well when Mudge and Berg surged from 4-all to 10-4 in the fifth game, but on the next point Berg sprained his right ankle so severely that his mobility, normally one of his best traits, was seriously curtailed when he returned to the court after a 10-minute stoppage while the injured joint was being taped up. Remarkably in light of Berg's compromised condition, when play resumed at 10-5, Mudge and Berg somehow made off with four of the next seven points, as Berg successfully went for broke on three nervy winners (one on a look-away roll corner that Price never saw) and Price tinned a backhand three-wall. But at 14-8 Berg, pushing the envelope a little too far, tinned two attempted winners and the relentless countdown was on --- Price hit a deftly placed backhand cross-court drop shot into the front-right nick, then buried a reverse-corner to make it 12-14, after which a Gould hard serve dead-rolled out of the back wall behind Mudge. What tiebreaker would Mudge and Berg select if they were caught at 14-all? Would they give themselves a seventh match-ball by opting for no-set, thereby creating only the second full-ranking-tournament simultaneous-championship-ball in the history of the ISDA? Would they have a realistic chance of winning whichever tiebreaker length they chose after failing on six consecutive match-balls and with such a gaping void in the front-right portion of the courtagainst a foe which possessed such fearsome weaponry?
Whatever speculation (of which there was plenty) was making the rounds in the overflowing Heights Casino gallery at 13-14 was brought to an immediate halt when Mudge, who had to have known that it was up to him to come up with something spectacular to save the day, did just that by circling around a cross-court lob (off a great retrieve up front by Gould) and conjuring up a daring, totally unexpected and perfectly-angled untouchable inside-out forehand roll-corner winner from the absolute depths of the back-left corner of the court, after which he let out a war whoop of triumph as he and his wounded partner fell into each other's arms in relieved appreciation of their narrow-escape 15-13 fifth-game victory.

No. 10 Goal-Line Stand
Racquet & Tennis Club, April 26, 2010

Kellner Cup Final: Paul Price/Ben Gould d. Matt Jenson/Clive Leach, 15-7 15-10 17-16.

Though no one could have known or even suspected it at the time, Mudge's heroic thunderbolt would wind up capping off what would prove to be his team's last successful foray of the season, as various maladies (a concussion in Mudge's case, the third of his ISDA career) would force each of them to sit out the mid-April Creek event, which had been re-named the Players Championship in 2009. Though they returned for the one-week-later Kellner Cup, their attempted title defense was abruptly ended (as was Mudge's remarkable Kellner Cup record of never having been stopped short of the final) in a straight-set semifinal loss to Matt Jenson and Leach, who played beautifully and were aided by a host of Berg errors, nine of them in the anticlimactic last game alone, four on serve-returns.

The emphatic ending to the Johnson would also prove to be the first of three consecutive truly noteworthy final-round finishes to New York events that concluded the 2009-10 season and set the stage for possibly even greater fireworks in 2010-11. All three of these tournaments involved significant and even unprecedented rallies, sometimes in both directions, in the final game of the final round, making for some of the most memorable finishes, especially in such a compressed (10-week) time span, in the history of the ISDA.

In the Players Championship final, played at the University Club of New York, Russell and Quick, who had out-lasted Price/Gould in a fifth-set tiebreaker three months earlier in a Greenwich semi, took a two games to one lead, but fell behind 11-6 in the fifth. However, from this seemingly hopeless position, they then embarked on a seven-point spurt fueled largely by Quick's powerful cross-courts (which forced several errors from Price) and some nick-finding Russell front-court shots, the last of which, a perfectly-placed cross-court drop, gave his team a 13-11 lead.

At this suddenly perilous moment, a Price serve-return drop shot that surprised Russell was followed by a backhand drive that Gould lashed down the left wall for 13-all, leading to a no-set tiebreaker selection by Russell/Quick (who had succeeded with exactly this option two games earlier) and then two match-ending tins by the heretofore brilliant Russell, the first when he tried to power a backhand serve-return past Price and the second on an impetuous reverse-corner attempt from off the back wall.
A reprieved Price and Gould would effectively re-live both aspects of their Players Championship experience just one week later when, on the last Monday night in April, they squared off against Leach and Jenson, who had roared through nine consecutive games in attaining the Kellner Cup final while Price and Gould were out-playing Whitten Morris and world rackets champion James Stout (first-round winners over Walker/Chaloner) in their quarterfinal and former mid-2000's Trinity teammates Yvain Badan and Jonny Smith (quarters winners over Russell/Quick, 15-13 in the fourth) in the semis, in each case by a 3-1 tally. Though the actual on-court play in the final before a large and keyed-up gallery at the Racquet & Tennis Club was much more competitive than the score would indicate, Price and Gould won the first two games 15-7, 15-10, and after surging from 7-all to 14-8 in the third, they seemed assured of victory within the next point or two.

