A Doubles Partner And Physics
In my post, "Decade of Perspective. Upfront.", this was my last sentence, "I see more transition this coming decade. One way or another. Do you know what I mean?"
Well, I (we) (almost no-one) didn't see this coming. All professional sports shut down and social distancing. This is NOT what I meant at all. But it is a deep transition into how we are experiencing our sports, which is mostly looking back to look forward to a time of normalcy. If you're not a first responder or an essential frontline worker who are all basically heroes for us at this time of Covid-19, chances are you're finding yourself with time you didn't have before as we ride this out as best we can.
That means hobbies, entertainment work from home, and keeping sharp physically and professionally one way or another. The flood of workout from home videos, and going live and general attempts from athletes at staying engaged is overwhelming for me because I try to stay connected to number of sports. (I'm so overloaded with workout videos now, so, Sudsy's Stay at Home Battles will be more than enough for me in that respect.) I see YouTube as a place of free learning, How-to videos, hobby reviews and retrospective viewing. When it comes to my playing sports, in leu of actually participating, I was finding a lot of videos of events I participated in that I haven't seen. So, I've played catch up. (Play list.)
This one in particular started me on a specific train of thought. As I watched, I was flooded with specific memories about how I was feeling playing this team. I remember how hot it was. I remember the ball and how pumped it got and how fast it was moving on the court at the time. The sun was basically baking it and the ball was flying off the concrete. Not that that was unusual but considering the team in front of us, I remembered how we had to adjust our play because of it. Not a big deal as things go, unless we didn't acknowledge it. (And I also remember getting cracked by Sebastian, which had my left knee looking like an apple for months.)
As a bit of an Easter-egg, at the time I was watching this, we were deciding on this year's WOR Hall of Fame inductees and for the first time ever considering a team for induction together as opposed to individually. So, all the attributes that make a great team were in fresh in my mind. The thinking of what it takes to make up a good doubles team, better yet, a successful doubles team over the long haul.
Scott and Austin Doerner
Photo courtesy: Tony Belmont Photography
As an example I could point to The Bryan Brothers in Tennis. Together they have 16 Majors that top their list of achievements. More personally fitting to the sports I play outside of racquetball and paddleball, there is a team in Pop Tennis that is dominant in the same way, The Doerner Brothers. They have 16 National Doubles titles and a run dating back to 2013 of 81 consecutive matches without a loss.
Paddleball legends Howie Hammer and John Bruschi
Likewise in paddleball, there are a number of teams historically that have played together consistently that have amassed very impressive records, Bobby Schwarz / Andrew Krosnick and Howard Hammer / John Bruschi just to name a couple.
However, with racquetball, I have to admit, my knowledge on the subject is limited to a decade of involvement, so following doubles has been mostly limited to the division being introduced to the pro tour divisions at the US Open. Though there was enough info bouncing around to catch a bit of it.
Sort Of A Rob and Freddy Prologue
Robert Sostre circa Late 80's-early 90's
Robert Sostre is the greatest One Wall athlete player ever. Rob showed up at the tail end of the big days of paddleball, a sport that was huge in NYC. To put it in perspective, during the 70's and 80's, almost every household in NYC had a wood paddle and some sort of ball, kind of the same way every suburban home with a backyard had a cheap badminton play set. (Yes, like that.) Rob turned pro in 1987 at age 16 and took the number 1 spot in the rankings right away. I'll have to take this bull by the horns some day and quantify my statements about Rob being the greatest One Wall player of all time separately... see his read on the WOR HOF for now. I mean the guy even has a couple of USHA National Handball titles. Jeez.
I wasn't yet playing tournaments at the time Rob burst onto the scene. I was balancing time with other sports, roller skating, blading and dancing, eventually moving to Miami to study art for two plus years. I met Rob when I returned to NYC in the early 1990's at the Leroy/Carmine courts in NYC's West Village. Back then, it wasn't uncommon for a core of us to play all afternoon and then sometimes until one or two in the morning.
We both played competitively throughout the early 90's. Rob continued in his winning ways and also successfully ventured into handball, where as I was typically a semifinal show at best in paddleball. The game at the time had mostly moved to a doubles format after Budweiser had stopped initiating competitions in NYC. See paddleball video.
