If last year was a year of firsts for the U.S. Squash Championships, the taste was so good that having seconds at the McArthur Squash Center at Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia, was well worth the one year wait. At the 2015 U.S. Squash Championships, expectations were high for some record-setting performances, not to mention the unparalleled facilities that are Boar’s Head.
The Inn and squash facilities passed with it’s flying UVA colors, but on court expectations are hard to live up to, particularly when there are players doing everything they can to interfere. In the men’s S.L. Green Championships, Julian Illingworth was looking for his tenth title. When he won his first in 2005, he was just a junior at Yale University with hopes of becoming the most successful American player ever. Eleven years later, he has accomplished that, having risen to world No. 24 on the Professional Squash Association tour. It has been a career that included twice winning a first round match in the Tournament of Champions—the only American to win a main draw match in a world series event.
For the first time, US Squash moved the S.L. Green and the Women’s Closed final to Saturday night. It was a good move because those playing in the masters divisions were all there to watch the crowning of a new champion.
As with all professional athletes, being on top is not easy. Others are continuously aiming to take you down, and time will eventually take its toll. While it certainly cannot be said that Julian has reached the end of his career, things have changed. He’s no longer playing full-time on the tour; he has moved back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon; and he’s the father of a seven-week old boy. Then there’s Todd Harrity.
Harrity, just eighteen months removed from a stellar collegiate career at Princeton, is now the young gun looking for his place in professional squash. He is one of the first players be represent the U.S. as part of the Elite Athlete Program. He has been close to winning the S.L. Green title twice, but came up short. Not this year.
Arriving at Boar’s Head as the number two seed, Harrity methodically pecked his way through the draw. The quiet, unassuming native of Philadelphia took down Cody Cortes and Dylan Cunningham in straight games before upending the nine-time champion Illinworth in the semifinals. The match was testy as it became increasingly apparent that Illingworth had met his match. Several tough decisions against him left him pleading with the referee; after an early warning for delay, a critical conduct stroke was assessed for taking too long to serve the ball late in the third—that handed Harrity a game ball at 10-9.
Illingworth was perturbed and promptly switched hands to return the serve with his left, and somehow managed to push it to overtime, but Harrity maintained his focus and simply forged ahead to take a commanding 2-1 lead and then pushed ahead to the finish line with better length, better width, and better results.
Up next would be Christopher Gordon, winner of the event in 2013 at Chelsea Piers in Connecticut. A year ago, Harrity had his first breakthrough over Gordon when he upset the top seed in the semifinals, needing five games to do it. This year, Harrity again needed five games, and again trailed 2-1 before taking a fifth game 11-6.
“Wow, that’s the biggest trophy I’ve ever seen,” was Harrity’s first reaction to being presented with the winner’s hardware. “This title is a big confidence booster for me. It’s been on my mind for six months.”
On the women’s side, Harvard’s senior phenom, Amanda Sobhy, was the prohibitive favorite this year, regardless of the fact that she was beaten by her sister Sabrina in the 2014 final. Just two weeks removed from winning her fourth intercollegiate title to put a neat little bow on her 64-0 career record for the Crimson, Sobhy arrived ranked No. 10 in the world.
Sobhy was on a mission. Her excitement over becoming a professional player after completing her college season was palpable. Her run to the title proved to be more of a formality than anything else. She dominated from the start, never really coming close to losing a game. Sure a couple game scores were close, but close doesn’t describe the gap she is creating for herself.
Sobhy’s meteoric rise up the Women’s Squash Association rankings began at just fifteen years old when she debuted at 256. Twenty-five months later, she hit number fifty. In December 2013, Sobhy cracked the top twenty at No. 18 and is now No. 10. So much for the notion that a player will never become a force in the professional game if they first go to college.
With time to train under her coach, former world No. 1 Thierry Lincou in Boston, Sobhy will be looking to use her first title as a professional to launch her into the top five.
