They Said What? The Doubles Question

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

“I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles. Would it be better. . . if there was no doubles at all, and we invest all the money we save elsewhere, so that some other guys who never really got into a good position in the sport end up playing more in singles?”John McEnroe, broadly acknowledged as the greatest doubles player of all time, to the Times of London.

McEnroe, whose love of doubles is indisputable, makes an interesting point here. Changes in the game in the past few years have furthered the evolution of that unique individual, the doubles specialist. But it’s unfair to denigrate, even by implication, the players who take advantage of a doubles infrastructure created by the ATP, and the improved doubles prize money that has been offered in recent years.

The reality is that while McEnroe was a genius in both divisions of the game, the brilliant doubles specialist—as well as the elite refusnik—have been part of tennis since the dawn of the Open era. That great singles players almost always make top doubles competitors is a fact of tennis life. But that doesn’t mean great doubles players must by definition be outstanding in singles as well in order to have credibility. Nor does that reality undermine today’s players any more than many doubles champions of the past.

Ironically, McEnroe himself benefited from the indifference some of his peers felt toward doubles. Jimmy Connors rarely played doubles once he punched through to the top. He did win 16 doubles titles (including two majors, both with Ilie Nastase), but that record pales when compared to his singles prowess, which produced 110 titles.

As well, Bjorn Borg won 64 singles titles and a paltry four doubles titles, and it wasn’t because he was too speedy to hold his own with all those “slow” doubles players. Mats Wilander won the same number of Grand Slam singles titles—seven—as career doubles titles of any description. Stefan Edberg was an off-and-on doubles competitor, with 18 tournament doubles titles (compared to 42 in singles).

Moreover, if you go back through the honor roll, you’ll find it littered with those “slow guys” who turned into titans in tandem, much like Bob and Mike Bryan. Pairings like Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodridge, Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, and Paul Haarhuis and Jacco Eltingh, among others, were teams that added up to a lot more than a sum of the singles parts. Few of those men had significant singles success, except perhaps for brief periods, and many had none at all. The evidence is conclusive: There is such a thing as a great doubles player who stinks at singles. If anything, it gives the doubles game greater rather than less distinction as a unique version of the game.

McEnroe’s comments suggest that he resents the extent to which the Bryans have been able to rewrite the doubles record books, but you can hardly blame Bob and Mike for being so good at what they’ve chosen to do—something into which they’ve flung their hearts and souls with dedication that no player focused on winning singles titles can afford.

Besides, I’m not sure how taking all that doubles money and putting it toward developing singles players would really improve the game. I don’t see any shortage of quality singles players on the tour now. McEnroe’s suggestion may allow more players to make a better or easier living, but do you really need, say, 500 guys capable of qualifying for Wimbledon, rather than the present 200? Or 700? Why not 3,000?

I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made for eliminating doubles at the ATP tour level, but not because the game lacks credibility. It would a terrible waste to destroy all that history and tradition—fraught as that history may be with asterisks and qualifiers. Let’s not forget that those asterisks have existed since the dawn of the Open era, and McEnroe himself benefited from them.

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