SquashTalk>Columns>"Clio's Corner": James Zug>Origin of Doubles Part 1
The Origins of Doubles - Part I

By James Zug. May 10, 2000. © 2000 . Funded by SquashTalk.com. Do not reproduce online without permission.
Photos: Top: Freddie Thompkins, courtesy Racquet Club of Philadelphia, next: Xerox Doubles, 1983 Briggs, Mike Desaulniers, Mark Talbott, Mo Heckscher, WPSA archives, next: Mass State Doubles 1999, Vaugn Winchell, bottom: Johnson Doubles, 1980 : Mo Heckscher, Mo Khan, Clive Caldwell, Mike Desaulniers., WPSA archives.


[ Read part II: The beauty of doubles]

Like so many ball sports, hardball doubles was invented by an Englishman, and, better yet, an Englishman with too many sisters.

The court tennis and racquets professional at the Racquet Club in downtown Philadelphia, Frederick C. Tompkins, created doubles in 1907. At the time his family was the greatest name in the ancient sport of tennis. His great grandfather and grandfather had kept the tennis court at Merton College, Oxford (his grandfather was world champion in the 1860s), his father managed the court at Brighton, and for most of the nineteenth century a Tompkins was the best tennis player in Great Britain.

Freddie Tompkins

Before coming to Philadelphia in 1904, Freddie Tompkins had coached court tennis in London and racquets in Malta and was, therefore, intimately knowledgable about the leading racquet sports of the time. And about how to work in tandem with others: he was the youngest of seventeen children. He surely knew something about sharing.

Tompkins was, nonetheless, a true Englishman. When Jimmy Dunn arrived at the Racquet Club in 1928 as an schoolboy assistant, Tompkins took one look at him and reportedly said, "You're Irish, you're a red-head and you're a southpaw—you'll never make it." Dunn soon broke his left arm playing football, became a right-hander and managed to stay on at the club for the next fifty-five years, becoming one of America's most beloved racquet sports pros.

Creative Floor Plans

In the autumn of 1907 the Racquet Club decamped from its original home at 923 Walnut Street (at Twelth Street) to a new building at 215 South Sixteenth Street. It put in five singles squash courts, a court tennis court and two racquets court on the clubhouse's fourth floor. Across from one of the racquets courts and next to the stairs leading down to the locker room was an unused space. It was much too large for another singles squash court and too small for a third racquets court. Tompkins knew exactly what to do. "Why, you have just the right amount of space," he told the club managers, "to build a court for that grand old English game of squash doubles."
There was no such grand old English game, of couse, but the club, ever attuned to things Anglo, agreed to put in a doubles court.

And so it came to pass that in the winter months of 1907-1908 in the new Racquet Club, Tompkins paced out a enclosure forty-five feet long and twenty-five feet wide, laid down some red maple walls, shoved four men inside, gave them a dark blue ball and told them to hit it as hard as they could.

Where did Tompkins get the idea? Perhaps from his childhood, from having to share everything with his sixteen older siblings. But perhaps from the fact that for many years in the nineteenth century there were two standard sizes of open-air racquets courts, a sixty feet by thirty court for singles and an eighty by forty court for doubles. Playing doubles in a larger court worked for racquets. Why not for squash, the game created from racquets?

Slow Start on a low court

Like many new games, doubles had a shaky infancy. The United States Squash Racquets Association had just been created, and squash was barely holding its own against the more popular winter court game of squash-tennis (basically tennis in a squash court). In 1907 the only city in the U.S. besides Philadelphia that had squash courts was Boston. After the First World War, as squash overtook squash tennis, doubles still took a distant back seat. The doubles court at the Racquet Club was not exactly a perfect showcase for the sport, for the clubhouse roof was directly above the right wall, making lobbing impossible. Few other clubs had courts and if they did, doubles tournaments were haphazard adjuncts to singles tournaments. To fill the draw, pros had to enlist first-round losers and the usual assortment of cocktail-lifting, bow-tie-wearing gallery gadflies. No one took it seriously

