do we love doubles?
the court’s long expanse of white with red trim, this great bright ocean
liner plowing through the winter seas? For its infinite shotmaking capabilitiesÂthe
high-flying Philadelphia shot, the astonishment of the reverse volley
three-wall-dead-into-the-nick, the risk and glory of the double boast,
the bread-and-butter, you-hit-that-loose-stuff-I’m-going-to-hit-this-till-the-cows-come-home
cornerÂshots that have sadly disappeared with the end of hardball singles?
For the truth that there is, with doubles, no limit to the playing life
of the happy squash player, that the game’s most loyal
players are nonagenarians? For the pleasant sight of mixed doubles? For
the regulation, in 1933, that the doubles ball, “shall be pneumatic and
at a temperature of sixty-eight degrees shall have a rebound upon a steel
plate of thirty-six inches from a drop of one hundred inches”? For the
fact doubles means two, team spirit and combination, first man and second
man, your ball, I’ll cover those hard cross-courts over your head, thanks
for bailing me out, yessssssssssssssss PARTNER?
for all this, but also for the fact that squash doubles is a quintessential
American game. Of all the national games involving a racquetÂsave the
blasphemous game of racquetballÂonly squash doubles is born and bred,
U.S.D.A. certified, prime-cut, red-blooded American.
court, a box of 22,500 cubic feet, is exactly the right amount of space.
It creates a remarkable situation where creativity is contained and constrained
by the law of gravity. Doubles works because of limitations. The game
is one of close-combat violence. Four players, all standing in close proximity
to each other in the middle of the court, bash a little rock at each other.
To the novice spectator, the violence looks random. The angles and combinations
of ricochets, the volcanic spray of drives, rebounds, volleys and drop
shots, cloud the newcomer’s eye. To the initiated, doubles bears zen-like
fruit. The two right-wall players circle each other throughout the point.
So do the left-wall players. The unspoken rule in squash doubles is that
if one team is striking the ball, the other team gets room in front to
stand and wait to return the ball. Therefore, both groups of two players
are constantly revolving, like two gears in a machine, like two couples
dancing, like two pinwheels side-by-side
blowing in a hurricane wind.
geometry dictates what these spinning vortexes can do. The brutal simplicity
of the gameÂa box and a ball and a stickÂdemands orthodoxy. Parabolas
of drives, tangents of drop shots, swirling cosines of caroms are all
predictable. Speed and spin can vary slightly, but once the ball is played,
any seasoned player can immediately decipher where the ball is going,
when the ball will bounce back and what would be an appropriate response.
Responses, naturally vary, and within one point (many rallies last more
than one hundred hits) the momentum can shift a dozen times as players
dig themselves in and out of trouble.
sense of balance
is always a sense of balance with four people on one court. “Successful
doubles results,” wrote Al Molloy, long-time squash coach at Penn, “when
one partner supplies the power and the other the finesse.” That is the
usual pattern, which is why the mid-1990s combination of Gary Waite and
Jamie Bentley, two of the hardest hitting doubles players in history,
was so lethal. It was power and power, and their three-year unbeaten streak
was a testament to turning Molloy’s dictum upside-down.
course Waite & Bentley
also won because both men could hit good dropshots. “All of the greatest
doubles champions have been shot makers rather than retrievers,” wrote
three-time national doubles champion Victor Niederhoffer in 1979. “Diehl
Mateer, who won the doubles titles on eleven occasions, is probably the
greatest left court player. He goes for winners at least once in four
hits.” Doubles calls for the sharpshooter and the
sniper, Dirty Harry with a Dunlop triggerfinger. The doubles court is
large and long, one hundred and thirty-eight percent larger than a singles
court. All that room up front is too tempting. Why lob and hit the ball
deep in hopes of one’s opponents coughing up a loose shot? Why be predictable?
Stop this nonsense of one hundred-hit rallies. Shoot.
American cat and mouse
mentality thus produces a game where players are trying to prevent shots.
“The essence in doubles,” continued Niederhoffer, “is to place you team
in an area where it’s impossible for your opponents to go for the point
with a high percentage shot.” Instead of patiently waiting for a loose
shot, players try more to prevent their opponents from being tempted by
a shot. This cat and mouse is what makes the game
truly apple-pie and stars-and-stripes. The individual is waiting to bust
out with a stylish shot that declares, “I am here, I am a great player.
I can break the mold.” All the other racquet sports reward consistency
and patience and endurance, keeping the ball in play and waiting for mistakes
and unforced errors. But doubles rewards the bold. That is why we love
doubles. It is so American.
[ Read part I:
The origin of doubles, also by James Zug]