The One Wall Racquetball Match Up
I first picked up a racquetball racquet to play seriously in 1995, when players began showing up to play One Wall racquetball at Carmine. I would get called out regularly every week and finally broke down and bought a racquet from a nearby Modell's that cost me 30 bucks. (I loved that thing.) I found I was actually better at it than paddleball. Maybe it was my mechanics or that it was faster or that less core weight is needed. Either way, I was really good. In 1997, when there was enough players in the city to actually hold a tournament, all the good players had teamed up and I surprisingly found myself without a partner. So, the night before the event, I called Rob who agreed to play. (I actually called... texting wasn't a thing yet.) The Rob I knew from the 90's was a complete stud, so my thought was, "Oh, we got this for sure." Problem was, he didn't own a racquet. So, I borrowed a couple from a friend. Rob broke the strings on both that day but we won the event after borrowing a third racquet. We would end up going 12 straight years without losing in match in competition. (We lost our first match back after Rob had two, that's 2, torn Achilles injuries. Thank you handball. Smh.) We've continue as consistent partners until today and I can count on my hands how many matches we've lost in tournament play.
What I Learned About Doubles
Now, I want this to be more about what I learned about what works for me in doubles and less about my history with Rob. But since most of what I learned came from playing with Rob, it has to be the base of which I look out into this view of competing and depending on someone else. Team sports, you play a role. Those roles are usually carved out pretty specifically. What you do directly affects your partner instantaneously. Just think of the words... teammate... partner. How you operate in those words changes dramatically with fewer moving parts. I say this because to understand what it takes to make a good doubles team, is to have an understanding of compromise and responsibility.
This won't be a listing of attributes that make a good teammate. People who practice team sports should know what those qualities are. They are seemingly taught to us universally beginning at a young age. Either you get it or you don't just want to. That foundation is found in character.
I will say, that in my processing playing with Rob over the years, there have been three distinctly notable instances for me in this space. Each helped me quantify certain perspectives. They helped me to realize what I have been doing all these years, effectively helping me to make it purposeful, in a presence-of-mind type of way.
2005 Outdoor Nationals at Golden West
This was my first foray into playing 3 Wall. Rob had gone to Nationals year before and convinced me to go. Nationals was held at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. (This was before the event changed its name to WOR Championships and moved to Marina Park, also in Huntington Beach.) We had, to date, been steam-rolling One Wall, so, trying something new was welcomed. It was a pretty big deal to me at the time in retrospect, because Cliff Swain was playing singles and there was so much talk about indoor players challenging established outdoor pros. It was around this time I became interested in who was who in the world of professional racquetball. There was a ton of banter about how the current crop of professional indoor players would get schooled if they played outdoors. Seeing Cliff get heckled in his first round by fellow WOR Hall Of Fame inductee Greg Solis, then watching Cliff romp Solis in the next round was gold. Cliff ended up taking the greatest Outdoor player ever, WOR Hall Of Fame inductee Brian Hawkes to a tiebreak in the Semifinal, in what would be Hawkes final competition before retiring. (Brian went out as champion.) It pretty much opened me up to the sport of racquetball, as an introduction into my world of thinking.
Rob and I had a pretty good showing, making the pro semifinal that year. But I honestly don't remember any playing. I do vividly remember watching one match in particular. I saw what I thought at the time to be a mastery of display in team work. Kevin Booth and WOR Hall Of Fame inductee Mike Peters were playing Ken Kiser and Scott McMasters. (I found out later that these guys were highly respected players throughout that game.) Now, the players individually were very good, but they weren't the type of players that would tear it up in singles and they weren't particularly young, so to speak. But they had a mastery that was accessibly watchable. The volleys were long and so well thought out between these guys. Both teams were verbally communicating and playing as units. Both teams utilized the whole court. (Those courts at Golden West College were huge.) Both teams where continually checking on each other, uplifting each other, changing pace, exchanging positions with their opponents in what seemed to me like a dance. I know that is a bit of hyperbole but I'll stick to that because that match screamed experience to me. I clearly remember sitting there and soaking up what 3 Wall racquetball was all about. Those guys got it. And my respect meter was off the charts that day. It was way more than just physical play. I still lean on what I saw that day.
A Conversation With Aimee Ruiz
In the early 2010's, I became more involved with traditional racquetball but on the other side of playing. I was photographing the US Open by then, playing with video and fan-boying professional racquetball by writing a ton about what was happening on the tours. That landed me an opportunity to work for Ektelon, a subsidiary of Prince Sports at the time, as a marketing consultant. I continued to play outdoor consistently but my playing and my work in racquetball remained kind of separate things. Aimee Ruiz at the time was working for Ektelon as the Promotions and Communications Manager. (Now, for those reading this, that are not from the racquetball side and even for those that are, remember, this is my opinion based on my experience and personal knowledge.) Aimee is arguably the most accomplished racquetball doubles player, historically, that has ever played racquetball. (I say this with two years working with the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour and awareness of what Paola and Samantha are doing - what Paola has done with other partners. I'll also add what Kane and Ben may be in the process of doing.) Aimee is truly accomplished as noted by her Wikipedia page. And I'll further note that Wikipedia doesn't include her 11 Mixed National Doubles titles with five different partners. It also doesn't mention her Outdoor exploits at the highest levels. Aimee has two WOR Women's Doubles Championships, three 3 WallBall Women's Doubles Championships, two Beach Bash Mixed titles and one Women's Doubles, and even a One Wall mixed title at 3 Wall Ball. Crazy. All with 4 different partners.
