Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Focus

The sweet THWOCK! of success Add to ...

A game of doubles squash with four of the best players in the world happens so fast that at first it feels like flu, unsettling, almost queasy. It's dangerous - four men with stiff clubs in a small white room. But intelligent, too - sleek and watchful and fast all at once, explosive power brightened by collisions, competitive but constrained. A useful metaphor.

It's a bit like watching a four-man National Hockey League game on one-16th of a rink: Sidney Crosby and Jussi Jokinen, say, going against Alexander Ovechkin and Jarome Iginla, like four big angry bees buzzing around inside a stoppered bottle, to borrow the late American sportswriter Herbert Warren Wind's brilliant description of squash. It's a game so unknown it's exotic, a relic from the tribe of the vanishing WASP. Everything happens fast, but the pace changes faster. You can see the players thinking. What you can't see or even imagine is how they react so quickly.

And, of course, there's the howitzer sound as the hard, hollow ball hits the wall at more than 200 miles an hour, a gratifying cross between a pow and a thwock , the sound dynamite would make if it knew how to kiss .

The wiry guy with the red hair is Gary Waite, originally from Sarnia, Ont., the best doubles-squash player in the 100-year history of the game - a 10-time world champion with five undefeated seasons. We'll never see his like again, though he is unknown to all but a handful of Canadians.

But if a quixotic dream of Mr. Waite's comes true, a lot more people will be playing and watching a lot more doubles squash. He wants to transform the athletic love of his life - a pastime of at most 18,000 people in North America - into a popular sport. (By comparison, there are more than 540,000 registered hockey players in Canada alone.)

When the International Olympic Committee sits down in Copenhagen this October to decide if squash qualifies for inclusion in the 2016 Games (up against contenders such as karate and "roller sports"), doubles will be touted as one of its appeals.Mr. Waite is even thinking about changing the name of the game, to "rebrand" it and "disassociate it from the image of squash."

Naturally, then, in the tiny, cozy world of racquet sports, a lot of people think Gary Waite is a Philistine. Everyone else thinks that he's dreaming.

But his timing is good. The last time doubles squash underwent a big boom in popularity was the Great Depres-

sion. Something about losing 30 per cent of our collective net worth makes us want to crowd into a little room and run around like madmen while trying not to kill each other.

Born to run

Why, on an unseasonably cold morning late in April, would a man wear a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a thin sweater and no socks to bike to a café in downtown Toronto? Because he is Gary Waite, and he's a physical lunatic.

His standard workout is an eight-mile run. "Once you lose the ability to run," he explains, "it's very hard to play sports well." If he runs three miles in less than 19 minutes, he'll let himself stop. If he doesn't make that, he has another chance to stop at four miles, but has to arrive in less than 25 minutes. If he misses again, it's 6.2 miles (10 kilometres) in less than 39 minutes. "And if I don't make that, I have to run my eight miles, in whatever."

Mr. Waite has always operated by his own eccentric rules. Six-foot-one and 175 pounds of muscle roped around a rangy frame, he deferred his entry to Harvard for a year at the age of 17 to play professional squash in Europe.

By the time he graduated with a degree in art and literature nine years later, in 1995 - having taken a total of six years off to play - he was the No. 1 hardball-squash player in the world, No. 11 in softball squash and No. 1 in doubles, playing 42 tournaments a year and flying overseas to compete weekends in Germany.

He's 42 years old now. He has five children, the youngest born last month. He makes large abstract expressionist paintings in his spare time. Brainy, worldly, active, successful - as a class, doubles-squash players are a demographic wet dream.

Mr. Waite's next move was to invent the professional doubles-squash tour. He turbocharged the sport by hitting the ball faster and harder than anyone ever had, bringing a tackle-like power to what had been a touch game, a gentlemanly sideshow.

"Waite's a bit notorious for that," says Brian Murray, a director of the doubles committee at Squash Canada, which oversees the sport. (The fact that Squash Canada has a doubles committee, as well as a doubles competition committee, a doubles development committee and a doubles officiating committee, says everything one needs to know about old-style squash.) "He'll send a shot off the side wall near your head just to scare the shit out of you."

Mr. Waite realized that he preferred the demands of hardball doubles squash - with its rapid, strategic shot-making and intense focus - to the softball singles game, which rewards endurance. But to understand that sentence, we have to pause for a few background details. In a game that isn't driven by television and mass-audience programming (at least not yet), the details are everything.

