LONDON—Every year at this event, the doubles players get asked about the experience of playing at the World Tour Finals, with its massive arena and sizeable, enthusiastic crowds. The question relies upon the contrast with the usual fare of doubles specialists—smaller venues, outside courts, tiny crowds—and is particularly pointed, or poignant, when it’s a team’s first or last time at the O2. Both are true in the case of Jonathan Marray of Great Britain and Frederik Nielsen of Denmark, surprise Wimbledon winners in 2012, unlikely to be here again in 2013. Not because they’re not a good team—they beat fifth seeds Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna today—but because Nielsen wants to concentrate on singles, leading Marray to seek a new partner.
It’s a shame, because they’re a great team on the court and with the media, but their one-off appearance here is fitting considering their lightning-strikes-once victory at Wimbledon. They’ve only played four ATP events together since, making today just their 17th tour-level match of the season, and there’s an appropriately ad hoc quality to them: Marray gets up too early for TV changeovers, they don’t have matching outfits and, unlike their smooth opponents, they’re prone to mingling unforced errors with flashes of brilliance, like the three fantastic service returns they land to break for the first set.
There are, according to the BBC, around 17,000 people in attendance for this match in a mostly-full arena, and most of them are rooting for Marray, the first native-born Briton to compete in doubles at this event. Good hands at the net from the pairing get loud cheers, while impressive points from the Indian pair are greeted by polite but non-committal applause. When a match point comes and goes at 5-6, as Marray’s return hits the top of the net, the disappointment is palpable. It’s unsurprising that the second set quickly gets away from Marray and Nielsen after that, falling behind 0-4 in the tiebreaker and failing to recover, and with the champions’ tiebreaker in place of a third set, there’s no time to regroup. It looks like the prospect of a victory for Marray and Nielsen will prove as ephemeral as their partnership, as their moment in the limelight.
Marray, after all, is 31; he has that kind of overgrown schoolboy physique that used to be de rigeur for British tennis players before Andy Murray, and a face that wouldn’t look out of place in the Shire. Besides Wimbledon 2012, his CV is pretty blank. Asked after the match to identify the opposite pole of his career to this one in terms of tournaments, he plumps on an experience in Uzbekistan: A six-hour car journey from Tashkent, staying in local residents’ flats, an uprising which had an armored convoy from the British consulate sent to collect him and bring him back to safety. It’s a long way from the five-star accommodations in London, but there’s something about Marray which leads one to suspect that he probably took the experience in his stride. “It’s all character-building stuff, isn’t it?” he says cheerfully.
Nielsen’s demeanor is more dour, his humor drier, but his sense of perspective is just as healthy. “We’re sitting here doing a press conference after a win in the O2 arena. Normally I would sit in the locker room in Loughborough and consider what went wrong in my singles qualifying match … When I’m playing my singles tournament that nobody gives a rat’s ass about, I’m sure it’s going to be back to reality.”
The fall from grace and return to reality, as Nielsen puts it, seems imminent as Bhupathi and Bopanna go 5-1 up in the champions‘ tie-break. But whatever potent underdog magic carried Marray and Nielsen to their unlikely, invigorating Wimbledon title isn’t quite spent yet. It starts with a point against serve courtesy of another excellent return from Marray, then another to get back on serve. An ace from Bopanna brings up match point, and the tension rises as Marray misses his first serve against a background of scattered ‘C’mon Jonny!’ shouts. A big second serve sets up a fine volley from Nielsen, but a winning return sets up a second match point on Bhupathi’s serve at 10-9. It’s saved with a quick-fire exchange of volleys, won by what Nielsen later calls Marray’s ’Matrix reflexes’, that has people leaping out of their seats to cheer. A double-fault gives the British-Danish pair a second match point, this time on their own serve, and it’s Nielsen who slams down a big serve for the win.
There’s a cheering, scrappy, stirring quality to the victory, which makes the question posed in the afterglow—of why Nielsen is unwilling to commit to a full-time doubles partnership with Marray—particularly cogent. This is so much fun, runs the subtext, why spoil it? Nielsen answers that he’s ‘not prepared to sacrifice’ singles for doubles, or vice versa, which seems strange as in many ways he appears to be doing just that. But when he elaborates, it’s both disarming and uncompromising: “If I skipped singles now, it would be for the sake of results and money and that kind of stuff. That’s never going to motivate me. … I don’t care if I have to play singles in a lower-ranked tournament than doubles would bring me, because I know there’s other places that I want to be.”
This, please note, is a singles career in which Nielsen is ranked No. 362, has earned less than $300,000, and doesn’t look that likely to blossom into greater relevance any time soon. That locker room in Loughborough is not a metaphor. But fun as Marray and Nielsen were at Wimbledon, as fun as they were today, it’s not a decision one can really bemoan. You have to respect somebody who’s so definite about what they want, for one thing; for another, there’s no guarantee—quite the opposite—that Marray and Nielsen, even if they did commit to a partnership, would ever be able to repeat the feats of 2012. But they have at least two more matches in their future and both of them, clearly, are looking forwards rather than back.
MARRAY: If I do well here, I’ll be—what’s the word?
MARRAY: I’ll be attractive to anyone else. Thanks, Freddy.
NIELSEN: Any time.
The exchange ends, like the best things, in laughter.