The History of the ISDA by Rob Dinerman

September 5, 2007
-The International Squash Doubles Association (ISDA), was formed in January 2000, during the middle of the 1999-2000 season, when the state of doubles squash in North America was at a crossroads juncture in its evolution.
The World Professional Squash Association (WPSA) pro hardball tour, which had such a successful albeit finite dozen-year run from the late 1970’s until the early 1990’s, had featured, at its apex, close to 20 hardball singles events per season which were complemented with approximately a half-dozen doubles tournaments as well, almost all of which (two in Greenwich along with one each in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Toronto and Vancouver) were in the northeastern corridor and interspersed among the much more numerous singles stops on the schedule. The primary focus of the WPSA tour was clearly on the singles, with the doubles tourneys playing a solid but decidedly secondary role.

This latter situation was, if anything, only furthered when the WPSA was effectively taken over by the Professional Squash Association (PSA), the primary professional world-wide softball organization, on January 1st, 1993. By then the pro hardball events were inexorably withering away (there were only four hardball tournaments in 1994-95, and only one, piggybacked almost as a sidelight onto a January 1996 Greenwich doubles event, the following season), and as the second half of the 1990’s progressed, the pro doubles stops, mostly ignored by a PSA that was directing virtually all of its efforts on the softball tour, were reduced to puttering aimlessly along, burdened by small purses (almost all in the $10,000 range, save for the $25,000 Heights Casino venue in Brooklyn Heights) and a sense of lethargy that inexorably resulted in their drawing less and less attention from the overall squash community as the years moved along.

As a dispiriting corollary to the foregoing, there were almost no new doubles courts being constructed (a few, in fact, were disappearing) and participation in the sport was flagging in the amateur ranks as well, both at the tournament level (the U. S. Nationals entries declined steadily during this period) and recreationally. And as an illustrative example of how little interest the PSA had in this form of squash, when its Wales-based executive director Gawain Briars was already in New York to attend the Tournament of Champions one late-1990’s January, at a time when the highly popular pro-am O’Reilly Invitational was simultaneously being contested at the University Club just a dozen blocks northwest of the Tournament Of Champions, he declined an invitation from Doubles Chairman Andrew Slater to attend the black-tie O’Reilly dinner and see for himself what doubles squash was all about.

Alarmed at the potential ramifications for the sport’s future if this drift continued much longer, spurred on as well by a competing vision of the game’s upside potential and aware that Slater’s increasingly heavy lesson schedule as the head pro at the Cynwyd Club were making it impossible for this dedicated Doubles Committee veteran to continue coordinating the doubles-tour events after his praiseworthy 15 years of service, superstar Gary Waite (who by that juncture had in the prior six years partnered first Scott Dulmage, then Jamie Bentley, then Mark Talbott and then Damien Mudge to the No. 1 team ranking) and his entrepreneurial Canadian compatriot James Hewitt (who later that winter would team up with Tyler Millard to win the Canadian National Doubles title) organized the several-dozen PSA doubles players, most of whom were holdovers from the WPSA era, and convinced them that the only realistic hope for reviving pro doubles was for them to secede from the PSA and create their own association devoted exclusively to doubles.

The ensuing parting with the PSA was completely amicable and in fact done with the blessing of the latter organization, which had always acknowledged that it had neither the resources nor the interest to devote more than a token attempt at promoting doubles, and whose leaders, as would soon become glaringly apparent, clearly and somewhat understandably had no idea how much potential revenue they were thereby unknowingly foregoing.

With these administrative preliminaries safely and speedily behind them, there remained for Waite and Hewitt the formidable challenge of coming up with enough money to establish an office in Toronto, a crucial squash center; give the faltering existing sites a tangible jolt; and come up with enough viable new events to generate a credible schedule. One major boost in this direction came almost as a godsend within a few months of the ISDA’s formation, when the Racquet & Tennis Club in Manhattan --- led by the beneficence of club member George Kellner and the efforts of head pro Neal Vohr, a long-time pro doubles veteran (and 1985 U. S. Mixed Doubles champion with Gail Ramsay) and club member Morris Clothier, who by that April 2000 stage had already won six of his right-wall-record nine U. S. National Doubles crowns --- added the $40,000 Kellner Cup as a glittering highlight culmination of that 1999-2000 campaign.

This championship, the first compelling pro doubles event in Manhattan and, as noted, by far the most lucrative pro doubles tourney ever, was such a smashing success (the spacious R & T gallery being completely packed for the latter rounds, especially the final, in which Waite and his power-hitting right-wall partner Mudge topped Bentley and Willie Hosey to complete an undefeated season) that matters subsequently escalated on several fronts during the interceding months leading up to the September outset of the 2000-2001 season. Clothier and a few other squash aficionados, fueled by the Kellner Cup experience and what it conveyed about the ISDA tour’s potential prospects, embarked on a fundraising mission that would provide the fledgling association with $130,000 worth of seed money to be spent over the next two years, which enabled Waite and Hewitt to promise each of the existing sites that committed to increase their purse by $5,000 a matching amount from the ISDA fund. Many of these tournament committees took the ISDA up on this offer, while others, their competitive spirit engaged by the magnitude of the Kellner Cup purse (which would itself double in the next two years), resolved to sizably increase their own purses in response to the now substantially raised bar. Still other sites, reacting to what they saw was occurring and not wanting to be left behind at the gate, raced to become new additions to the ISDA schedule.