A lot of racquet

Tennis was invented by French monks in the 12th century. The monks played with their hands; a racquet was added a hundred years later by the Dutch, who had previously given the world the hockey stick. The game of racquets, invented in British debtors prisons in the 1700s, was a down-market derivative of tennis, played against a wall instead of in a court. The boys at Harrow School further modified racquets in the 1860s, playing with a shorter, more manageable racquet and a fast, hard, hollow rubber ball (rubber had just become commercially available in Britain) that "squashed" when it hit the wall. Hence the name.

The indoor game and the hard bouncy ball were well suited to North American winters in thinly insulated squash courts - and also to doubles, invented in 1907 when the owners of the Philadelphia Racquet Club had space left over after building new squash courts - half again as large as one singles court, but not enough for two. Frederick Talbot, the club pro, told them that it was just enough space for "the old English game of squash doubles." He had made the game up on the spot.

But back in Britain, as squash became more formalized (the rule book wasn't written until 1912), the hardball was deemed "too large and too fast for English sensibilities." To make the game easier and attract players, they adopted a larger court and a series of ever "softer," slower, more inert balls. The softball hangs in the air more and requires fewer racquet skills.

Today, softball squash is played by nearly 20 million people in 175 countries. Jahangir Khan, one of the greatest players of all time, adorns a stamp in Pakistan. But the only place hardball squash is played any more is on a doubles court. There are about 180 of them in North America, and they cost $80,000 to furnish, once you have the basic frame. Gary Waite's dream has a long way to go.

But Mr. Waite is persistent. He takes the long view. He promotes the faster, trickier doubles game in high schools and colleges, and a junior circuit has sprung up. (At least five new doubles courts have gone up in Toronto of late.) He's helping to design a por-

table, glass doubles court that can be erected in front of large crowds in spectacular venues - games have been played in Grand Central Station in Manhattan and at the foot of the Pyramids at Giza.

If he can increase the number of people who play doubles, rebrand it like tennis and make it work on TV, Mr. Waite hopes that it might one day be as popular as ... well, skiing would be great. He and others have successfully pushed the game in troubled inner cities via the National Urban Squash and Education Association. And he staged the first world doubles championship on May 9 in San Francisco. The World Squash Federation sanctioned the match for the first time - an encouraging sign that doubles may have a future at the Olympics.

But the real secret to doubles' new-found growth may be that it's easier on the body. Canada's Jonathon Power, the first North American to top world rankings in softball singles (he's known as the John McEnroe of squash for his habit of mouthing off to referees), points out that "as you get older, it's easier to run in one direction, and harder to change direction, from left to right and back again.

"Doubles is very much about keeping to your side" - one plays right wall or left wall - "and then playing up and back. Whereas singles is much harder as your body ages." The knees and hips of most of the 20 million people who currently play singles will eventually give way, but they will still be able to play doubles. There are 85-year-olds playing at the U.S. national level in the four-person game.





Four to Tango

One Friday evening this spring, the so-called Tango in Toronto takes place at the prim, private Badminton & Racquet Club in the heart of the city. The Tango is an exhibition match Mr. Waite is using to make a pilot showing what doubles squash might look like on TV.

He's in the locker room with three fellow pros, the rest all in their early 30s: Victor Berg, a slight, nimble Vancouverite who is tied for No. 1 in the world professional doubles rankings; Damien Mudge, one of Mr. Waite's winningest former partners, who shares Mr. Berg's No. 1 status; and Ben Gould, at No. 3.

Mr. Waite and Mr. Gould are in orange jerseys, Mr. Berg and Mr. Mudge in yellow. All their shorts are white, though: It's a rule of the club. The B&R (once nicknamed "Be an Aryan") is the kind of WASP palace where members coming off the indoor clay tennis courts knock the green grit from their tennis shoes with a little paddle the club provides expressly for this purpose . A poster at the front desk advertises an upcoming screening of the film Slumdog Millionaire , to be followed by a "lively discussion." Price: $20.

For an investment of $25,000, five separate cameras are filming tonight's action. It's primitive, of course: The Super Bowl boasts more than 30 cameras on the field alone; an episode of Survivor uses 150. Mark Melnyk, an experienced TV sports producer Mr. Waite has hired, is hyping the emotional drama - the fact that Mr. Mudge and Mr. Waite, former partners, are now opponents. Programmers from the CBC and TSN are in the audience.

