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> Doubles > Alicia McConnell & Demer
Holleran




FIRE AND ICE – McConnell
and Holleran

By Rob Dinerman, April 16 2002    
Holleran Photos © 2002, Tessier and Winchell, McConnell photos
© 2002, SquashTalk archive.

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McCONNELL & HOLLERAN Have Collected Seven Consecutive Women’s Double’s
Titles. They compete in the World Doubles (held every two years) in Toronto
next week.

DOUBLES PARTNERS
One exudes the frisky energy of a hyperactive puppy, while the other maintains
an on-court tranquillity that belies her hatred of defeat, which she has
said she finds a more galvanizing motivation than joy in victory, perhaps
because she has experienced the latter so overwhelmingly often over the
past 20 years.

One has fine racquetwork but has always
relied primarily on her extraordinary athleticism, while the other moves
deceptively well and can hit hard but is better known for her incredible
touch and immaculate stroke production. One is extroverted and engaging,
while the other is circumspect, thoughtful and understated. One has at
various points put her squash career on hold for extended stretches while
pursuing other sports like tennis, field hockey and lacrosse, while the
other has concentrated solely on squash since her teenage years began.
One once entered the court on Halloween night for a tournament match clad
in a full-body orange-and-black costume, while the other always appears
in classic all-white tennis apparel. Alicia McConnell, the first-referenced
in all of the above contrasts, and Demer Holleran, the two greatest
American woman squash players in the history of the game, are one-time
rivals turned doubles partners who late last month won the USSRA Women’s
National Doubles title without coming close to losing a single game.

This was the seventh consecutive year
in which they won this tournament, shattering the previous record of four
set by Carol Thesieres and Joyce Davenport from 1979-82,
and the ease with which they cruised past youngsters Meredith Quick
and Dana Betts (Class of 2001 alumnae from Princeton and Bowdoin
respectively) in the semis and veterans Karen Jerome and Jessie
Chai
in a very straightforward final points up the dominance they
currently enjoy and makes it difficult to believe that they were pressed
to a fifth game by the Jerome-Chai pairing in last year’s version of this
event.

HOLLERAN’S AMERICAN LEGACY
Holleran, who won the ’94 Women’s Doubles with Berkeley Belknap
before beginning her partnership with McConnell two years later, also
teamed up in early April with fellow former Princetonian contemporary
Keen Butcher to regain the USSRA Mixed Doubles Open crown which they had
won throughout the record seven-year period from 1994-2000 before being
dethroned by Gary Waite and Chai last year. In addition to this septet
each of consecutive National Women’s and Mixed Doubles titles, she has
won a host of junior, intercollegiate, hardball and softball national
titles, making her by far the most decorated non-age-group woman’s champion
in the history of American squash, and she showed her versatility by also
coaching the women’s varsity at the University Of Pennsylvania to their
first-ever Intercollegiate Team championship in 2000.

The daughter of a former Harvard captain
and older sister of her successor as Intercollegiate Singles champion, she
has been steeped in a family tradition of excellence in racquet sports that
has influenced her approach since she was a small child.

McCONNELL – HOLLERAN’S PREDECESSOR
McConnell was never driven by any family precedent in competitive athletics,
but early in her teenage years she became involved in the famed junior
program at the Heights Casino club, located just a few blocks away from
her Pierrepoint Avenue home under the tutelage of Fred and Carol Weymuller
in the mid-1970’s, and her exceptional athletic gifts quickly marked her
as a prodigy.

At age 17, she defeated her Finnish
contemporary Katja Sauerwald in the final of the World Junior Individual
championship while also leading a U. S. team that included her older sister
Patrice (later dubbed “the best captain I ever had” by legendary Princeton
women’s squash coach Betty Constable) to the Junior Team Championship.
By the end of that 1979-80 season, McConnell had reached her first Open
final, the Boodles Squash World Cup Round-Robin, where she lost to just-crowned
USSRA Champion Barbara Maltby, whose edge in experience and mental
toughness would enable her to defeat McConnell in the Boodles and Nationals
finals the following season as well, when she was still a high-school
student at Loyola High.

