CROQUET:  1999 Fournier Wins Arizona Open

Arizona [American Rules] Open (28-Feb -- 6-Mar)
by Bob Alman


In the beginning was the block play.  On the seventh day was the finals.  In between, 26 Championship Flight players in the blocks were reduced to 20 qualifiers for the elimination ladder - the top 6 seeds in the top tier with three lives, the middle 8 seeds with two lives, and the bottom 8 with only a single life.

The top six were 17-year-old Jacques Fournier, his older brother Don, Neil Houghton, Mike Zuro, Mik Mehas, and Carl Hanson.  In the second round, Jacques confronted Mehas and lost his first (and only) game of the tournament.  In the next round Mehas defeated Don and got to boss position at the top of the ladder; but in the very next round, Jacques was eligible to play Mik again, and this time, the younger player won by 26-2.

Once more, Mik had to play Don, and once again, he won, which made him eligible to meet Jacques in the championship match.

It was a perfectly scripted conclusion: this was the confrontation most spectators - those who knew the history of these two players - wanted to see.  It was an extreme contrast of personalities and personal playing styles - not even to mention age.  ("Bad boy" Mehas is 42 years older than the teenager.)

The contrast was seen clearly in their first two games. Mehas won his low scoring victory in characteristic fashion, with his "out ball" tactics and canny management of deadness and rotation. Young Jacques on the other hand - currently the top placed American in the international rankings - has won most of his laurels in International Rules croquet.  He is accurate and consistent, and when he must play American Rules, he wins with perfect strokes instead of refined tactics and strategy.

Not much American Rules croquet is played in Arizona these days by the top players.  Before there was a USCA (or "America Rules") the Arizonans were playing not-bad International Rules croquet, at a level that was probably higher than the Eastern players in the USCA orbit.  In the early eighties, they investigated USCA croquet and were not very impressed with the newly codified American game.

But they decided, nonetheless, to inaugurate an American Rules tournament in 1983.  Arizona croquet pioneer Ed Cline told me how surprised they were when he sent out several hundred rather lavish packets including 12-color tourist brochures to Eastern players and received 40 registrations in the return mail - a big tournament for those days.  The Arizona Open has remained one of the top American Rules annuals in U.S.  croquet.

But Arizonans are still strong advocates of International Rules croquet, and Jacques matured as a player in the "Association" form of the game.  Although Mik Mehas certainly does not represent the USCA establishment as a "typical" American Rules player at any level, few would dispute his mastery of tactics and strategy in the game.  There is no doubt that over the last year, he has been the most successful American Rules player in the U.S.

Given all this history and the contrasts between these players, it is possible to make their finals day confrontation more significant than it really was.

The rivalry between the two is intense, often revealed in body language and verbal acrimony on and off the court.  The were both psyched up for the final.  Mehas exuded confidence, having recovered from a bumpy tournament start and a mishap with prescribed drugs earlier in the week.  When I asked Jacques how he felt about the final game, he said he was very confident. "What is the basis for the confidence?" I asked. Without skipping a beat, he replied, "There are six referees present courtside."

With sounds bytes like this, Jacques threatens to challenge Mehas in another of the older player's games: public relations.  The Palm Springs / Hollywood film producer carefully nurtures his "bad boy" image and plays it for all it's worth.  He even has "BAD BOY" in big red block letters stitched to the pants seat of at least one of his playing costumes.

When the final game began on time at 2:30 on Saturday afternoon at Gainey Ranch in Scottsdale, the two players enjoyed the rapt attention of the spectators, a mixed bag of tournament competitors and local croquet players. But they soon lost the crowd, because almost nothing happened in the first 15 minutes.  Mehas did succeed in keeping Jacques out of the game, while he set up both balls in front of hoop one and Jacques collected his two balls in corner one.

[This is a strategy present only in American Rules croquet because of the rules that play begins one yard from #1, and that there is no profit from roqueting a ball that has not passed #1.  The player going first blocks #1 with Blue, and then waits for his opponent to make a mistake.  A typically boring American Rules situation similar to the boring games resulting from three-ball deadness.]

Thereafter, they spent so many rotations making minute adjustments that even the players forgot which ball was to next to play.  The first time they turned to me for information, I was able to tell them.  The second time I was asked, I had to admit I wasn't following it that closely.


Finally, Jacques paused to ask referee Ren Kraft a question.  (It later turned out that the question was this: If red rushes yellow into Mik's balls at hoop one and goes out of bounds, is that a legal stoke?Ren's reply was, 'Yes.")

So Jacques assumed a golfing stance [!] over the balls, pointed approximately at hoop one, and rushed yellow very hard.  Yellow missed Mik's balls and went out on the East boundary....but red unaccountably stopped about 10 feet east of hoop one!Was this a mistake?Was it a tice?  I never had a chance to ask Jacques.

In any event, this was Mik's chance to win the game. Playing by the textbook, he shot black through hoop one, roqueted red, croqueted it to hoop two for his pioneer, then set black out on the court, preparing for blue to come through hoop one in the next turn and run the court.

If Jacques took the long shot at black from the East boundary and missed, Mik would easily pick it up and have an immediate four-ball break.

Apparently without pausing to consider the consequences of his stroke, Jacques struck his yellow ball, and it hit black squarely in the center.  The break now belonged to Jacques, and he took it all the way through rover, along the way cannoning blue out of hoop-scoring position at #1.  He seemed not to be distracted at all by the activity of his father, circling the court taking friendly bets that his precocious son would win the championship by a score of 26-1.  (He found quite a few takers.)

Then came the teenager's only glitch: In the process of setting up his red break, yellow stuck in hoop two while trying to clear rover deadness.  But Jacques peeled yellow through and continued his red break all the way to the peg, winning the championship by 26-1 - a "half Spooner", so named for Australian Neil Spooner, who first achieved this crowd-pleasing result in major American Rules competition in the early eighties.

Mik advanced to center court and congratulated Jacques on a game well played.The one long hit-in had made all the difference.The two will meet again, and often, and the case for big shots versus refined strategy is still not settled, and may never be until Jacques and world champion Robert Fulford meet in an American Rules finals.  (Fulford also consistently plays the "out" game in American Rules and agrees with Mehas that is the best way for a top player to defeat another highly ranked player.  Fulford beat Mehas in the 1998 Arizona Open final.)

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Last updated 15 Dec 2002