Doubling Down

by: Steve Tignor | March 14, 2012

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LeINDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—At most tennis events, the farther away the seats are from the court, the more likely they are to have people in them. This isn’t because the view is better up there, obviously, but because real live tennis fans, rather than corporations and sponsors, are able to buy them. If you’ve seen any of the BNP Paribas Open this week, though, you’ve likely noticed that one very good seat—the best in the house—has regularly had a person occupying it. Row one, center aisle here belongs to Indian Wells owner Larry Ellison. The Oracle founder and current sixth richest man in the world is also a real live tennis fan.

Ellison is so much of a fan, in fact, that two nights ago he ventured out of the main arena, away from its luxury boxes and hospitality suites, and took his place among the Southern Caifornia masses to watch tennis on Stadium 2. What brought him all the way over there? Rafael Nadal, mainly—Ellison is a Rafa fan. But what Ellison ended up seeing and enjoying as much as everyone else in the house wasn’t Nadal in a showdown with Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, but a third-round doubles match. Unless the richest really are different from you and me and the rest of the crowd in Stadium 2 that night, Ellison must have left with an appreciation of what doubles can offer as a spectator sport.

So how can we get all get more of it? How can we get a match like that, which wasn't on TV, to be seen more widely? Indian Wells in the Ellison era, which began two years ago, has become known for its doubles event in a way most other tournaments aren’t. It has done this by luring the brand-name singles players—Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Murray, Roddick—into the draw. The buzz that this injects onto the grounds, and the crowds that come to see them play, show us two things: (1) That doubles is still valid as a spectator sport on its own; it just needs to be showcased differently; and (2) That the only way to showcase it properly is to involve the top singles players, who are both recognizable to every sports fan, and who make the style of play much more exciting and varied. For better or worse, stars count. They provide more than just highly skilled entertainment; they give fans something to care about, a story to follow.

The trouble is, we know, that the Big 4 or 5 or 6 rarely take the doubles court anywhere else. The relaxed nature and spring-training feel of Indian Wells make it a good spot to get in a little extra practice, even if it might get in the way of their singles—there’s no chance these guys are going to do that at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. The upshot is that the men's tour misses out on a huge opportunity, which is, essentially, to create a second sport under the name of “tennis.”

I shouldn’t say “create”: “re-create” is the more accurate term. I wrote briefly earlier this week about how doubles once did have its own, separate identity, exemplified in the amateur era by the existence of the National Doubles. Held at a different time and location—Longwood Cricket Club near Boston—than the National singles (now known as the U.S. Open), it allowed the world’s best singles players to team up and compete. Tilden, Budge, Kramer, Laver, Emerson, Newcombe: All of them are on the National Doubles champion’s roll.

Judging from the memories of the people who were at Longwood in those days, from Bud Collins to former Indian Wells tournament director Charlie Pasarell, few events in the sport are as mourned. In those days, a team like Newcombe and Roche, or a few years later, McEnroe and Fleming, could be as recognizable a brand name as any top singles player. The stands and grounds were full at Longwood in its heyday; at the Australian Open this year, they were almost completely empty for the men’s doubles final, despite the fact that the Bryan brothers were going for the all-time men’s major-title record. Compared to the epic singles final between Djokovic and Nadal, it didn't register.

Which leads me to ask: Why not try to expand the Indian Wells experiment and create a National Doubles tournament for the professional era? It would require getting the top singles players involved, which would involve, of course, a lot of money. Perhaps there’s money to be spent, and made, by Larry Ellison or another promoter, on something like a World Doubles Invitational. It might have a limited draw, not beholden to ATP rankings, that would include the top singles players along with established doubles teams like the Bryan brothers, Nester-Mirnyi, Paes-Stepanek, and Dolgopolov-Malisse. It might, if room could be found, be held at Indian Wells on a long weekend before the tournament now starts. Or it could be a special event at an indoor arena, like the current yearly exhibitions held at Madison Square Garden. Wouldn’t a serious doubles tournament beat the hits and giggles they have there now? An Invitational would also, hopefully, get the stars in front of a TV audience a few more times, without too much physical stress on them.

With all of the appearance fees and prize money that would be needed to get something like this off the ground, an Invitational might be a tough business model to make work. And a one-off event wouldn’t get the top guys playing dubs at Wimbledon. But a dedicated doubles showcase would be fun. As Ellison and anyone else who watched Nadal-Lopez and Dolgopolov-Malisse charge around Stadium 2 knows, the doubles product is there. It’s waiting to be sold.

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