But during the 1981-82 season, when McConnell
was a freshman at Penn, Maltby retired to racquetball and doubles, and McConnell
swept through the women’s schedule, winning the first of her five straight
Boodles Opens (later changed to the Chivas Regal Open) in November, the first
of her seven straight Carol Weymuller Invitationals at her home club in December,
the first of her record seven consecutive USSRA National hardball titles in
February and the first of her three straight Intercollegiate Individual crowns
in March.

Alicia
against Nancy Gengler

McConnell almost certainly would have
emulated her ’82 and ’85 Nationals final-round victim Gail Ramsay
in winning this latter tourney all four of her college years had she not
turned pro during her senior year, which rendered her ineligible for that
year’s competition—but whether she would have been able to extend her
run of seven hardball Nationals had she not stopped playing in that event
after the 1987-88 season will never be answered. After surviving five-game
scares in both the semi-final and final rounds of the ’86 event at the
University Club of New York against Nina Porter (who led two games
to love and took the third game to a tiebreaker) and the British born
Sue Cogswell (her chief hardball rival for two mid-1980’s seasons,
during which she won five of their 12 matches), McConnell then won her
sixth and seventh championships in Philadelphia and Denver respectively,
both via four-game final-round wins over Holleran, an underclassman at
Princeton at the time, who was increasingly emerging as the biggest threat
to the dominance McConnell had enjoyed for more than a half-dozen seasons.

ALICIA – SOFTBALL TRAILBLAZER
The following season, 1988-89, McConnell, who had been increasingly faced
with balancing WSPAsoftball pro events in Europe with hardball events
in the USA, decided to focus on the softball pro tour and passed up further
hardball competition, including that year’s Nationals, which took place
at Jadwin Gymnasium, Holleran’s home turf. McConnell’s abdication of the
title left the field to Holleran, who mowed four outclassed opponents
down without losing a single game, then did the same several weeks later
in culminating her sparkling college career by capturing her third Individual
Intercollegiate title.

Although McConnell occasionally dabbled
with squash singles in between her pursuits first of a pro tennis career and
later on the WISPA pro women’s softball circuit, her decision not to make
a serious return to the hardball game unfortunately meant that USA squash
aficionados did not get the enjoyment of witnessing what would have been a
riveting rivalry with Holleran, who cruised to six consecutive USSRA hardball
crowns, one short of McDonnell’s total, which Holleran assuredly would have
surpassed had the Women’s Hardball Nationals not ceased after the 1993-94
season when, as noted, Holleran captured both the USSRA Singles and Doubles
crowns, a parlay no woman had accomplished since Gretchen Spruance did so
17 years before, in 1976-77.

McConnell, who first played on the senior
U. S. Women’s teams as early as 1983, maintained her presence on these prestigious
biennial squads all the way through 1996, when she badly rolled her ankle
during a World Team Championships competition in Malaysia and returned home
on crutches.

TOUR CAREER STILL THE BENCHMARK

Alicia against
Nina Porter

Though the injury healed in a little
more than a month’s time, she then decided
to
no longer compete in softball, partly because since ’93 she
had
been the head pro at the Heights Casino club that
had
been her squash stomping ground, partly because lower back problems had
by then become a lingering condition and partly because, at age 33 and
with nearly 20 years of competitive squash behind her, she had had her
fill of the grueling singles game.

McConnell’s record in softball is
still unmatched by any American woman. She reached an all-time best (for
an American) world softball ranking of 14 (achieved in May 1988, the year
she decided to focus on softball) while competing with the likes of Susan
Devoy, Michelle Martin
(against whom she scored two wins), Lucy
Souter, Danielle Drady
and other famous figures of the women’s softball
game.

