Off the Charts!
Plentiful Players and Ample Dollars Mark Record Year for CBRE US Doubles Championships
A record 145 teams, the most comprehensive sponsorship support in history and the largest gathering of national titleholders on domestic soil… not to mention attention-riveting squash competition. By all accounts, the 2005 CBRE United States Doubles Squash Championships set a new standard, not just for doubles competition, but for all national squash championships. It reflected the significant potential for growth in this segment of the game, as almost every draw included the name of a past national champion or former top playing professional as well as relative newcomers to the game.
“When the Committee met in September, we identified three major goals for this year's Championships,” says Tournament Chair Jeff Stanley. “We wanted to significantly increase participation, we wanted the event to be profitable, and we wanted every facet of the Championship to be high quality.”
Two elements were key to increased participation: reducing the entry fee from $250 to $100 and including a Men's A, Women's A and Women's 40+ draw for the first time. “I want to applaud the fact that the entry fee was reduced,” said Alicia McConnell when she accepted her championship trophy. “I think it was a significant factor in increasing women's participation from just two teams last year to 16 this year.” The Men's A draw, with 28 teams, was the largest and deepest draw of the Championships.
Profitability was assured when CB Richard Ellis, one of the nation's largest commercial real estate firms took the title sponsorship. "Squash requires an extraordinary range of competitive skills—coordination, accuracy, stamina, intelligence and mental toughness.
CBRE has established itself as a leader by bringing to the real estate business the same kind of comprehensive competitive edge," said a spokesman for CBRE. The New York location of the championships was a particularly good fit as CBRE had established a significant presence in the New York market when it acquired Insignia, an established New York City firm, in 2003. The tournament sponsorship complemented CBRE's existing branding efforts—to familiarize the business community with the CBRE name and presence after the Insignia acquisition—already underway in New York City.
The quality factor was taken care of by the committee's attention to detail, the participation of every New York City club with a doubles court and the additional sponsorship from SLL Securities, Harrow, Vineyard Vines Clothing Company and Turks & Caicos, Snake River and Greenbrier Sporting Clubs that ensured that the championship amenities would be first-rate.
Chairman Stanley embodied the “no stone left unturned” philosophy. During the tournament weekend he took on every task—greeting sponsors, registering participants, lugging tournament bags and providing towels. And, with partner Noah Wimmer, Stanley almost eliminated Open finalists Preston Quick and Steve Scharff in a dramatic five-game, first-round match. “We are quite proud of this year's championships,” says Stanley. “We hope, more than anything, that this is just the beginning of a new era in the doubles game.”
The Women's Open
Arguably the most dramatic play of the Championships was in Women's Open draw where Alicia McConnell claimed a record-tying 10th consecutive National Doubles Championship, displaying throughout the tournament the remarkable athleticism that propelled her to the highest international ranking of any US squash player in history. The twist this year was that her partner was not Demer Holleran, with whom McConnell had won the previous nine titles, but the unknown Pochi Holdefer, a 40- year-olld former collegiate tennis player originally from Colombia. Preoccupied with developing a squash and fitness facility in Philadelphia, Holleran has not spent much time on court in recent months and elected to forego competing—undoubtedly raising the championship hopes of several competitors.
The champions' margin of victory in both the semis and finals was narrow; winning a fifth-game tiebreaker against the top-seeded Canadian duo of Jessica DiMauro and Karen Jerome propelled the fourth seeds into the finals. The championship finals was a two-point, fifth-game nailbiter victory over Berkeley Revenaugh and Mary McKee (more familiarly known to many in the squash world as the Belknap twins.) Revenaugh, just four months removed from the birth of her first child, and McKee, whose son is eight months old, made their way into the final by defeating surprise semifinalists Brooke Cooper and Kristin Fullam.
Revenaugh and McKee, looking to be the more balanced team in terms of technique, experience and certainly knowledge of each other's games, broke open a lead at 10-9 in the first game of the final, winning the game 15-11. Their strategy was clear: keep the ball out of McConnell's side of the court and keep her out of the match as much as possible. But McConnell refused to stay out of the match for long; in the second game she stepped up to take the breaking balls that came anywhere near the middle of the court. Utilizing a deadly combination of blistering power, precise reverse corners and floating lobs, McConnell/Holdefer jumped out to a 7-2 lead, winning the game 15-10.
The third game was a seesaw battle. The twins took an early lead, but two tins at 4-6 evened the match. It was a back-and-forth battle until a ceiling shot by McKee and a falling-backwards Holdefer return off a deep lob that turned into a drop winner took the Colorado duo to 11-9. They held on to win the third game, 15-12.