After securing the title over Olivia Blatchford, Sobhy was already looking ahead, saying, “I am really looking forward to training for this summer’s Pan American Games,” said Sobhy. “It will be my first time to compete in the games, and we will have a great team.”
The beauty of the National Singles is that it also crowns the best players in the masters divisions; some who have been competing for years and some who were making their first foray into the world of age group squash.
Masters players travel from all over the country, taking time off from work to play the game they love in hopes of taking home a national championship. Charlottesville is relatively remote, but part of the allure is the destination. Those on the east coast typically travel by train or car; the west coasters fly into Charlottesville or DC and travel a couple more hours. The Canadians, however, give dedication new meaning. There have been years when several of them have driven their own bus down from Ottawa and Quebec. Other years they’ve taken cars for the twelve-hour journey, sharing stories about planning to travel through Wilkes-Barre only to find themselves heading straight for Manhattan.
These are the experiences that make masters so memorable. Yes, many of the same players participate year after year, and once the event is over, they are already asking where they’ll be heading in twelve months. Road trips with plane delays, stops at donut shops, unplanned visits to ice creameries. Some share their travails on facebook and twitter. Through it all, we become great friends; the kind you can strike up a conversation with as though you’ve been talking every day, but you haven’t seen in a year.
In recent years, the Canadian contingent has been strong in numbers and in quality of play. The women’s draws have been enhanced by a group from Ottawa—many of whom make similar lengthy trips for Howe Cup every fall. This year there were noticeable absences as one of the stalwarts in the men’s 55+ is battling a life-threatening illness that was diagnosed just two weeks before the start of the championship. Everyone who knows Michael Bertin wanted to know what was going on; and everyone knows Michael would expect everyone to play their hardest. The masters are a family that feels like it has siblings spanning forty years or more.
All eyes were on Jay Nelson in the 70+. Since winning the 70+ in 2012, Nelson has been holding steady at twenty-eight national titles—one more for a record. Standing in his way has been Gerry Poulton from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. They are the epitome of masters play. Nelson, the Harvard alum who stands at just under six feet with a slight build and an unflappable demeanor. Poulton, stocky and around five feet six inches, plays with power, tenacity, and smarts. The first time they met, in 2009, Nelson got the best of Poulton, and he’d maintain dominance over the Canadian for three years. Since 2012, Poulton has won four consecutive titles, including the last three over Nelson in the 70+.
Poulton controlled the proceedings from the start this year, racing out to a commanding two game lead and then served for the match in the third. But the stoic Nelson did what he does best and wrested that advantage away from Poulton, survived a match ball against him to steal the third game, and then worked the Canadian to the point of exhaustion in the fourth while benefitting from three unforced errors to tie the match. Everything seemed to be sitting there for Nelson to finally have his record. Until it wasn’t. Poulton jumped all over Nelson to wrap up the title and leave Nelson to wait another year.
The match of the weekend came in the Men’s 50+. The crafty veteran, Dominic Hughes, taking on the former world No. 18, Anders Wahlstedt. In 2014, Hughes beat Richard Millman for the 50+, while Wahlstedt fell in the semis to Steve Wren in the 45+. This year, Wahlstedt was the top seed in the 50+ and looked to be headed toward his first National Singles title after taking the first two games—including an epic 20-18 second. But Hughes, who likes to impose slow painful deterioration in his opponents’ legs, ultimately steadied himself to take the title in five.
The women’s draws were small but fiercely competitive. Hope Prockop and Juliana Lilien renewed their rivalry in both the Women’s 40+ and 45+. Prockop took both titles with three-game wins over Lilien. Beth Fedorowich and Deb Hodes each posted clean sheets to take home the hardware from the five-player round robins in the Women’s 45+ and 55/60+ respectively.
Looking to the future, Mark Allen, the head coach at UVA, announced that they will be submitting a bid to host the 2018 World Masters which would be a first for the international event in the United States. Boar’s Head is rapidly establishing itself as the preeminent location for large-scale championships. And road tripping for Nationals is a big part of the experience. Just ask the Canadians.