A UnresoA HISTORY OF THE N.A. OPEN DOUBLESved Journey
Through the Phillips Exeter Academy
This weekend will mark the 26th edition of the North American Open Doubles Championship, which debuted in 1984 and has been held every year since then (including twice in 1986, first in the winter of that year and then again the following autumn) except 1992 and 2002. The Greenwich Country Club, which spearheaded the early years of the tournament (one of its squash-playing members, Michael Kirby, was an executive with Xerox, the event’s initial title sponsor, which was based in nearby Stamford), was later joined by Round Hill in ‘93 and the Field Club of Greenwich in 2003, resulting in the present-day tri-club partnership that extends to the associated festivities, the exceptionally well-subscribed pro-am competition and the underwriting of the purse. It is due to the generosity and enthusiasm of the membership at these three clubs, as well as the active participation of many other squash doubles aficionados in the Greenwich metropolitan area, that this most prized of doubles titles under the U. S. SQUASH aegis continues to maintain its standing as one of the truly significant events on the American squash calendar.
In examining the Champions Roster located in the Greenwich Country Club’s squash clubhouse (known as the Squash House prior to the major 2005 renovation, after which it was re-named the Converse House to honor Edmund Cogswell Converse, one of the club’s Founding Fathers back in 1892), one is immediately struck by the fact that it contains the names of only 19 individual players (far fewer than half the theoretically possible total of 50), as well as just 12 separate teams, several of whom have at least one player who was also part of another title-winning pairing. This points up the degree to which the history of this event has been filled with repeat winners and a series of mini- (and in one emphatic case, not at all mini-) -dynasties, the most notable of which, of course, was the Gary Waite/Damien Mudge juggernaut that captured this crown six consecutive times beginning in 2000 before they barely surrendered it in the ’07 final against Paul Price and Ben Gould, who had to survive third- and fourth-set tiebreakers before earning the fifth in somewhat more routine 15-10 fashion.
The domination that this all-time-best tandem evinced during that lengthy skein can be found (1) in the fact that those seven finals were against six different teams (Willie Hosey/Jamie Bentley in ’00, Hosey/Viktor Berg in ’01, Hosey/Michael Pirnak in ’03, Blair Horler/Clive Leach in ’04, Hosey/Leach in ’05, Chris Walker/Berg in ’06 and Price/Gould in ‘07); (2) in Waite actually having won NINE straight North American Opens, his sextet with Mudge having been directly preceded by a three-straight run from 1997-99 with Mark Talbott; and (3) in Mudge having reached the last nine North American Open finals, seven straight, as noted, with Waite and the last two years as Berg’s left-wall partner, with whom Mudge dethroned Price and Gould in ’08 only to have that same pair take back the title last year, 18-15 in the third. Mudge and Waite are the only players to have won this championship on each wall, as Waite was playing the right when he won his initial North American Open in ’94 in partnership with Scott Dulmage.
The Waite/Talbott duo is the third to have won this tourney three years in a row --- Todd Binns and the late Tom Page accomplished this feat from 1986-88 (the ’86 win occurring in their first-ever foray as teammates), as did Alan Grant and Ned Edwards from 1989-91. Binns (who spent several early-1980’s years fearful of playing doubles after incurring a severe ankle injury on a doubles court early in his career) and Page mostly overpowered their opponents (though Binns also was a lethal shot-maker) during this late-1980’s era when the ball was especially lively; during their best season in 1987-88, they came within a single match of posting an undefeated season-long slate before finally dropping a four-game final to Grant and Jamie Bentley in the Elite Doubles in Philadelphia, the last event on the schedule. (Waite and Mudge went undefeated wire-to-wire three times, in 1999-2000, 2001-02 and 2004-05.)
For both Grant and his Canadian compatriot Bentley, that reversal foreshadowed impressive doubles success --- Grant, as mentioned, would begin his Greenwich trilogy with Edwards the very next season before their reign was ended when Bentley and Kenton Jernigan took their title away in ’93 and began several dominant seasons of their own. Theirs was a more “textbook” doubles team (with Bentley supplying enough right-wall forehand power to provide shot-making opportunities and open balls for his aggressive left-wall partner Jernigan to exploit) than the power-hitting Binns/Page tandem or that of the Desaulniers brothers, Michael (a former WPSA No. 1 and winner of the ’82 Greenwich hardball-singles pro tournament) and Brad, who overwhelmed their opponents en route to two consecutive mid-1980’s North American Open titles not with power but by relentlessly forcing the action, volleying everything, hitting the ball before their opponents had completed their follow-throughs or caught their breath, and generally creating a suffocating energy zone that melted the strength and spirit of their adversaries.
