The Rally: Doubles Your Pleasure?

Thursday, February 27, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In anticipation of next week's doubles exhibition between the McEnroes and the Bryans in New York, Pete Bodo and I discuss the role of doubles in today's pro game, and how it might, or might not, be expanded.

*****

Pete,

Maybe the most intriguing part of the upcoming exo at Madison Square Garden is the all-brother doubles match between the Bryans and the McEnroes. As you know, Johnny Mac put some spice into this one last December when he asked, "Doubles—why are we even playing it?"

Mac, one of the best doubles players in history, said he thought today's dubs players are "the slow guys who weren't quick enough to play singles." That doubles should be eliminated and the prize money given to "singles guys ranked between 200 and 1000." That the Bryan brothers would never have made it as singles players, and that, "When I hear people call them the best doubles team ever, "I'm like, 'excuse me?'"

That last part is kind of a giveaway: You have to think just a tiny, little, wee bit of this comes from the fact that Bob and Mike have passed Mac's records for doubles titles and weeks at No. 1, no? But what do you think of McEnroe's argument, Pete? You covered doubles when he and other top singles players weren't quite rich enough to blow it off. Has the product suffered since then, to the point where tennis would be better off if it disappeared?

*****

Steve,

Your analysis certainly brought a smile to my face on this cold, snowy day in Manhattan. Yes, there is that "tiny, little, wee" (you forgot minuscule) element of resentment in McEnroe's attitude toward the Bryans. It's understandable, though, given McEnroe's character. The guy has a finely honed B.S. detector, hampered only by Mac's inability or unwillingness to also apply it to himself.

Nevertheless, I don't think the product has suffered since the days when Mac rode herd on the game. It's gotten much better and more competitive, largely because just when doubles appeared to be on the brink of extinction, the establishment made a concerted effort to redress some of its flaws and resuscitate the game. Before the emergence of doubles specialists (I mean in force; some always existed in the game) and the more recent, unexpected interest great singles players have shown in doubles, doubles was much more of a catch-and-catch can proposition.

But I think there are two not-so-obvious components in McEnroe's disgruntlement. First, as much as Mac enjoyed doubles, I think he's skeptical about the way the aggressive lobbying and promotional talents of the Bryans (plus their father, Wayne) have aimed to make doubles a real and credible competitor with singles for money and exposure. That particularly sticks in Mac's craw because the Bryans are true doubles specialists, and I don't think he ever felt that "doubles specialists" would be the equal of a doubles team featuring at last one mega-star in singles (as he was), provided the team with one or two singles stars applied themselves to the task of doubles with any regularity. This is somewhat ironic, given how frequently McEnroe himself lamented the fate of doubles in the Open era.

The other thing is the Bryans' style; which to me is a very straightforward, bread-and-butter game based on two main components—power and communication. In a way, the Bryans are doubles grinders, there's never any talk about "full flight" Bryans or "creative" tennis when it comes to them. All they do, as Al Davis advised, is "Just win, baby." So McEnroe, who had true creative genius, probably feels some measure of contempt for the style of the Bryans.

So let me toss it back to you with this: Do you take pleasure in watching doubles and, if so, is there a certain team you especially enjoy watching? And do you think that if the singles stars didn't occupy so much of our time, you could get sucked into the art and significance of doubles? Lastly, how do you feel about the match-tiebreaker now used to decide so many matches at a set apiece? Are those results as credible as those in full-blown three-setters? 

*****

Pete,

I actually think doubles, point for point, can often be more exciting than singles. There's the energy that comes from having four athletes on court, in close proximity, and there's a wider variety of shots employed. Lobs, volleys, half-volleys, poaches, sharp angles, low slice returns: Those aren't rarities in doubles. When Billie Jean King formed World Team Tennis in the '70s, she thought doubles was the game of the future.

