They Said What? Seeing Doubles

Friday, May 03, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“What people forget is that we (my partner Peter Fleming and I) played ten Grand Slam doubles [finals] and we won seven. Before they start telling everyone how great Bryans brothers are, look at some of those numbers. It’s like people think we’d be afraid to go out there with them, that’s what’s weird about it.”—John McEnroe,in a conversation with me,on the greatest teams to compete in doubles.

As is often the case, McEnroe is using a bit of hyperbole to make his case—in this event, the case that doubles statistics are almost useless. The vast majority of elite, Open-era singles players never played frequently enough to take their rightful place in the record books, while the “doubles specialist” has become a staple of the ATP Tour.

McEnroe is more than qualified to make that argument because, he finished number one in doubles for five consecutive years, 1979-83, and held that ranking for 269 weeks—trailing only present-day double specialists Bob and Mike Bryan, and them not by very much at all: At the start of this year, Mike had been No. 1 for 308 weeks, and Bob for 299.

But also consider this: For three of those No. 1 years (1981-1983), McEnroe was also the top-ranked singles player. “Hey,” he told me, half in jest, “Combine all my weeks at number one and I can give Roger (Federer) a run for his money!”

You can debate the value of doubles and the credibility of the rankings until the cows come home (even McEnroe suffers in that exercise; because some of his great rivals, including Borg and Lendl, rarely doubles), but is there any doubt that McEnroe proved himself the most versatile player in the history of tennis—and by a country mile? He won 77 singles titles—and 78 in doubles.

That great singles players are automatically as good in doubles is beyond dispute. Federer has a doubles gold medal, but only a silver in singles. Nadal never played Grand Slam doubles, but he’s 3-0 in Masters 1000 doubles finals. Connors won 19 doubles titles as a part-timer, and even Bjorn Borg managed to bag four.

But McEnroe is the only player among the 10 most prolific Open-era Grand Slam doubles champs to even make a major singles final. The only player among that top 10 to even crack the vaunted Top 5 in singles (aside from McEnroe) is Sweden’s Andres Jarryd, who played just one Grand Slam semifinal (which he lost) and won just eight singles titles. His career-high singles ranking was No. 5, but he also hit No. 1 in doubles and won eight major titles.

Not a single top singles player since the heyday of McEnroe has made a significant impact in doubles (Stefan Edberg reached No. 1 in singles and doubles), and that’s all well and good. Two types of tennis may be one too many for mass public consumption, as interesting and downright enjoyable as the doubles game is—and as challenging but remunerative singles has become. And give all the credit in the world to the Bryans for not only their spectacular success, but for what they’ve done to keep the game of doubles in the forefront of the public imagination.

But that superior winning percentage of McEnroe and Fleming—70 percent vs. the Bryans' 56.5 percent, on a 13 of 23 record in majors—makes a pretty compelling case for McEnroe and Fleming as the best if not most prolific doubles team of all time.

As Fleming said when he was asked to name his choice as the greatest doubles team in tennis history: “John McEnroe and anybody.”

Amen to that.

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