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> An Analysis of the Recent 2002 SL Green USA Championships

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A Look Back at the 2002
S L Green National Championships

April 1, 2002 by Rob Dinerman © 2002 – Photos © 2002 Debra Tessier,
Ron Beck for SquashTalk

may not be reproduced without express permission.



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Quick, Wyant, McNeely
Still Chasing Ever-young Walker

2002 Finalist
Preston Quick

When top seed British-born
Greenwich Field Club head pro Damian Walker defeated Preston Quick
9-4, 3 and 7 on Yale’s four-glass-wall exhibition court in the
final of the S. L. Green championship, he not only successfully
defended the crown he had won via a five-game final in Seattle
over Richard Chin in 2001, but also capped off one of the remarkable
12-month stretches in the admittedly fairly short history of American
softball squash.

Since losing the fourth game
of last year’s final with Chin, Walker, a losing finalist to Marty
Clark in the 2000 S. L. Green, won the decisive fifth game 9-2,
following which he swept through the U. S. Team Trials in August
and the American-players-only Trinity Open in January, Westchester
Classic in February and now this mid-March S. L. Green, 14 straight
matches, all without losing a single game, 43 consecutive games
in all against the best players American squash has to offer!
Walker’s accuracy and polish have caused the much-younger players
in the vaunted college class of 2000, three of whose leading members
filled the remaining semi-final slots, to label him “The Surgeon,”
and his performance both in these aforementioned events and last
October as the No. 1 player in the World Team Championships in
Melbourne, Australia have caused Team USA Head Coach Paul Assaiante
to praise him as an enormous asset to the competitive growth of
elite-level squash in this country.

Current USA Men’s Rankings

1. Damian
2. Dave McNeely
3. Preston Quick
4. Tim Wyant
5. Richard Chin
6. Julian Illingworth
7. Jason Jewell
8. John Musto
9. Beau River
10. Dylan Patterson
11. Steve Polli
12. Jack Wyant
13. Josh Miller
14. Paul Brogna
15. Ryan Donegan
16. James White
17. Christopher Gordon
18. Duncan Pearson
19. Stephen Gregg

Though he will turn 33 this
spring, Walker hopes and plans to play competitively at least
until the 2003 Pan American Games and World Team Championships,
which won’t occur until well into the autumn of next year, and
there is no doubt that the current crop of young American stars,
such as Quick, Dave McNeely and Tim Wyant, the second-, third-
and fourth-place finishers respectively in the 19-man S. L. Green
tourney, can only improve by their continuing exposure to a player
of Walker’s precision and wisdom.

Though his quartet of straight-set
triumphs over current Dartmouth No. 1 Ryan Donegan, Yale ’91 captain
John Musto, Trinity Open finalist Tim Wyant and Quick established
Walker as clearly the class of the field, even more so in view
of the troublesome wrist tendon he dealt with the entire weekend
and the active nature of the Yale show court, which to some degree
nullifies the sharpness that constitutes the cornerstone of his
formidable game, there were several occasions during which he
looked vulnerable enough to give his vanquished opponents cause
to look forward to the next time they get to play him.

While it is a tribute to Walker’s
experience and savoir-faire that he was able to go through the
draw featuring the best American squash has to offer without dropping
a game, even on a weekend when he was physically sub-par and,
by his later assessment, playing slightly below his usual standard,
it is also noteworthy that some of the top-echelon players came
out of the weekend far less awed by him than they had felt before
the tournament began. Musto, who had gotten shut out 9-0 in the
first game, served a half-dozen times at game-ball in the second,
and led 4-1 in the third as well, while Quick had Walker looking
tired and shaky in the third game of their final, in which he
led 5-1 and frequently had his eight-years-older adversary on
the run for most of a point, only to err on what would have been
a winning swing, as happened at match-point in that game, where
his tinned forehand volley allowed an admittedly “relieved” Walker
to escape with a 9-7 win.

Some of the Americans’ confidence
regarding their future matches with Walker may be a function of
his steady and rock-solid but unspectacular game, a situation
that seems reminiscent of Mark Talbott’s decade-long supremacy
on the WPSA hardball tour of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, throughout
which his opponents were able to play their games against him,
though practically no one was able to actually defeat him. Talbott
never steamrolled his opponents the way his immediate predecessors
as the top North American hardball player, Sharif Khan and Michael
Desaulniers, had done during their eras of dominance. One often
finished a match with Talbott frustrated rather than demoralized,
and believing, however wrongly, that a slightly higher level of
consistency, conditioning and/or execution might have resulted
in a different outcome. The ledger of Talbott’s victims is filled
with players who were looking forward to rather than dreading
the next time they would play him, and this characteristic, for
better or worse, seems to have emerged from this S. L. Green tourney
regarding Walker as well.