McKee and Revenaugh, playing in front of their parents, husbands, children and friends from the Heights Casino, their original home club, roared back in the fourth, storming to a 7-0 lead. They pummeled Holdefer, pushing her deep into the court, and pounced on every opening, using reverses, cross-court nicks and drops to close out points. Although their opponents pushed back to 12-14, the Boston-based duo evened the match with a 15-12 win.
“I knew the difference in the match at that point would be who handled the pressure better,” says McConnell. “So Pochi and I were focused on getting an early lead in the fifth game to put the pressure on Mary and Berkeley.”
The eventual champions got the early jump-start they wanted, taking an 8-4 lead. Holdefer, playing in her first squash nationals, seemed unfazed by the pressure—even when she caused her team to lose a point after squeezing the ball to determine if it had broken. Referee and tournament director Alex Pavulans announced that the rules provide that a seemingly broken ball must be given to the referee to determine if it is still playable; if a player squeezes the ball first, the point is awarded to her opponents.
Despite an unorthodox hitting style that didn't look like it would give Holdefer the ability to hit the ball with any accuracy, she was remarkably effective in getting height and depth on the ball (no small feat, particularly given that the semis and finals were played at the University Club, which has an extremely low ceiling). Holdefer also displayed terrific speed, picking up innumerable front-court shorts that seemed sure winners until she scooped them up.
McKee and Revenaugh are no strangers to competitive pressure; Revenaugh is a former US team member who won the national doubles title in 1994 with Demer Holleran, and McKee, who played at the top of the Princeton team, was a finalist in the 2000 World Doubles championship with McConnell. Down 7-12, and then 10-14, the twins dug deep in their quest for a first national championship together. A two-wall winner and reverse corner by Revenaugh, along with an unreturnable deep drive, got the twins one point from a tiebreaker. But Revenaugh caught the tin on a cross-court return, and victory belonged to McConnell and Holdefer.
“It's great to win the championship with a new partner,” McConnell says. “And it is even more rewarding to win such a close competition.” At 42, an age when she could be competing in the age group championship, McConnell says she thinks she may be a better competitor than in her youth. Referring to her trademark power game and the often-mercurial temperament of her younger days, McConnell says: “ I don't rely just on the power anymore. I am more patient and mix up the game, using shots and lobbing as well.” Having discovered that she was hypoglycemic, McConnell also credits improved eating habits with her newfound patience and even-handed demeanor on court. Looks like one of the greatest athletes to ever step on the squash court may have a few more titles left in her racquet.
In the funny hybrid, Pro-Am-like draw that is now the Men's Open, it came as no surprise that the final match-up was Gary Waite/Morris Clothier against Preston Quick/Steve Scharff. Waite has thoroughly dominated the ISDA pro doubles tour while Preston Quick—with tour partner Ben Gould, finalists in a good chunk of this year's ISDA events—looks to be his heir apparent. Quick believes that one match victory over Waite will break the Canadian's stranglehold on the tour's top spot. “My experience has been that once I beat a player whom I haven't defeated before, I usually go on to win most of the subsequent matches,” he says. “I think the same thing will happen once I get a win over Gary on the doubles court.” In the end, though, it was the amateur Clothier, with eight national titles already under his belt, who proved to be the decisive player in the championship match.
Quick almost didn't have the opportunity to try to upend Waite in the final as he and partner Scharff were extended to five games in the first round by Wimmer/Stanley and then defeated Josh McDonald/Scott Butcher marginally—16-15 in the fifth. Waite and Clothier had a more straightforward path, defeating Blair Horler/Shawn Atkinson, 3-0 and then Eric Vlcek/Alex Pavulans, 3-1.
There was no doubt about the Connecticut duo's finals strategy: send all the balls Clothier's way. In the first game, the strategy worked. Scharff and Quick scored enough winners on Clothier's side of the court to take a 14-9 lead and eke out the game win at 15-13 on an extraordinary get and reverse winner by Scharff.
Clothier, the only player on court who doesn't make his living by playing or teaching squash, stepped up to the challenge in the second game. Playing on his home club court and with strong vocal support from the partisan Racquet and Tennis Club crowd, Clothier tightened his rails and the accuracy of his shots, opening up the court for winners by both him and his partner. With a 2-1 lead after winning the third, 15-6, Waite and Clothier looked like they would cruise to their second national championship together (the other was in 2002). Scharff and Quick weren't quite ready to roll over, though; they forced the fourth game to a tiebreak before succumbing. Clothier claimed his ninth national doubles title, just two short of the record 11 won by G. Diehl Mateer.
