Like so many ball
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
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
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 southpawÂyou’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
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 finalsÂit 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.
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
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]