Women's Doubles: Tennis' Best-Kept Secret

Friday, October 21, 2011 /by

You’re a fan. You keep up on things. No doubt you rode the emotional roller coaster as Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer battled over five tense sets in the U.S. Open semifinals last month. Surely you caught every moment back in January when Francesca Schiavone gutted it out over Svetlana Kuznetsova in a four-hour, 44-minute fourth rounder in Melbourne.

Pikers, those matches. Yawners.

At least in comparison to the most exciting tennis of the year—matches you almost certainly missed and maybe didn’t even hear anything about. I’m talking about Flavia Pennetta and Gisela Dulko coming from waaay behind in the final to win the Australian Open. I’m talking about Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina madly crushing winners throughout a surprise run to the French Open final.

That’s right, I’m saying what you think I’m saying. The real action in professional tennis, the greatest thrills and surprises, comes from women’s doubles. It’s the best-kept secret in sports, with even second-week Grand Slam matches played before only a smattering of spectators and no TV cameras.

It ain’t right. Casual tennis fans view doubles as filler between singles matches, as the equivalent of the rodeo clown diverting your attention before the bronc rider is set loose. But perhaps the problem is that they don’t know what they’re watching.

“You need to understand the game,” says Kveta Peschke, the reigning Wimbledon champion with Katarina Srebotnik. “Where to play, where to place the ball. It’s a different strategy than in singles.” That lack of comprehension even reaches into the players’ ranks, she says. “Sometimes you can have a player who is great in singles, unbelievably good, who doesn’t really understand the game of doubles.”

Top singles players, as a general rule, are better pure athletes than top doubles specialists, no doubt about it. But that’s not necessarily the same as being better tennis players. Good doubles players “understand the game in its totality,” says Rosie Casals, a tennis Hall of Famer and a nine-time doubles major champion from the 1960s to the early ’80s. “You see the variety of the game, the finesse, the teamwork, the volleying. Not just the groundstrokes.”

Casals is old school. She loves to watch players like Liezel Huber, Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur play doubles, “because they get up to the net,” she says. But she adds: “When I see the rest of them, one’s up, one’s back, sometimes they’re both back on the baseline, I don’t enjoy watching them play.”

She makes no bones about why she’d rather watch something else. “If they had been playing during my generation, I’d have beaten them every time,” she says.

She’s probably right, but this variety—one up and one back, both back, both up—is part of what makes women’s doubles so thrilling these days. And it’s what sets it apart from men’s doubles, which remains pretty true to the storied net-rushing days of yore. Women’s doubles is not one-style-fits-all. It’s the Wild West out there.

Women’s doubles offers keyed-up baseline rallies that lodge a stone in the spectator’s throat because there’s no rhythm. There can’t be: The opening in the window for each shot is too narrow, as each player works to get her opponent off balance without allowing a kamikaze poach from the net. In singles, the lob is almost exclusively a desperation defensive shot; in doubles, it’s the perfect counter to a traditional net-rushing team, with a series of expert offensive lobs—the ball suddenly soaring heavenward and then dropping like a dead bird into the corner—capable of breaking an opponent’s will.

It may drive Casals nuts to see both players on a team in the backcourt, but it can be one of the most beautiful sights in tennis, with the players moving together like synchronized swimmers, first inching forward and then galloping off at extreme angles.

Peschke agrees with Casals that the style of play has changed in recent years; she admits that many players today “are scared” of hitting volleys. We can talk about the racquet technology and co-poly strings, but the change hasn’t come about because of the equipment. It’s that players today aren’t taught to play at the net, their grips often are too extreme for it. “Yes, they’re hitting hard, the pace is difficult to deal with, but if you’re a good volleyer, you can volley anything,” says Casals.

So, OK, this might not be a golden age for doubles playing on the women’s tour. But it is a golden age for doubles watching.

Peschke, who has been as high as No. 26 in the world in singles and is currently No. 2 in doubles, says women’s doubles is perfectly suited to fans who want an edge-of-your-seat experience.

“It’s definitely much different than singles. It can be very exciting in the mode we’re playing now, with the super-tiebreak, which you cannot find with the singles,” the Czech veteran says. “Sometimes a point can really change the whole game.”

So close, Kveta. Doubles players are used to being overlooked, to underestimating their appeal.

Peschke is right about how exciting women’s doubles is, but it has nothing to do with the super-tiebreak, a dubious innovation. The excitement instead has everything to do with players like Peschke going all out as if the seats around them were full, blasting groundstrokes, snapping off gorgeous lobs and—yes—hitting volleys, scared or not.

Douglas Perry writes about tennis for The Oregonian.

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