The deepest draw, the Men's A Championships, introduced a whole new generation of competitive doubles players to the National Championships. The newly crowned champions, Ryan O'Connell and Whitten Morris, may be emblematic of this new breed: competitive players who find that doubles can provide a good workout and satisfy their competitive fire without the extra fitness training required to play top flight singles. “To try to be competitive in singles requires a level of fitness that demands significant training time,” says Morris, who played #1 at Williams for four years and then didn't pick up a racquet for several years after graduation. “Once you are in the business world, it is a real challenge to find the time to play and train. Besides, I really like the team aspect of doubles.”
After relatively easy 3-0 victories in their first two rounds of play, top seeds Morris and O'Connell found themselves in a death battle in the semifinals against the #4 seeds, Tom Harrity, the 1992 titleholder, and Imran Khan. The match provided some of the weekend's most spectacular squash: superb shot-making, stunning retrieving and outstanding tactical play. The #1 seeds prevailed, setting up a final clash with Geoffrey Kennedy and Beau Buford, who eliminated Baird McIlvain and Ted Bruenner in the other semifinal.
The New Yorkers got off to a slow start in the final, falling behind 6-12 in the opening game. Yet they revved the engines and snatched a first-game victory. Buford and Kennedy could not find an adequate response to their opponent's speed and shot-making, and O'Connell and Morris took a 3-0 victory to claim the inaugural A championship.
“It's great to win a national championships,” says Morris. “It felt particularly good because I felt some extra pressure with my employer, CBRE, being the title sponsor. It seemed like everyone in the firm knew that I was playing, and it was nice to go in on Monday morning and say that I won.”
In the first-ever women's A championships, the Philadelphia duo of Kellen Heckscher and Margaret (“Peggy”) Brehman proved their mettle by coming back in the championship match after losing the first two games. New Yorkers Elizabeth Del Duca and Wendy Nolan utilized superb shot-making to take the early commanding lead. But the Philadelphians were able to get more depth on the ball in the final games, reducing the shooting opportunities for their opponents. Hecksher is the second generation in her family to win a national doubles title; Dad Maurice, who coached his daughter between games, is a two-time titleholder.
The 1995 Open titleholders, Julieanne Harris and Joyce Davenport, were the class of the field in the Women's 40+ Championship. Undefeated in round-robin play—losing only one game in four matches—the combination of Harris' extraordinarily accurate shot-making with Davenport's dead perfect lobs would have made the duo competitive in the other women's draws. Sara Luther, a superb shot-maker as well, combined with the athletic Jen Edson to take second place.
Ed Chilton and Andrew Slater, undaunted by the fact that their opponents in the finals, Rich Sheppard and Joseph Fabiani, had four Open National Titles between them, took the title with a 3-1 victory.
Former WPSA touring pro Todd Binns and partner Thomas Boldt defeated 1976 Open titleholder Peter Briggs and tournament co-chair Peer Pedersen in the semis, and then faced another former WPSA touring pro, John Nimick, and 1985 Open titleholder Jay Gillespie in the finals. Binns/Boldt, directing their firepower at Nimick, who didn't have the stamina to withstand the assault, took the title with a four-game victory.
Superb shot-making, impressive firepower and flying bodies were on display in the men's 50+ final as the players didn't hesitate to dive to the floor to retrieve shots. In the end, Derrick Niederman and Sandy Tierney were just too steady and savvy for Malcolm Davidson and Stanley Dorney, winning the championship in three games.
After returning the elegant silver cup that they won four years running in the Men's 50s, Gordon Anderson and Michael Pierce staked their claim to the new turf in the Men's 55s, defeating Mike Downer and Tom Nederpel in straight games for the championship.
Boston's squash legends Lenny Bernheimer and Tom Poor added one more trophy to their estimable collection of age group titles as they defeated second seeds Cass Quinn and Molson Robertson 3-1 in the championship round.
Top seeds Michael Wilson and J. Ritchie Bell outlasted second-seeded Samuel Howe and Don Mills in the finals, earning the title with a fifth-game victory.
Utilizing a variety of shots to open up the court, both finalist teams played classic doubles, albeit with a little less firepower than some of the younger draws, and found themselves in a five-game battle. Dick Will and Howie Rober took an early lead in the fifth game, but Charles Leonard and James Hill were unfazed. After reeling off eight unanswered points, Leonard and Hill claimed the title with a 15-8 victory in the deciding game.
Click here for a list of all 2005 US National Championships Results