National Singles on Fire

[Above: Olivia Blatchford Clyne and Todd Harrity]

By James Zug

For the 108th time, the best singles players in the country gathered to play each other for the right to claim a national championship. The 2019 National Singles, spread across seventeen divisions, were special not just because it continued the squash world’s oldest annual national championship but because of where it was.

Squash on Fire hosted the tournament at its innovative facility in Washington, DC. There had been three National Singles in DC in the 1980s but since then the squash landscape has evolved dramatically and only a couple of the squash facilities in the nation’s capital from that era are still in use thirty-odd years later.

Instead, it is a new era headlined by Squash on Fire. The new facility, built on top of a fire station, is unusual: $12 million, 20,000 square feet, eight courts and pay-to-play. Access is the watchword of squash in the twenty-first century, and Squash on Fire emphatically symbolizes that. No membership required—anyone can just walk in and pay $20 and get on court.

Todd Harrity overcame Chris Hanson (l) 11-7, 8-11,11-8, 11-4 in the final to win his third S.L. Green men’s open title. (image: David Keating)

For the 175 players and their many friends, coaches and family, the atmosphere was fantastic. People sat by the curving bar and ate lunch while watching the action on the adjacent all-glass show court. Or they went outside onto Squash on Fire’s balcony overlooking M Street in the heart of the West End. It was cherry blossom time in DC and with warm spring sunlight splashing down on the balcony, everyone felt young and hopeful.

In the young and hopeful draws, otherwise known as the open divisions, nearly everyone was a teenager or in their twenties. The exceptions in the men’s, Chris Gordon, had a good tournament. Showing flashes of brilliance, he reeled off two quick wins before coming up against top seed Todd Harrity in the semis. Gordon threatened in the first game, which went to overtime, but then fell back to lose in three, sustaining a leg injury in the process. In the other semi, Chris Hanson faced Penn sophomore Andrew Douglas for the third year in a row. Hanson, the two-time defending champion, again overcame Douglas, but in an hour-long, four-game tussle.

In the finals, Harrity topped Hanson in four. The same age, the two men have played each other countless times since they were very young but not in the National Singles since the quarterfinals of the 2014 tournament.

It was Harrity’s third National Singles title, but the first in three years. In the gap, Harrity had moved to base himself in Bristol, England and last year became the first active professional male squash player to announce he was gay. This spring Harrity was closing in on his highest career ranking at No. 44 and playing the most fluid, attacking squash in his career.

In the final Blatchford Clyne toppled Harvard senior Sabrina Sobhy (l) to capture her second National Singles crown. (image: David Keating)

On the women’s side, Olivia Blatchford Clyne, having gotten married last summer, was also on a tear. Coming off a win earlier in the month in Calgary, she cruised through her three matches, losing just forty-seven points total and nary a game, to claim her second title. She hopped past sixteen-year-old Marina Stefanoni in the semis and then Sabrina Sobhy in the finals. In the match of the draw, Sobhy, the 2014 champion, had a fierce four-game semi with Reeham Sedky coming back down 0-6 in the fourth to take the match in just under an hour. Blatchford Clyne, at age twenty-six, was the experienced veteran among these high school and college players. Having maintained a top-twenty world ranking for over two years, Clyne was poised for more success going forward.

In the age-group divisions, a fifty-year-old Hope Prockop again had the busiest weekend. She played one match in the open draw, losing to thirty-three-year-old Kelsey Engman. In the women’s 40+ she won all three of her matches (bettering Blatchford Clyne’s record with the loss of just thirty-one points). In the women’s 50+ Prockop captured four matches, including a tough four-gamer with Brynn Jafry. For the fourth time in the past five years, Prockop collected two titles over the weekend, pushing her career National Singles total to fourteen—she’s won at least one title each year since 2013.

Ronny Vlassaks, the head pro at Squash on Fire, hugs club member Carole Grunberg after she captured the 60+ on her home courts.

Another perennial champion was Dominic Hughes, but this year he barely got across the finish line. After coming back from a 2-1 deficit to beat William Ullman in the semis, it took an even more dramatic comeback for him in the finals of the men’s 55+. Hughes was down 0-2 and then a match ball in the fifth against Mark Sealy before breaking the tape 9-11, 7-11, 11-5, 11-9, 13-11. It was Hughes’ fourteenth National Singles title.

There were other returning champions. Carole Grunberg, who had lived in DC long before taking her first National Singles title in the 40+ in 1994, snagged her seventh on her home courts by winning the 60+ without dropping a game. Sue Lawrence and Beth Fedorowich, both former titlists in the 50+, battled it out in the women’s 55+, with Lawrence prevailing in a fascinating five-gamer: 5-11, 9-11, 11-4, 11-6, 11-7.

A big upset occurred in the men’s 75+, with Ned Monaghan overcoming former World Masters champion Bert Kornyei in a three-game semi. But Monaghan was unable to repeat the magic in the final against Jay Nelson, losing 11-8, 11-9, 11-7. For Nelson, it was his thirty-first National Singles title, the all-time best.

In the men’s 80+, another former World Masters champion, Michael Gough, didn’t lose a game to take his eighth National Singles title. In the men’s 65+ Rashid Aziz beat Don Sheer in a very close four-game final for his second career title. Another two-timer was Pat Millman. In the inaugural women’s 65+ Millman didn’t drop a game.

Dominic Hughes (l) saved a match ball against Mark Sealy before
winning his fourteenth national title 13-11 in the fifth.

The most riveting contest of the final day might have been the finals of the men’s 45+. Richard Chin, the three-time defending champion, crawled back from an 0-2 deficit against Galen Le Cheminant. In the fifth game, up 5-1, Chin sustained a dislocated finger in his non-racquet hand. Le Cheminant sportingly let Chin take medical assistance for fifteen minutes (far longer than the requisite three minutes for a self-sustained injury) and the match resumed with Chin winning 11-7.

At the same time a host of first-time champions came to the fore at Squash on Fire. Karamatullah Khan took the men’s 35+, topping Dent Wilkens in the final in four. In the men’s 40+ Nathan Dugan overcame Tim Wyant in three. In the men’s 60+ Steven Baicker-Mckee won, beating Bruce Gordon in three. In the men’s 70+ John Cosmi defeated Gary Usrey in four.

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