The 1985-86 season in which the second of those triumphs occurred was the last of Michael Desaulniers’s career. After being ranked No. 1 on the singles tour for the 1981-82 season (during which he also won the North American Open singles title, finally wresting it away from its six-year captivity with Sharif Khan) and slumping during several injury-plagued subsequent years, he completed a hugely successful comeback 1985-86 singles campaign, including reaching the finals of both the WPSA Championship and the Xerox Canadian Open (where he defeated Talbott before losing to Jahangir Khan), then promptly retired at age 29, having thereby attained the redemption to which he had committed himself. Michael Desaulniers is one of only four players --- Talbott, Edwards and Waite are the others --- who have won North American Open crowns in both singles and doubles, and Talbott, with four titles in Doubles and five in singles, is the only player to have won each on multiple occasions.
Talbott’s only title prior to his late-1990’s collaboration with Waite came in the inaugural event in February 1984, when he and Field Club of Greenwich “alumnus” Peter Briggs (who learned squash well enough there as a youngster to become both a New England Interscholastic titlist at Middlesex and later a two-time Intercollegiate Individual champ at Harvard) prevailed over Michael Desaulniers and Maurice Heckscher in the final. Briggs displayed both his partner versatility that 1983-84 season (also winning the Philadelphia Elite and Metropolitan Open with Dave Johnson, the Heights Casino event with Gul Khan, the Racquet & Tennis Invitational with Larry Hilbert and the U. S. National Mixed Doubles with Joyce Davenport) and his longevity some years later when at age 45 he teamed with Jeff Stanley to annex the ’95 North American Open title, 11 years after his exploits with Talbott!
Briggs’s standing in the Greenwich squash community may have played a role in the mid-1980’s landmark decision to expand the major annual Greenwich Country Club squash doubles tournament from the highly popular amateur “Greenwich Invitation Squash Doubles Tournament” it had been for more than a half-century (45 editions’ worth, debuting the weekend before Thanksgiving in 1931 and continuing all the way through 1982, excepting only 1933-34 and a four-year World War II-caused hiatus from 1943-46) to the prize-money top-tier professional tournament that the North American Open, bolstered for its first half-dozen years by Xerox, would swiftly become. The fact that the World Pro Squash Association (WPSA) tour had made such impressive strides under Sharif Khan and the Association President Clive Caldwell throughout the early-1980’s doubtless had an impact as well. The North American Open Doubles event, which in its early years opened with a Friday-night exhibition match featuring two WPSA pros along with Greenwich Country Club members and former New York Mets pitching stars Tom Seaver and Craig Swan, has been an important fixture on the pro squash doubles calendar through the WPSA years, throughout the 1990’s when the WPSA was incorporated into the international Professional Squash Association (PSA) and during the decade that has ensued since the formation of the International Squash Doubles Association (ISDA) in January 2000 up to the present time.
There have been some amazingly entertaining matches deep in the draws of the North American Open Doubles, including the margin by which ’96 champions Scott Stoneburgh and Anders Wahlstedt were stopped just one simultaneous-championship-point short of a successful defense on a Waite backhand cross-court blast past Wahlstedt that jump-started the three-year Waite/Talbott run that would follow. That was the second time that an attempted title defense foundered on a simultaneous-match-point defeat: ’93 title-holders Bentley and Jernigan lost a one-point semi the following year to Briggs and Talbott, who then fell to the Canadian dynamos Waite and Dulmage, though Briggs, partnered by Stanley, would win a three-hour 15-13 fifth-game final one year later against Talbott and Stoneburgh.
Two-time and current defending champions Price and Gould would never have had the chance to stage their comeback from two-love down in the ’07 final against seven-time defenders Waite and Mudge had they not first survived a 17-16 fifth-game semi the day before against Scott Butcher and Leach, who four years earlier (i.e. in 2003) had also lost a one-point-in-the-fifth semi against an eventual champ as he and Horler came up barely short vs. Waite/Mudge when on the last point an erratic ball-bounce caused Horler to whiff on his swing. Whatever happens this weekend is bound to both add to the rich tradition of this coveted championship (whose winning 2010 members will have their names hand-lettered in gold leaf on The Board in the Greenwich Country Club’s Converse House just beyond the left side-wall of the glass-back-wall doubles court, joining a list that extends back to the inaugural amateur tourney in 1931) and serve as a probable tipping point that defines the course and character of the 2009-2010 ISDA campaign.
Editor’s Note: The author would like to extend his appreciation to Morris Clothier, Steve Scharff and Jack Farley for their phone interviews and the extensive assistance they provided in researching this article.
(This article first appeared on isdasquash.com)