INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—This tournament has become known, among other things, as the ATP’s yearly showcase for doubles. By which I mean that the event coaxes at least a couple of the Top 4 singles players, the bankable stars, to enter the dubs draw.
The fact that doubles for these guys continues to be a one-off rather than an essential part of their careers, a way to practice for the Olympics or make a few bucks for the friends and relatives they choose as partners, leaves me unsure of what to make of their matches here. Doubles hasn’t been a spectator sport of its own for three decades, though it was once was. It’s hard to believe now, but for decades doubles had an entire U.S. Open of its own; the singles at the country’s national championships was played at Forest Hills, while the almost-as-popular National Doubles was held at a different time at Longwood Cricket Club near Boston, so that the singles players could enter. While Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic want to win with their partners in Indian Wells, it obviously has nothing like the urgency that other past star teams, like Rosewall-Hoad or Newcombe-Roach, felt when they played. Two sports have been melded into one, with doubles getting a demotion.
Here you watch for the novelty, for the crowd’s enjoyment of seeing a star in a different, more informal setting, smiling more, coming out of his grim and jumpy competitive trance, showing a new side of himself that he can’t show when it’s all-business in singles. Yesterday the crowd got a fairly rare look at the top two singles players in the world, Nadal and Djokovic, in that setting. How did they look there?
Djokovic was, as most players are with a friend on court, more relaxed, less edgy. When Feliciano Lopez hit an ace past his partner, Viktor Troicki, Djokovic slumped his shoulders and hung his head in a show of deflation that was more theatrical than it would have been in a singles match. Doubles players always feel like they can be more social—i.e., human—out there.
As far as his play went, what was most interesting was Djokovic’s return. We know it’s an all-time great shot, but it was challenged in a different way in doubles. Here, with an opponent crouched a foot from the net, you can’t just get a return back in play. You must, at the very least, direct it to one side of the court and try to keep it low. These demands inspired Djokovic, who was playing in the deuce court, to some of the more acrobatic improvisations I’ve seen from him. On one return, he took a slice serve that was coming into his body on his backhand side, stepped to his right, and at the same time reflexed a ball back crosscourt (an inside-out backhand on the fly) that landed a foot inside the line and eventually won his team the point. On another he did the reverse: Djokovic took a lefty slice serve that was tailing into his body on the forehand side, did a little hop forward, and in mid-air caressed a forehand crosscourt for a winner.
In this sense, Djokovic becomes more of a counter-puncher in doubles, and shows us more of what we already know is his specialty. While he moves forward quickly and knocks off shots at the net when they’re presented to him, he isn’t a natural volleyer, and he stoned a couple of sitters on Friday. When he was asked about his good returns afterward, Djokovic countered, with a smile, “True. But a couple volleys didn’t work too well.”
A few hours later, it was Nadal’s turn to show his doubles side. More than Djokovic, Rafa becomes a different, bolder type of player with a partner. His uncle and coach has said that his natural tendencies when he was younger were more aggressive than he’s shown as a pro. I guess he feels comfortable enough to show them off on the doubles court, because he’s more proactive around the net than you would expect from his attrition-based singles style. Like a man suddenly with a lot less to lose, Rafa seems to relish the opportunity to push forward into the court.
What’s most noticeable when Nadal plays against top doubles players like Michael Llodra and Nenad Zimonjic, their opponents last night, is how much of a wrench he throws into the works with his game and his pace. These guys don’t see a forehand like his very often, and Nadal can blow open a doubles match with it. Like Djokovic, he’s also not a natural volleyer, but Nadal wings it well and shows off his latent team-sports player in the process. When he and his partner and friend, Marc Lopez, won the final point, the 10-time Grand Slam winner turned and grinned at him with unfeigned excitement. As a colleague joked last night, “Rafa really could just cut Lopez a check at the beginning of the year instead of playing these doubles matches." But then he wouldn’t be able to play quite as much loosely energetic tennis, tennis without quite as much to lose.
If crowd reaction is any indicator, the people in Indian Wells liked seeing Rafa’s social side, and the social side of tennis that’s brought out by doubles. It doesn’t have the urgency or importance it once did, but even with little on the line, the sight of four people on a court running around at the same time is still worthy of being a spectator sport of its own.
Top guys aside, my favorite part of yesterday’s showcase was seeing a lesser star, Feliciano Lopez, play in a different and seemingly more comfortable setting. Lopez, who plays dubs regularly, came up with line-painting lob volleys, nicely measured serves, and well-timed poaches. An often-anxious singles player, in dubs he’s freed to use his touch and court sense without as much anxiety. We saw a different side of Feli—that is, until the old one returned. Late in the second set, with his team up a break, Lopez suddenly got tight. He stopped crossing as aggressively and let poachable returns pass him by at the net.
Singles is singles, doubles is doubles, but tennis is tennis. You can’t hide forever out there.