First published on June 5, 2012
By ALAN THATCHER
I love playing doubles. And that’s not just because I’m growing old and slow and need somebody else (like a younger team-mate) to cover three-quarters of the court for me. I’ll make that abundantly clear, before somebody else dives in to make the point!
To me, and many others, doubles is a hugely sociable element of our fantastic sport. You can mix and match playing abilities, go for your shots, and try to keep out of the way as best you can to avoid a lengthy stay in casualty.
Oh, and doubles adds to the social aspect with one simple fact: there are twice as many of you in the bar afterwards.
I’ve played doubles in many parts of the world, and you share that same buzz on court, and in the bar, whether you are in New York, London, Toronto, Edinburgh, Portsmouth, Cambridge, Nottingham, Niagara Falls, Maidstone, Liverpoool, Chichester, Canterbury, Singapore or the Isle of Man.
Sadly, the only full-size doubles court in Europe (US doubles measurements) is housed inside the Edinburgh Sports Club. One of my career highlights was nursing doubles novice Chris Gordon to a narrow victory during a Derek Sword Trophy match a few years ago. Despite growing up in the States, Chris had avoided playing doubles until that trip to Scotland to celebrate the life of a former Scottish junior international and New York Athletic Club squash champion who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11.
My American and Canadian friends (and plenty more in Singapore) are staggered by the fact that crazy Brits try to play softball doubles on a singles court. Talk about mad dogs and Englishmen…
The full-sized hardball doubles court, so popular in the US and Canada, is a standard addition to almost every club. In Asia, huge numbers of club players enjoy taking part in the Jumbo Doubles Tour, taking in Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Indonesia. (Apologies if I’ve left anybody out).
These are hugely popular events with full-sized courts that are built for the purpose.
The problem with the type of doubles being played in the Commonwealth Games is that it is a sport that grew from the British tradition of playing doubles on a singles court. Down the years, experiments have taken place with moving walls until an acceptable size had been agreed on.
After the Allam British Open, a group of players from England, Scotland and Australia travelled to Birmingham to experiment with a lower tin, purely for doubles. The most popular height among the pros appeared to be the 11-inch tin, which produced more attacking squash and allowed players to go for winners more often than usually seen in the dull, attritional style of game that appears once every four years when medals are at stake.
Watch the top pros playing a doubles exhibition and you will see some of the funniest, slapstick entertainment on offer in the sporting world. Nicks, feints, holds and corkscrews are sprayed around all over the court. Nobody takes it seriously. Everyone’s up for a laugh. Players dive to the floor a split second before a team-mate rifles a shot in their direction, then stay there, grounded, for the rest of the rally, waving their racket at any ball that comes nearby. It’s great fun. It showcases the players as geniuses with the racket.
Put a medal in front of those same players once every four years and you will see an amazing transformation, like a squash lobotomy. These great shot-makers suddenly start behaving like automatons, driving the ball relentlessly up and down the wall, or mercilessly bullying a weaker opponent. Go watch some mixed doubles if you don’t believe me.
Long, boring matches are the result and your scheduling goes out of the window. Just ask Ong Beng Hee and Nicol David, who were forced to follow a late-night finish with an early-morning start in one well-documented tournament.
Oh, I nearly forgot the fights. Yes, wind back the clock to a clash between England and Australia, when Peter Nicol was accused of cheating and a nasty courtside argument almost came to blows. Yes, Peter Nicol, one of the fairest, most honest sportsman to have picked up a squash racket. And two crazy, testosterone-fuelled Aussies accused him of cheating and wanted to start a fight with the England coaches when words were exchanged between games!
I applaud the WSF for having a go at changing the game, but many of the players I know were surprised to see that a compromise height of 13 inches was agreed on instead of the 11 inches that many of them clearly favoured. Check out some of the Twitter posts to assess their feelings.
All in all it was a brave effort but we are missing the elephant in the room.
The only doubles worth playing professionally is on the big hardball court. It may surprise some people to learn that the ISDA Tour (now the SDA Pro Tour) has almost as much prize money as the PSA circuit.
Many former PSA members are supplementing their incomes in a healthy fashion playing pro doubles tournaments in the USA and Canada. They play most weeks instead of once every four years.
Perhaps it’s time we shook hands with America over that little matter of a few teabags being spilt into Boston Harbour and invited them back into the Commonwealth.
Then we might reach a sensible agreement on which style of doubles we should be promoting.