So why do I almost never watch it now? I'd say Billie Jean was wrong about doubles in general, but right when it came to its place in team tennis. I usually get into doubles now mainly during Davis Cup, when there's something bigger on the line. In tournaments—and this goes to Johnny Mac's point—I don't have much invested in the players, no matter how well they play their version of the game. Part of that is marketing, but part of it is just knowing you're not seeing the best there is. It must have been a different feeling to watch Newcombe and Roche at Wimbledon than it is to watch the current No. 2 team in the world, Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares. (I'm staying with the men here, because I think that's who McEnroe was talking about, but the idea is the same on the women's side.) As much as I respect the Bryans—no one works as hard to promote the sport—I agree with Mac that they can't be called the best ever, because of the competition they've faced.

But that changes for me when there's a singles star on court. At Indian Wells, the presence of Federer or Nadal in doubles matches on side courts brings a lot of excitement to the grounds, and seeing someone like David Nalbandian use his hands in dubs was always fun. I've always thought one small start to helping doubles would be for someone with the money—say, Larry Ellison—to fund a doubles invitational, primarily with the top singles players involved.

Even without stars, doubles does fill the grounds at big events; whether that's worth the prize money is probably a question for each tournament director. You seem to like the doubles game today, Pete. Do you see any way to raise its profile, or is it OK as it is to you?

*****

Steve,

Well, as much as I enjoy doubles, I don't see an overpowering need to raise its profile. I like to think of myself as a realist, and I've always said that the only thing wrong with the game of the doubles is that there's something called singles. Really, we don't have 18-on-a-side baseball, or 22-per-team football—by nature the game of doubles is redundant, at least in terms of being a spectator sport.

Something else I've said, and for which I've gotten a lot of grief, is that people go to see doubles for the same reason they visit the monkey house at the zoo. You actually make the trip and buy the ticket to see the big cats and the bear, but you can't resist stopping to watch the monkeys and always find yourself grinning afterward. Doubles by nature lacks that critical component of two individuals in straightforward confrontation, which is a more powerful allure in tennis than some realize.

This goes right to your speculation about a doubles-only event. The sad fact is that doubles-only tournaments have always been a very, very tough sell. People have tried every which way to make stand-alone doubles a viable spectator attraction, and they've failed miserably. For a long time, the ATP had their year-end doubles "Masters" as a separate tournament, and they tried to make it work by hooking up with some resort or new vacation spot in a kind of promotional trade-off. But that didn't really work out, and later attempts by able promoters like Jim Westhall to sell doubles-only events in tennis-starved markets also fell flat. The bottom line, and it's damning for doubles, is that people simply will not play just to see doubles. If they're shelling out money, they want drama, and recognizable names. 

It's funny, but just two weeks ago I got a nice note via Facebook from a guy who was a doubles specialist, and who did very well financially despite struggling as a singles player (he was in and out of the Top 100). I won't use his name because it was a private conversation. When I told him that I felt really badly after writing a column more or less trashing doubles because I genuinely liked him, and some other doubles guys, he essentially laughed it off and said that as he looks back on it now, he feels he was more or less stealing money by being a doubles specialist. They were good days for him, criticism be damned!

Well, it's all interesting stuff, I guess. And I have no grudge against anyone or anything, and as long as tennis promoters feel they can afford doubles—full speed ahead! I'd hate to see doubles vanish from the game because it's different enough from singles, fun in-and-of itself to watch, and a game with a rich history worth preserving.

But there has always been a real threat of overvaluing doubles. The trick is to keep doubles in perspective. If you do that, you can take the game for what it is and enjoy it, and the players can do the same. Doubles is also a great way for a singles player to stay sharp (as McEnroe did), but these days the main force working against that is scheduling. No matter how you cut it, if you play doubles you automatically take on a double workload at every event, even if the actual time on court is shorter and less physically demanding than singles. As long as that's the case, the top players will never play doubles regularly. 

One thing I really do like about modern doubles is its streamlined format, but I also love the fact that the Grand Slams have rejected the match-tiebreaker and play it out the way God, or at least Tony Roche, intended. 