Warming up in the locker room with what for anyone else would be tendon-splitting lunges, the players are quiet. None of them lives by squash alone. Mr. Berg develops condos with his father in Richmond, B.C.; Mr. Gould is the pro at the Rackets and Tennis Club at 53rd and Park in Manhattan. Mr. Mudge does the same thing a few blocks away at the University Club on Fifth Avenue. He's six-foot-four and 205 pounds but moves like he's five-foot-two and 150 - a vast, fast blade of a man who might easily have played cricket in his native Australia or, as he sometimes thinks, made a fortune in American football.

There are a hundred people stacked in the steeply racked spectator gallery at the back of the high, deep, churchy court, familiar and yelling and drinking. But everyone falls silent when the action starts. A doubles court is 45 feet from front to back: Mr. Mudge and Mr. Waite seem to cover it in three strides, plus reach. I can't actually see their legs moving.

The game races up and down the side walls and crosscourt, the rallies lasting 50 seconds at a go. Mr. Berg, precise as a pin, drops shots so subtle and seductive they could make a woman take her top off. Mr. Mudge goes literally horizontal on one hand and the sides of his legs. Mr. Gould is all power and more erratic - he's playing with stitches in his racquet hand from a dog bite a week ago. And then there's Mr. Waite, the eldest by a decade, tiring faster but always where he has to be, nailing 150-mph three-wall nick shots that expire in the corners. Every once in a while, he exhales with a moan, forcing himself to breathe.

And over it all, there's the slurry of racquets beating the air, an octet of sneakers squeaking as the players rotate and lunge and that satisfying thwock . I'm sitting next to a woman who has never seen a game of doubles squash: "I like the way they touch each other, and move each other out of the way," she says.

The scoring system is so complex it ought to be a question on the SAT. If the game ties at 13, players can elect to play to 2, 3 or 5; at 14, they can play to 1 or 3.

"Why is it so complicated?" I once asked Waite.

"It's a plain white room," he replied. "You have to have something to do."

And 160 minutes later - more than an hour longer than a game of soccer, often said to be the most physically demanding professional sport - it's over. Mr. Mudge and Mr. Berg win, three games to two. The gallery gives the players a standing ovation.

"This is amazing," says Jeff McNair, a spectator. "I've never seen anything like this."

If that awe translates to TV, Mr. Waite has it made.

The snob snag

The biggest obstacle to the spread of doubles squash may be its perception within the status-obsessed world of racquet sports. Tennis and squash players still argue about which is the harder game, but doubles is considered even more infra dig by skilled squash snobs.

Nick Griffin comes from a family of skilled tennis and squash players: He played varsity squash at the University of Western Ontario, his father plays in the over-50 Canadian national doubles tournament and his brother Adrian, the pro at the Adelaide Club in Toronto, won this year's Canadian Open doubles-squash championship.

What irritates Nick is that he can run circles around his father in singles squash, but on the doubles court "the war of attrition is taken out of it. If you're 22 and you're on the court with two guys in their 50s, and they're beating up on you, you think, what's with this? Doubles squash is an equalizer. Everyone's competitive."

"I think that's why a lot of people think doubles is a bit of a sideshow," his brother Adrian adds. "Because they think it's not a true test of athletic capability.

"Is it a true test if some 40-year-old can get out there with a 25-year-old and still beat him?"

Good question. Maybe higher, faster, stronger should add smarter to the crest. Maybe in an age when steroidal team productivity is financially over-rewarded, people are relieved to see what Mr. Waite and his fellow pros represent - individual talent that plays less for money than for the love of competition and the game, what Italians who played tennis (the painter Caravaggio was one - he had to flee Rome after he killed a man on the tennis court in a dispute over the score) once called sprezzatura . You can't score it, and it doesn't pay much, but it has value.

Actually playing doubles squash is the proof of that. A few days after our meeting in the café, Gary Waite and my lawyer, Allan Kling, paired up against me and John Lennard, an old friend of Mr. Waite. Mr. Lennard, an internationally successful painter and jazz saxophonist, is a former professional squash player. Mr. Kling and I are as inept as they are brilliant.

But in equalizing doubles the sublime can face the useless: All that matters is being well matched.

Our contest lasted an hour and a half. Waite-Kling won, three games to two, but they were all as close as three points. Two went to tie-

breakers. I never actually saw Gary Waite crack a sweat, but he never seemed bored.

"Any advice?" I asked him before we started the second game.

"Yes," he said. "Hit the ball." Sometimes that's enough.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @BrownoftheGlobe

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular