What Is To Be Done About Doubles?

Last weekend one hundred and ninety-eight players swatted the ball at the national doubles in Philadelphia. It was another spectacular event. Only nine pairs entered the women’s open, but they were an extremely strong group. Trevor McGuinness took the men’s open, becoming the youngest player to win it since a twenty-one year-old Tommy Page swashed his way to the title in 1978 (Diehl Mateer was also the same age when he won his first title in 1949); McGuinness also becomes the first guy to win it before he matriculated in college. 

I wrote an article for the tournament program that elicited a lot of e-mails, telephone calls and rabid discussion. So, in an edited version, here is what I wrote:

Does this sound familiar? “I don’t care if the rest of the world is playing that version of the game. Ours is much better. Ours has a great history. Ours is more fun to watch and more fun to play.”

This is what we said about hardball v. softball on the singles court. But look what happened in the past fifteen years. There are a whole panoply of reasons why the U.S. switched—it’s a whole chapter in my book—but the bottom line was the number of countries that played each version. Why do we think squash doubles will be any different in the long run?

In the short run, we have been doing very well. The past eight years have rightly dispelled much doom and gloom about hardball doubles. The rise of the ISDA and now the WDSA is fantastic. Tournaments are packed and the new national ones—Father & Son, Century and now Mother & Daughter—are spectacular successes. It seems every club has a member-guest. The new US Squash’s doubles committee has led to a revamped World Doubles format, North American rankings and corporate sponsorship.

Most of all, the spate of new courts is impressive: resort dubs in Nantucket, Vail, Sea Island and Johns Island; private clubs like the Jonathon, Olympic, Westchester Country, NYAC, Cleveland Racquet, Philly Country, University of San Francisco and Apawamis (they’ve broken ground); public clubs like the Fairmount, Charleston Squash, Long Island City and Southampton; and out-of-the-way quirks like outside Richmond and the Whippanong.

Hardball doubles celebrated its centennial last October and the game has never been as vibrant or strong.

Underneath it is appears a little like rearranging the deck chairs. We have lost courts: the City Athletic Club, Lone Star Boat Club, Dartmouth, Bowdoin (in early May), Gates Rubber Co. in Denver, Glade Springs in West Virginia, Middlebury, Lewis & Clark, and the Jewish Community Center and the University Club in Detroit. (We have about a dozen more courts now than we did in 2002.) Major squash cities like Seattle and Washington still do not have courts.

The ISDA has plateaued in terms of tour stops and prize money, still has not garnered significant corporate sponsorship and somehow Philadelphia, the country’s flagship doubles city, again did not host an event this season. You take away the New York City-area (six of sixteen events this season) and the tour, in this recession, suddenly looks a bit fragile.

Moreover, Canada is not the robust partner that she appears to be. Sure, she has incredible players and Toronto is gagga on dubs, but she has not had the same court boom we have had. Guess how many Canadian clubs outside Ontario have courts? Twelve.

Softball doubles is a real threat. It is being poorly managed (the switch to a 27 1/2 foot wide elite-standard court was a disruptive decision) and yet, there are four hundred courts in thirty-two countries; according to ASB’s Markus Gaebel, ASB has built 315 of these courts themselves (all but ten are with movable walls). Softball doubles is a medal sport in the Commonwealth Games; if we get into the Olympics, we’ll play softball doubles. It has a bi-annual World Doubles Championship—the 2008 event is being held this December in Chennai, India. The Country Club of Johannesburg just built four gorgeous, new permanent softball doubles courts last year. There are old club championships (the RAC in London has had one for half a century) and new tournaments everywhere. Doubles, internationally, simply means softball.

And just like softball singles, softball doubles is creeping into North America. Heather Wallace’s club in Ottawa has a thriving softball doubles program. There are twenty-two softball doubles courts in the U.S., according to US Squash’s latest survey; that is double what we had in 2003. Some are never or rarely used; but both the Concord-Acton Club in Boston and the Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis have serious softball doubles action—the 2008 Massachusetts state softball tournament had thirteen teams (and no entry fee). In 2005 US Squash even sanctioned our first softball doubles nationals, to select players to go to the 2005 World Softball Doubles.

