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.