By the time, McConnell hung up her
softball racquet for good, she was a few months removed from the ’96 U.S.
women’s doubles title that she and Holleran had won for the first time
the previous spring, when they dethroned the ’95 champs Joyce Davenport
and Julie Harris, who had also teamed with Ramsay to win the ’91
and ’92 versions of this event.

Holleran had lost with her younger
sister Jenny to Harris and Ramsay in ’91 and with Lolly Gillen
in the ’92 final, when they had straight-gamed Dawn Friedly and Jody Law
in the semis, only to lose to this pair in their rematch in the ’93 final,
following which Gillen underwent reconstructive knee surgery. Holleran
played the ’94 Women’s Nationals with ’91 Intercollegiate champion Berkeley
Belknap, whose twin sister Mary had been a teammate on the ’89 Princeton
squad, and they defeated defeated Harris and a toothache-plagued Davenport
in a close five-game final.

UNBEATABLE PARTNERSHIP BEGINS
Unfortunately, the following spring the Pan Am Games was scheduled at
the same time as the National Doubles, and with McConnell, Holleran and
Belknap all playing in South America, Davenport and Harris surmounted
a somewhat diluted field, the ageless 53-year-old Davenport’s record ninth
title with three different partners and Harris’s third. Wary of how formidable
and savvy a pairing these two veterans were, and with Belknap by this
time relocated to the West Coast,
Holleran
successfully recruited her erstwhile singles rival McConnell, who had
never played in this event since one semi-frivolous foray as a teenager
more than a decade earlier.

Alicia in Colorado
with her niece Caitlin. Alicia currently works for the USOC in Colorado
Springs.

As noted, McConnell had always evinced
a restless curiosity and a tendency to seek new athletic challenges, even
during her lengthy time at the top of the women’s game. She sometimes
seemed bored with her dominance, which is why Cogswell’s brief but sturdy
challenge was such a godsend for those two years before a serious hip
injury incurred in a freak subway accident abruptly removed her from the
competitive scene.

McConnell had over the years pursued
not only squash and tennis, but also field hockey, lacrosse, basketball
and break-dancing, and had excelled at all of them. When the call came
from Holleran to play in the ’96 National Doubles, she was only too eager
to take on another adventure and the new life to her squash career that
it represented. The ’96 win was consolidated in a final-round rematch
one year later, which was followed in a ’98 final over Chai and Phoebe
Trubowitz and by a successive pair of final-round wins first over the
Belknap twins, Mary and Berkeley, in ’99 and 2000 and then over Chai and
Jerome during the last two years.

Only the aforementioned 2001 final in
Portland required a fifth game, and the dominant 15-6, 15-6 fashion with which
they responded to the rare two games to one deficit confronting them on that
occasion suggests that misplaced concentration had at least as much to do
with that circumstance as anything else.

TEAM COMPLEMENTARY SKILLS
Their firepower, both offensively and defensively, is simply much more
than any other team has been able to handle throughout this seven-year
(and counting) run. In classic doubles fashion, McConnell supplies enough
pace from her right-wall position to force defensive responses and lots
of open court, which Holleran’s host of delicate front-court placements
invariably exploit. McConnell seems to revel in the athleticism the considerable
expanse of a doubles court elicits, and she frequently crosses over to
cover short balls in her partner’s territory, almost as if she has an
appetite to hit the ball that cannot be slaked merely with balls hit to
her region of the court. Holleran, by contrast, scores in quieter fashion,
operating less like a kid let loose in a candy store and more like an
expert but dispassionate surgeon, or perhaps like a dinner guest discreetly
pocketing her host’s best silverware, though that latter analogy should
not occlude Holleran’s well-deserved reputation as the fairest of competitors.

