Singles Hitters

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 /by
Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil won Wimbledon, followed it up with a title in Atlanta, and moved to No. 7 in the ATP’s doubles race. (AP Photo)
Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil won Wimbledon, followed it up with a title in Atlanta, and moved to No. 7 in the ATP’s doubles race. (AP Photo)

From Fedal to Djokerer to Muzzovic, we now know that every men’s tennis rivalry can be boiled down to a single, semi-comical co-name. As far as I know, though, the trend hasn’t carried over to men’s doubles teams. The only example I can think of is Quisner, the late, not-so-great mash-up of John Isner and Sam Querrey.

Is it time for a new one? Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil may be ready for the one-name treatment. In the past month, the 21-year-old American and 24-year-old Canadian have beaten the Bryan brothers in the Wimbledon final, followed it up with a title in Atlanta, and moved to No. 7 in the ATP’s doubles race to London in 2014. That’s not too shabby for a team that had never played together before. Can we start calling them...Popsockil?

No, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but Sock and Pospisil, who are 10-0 together, plan to keep going nonetheless. After a singles-only week in D.C., they’re scheduled for Toronto, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open. For tennis fans, and especially doubles fans, that may be the best part of their story. The game could use a fresh new duo that sticks together for a while.

Many of us have talked for years about what it would take to get fans to care more about doubles. Show it more often on TV; increase the prize money; get the stars to play; schedule it on the biggest courts; put the players in uniforms. But I think Sock and Pospisil, with their back-to-back titles, have accidentally found another, simpler key to making doubles more compelling over the long run. It doesn't necessarily have to have the top names; what it needs, and rarely gets, are young singles players who succeed and stay together. I know that, after their infectiously entertaining performance at Wimbledon, I was interested in what Sock and Pospisil would do at their next event. There was a sense that they were an entity.

The men’s doubles rankings have featured plenty of full-time teams in recent years. The Bryans, Nestor-Zimonjic, Paes-Stepanek, Peya-Soares, Granollers-M. Lopez are all in or around the Top 10. But Sock and Pospisil are different in a few ways. They're new, and they're much younger—every player ranked above them at the moment is 30 or over; Nestor and Paes are 41. More important, Sock and Pospisil aren’t doubles specialists. If nothing else, the fact that in their first tournament together, they could beat the Bryans, Peya-Soares, Paes-Stepanek, and Bopanna-Qureshi, is proof that youth alone is more than a match for experience in doubles. That enthusiasm and energy is also something audiences respond to.

“We had a lot of fun,” Sock said when he was asked how he and Pospisil had won Wimbledon. “People could see that. I think that’s part of why we did well. We really enjoyed being out there, enjoyed the moment.”

Or, as Pospisil put it when he was asked what their game plan had been against the Bryans: 

“Close your eyes; hope you play the best tennis of your life.”

The key, if they’re going to keep playing that kind of tennis together, and keep making crowds appreciate their energy, may be for Sock and Pospisil not to become doubles specialists. If their singles careers are healthy, their doubles profile will stay much higher. But that’s also the tough part. Successful singles players don’t need to invest as much in doubles; the best don’t need to play it at all. But maybe for Sock and Pospisil, the benefits can work in both directions. Each said at Wimbledon that they believed the confidence they got from doubles would translate to singles.

“Any match you win,” Sock said, “especially in Grand Slams, playing in the second week, can only help your confidence in all aspects of tennis.” 

Sock played those doubles matches at Wimbledon with a conspicuously more relaxed and upbeat demeanor than what we’ve seen from him in the past. Not too surprisingly, he has reached the semis in singles at both tournaments he’s played since, and raised his singles ranking to No. 60. For Pospisil, the doubles wins have been a relief after a year of injury and frustration. 

“These last two weeks have been amazing, to be honest,” he said, “because the whole year was a struggle.”

The last time I can remember a team of singles players creating doubles excitement was at Indian Wells a few years ago, when Alexandr Dolgopolov and Xavier Malisse ran through a strong draw. By the following season, they had gone their separate ways. There’s a good chance that will happen to Sock and Pospisil, and that by 2015 they’ll be another forgotten one-off team—that might even be what they hope to become. But it will be interesting to see how much fun two talented young singles players can have on the doubles court together, and whether they can find a way to succeed at both.

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