I didn't know Aimee very well at the time, but we would talk. She's easy that way. And I remember one conversation distinctly. We were sitting around shooting the breeze and joking and I began asking her about a particular partner... questions about how they play together, something along those lines. I must have asked her who was the better player and what was in line with the way we were bantering, Aimee said, "Oh, she thinks she is the stronger player." She went on to quantify that statement a little and we both kind of chuckled in the moment. But it was a statement that has stuck with me ever since.
I'll clarify that a bit. When you look at how many consistent partners she has had and the real success Aimee has been able to garner with all of them, at such a high level, it becomes almost a sage type of statement. Because it spoke to me as an intrinsic understanding of the type of professional relationship-development that fits pieces together. One I can relate with in no small way.
A Conversation With Freddy Diaz
Freddy Diaz is a childhood paddleball idol of mine. (I explain this in my Paddleball Video.) And I'm still lucky enough to have opportunities to talk to him about paddleball every now and then. One day, as I walked into Zerega, (a mecca for One Wall in NYC,) I had time to shoot the breeze with him. We began to talk about doubles. Freddy is well aware of my success with Robert and he shared a nugget that validated me to the core. Now to lay this out properly, it helps to say that Freddy, in his day, was truly a dominant player. Known as 'The Animal", he was an alpha player. We were speaking of course about One Wall paddleball and his comments went somewhat like this. (I'm paraphrasing here.) "There can only be one dominant player and both players have to know who that is. Even when you have two strong [alpha] players." That is an extreme view coming from an extreme player. And note, we were speaking specifically about One Wall paddleball. But I knew based on how our conversation was progressing, that there has to be a sort of complete understanding of roles.
When I first started playing with Rob, like I mentioned before, he was a stud. He already had a reputation of carrying partners, which for me, had me labelled from the get go. I was ok with that though. Mostly because I was confident in this space and knew my potential with One wall racquetball. We made a wicked strong team. We rolled that way for a long time. We got challenged a lot, sure. But I was playing with Rob. And knowing what I could do, I knew that if I let Rob be Rob and if we ever got in trouble, I had way more than enough in reserve for us. So, I never had any doubts about outcomes.
But there comes a time, when the pressure is on, where the links get tested. You put two dominant players together and something has to cancel out for efficacy. That is more apparent on smaller courts where court coverage isn't so much the issue as shot selection and deciding who takes what shots. Move to bigger courts like say a tennis court and you have deliberate strategies like Ad Court - Deuce Court. One Wall is closer to tennis than it is to racquetball in this respect. With racquetball, I gather, it's about the backhand side mostly. (I had to ask Sudsy Monchik this question to clarify it for me.) I know it more about chemistry, but principally, that's where the thinking starts. More over, there is trust. Trust is a decision and can erode quickly with the wrong kind of dialogue between partners.
With Rob, initially, we were both fast, slick and steady. So, I leaned heavily on the Freddy Diaz statement. (Again, enduring years of "being carried" comments.) But success often brings more opportunities. As we continued, note, twenty three years is a long time, and things change. We had to change and grow along with those years to keep things going.
This is why Aimee's Yoda-like statement sticks for me. I make deliberate choices. I chose an approach that best works for both of us.
Captains say which direction the boat is headed. But the guy with his hands on the rudder makes it happen. Likewise, the motor dictates how fast the car can go, but the steering wheel... well you get the analogies. You just have to agree on the destination. But in doubles, where there has to be a true partnership for success, the real question is who is the captain? Who is the driver? If this was physics, the answer would be quantum.
Now consider communication. At some point in a conversation, one person has to understand the context and move on that understanding. I let Rob be Rob. I couldn't do that for the long haul unless he knew my potential of course, because adversity always happens at some point or another. Then you need trust to continually succeed through it. (And over time... love.)
When considering age, of course there is no winning against that. If you can't adjust you can fall off, fast. Our game, one that started out as a steam rolling machine has become one of simply adjusting to the team in front of us in the moment. I'd say that is quantum too.