Irish players have enjoyed great success in recent years at both Senior and Junior level whilst in the United States and that trend has continued at the recent U.S Open.
Westmeath’s Robbie McCarthy became the third Irish player in history to secure the US Open title last weekend at the Fountain Valley Sports club in California. Only Cavan’s Paul Brady and Cork’s Tony Healy could claim such stature this time last week but that changed as the 23 year old held his nerve, after he trailed fellow Irish player, Armagh’s Charlie Shanks 7-9 in the tiebreak. The composed Mullingar man was able to regain service and grab four unanswered points to seal a dramatic victory on the biggest stage.
Shanks will be devastated to lose such an enthralling match up with so much to play for but he will take considerable comfort from his previous tiebreak wins in the quarters and semis over the 2010 winner, Texan, Alan Garner and the highly impressive Louis Moreno from Tucson, Arizona.
Consolation for Shanks is the mantle of being the highest seeded Irish player on the current international rankings due to his recent performances in the States. The New York based Shanks will certainly be one of the favourites to go all the way in Ireland next October when the World Championships are up for grabs.
McCarthy has firmly established himself as the hottest prospect in world handball and his achievements in 2011 have been astonishing. In May, he landed the Irish 40×20 Nationals before capturing the Irish senior hardball singles in June and the softball gong in September. To cap his year with the US Open win in California over players who specialise in the 40×20 all year round is an incredible feat. To land one of the major 40×20 titles on offer having just completed the 60×30 season six weeks ago adds to the significance of the Westmeath man’s accomplishment. He is for sure the one player who will be leading the way to end Paul Brady’s reign at the top of the 40×20 field.
McCarthy looked set to clinch his first of many senior events in the USA as he took the opening game 21-15. The second proved very tight but it was Shanks who was able to manufacture the vital scores at 17-17 to go on and edge it 21-18. Two unforced errors at the end of game 2 for the usually assured McCarthy showed the first sign of nerves creeping into the champion elect’s game. Tiredness seemed to be the main factor for both players to overcome playing at the end of a two hour gruelling encounter which had everything for the non-partisan American crowd.
With fatigue influencing exchanges, it was McCarthy who broke clear and he amassed a 3-0 lead followed by 5-1 advantage in the tiebreak. He was edging closer to his dream goal but once again, Shanks dug deep. His previous tie break victories in the earlier rounds must have given Shanks a great confidence boost as he seemed to get a second wind. The 28 year old Clann Eireann club man was able to turn a four point deficit into a two point gain and was now in the driving seat. But McCarthy remained focussed and levelled the third at 9-9 with an instinctive left fly kill in the left corner. That shot spurred him on to victory and McCarthy managed to keep control of the service zone and took the next 2 points to record his first US Open win.
“I’m not long out of the big alley and I didn’t have any expectations coming out here. My body was getting tired in there and I went for broke at 9-7 down in the tiebreak. Charlie was serving and finishing really well and I went for it and it paid off. I was exhausted and my body was tired but I went for my shots,” said a delighted champion. “It doesn’t feel any different to win this as compared to winning in Ireland. You have to step up and compete with the pros over here and I’m very happy that it went my way.”
Cavan’s Paul Brady returned to competitive action for the first time in the USA in over a year and partnered Michael Finnegan to the doubles crown. The current Irish champions proved too hot to handle for USA’s Vince Munoz and Marcos Chavez and ran out easy victors in the end 21-14, 21-5. The Californians were chasing a remarkable 5th successive win at this event but they couldn’t curb the Breffni men who exhibited superb understanding and doubles knowhow. They are the undoubted world number one pairing at present and will be hot favourites to secure the world title in just under 12 months. “I feel great to be back and I’m looking forward to the singles next year. It’s great to win the doubles and Michael Finnegan is a great partner. I’m lucky to have him in there. It’s an unbelievable tournament and it’s the showcase of handball,” said Brady.
Brady has been the standard bearer for the past decade for both players at home and across the Atlantic. The Mullahoran man at 32 still looks to have all the tools and athletic ability to remain at the pinnacle of the sport in 2012.
2010 ladies champion, Antrim’s Aisling Reilly fell short of making it a clean sweep in the elite brackets for the Irish as she lost out to Megan Mehilos of Lombard, Illinois 11-3 in the tiebreak. The St. Paul’s player has had little competitive outings in 2011 and was back playing after an eight month lay-off. That wasn’t evident in her play early on as she dominated Mehilos in the first, winning 21-7. At 15 to 10 up in the second, few would have bet against the powerful Reilly to prevail but Mehilos showed great character to keep the match alive and then turn the tide to take game two 21-17.
With Reilly’s energy levels diminishing, the third went with Mehilos who carried the momentum from the latter half of the previous game and sealed her first US Open title, winning 11-3. “This is my first tournament back after eight months and I was happy to make it to the finals. My lack of competition caught up with me in the second game and in the tiebreak. Megan finished my set ups well and she played great handball. I felt I just wasn’t fit enough but fair play to her,” said the gracious runner up.
A strong Irish contingent is also expected to take part over the Christmas period when the U.S.H.A Junior Championships take place. All Irish handball enthusiasts are looking forward eagerly to the2012 World Championships at Citywest Convention Centre in Dublin.