To avoid repeating what happened with hardball singles, we should:
1. Continue to support accessibility—clubs like Fairmount are a key to growth in the U.S. We have one hundred and three courts in the country but less than a seventh are public.
2. Ask Gordie Anderson to get hardball doubles court specifications up on the World Squash Federation’s website.
3. Continue to maximize every existing court, with more juniors, collegiate and post-collegiate development as the focus.
4. Get the portable glass court up and running, so we can show off pro doubles. Pro doubles is our shop window, but the largest crowd in the history of U.S. doubles was under two hundred people.
5. Most importantly, we need to do what we never did with hardball singles: expand the empire and go beyond Canada and the U.S. The fact that our court is so big should not be a deal-breaker; with movable wall technology, two softball singles courts can easily slide to make one hardball doubles court.

The first step is to surely take advantage of the overseas regulation hardball doubles courts we already have: the two courts, built in 1962, at the Reforma Athletic Club in San Juan Tototepec on the edge of Mexico City (where the Copa Wadsworth is being held next month); the court, built in 2001, in Tijuana, Mexico; the three courts built in the 1970s in Asia: the Royal Bangkok Sports Club in Thailand, the Tanglin in Singapore and the Raintree Club in Kuala Lumpur; and perhaps most importantly the court, built in 1935, at the Edinburgh Sports Club in Scotland. There should be yearly tours to these clubs to drum up interest in playing hardball, to raise standards and to bring them into our North American community. Once we get a foothold in Europe and Asia, then we can perhaps persuade other clubs to build courts.

This is naked imperialism. In the end, this is the only way to ensure that hardball doubles will celebrate its bicentennial.

5 Responses to “What Is To Be Done About Doubles?”

  1. Michael Letourneau Says:
    Great article and well said. An update on Canadian hardball doubles courts for you. Calgary (Alberta, Canada) now has 2 doubles hardball courts ( 1 new one on past 6 months) with 2 other clubs considering adding to that total. While Calgary is a softball town we had at one point 1 softball doubles court that basically bombed due to lack of interest. Our current 2 hardball courts are used often with the hardball doubles player base getting bigger and better.
    Your article ‘What is to be done about Doubles’ is both interesting and thought-provoking.
    There is, however, one reference which I wonder about. You write that “McGuinness also becomes the first guy to win it before he matriculated in college.” In your book (Pg.106) you wrote that Diehl Mateer passed up a third intercollegiate title to play in the national doubles. Since he won the doubles in both 1949 and 1950 he presumably did so as an undergraduate.
    Am I missing something here ?
  3. Viktor Berg Says:
    Always enjoy your work Zug…
  4. Guy Cipriano Says:
    I really think that hardball doubles is here to stay and that the softball version, while fun and a good diversion, can’t compare. I”m not too worried about the erosion of the game because unlike hardball singles, hardball doubles is tied to private clubs and their constituency couldn’t care less what the ISRF or the colleges do or don’t do. I just read Niederhoffer’s description of doubles in the final chapter of Barnaby’s book- really great stuff and super advice. Your dad is featured prominently, with great respect from Victor! I”m not sure we’ll be able to make much headway internationally, but I do think that Gordon Anderson is the key to the promoting the game long term in private clubs which is the bastion of the game. Incidentally, rumor has it that a glass wall court is being fabricated for ISDA play next year. IF that’s the case and it’s true, I think we’ll see a real fire lit , esp. if the USOpen is held in an open place where people can watch. Watching Mudge /Berg v Price Gould is indescribably better than watching Ashour v Palmer and they get great crowds at Grand Central. That could be the key to igniting a fire. Hope it’s true. GUY CIPRIANO
    PS The ISDA is the best value for a spectator dollar in the world, hands down. It’s so exciting and the players are all so great that singles pales by comparison. I hope the ISDA can convince Jon Power and guys like Ricketts and Palmer to play. They’d be flat out NASTY and the more, the merrier!
  5. Guy Cipriano Says:
    PS the courts which you described , with the exception of Bowdoin College and City AC never really got that much play . The court at Lone Star Boat Club was dreadful from the day it was built, and some of the other courts just collapsed and had no constituency. The legit clubs who do have courts report tremendous support and high court usage. As for Middlebury I didn’t know they had a court, and the University Club of Detroit has been out of business for at least 15 years, taking a racquets court out of service as well, which is a damned tragedy, but the UCLub Detroit was in a combat zone and there was just no chance for survival. The trend is defintely on the rise, though. PPS David LeTourneau, son of Michael LeTourneau, is an outstanding player and current intercollegiate champion. Peter Cipriano would surely like to get a shot to play with or against him next year – they would do some serious damage!

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