The upshot of all this hectic activity was that the 2001-2002 ISDA tour, which began barely 20 months after the association had been formed, consisted of more than twice the number of ranking tournaments (17 compared to eight) that had comprised the schedule just two years earlier. By then, new sites had emerged in Baltimore, Denver, Buffalo, St. Louis, Toronto (several), Long Island, New York, Wilmington and Philadelphia, and the player pool had correspondingly expanded so greatly in response to this enormously enhanced and multi-front competitive opportunity that the season-opening event at the Denver Club had more teams in its QUALIFYING draw alone than had ever before entered the overall tournament.

At least equally significantly, doubles squash as a whole was galvanized by what the ISDA had wrought during the early-2000’s, a process that was the converse of what had happened two decades earlier with the WPSA (which flourished IN RESPONSE TO the strong late-1970’s expansion of the overall hardball game rather than vice-versa) and that strongly continues to this day. The 2002 U. S. National Doubles, held in New York and “open” to pros for the first time in the tournament’s 69-year history, had many ISDA participants in the 26-team Championship flight (more than triple the paltry eight teams that had contested the 2001 title in Portland) that was part of a by-far-record 128-team overall turnout, which figure, bolstered as well by vastly increased entries in the women’s, skill levels and age-groups, was itself handily eclipsed by the 148 teams that showed up when the event returned to New York three years later. (In both of those events, Waite and Clothier, collaborating as seamlessly on the court as they had done off it in 2000 when they had combined Clothier’s fundraising expertise with Waite’s salesmanship skills in getting the ISDA off the ground, partnered each other to those respective 2002 and 2005 titles, in each case surviving riveting finals. In both those seasons as well, Waite and Mudge went undefeated in ISDA ranking play, though 2006-2007 they were finally displaced as the No. 1 ISDA team by Paul Price and Ben Gould.)

New court construction has in recent years taken off at an unprecedented level; no fewer than TWENTY new doubles courts, from all sectors of North America, have sprung up just in the past three years, with more in the planning stages for the next few months; never before have so many new doubles courts come into existence in so compressed a time frame. The prestigious amateur doubles tournaments, like the William White Invitational in suburban Philadelphia at the Merion Cricket Club (which held a pro prize-money doubles tournament last spring for the first time in the club’s century-plus history), the Silver Racquets at Racquet & Tennis, the Gold Racquets at the Rockaway Hunting Club in Long Island and the Smith Chapman Invitational at Club Atwater in Montreal have all experienced clear-cut upticks in both the quantity and quality of their draws. And member participation, both in the pro-am events that accompany many of the ISDA tourneys and in club championships, leagues and court bookings, have substantially expanded as well in recent years.

The ISDA tour, the sport’s professional showcase, remains a key engine driving this larger expansion, as witness the number of cases (more than 75%) in which top-echelon ISDA players are affiliated with the clubs that host ISDA tour events. Though the now-biennial Kellner Cup has maintained its $70-80,000 level and remains one of the tour’s truly coveted trophies, it has now been replaced as the top purse by the biennial Briggs Cup, hosted by the Apawamis Club in Rye, NY, and named in honor of its long-time Racquets Director Peter Briggs, a WPSA Doubles Team Of The Year honoree with Talbott in 1984 and two-time North American Open champion, which debuted in 2003 as the first doubles tournament ever to offer a $100,000 in prize money. The North American Open itself in Greenwich has reached the $50,000 range, which other sites have begun to approach as well.

There are prospects of even greater gains on the horizon as doubles squash, which began in 1907 with the completion of America’s first doubles court at the Racquet Club Of Philadelphia, enters its second century. After firmly establishing himself as the greatest doubles player of all time (and equally firmly establishing himself and Mudge, whose total of 76 ISDA ranking titles is more than ten times that of any other team, as the greatest doubles TEAM of all time) during these past 15 years of title-filled brilliance, former PSA top-15 and WPSA No. 1 Waite, now nearing 41, has decided to play only a limited schedule this year and concentrate instead on a grass-roots effort to promote doubles participation throughout the continent among juniors. Hewitt, the Executive Director of the ISDA tour (and 2004 U. S. Mixed Doubles co-champion with his wife, Steph), will be overseeing the day-to-day operations, while both men pursue the kind of umbrella sponsor that has been so helpful to other racquet-sports tours in the past.

Price, a former British Open finalist and PSA world No. 2, and his Australian compatriot Gould are two of a number of PSA performers (notably 2001 British Open finalist Chris Walker, late-1990’s PSA No. 26 Clive Leach, Australian Institute of Sport alumnus Scott Butcher, former British Junior No. 1 John Russell, who combined with American Preston Quick to win the 2007 U. S. National Doubles, and Canadian Pan Am Fed Cup No. 1 Viktor Berg, all of whom have attained top-10 ISDA rankings) who, finding the ISDA tour too alluring and remunerative to pass up, have switched their efforts away from the PSA and into the ISDA. Recent PSA President and top-15 Mark Chaloner last season joined this group, whose number is clearly on the swift ascent and also includes 2006 world No. 1 Jonathon Power.

The ISDA tour itself is deeper and more competitive than ever before. Gone, probably forever, are the days when one team can go undefeated, as Waite and Mudge did on three occasions in compiling their resplendent seven-year skein at No. 1; last season there were a record four different teams than won at least one ranking event, and each of THEM suffered at least one first-round defeat, which never would have happened a few years ago. The sport as a whole is certainly in better shape today than it has ever been, a marked contrast to its stagnating state of less than a decade ago, and quite possibly an even brighter future lies ahead if the current momentum can be sustained and successfully built upon during the next few years.

Author’s Note: U. S. Women’s 40-and-over champion (with Julie Harris) contributed to this article.

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