Perhaps a more important theme
is the manner in which the Class of 2000, for which so much had
been predicted during their undergraduate years, really stepped
up during the weekend and established the extent to which they
have arrived. The two elite foreign members of this class, Vancouver’s
Peter Yik and England’s Marcus Cowie, each two-time recipients
of the Pool Trophy after winning the Individual Intercollegiate
championship, are in London and California respectively and not
playing serious tournament squash, at least for now. Americans
Wyant, Quick and Dave McNeely, who as an Amherst junior rode a
good draw and a hot streak to the ’99 S. L. Green crown, have
all have during the past year made notable improvements in their
very distinct games. This progress found full expression both
in the advance each made to at least the semis of this year’s
Championship and in the finalist status earned by Wyant at the
Trinity Open and by McNeely in the Westchester Classic, in each
case via a 3-0 semi-final win over Chin, whom all three of these
recent college graduates seemed to surpass during the course of
the 2001-2002 campaign.

Quick, who has also been thriving
on the ISDA professional doubles tour, is blessed with great all-around
athleticism, while Wyant has shown an extraordinary ability to
absorb and sustain punishment and McNeely has noticeably tightened
up his stroke production and ball control, especially on the backhand
flank, where he now can consistently hit a tight rail and straight
drop shot.

Interestingly, although both
Wyant and McNeely spent approximately a year in England training
with top-flight British players and coaches shortly after graduation,
they each seemed to make their biggest improvements in the half-dozen
or so months since returning to America and setting up permanent
bases, Wyant in his native Ohio and McNeely in Westchester, where
they have benefited from more personalized coaching than they
were getting overseas, and where the more familiar environment
has doubtless been a boon as well. What all three, plus anyone
else hoping to really challenge Walker, need to do is get him
out of his comfort zone, which entails taking the risk implicit
in expanding THEIR comfort zones, upping the tempo and forcing
Walker to do more retrieving under pressure than has heretofore
been required of him. This means being able to effectively volley
even balls that have the width Walker’s reliable ground strokes
always possess and being able to disrupt the rhythm with which
he plays without coughing up loose balls or committing tins.

Wyant attempted to move Walker
up front in their semi-final, but his balls were hanging and Walker’s
responses were so devastating that Wyant by match’s end was overwhelmed
and so spent that he had nothing left for his ensuing third/fourth
match with McNeely, who romped to a 9-0, 0 and 6 (from 0-6) victory.
Quick, who had been counseled before the final on the necessity
of forcing the action, waited until te third game to really try
to do so, and, as noted, he definitely controlled many of the
points, as well as the scoreboard through much of that third and
final game. When he acquires more finishers, he might pose the
greatest threat to Walker, though it should be noted that this
stratagem of tiring Walker out took its toll as well on Quick,
who hit a bit of a mid-game wall, during which Walker completely
overcame his substantial early-game deficit en route to his eventual
though tight 9-7 win.

Notwithstanding the necessary
improvements that still hopefully await them, Quick, McNeely and
Wyant all took a big step forward this season, as did the freshmen
Donegan and Richard Repetto of Penn, the 33-year-old Musto, a
two-time S. L. Green semi-finalist in the mid-1990’s who made
a highly successful return to competition this season after a
five-year hiatus, and the east-coast bound high school senior
Julian Illingworth, who reached the quarters one week after winning
the U. S. Under-19 title on the same Brady Squash Center courts
at the host Payne Whitney Gynmnasium.

On the other side, Mark Lewis,
the ’98 S. L. Green finalist who opted not to play in this event
for the first time in many years, may have decided that his playing
days are behind him; he fared poorly in this season’s earlier
events and was recently named to replace Talbott as Chairman of
Team USA’s Men’s Committee. The competitive future for the three-time
(’94, ’97, ’01) S. L. Green finalist Chin, who placed second in
last August’s Team Trials but who has now lost his last three
matches with Wyant and been defeated by both Quick and McNeely
in his most recent matches with this pair as well, remains to
be seen.

Walker for one, who has formed
a bond with his contemporary in the wake of the assault from the
younger generation they have simultaneously been weathering, hopes
and believes that this much-decorated warrior and many-times U.
S. team member and leader has another stretch of high-quality
performances in him, and Chin himself, despite what had to be
a disappointing three-game defeat to Wyant in the quarters of
this Championship, rebounded in the Feed-In Consolation to defeat
Beau River, Musto and Jason Jewell and finish fifth overall; though
his defiant comment after the unfortunate 19th-place team finish
in Australia that his career was “just getting started” is obviously
unrealistic, his confidence that another upsurge awaits him seems
genuine and appropriate.

Nevertheless, it seems very
clear that it is the underclassmen and recent college alumni,
the first generation of U. S. squash players to begin with the
softball rather than have to convert to it, that will have to
carry American squash forward. All 10 finalists in the 25- through
45-and-over age group flights were natives of foreign countries,
as was virtually the entire nine-man starting line-up of Trinity
College’s undefeated NISRA championship team, and it will be in
the ability of this very talented current crop of young American
stars that squash in this country will grow and flourish in the
years ahead.

  2002 Champion
Damian Walker