By the way, even if doubles vanished from the pro game, it will remain the more popular game at the amateur/rec level. Wouldn't it be just too weird if the form of tennis played by most enthusiasts didn't exist as a professional endeavor?

******

Pete,

I'm going to have to disagree with your comparison to "18 on a side" baseball. Doubles isn't a novelty form of tennis; it's been played since the game was invented. As you say, it's also what most weekend warriors play today, so it still has a major place in the sport as a whole. Singles has the drama of one-on-one competition, but doubles is the drama of team against team, or two against two. Either way, it preserves the head-to-head aspect that we love, and four people on a court can make for even more intense warfare than two. And for anyone who misses seeing lobs and volleys in the singles game, doubles keeps those atrophied elements of the sport alive. 

It's true that doubles-only tournaments have never caught on in the professional era, but in the amateur days the old National Doubles, held at Longwood near Boston each year, was a major event. It was the equivalent of the U.S. National singles at Forest Hills; the two tournaments were staged at different times, so the best singles players had no trouble also playing doubles. (That ended with the start of the Open era in 1968.) That's what I mean when I say I'd like to see a doubles invitational involving the top singles guys—Nadal and M. Lopez, Federer and Wawrinka, the Murray brothers, maybe Tsonga and Monfils. I think fans would rather see something like that than what we have now at Madison Square Garden each year.

But I understand that one event would never be enough to keep men's doubles in the public eye year-round. These days, that's not going to happen unless Federer and Nadal play all the majors in doubles, and not as a lark or a practice session. Probably the only way to guarantee that would be to try a suggestion that Tim Mayotte made some years ago when he was involved with the ATP: Make the rankings based on singles and doubles results. We're a long ways from that ever happening, so it's hard to even imagine suggesting it again in a serious way; for one, it would probably mean decreasing the number of sets the men have to play in singles at the Slams. But I like the concept, anyway. We would see more of Federer and Nadal and the game's other big draws on court, and less of the doubles specialists—the game's "monkeys in the zoo," as you say. 

My final question: I know you love Davis Cup; you can't tell me you don't get into the doubles in that competition, can you, Pete? 

*****

Steve,

Well, it looks like I've turned you into an evangelist for doubles! And that's just fine because it is in its own right a terrific game—what troubles it has really stem from the unavoidable comparison with singles, and the fact that doubles has permanent second-class citizen status until the day it gets the same degree of support from the players and/or interest from fans. There's a reason doubles never made the same Open era transition as singles.

When it comes to Davis Cup, you're dead right. One of the things I most like about the Cup is the inherent importance it assigns to doubles, not just in the score column but also in the format that calls for a doubles-only day. Davis Cup shows how great doubles can be, not just in the way we all know—those exciting rallies, the warp speed exchanges at the net, the artful poaching, and switching of sides to take overhead smashes—but also in terms of the built-in drama and stress. I've said before that compared to singles, doubles lacks that grand, dramatic magnetism, and it's one of the inherent flaws of the game. In Davis Cup, that flaw is eliminated. Doubles matters. 

However, that just doesn't carry over into tournament tennis, and we all might as well get used to it and sit back to enjoy the doubles for what it is. And there's a lot to appreciate and savor in that game. One of the things I like about doubles is the contrast in the styles we've seen over the years. There have been remarkable finesse teams, like Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillen, and terrific power duos like Stan Smith and Bob Lutz. I sorely wish I had had a chance to watch the legendary "Sydney twins," Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall in action. Some teams were a bit harder to characterize, like Ken Flach and Robert Seguso, or the second best doubles specialists of the Open era, the Woodys (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), who to my mind were a shining example of how the strength of partnership can transform two otherwise flawed competitors and create a whole greater than a sum of its parts. 

Well, that's about it at my end, and we didn't even get to talk about the Williams sisters, and how they might fare against a team like, say, Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. I guess we'll have to leave it for another time.

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