Demer Considers
Her Future Directions

Both women have shown great respect
for each other in their years as a doubles team. McConnell seems to keep
much better control of her occasionally wander-prone concentration in
doubles than she ever did during her singles career, partly no doubt from
the maturing effect of the years but also clearly out of a sense of obligation
to her partner. When Holleran injured her foot during the 2000 Mixed Doubles
event in the Worlds competition in Philadelphia, she was forced to withdraw
from the Women’s event, leaving McConnell stranded and unable to win with
the substitute partner she grabbed at the last minute. Mindful of the
ramifications of that mishap, Holleran has decided this year to only play
in the Women’s event next week so as not to risk a recurrence of the unfortunate
situation that arose two years ago.

’97 OPPONENTS
The one time they played against each other in doubles during this period
was in McConnell’s only participation in the USSRA Mixed Doubles in ’97,
when she teamed with Eric Vlcek against Holleran and Butcher, who defeated
them in a somewhat contentious four-game match marked by a physical battle
for positioning between the two women on the right wall, especially in
the pivotal and very close second game after Vlcek and McConnell had easily
taken the first. McConnell had been playing brilliantly early on, and
her distress both at this contact and especially at a referee’s decision
upholding an extraordinary Holleran retrieval of an apparently point-winning
McConnell reverse-corner on a crucial point late in that game caused a
rare tempestuous outburst followed by a noticeable accompanying drop in
her level of play during the third and final fourth games, both of which
Butcher and Holleran won convincingly to seal another in their run of
titles in this specialized competitive realm.

Though there does not seem to be any lingering
rancor from that one confrontation, what happened that day, combined with
the dominance they showed in this year’s Women’s Doubles, does make one wonder
what would happen if and when they split up as a team and continue with other
partners.

WHAT’S NEXT?
It is probably the most compelling sign of the greatness each has long
since realized in their intertwined competitive careers that the most
exciting matches that potentially lie ahead of them, and the highest sense
of fulfillment each can attain in what remains of their doubles careers,
might require their playing AGAINST rather than with each other and thereby
transferring to the doubles arena the rivalry that ended almost before
it really began in singles, more than a decade ago. Whether such a substantial
adjustment is in the cards obviously remains to be seen.

Holleran displayed a degree of heroism
in her and Butcher’s most recent USSRA Mixed triumph that she was never forced
to attain in the Women’s event when Butcher pulled a calf muscle late in their
quarterfinal match. This mishap and the marked reduction in Butcher’s mobility
that it created forced Holleran to cover all of her injured partner’s back-court
territory as well as the entire right wall in subsequent wins over a pair
of outstanding alignments, the Portland-based team of Trubowitz and Tony Catalan,
against whom they went from 6-6 to 14-6, 15-8 in the fifth game of the semis
after letting a match-point opportunity slip away in the fourth, and Doug
Lifford and Chai in the final, which they won in a competitive four.

Holleran’s versatility in playing
the right wall as brilliantly in this tournament as she had played the
left wall two weeks earlier in the Women’s event is another sign of the
grandeur of her game, as were the host of winners she hit in the crucial
moments from all sectors of the court and the way she rose to conquer
the exigencies posed by her partner’s injury. Her combined total of 27
total USSRA Open titles (eight Doubles, eight Mixed Doubles, six hardball
and five softball) is way ahead of anyone else’s, male or female, while
McConnell’s tally of 15 (seven Doubles, seven hardball, one softball)
trails only Holleran’s. Whatever their considerable differences in style
and personality, the excellence both have attained in all disciplines
of squash has been their most salient shared characteristic, and one that
they seem likely to continue to display for many victorious seasons to
come.

WOMEN’S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIPS SUMMARY:
Alicia McConnell and Demer Holleran’ Seven Titles

1996 def Julie Harris/Joyce Davenport

1997 def Julie Harris/Joyce Davenport
1998 def Phoebe Trubowitz/Jessie Chai
1999 def Berkeley Belknap/ Mary Belknap McKee
2000 def Berkeley Belknap/ Mary Belknap McKee
2001 def Karen Jerome/Jessie Chai
2002 def Karen Jerome/Jessie Chai

 

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