Derek Ryan won an unprecedented seventh Old Belvedere Open Championship on Saturday night. The former World No 7 and current Irish number two once again overcame a 16 year age gap to beat current Irish number three Brian Byrne 11/8 in the fifth set in a thrilling match lasting 1 hour and 10 minutes.
The final match at the Donnybrook club’s 51st annual open & handicap tournament featured shot-making and retrieving of the highest order. Byrne, who had the tougher semi-final earlier in the day (winning 3-1 against an inspired Sean Conroy) showed no signs of tiredness as he covered every inch of court number one, prolonging the early exchanges to deplete his elder opponent’s reserves. Wonderful play by both players with very few unforced errors ensured a tight scoreline until Ryan finally clinched the first game.
After a gruelling opening, Ryan seemed to falter and conceded the second game quickly. In the third, a packed crowd witnessed sequences of inch perfect backhand drops by both players, and bursts of powerful forehand drives by Ryan. But Byrne’s dynamic all-court presence, driving length game, and attacking volley boasts kept his opponent on the run and he established a 2-1 lead after a fiercely contested third set. A visibly frustrated and tiring Ryan now had to find a way to stage a comeback.
Frequently during the match the quality of Byrne’s movement left a packed gallery gasping while Byrne himself seemed almost untroubled by the effort. On several occasions he looped around the much taller Ryan to retrieve dying lengths at the back of the court, covering huge arcs of the court surface in the process. There is something almost superhuman about Byrne’s near-gymnastic athleticism. At one point he was sent across to the right court by a delayed backhand drive but he somehow managed to spring back against all the forces shearing his body in the other direction to meet the shot with a fierce drive of his own.
As the match wore on, Ryan deployed several corkscrew lobs to regain time and position. Keeping Byrne on the move, he seemed to summon up opportunities for winners with increased frequency, as if willing them from the depths of his playing memory. As the match entered its final phase, there was no doubt that the class of shots honed during a long career on the professional world tour was beginning to tell as he snatched the fourth game. 2-2.
In the fifth, the unforgiving pace abated and shot-making rather than retrieving now defined the character of the game. Ryan sought opportunities to control the speed of play and began to punctuate rallies by debating close calls first with the referee and then with himself when the official declined to engage. At one point, with calculated good humour, the Fitzwilliam player stopped to ask if he might be allowed a rest on the basis of seasonal goodwill. Byrne, showing a cool head and trademark patience, was unruffled and got back to the job at hand after each brief pause but the momentum had swung back to a recovering Ryan. The relentless pressure of Byrne’s exceptional retrieving was eased. Ryan had now engineered more time and energy to craft openings and he began to play his shots with greater precision. A couple of unforced tins crept into Byrne’s game and suddenly it was match point to Ryan.
It is, in fact, exactly 20 years since Derek Ryan first won the Open at Belvedere – an outstanding span of achievement in such an attritional sport. Victory in this championship also marked another 3-2 win for Derek in a remarkable recent series of matches between the two players. “Experience”, in Ryan’s own words, may have won the day this time and that was certainly part of the story. However the quality and imagination in his shotmaking coupled with an innate drive to win also saw him across the finish line.
The crowd, which included members of clubs such as Leinster, Fitzwilliam, Sandycove, Mount Pleasant, Sutton, Westwood, the Curragh and Belvedere itself, many of whom also took part during the week, applauded both a worthy winner and a talented and tenacious opponent. This was perhaps the best final seen at the club in recent memory. It capped a successful and entertaining festive week of squash with a high standard of players entering in the championship itself and some 70 players competing in all sections.
Simon Rogals, Old Belvedere Squash Club
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