Rockaway and Greenwich

In the 1930s doubles suddenly became fashionable. The Gold Racquet Invitational, held in Cedarhurst, Long Island, inaugurated an "Informal Doubles" draw in 1930. A year later a second doubles tournament, the Invitation Doubles Championship, played at the Greenwich Country Club in Connecticut, was added to the fixtures list. On the last weekend of January 1931, Roy R. Coffin and Neil J. Sullivan, II, both Germantown Cricket Club players, won the sixteen-team Greenwich Invitation, beating R.F. DeVoe and D.J. Nightingale in the finals. In 1932 Coffin and Sullivan repeated their win at Greenwich, topping Prescott Bush and W. Stopley Wonham in the finals—it clearly was a prerequisite for doubles players in those days to have a plummy name.

In 1933 the U.S.S.R.A. annointed the Greenwich tourney as the nationals. Coffin & Sullivan, per usual, won the inaugural tournament, thrashing Lanthrop Haskins and Robert Goodwin in three games, six, eight and twelve. Women also played in the first nationals at Greenwich, with Sarah Madeira and Anne Page, Merion Cricket Club players, winning the title. More tournaments in Buffalo and Baltimore and Toronto and Minneapolis and most notably in New York with the Brooklyn Heights Casino Open (now called the Johnson) came into existence.

In 1934 the Racquet Club hosted the nationals and pushed it back to its now-traditional date of the third weekend in March "The final, held on Sunday, March 18, and played before a packed gallery of about two hundred, was productive of the finest doubles play that has been seen this year at least," reported Squash-Badminton, a monthly magazine, in April 1934. It was Coffin and Sullivan versus Perry Pease and old Wonham. "The Philadelphians won in three close games. Although there was little to choose between the four players, Sullivan's genius for bringing off winners from many positions, because of his great versatility, gave the defenders a slight edge."

Burst of Doubles Excitement in Britain

What was most astounding was that the wave of excitement over doubles washed upon the shores of the birthplace of squash singles, Great Britain. In 1935 "the grand old English game" that Tompkins spoke of came into existence when three courts were laid out following U.S.S.R.A. specifications: first at St. John's Wood Squash Club and Ladies' Carlton Club in London and the Edinburgh Sports Club in Scotland. In addition, Prince's Club, the Knightsbridge, London club that dated from 1853 and was the nineteenth-century nursery to court tennis and racquets, maintained a non-standard doubles court fifty-four by thirty feet, with a cement floor.

Starting in 1937 the Squash Racquets Association held a national tournament. The amateur winners that year were W.B. Scott and R.D. McKelvie. Don Butcher, the leading English player between the wars (and the last English player to win the British Open), was always on the winning side of the professional draw. Butcher was so good in part because he was the head professional at St. John's Wood. (He also was the first person to make an instructional squash video, which he filmed on the St. John's Wood doubles court in 1938.) Dreams of international competition were realized: the 1935 and 1937 British women took the U.S. women's doubles championships, and England and Scotland played an annual Test match against each other in doubles.

Post-War Blues

Alas, the Battle for Britain in 1940 killed doubles in London. Both St. John's and Ladies' Carlton were blitzed and destroyed, and Prince's closed its historic doors. In Edinburgh the court fell into disrepair during the war but play resumed in the late 1940s. The court hosted one particularly noteworthy event: in 1950 the U.S. beat England in doubles, which remains the only time America has beated the English on their own turf in any sort of squash contest. Today, over a hundred members, according to their club manager, regularly use the Edinburgh court: they play doubles with American racquetball balls, which the members don't like, or the new Dunlop oversized beginner balls, or, as their website demonstrates (www.edinburgh-sports-club.co.uk) they string up a net and play badminton.

Either way, the game once enchanted the Pommies. "It is magnificent, and it makes Squash seem an infinitely greater game even if one merely contemplates the empty court," the editors of Squash Rackets, Fives, Tennis and Rackets, a London monthly, wrote of the St. John's doubles court in January 1937. "There is no doubt at all that doubles at all games are infinitely superior to singles if only because they introduce that element of team spirit and combination which are so essential to sport. With the introduction of doubles there should really be no limit to the playing life of the happy Squash player."

[ Read part II: The beauty of doubles, also by James Zug]

 

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