And on the 6th day, let the two best players of the week face each other for one last match to determine who would be this year’s Bluenose Squash Classic champion. The first player to earn their way into the championship court was none other than the crowd’s favorite acrobat – Miguel Rodriguez, the returning champion. Rodriquez was coming off a huge upset last night over the tournament’s number one seed – Borja Golan. There is just something about the panel court that appeals to his game and many a player over the years have been stymied by an inability to put the ball away against the stealthy Columbian.
The second player earning their way into the night’s final, was Peter Barker of England. He’s no stranger to be in this court or the finals at this event. In fact, he found himself in this very position back in 2009 against David Palmer, only this time he was hoping for a very different outcome. His play all week has been stellar. Aside from dropping a game to Cameron Pilley in the Quarter Finals, Barker’s record has been perfect. He also had a comparatively easier match last night against Daryl Selby who rumour had it, was not playing at 100%.
At the outset of the match, the capacity crowd set the odds pretty evenly. For many of you readers, you are unlikely familiar with the setup of the Bluenose Squash Classic. Many professional squash venues utilize the mobile glass court to set up spectacular venues; however, in Halifax, we do things a little differently. We set our venue around the small and intimate venue which represents the community that is squash in Nova Scotia. Our venue is at St. Mary’s University and at capacity, the fire marshal begins cringing when we start putting more than three digits of people inside the viewing area. But it’s a crowd of people from all over Eastern Canada, all of whom know one another, and does it get loud!
The professional players are treated as adopted members of this community for the week of the Bluenose Classic each year with many opting to stay with local families to enjoy the warm Maritime hospitality. The players get involved in various dinners, sponsor events, and junior clinics held throughout the week. Some players, particularly past champions like Therry Lincou and Laurens Jan Anjema, have been granted honorary residency status by the squash community.
As is tradition, the evening of the final starts off with a fun event. This year was a doubles event between local icons Matt Bishop and Chris Petropolis versus Cameron Pilley and new comer Sebastiaan Weenink (who is quickly becoming another fan favorite around town). The scores from the match include Pilley blowing through two sets of strings, Weenink scored two points lying on his back, and Bishop and Petropolis won by a landslide, once the age handicaps were factored into the final tally.
With the seats warm and the refreshments at hand, the match between Rodriguez and Barker got underway within this backdrop. The early going of the match had the feel of something more tactical than physical. Neither player was pushing the pace, choosing instead to keep the ball deep and wait for opportunities. In the battle of attrition, Barker was the early benefactor running up a 6-2 lead as Rodriguez was trying unsuccessfully to hit those perfect nicks that had earned him his championship the prior year. Barker coughed up a couple of errant miscues letting Rodriguez narrow the gap to 5-8. But Rodriguez threw in a few of his own handing the first game to Barker 11-6.
The second game began with much the same feel of the first game. After the match, Barker later admitted that he was intentionally “playing boring squash…just trying to pin him [Rodriguez] to the wall to restrict his options, and increase my own.” Boring squash earned him an 8-4 lead midway through the second game. One shot that Barker used with recurring success was a deceptive little cross drop once he had set up the rally sufficiently to get a ball in the middle of the court.
The crowd began chanting “Vamos!” trying to rally Rodriguez. Rodriguez dug in under unrelenting pressure from Barker to earn two more points to narrow the gap to 6-8. But on the ensuing serve, Barker hit a perfect cross nick, silencing the Spanish and eliciting a pro-English cheer (we know a good shot when we see one). He followed that up with two more well set up drops that gave Barker the second game 11-7.
In the third game, the crowd was really pulling for Rodriguez to help extend the evening. Rodriguez came out all fired up and went on the full offensive hitting a drop shot and then charging the front reading Barker’s drives perfectly to hit the open winner running up a 5-2 advantage at that point.
But full credit to Barker, he just stuck to his boring squash, persistently putting the ball down the backhand line again, again, and again keeping Rodriguez retrieving from the back corner. Barker began trading two and three points for one against as he clawed his way back to 6-6.
Rodriguez was throwing everything he had at Barker, but Barker never flinched. After hitting a beautiful overhead nick to take a 9-8 lead, Barker was pumping his fist, finally sensing sustainable momentum. He followed that up with two more well-executed and setup drops to close the match with an 11-8 score in the third game.
In the post-match interview, Rodriguez confirmed all the witness accounts of the match, “It was very difficult to play Peter because he is very precise and accurate. I found it difficult to read some of his shots.”
Barker’s interview gave a glimpse into how close Rodriguez had come to breaking the momentum, “Toward the end of the match I was hanging on a bit. His [Rodriguez] game has come on since working with David Palmer [interestingly to whom Barker lost to in 2009]. He’s disciplined and has speed and I give him full credit for the big win he had yesterday [over Borja Golan].”
Rob Roy, title sponsor of the event, congratulated Peter Barker on his victory, “You are one of us now.” Hopefully, this brings the English man back for years to come.
Zal Davar, the founder of this event, spent a few moments to single out the contribution of all those involved, but in particular this year to the referees. To pull off an event of this caliber takes world class referees and Zal and his comrade in arms Graham Waters of 35 years, are members of a lonely team of volunteers that wade through “the shades of gray and the layers of gray” to make split second judgements. One patron shared, “I don’t quite see the attraction of being a referee,” which quite aptly sums up the unique talents and dedication of this group.
Neil Harvey, another anointed member of the Nova Scotia squash community, began the night by posing a question, “What life skills can be learned by squash?” The lesson was brilliantly taught this evening by the likes of Peter Barker and Miguel Rodriguez – stay in the rallies, even those you are losing, and often you’ll come out ahead.
With those words spoken, the Bluenose Squash Classic of 2014 was written into the history books. And on the 7th day, may all the players, volunteers, spectators, and yes, referees find rest.
By: Blair Cook