Instead, the match took 11 more points (and 29 more minutes) to complete, the first EIGHT of which were recorded in the Jenson/Leach ledger, as the latter pairing, incredibly, saved all six championship-points-against (something never before achieved in ISDA competition, though, as noted, Price and Gould had come close to doing so in Brooklyn), four of them on Jenson winners, and when he caught yet another nick on the second point of the best-of-five tiebreaker, he and his partner had a triple-game-ball of their own. Losing a game in which they had held all those match-points in the final round of a championship of this magnitude might have proved calamitous in terms of where it would have left Price/Gould for the fourth and possibly fifth game.

By this time, the pressure and tension of having lost eight straight points was clearly getting to Price (who yelled in anger after his tiebreaker-opening tin) and Gould, who blatantly shoved Leach between points and was warned by referee Sconzo of an impending penalty-point against his team if he did it again. The haunting memory of the prior '08 Kellner Cup final, when, as we have detailed, Price/Gould had a fourth-game double-match-ball yet lost in a fifth-set overtime to Mudge and Berg, had to have been working on their minds as well, as did the numbing and very real possibility of losing in five games if that third game got away and having to deal with the consequences. This prospect would have been especially unappealing for Gould, the head pro of the host club, who might well have found himself facing a full summer of being asked “What happened?” in the wake of a match lost in such disastrous fashion.

It is therefore to their everlasting credit that Price and Gould were able to respond to not only these bad memories of the past but the momentous exigencies of the present like true champions --- Price finally broke the long consecutive-points-lost skein by lacing a backhand reverse-corner winner, then followed that with perhaps the shot of the night, a backhand three-wall volley off a powerful Leach forehand cross-court that sped directly into the front-right nick, an accomplishment which Price punctuated with a fist punch and a bellowing self-exhortation.

On the fourth attempt of the simultaneous-game-ball that followed (i.e. after three let calls due to how hard all four players were fighting for every available inch of positioning), Price wafted a cross-court lob over Leach's head, an innocuous-looking trajectory which, however, the spectators behind the right side of the court accurately perceived had trouble written all over it. The ball hit the back wall just below the boundary line and ran along the right wall, glued so tightly to that wall that even the magical-handed Leach could do no more than foul-tip his attempt to scrape it back, causing the ball to drift only a few feet forward before plummeting to the floor well short of the front wall, while the crowd groaned in sympathy and a triumphant and hugely-relieved Price and Gould unrestrainedly hugged each other in midcourt in celebration of their first Kellner Cup crown and with it a reclamation after a two-year hiatus of the No. 1 end-of-season team ranking for 2009-10.
While it is tempting to view a season's climactic denouement as representing the ultimate accomplishment for its winning team, any dedicated athlete eventually learns to accept the bittersweet truth that there are no final victories in sports. The games keep right on going from one season to the next, and perhaps an athlete's only permanent victory is to walk away from the last game --- HIS last game --- with his health and peace of mind still intact. None of the foregoing matches, no matter how significant the occasion, provided any final or total resolutions; indeed, one of the most vibrant characteristics of competition, especially among the sport's top performers, is that it is ongoing and subject to change the very next time that a draw is prepared and posted.
What CAN, however, be confidently stated is that each of these 10 matches, like so many others during this past decade, represented a supreme effort on the part of all four competitors that communicated itself on a visceral level to those fortunate enough to witness their struggle. And it is in the hope, and with the eager expectation, that you, the readers, sponsors, patrons and spectators, will be similarly enriched, that the ISDA welcomes you to the 2010-11 ISDA professional squash doubles tour.

Rob Dinerman, the ISDA's official archivist for the past three years, has been an active player on the ISDA tour throughout the period he is chronicling. Three times the recipient of the Edwin Bigelow Cup For Outstanding Performance by the New York metropolitan squash association, he is a record six-time winner of the New York State Open and has been ranked as high as No. 10 on the WPSA pro hardball singles tour and No. 20 in the ISDA. He has recently released a memoir entitled “Chasing The Lion: An Unresolved Journey Through The Phillips Exeter Academy,” excerpts of which can be found on his web site, www.RobDinerman.com.

This first appeared on isdasquash.com

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