Stars come for doubles at Indian Wells. Can tennis bring it elsewhere?

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It is tradition for top singles players to enter the doubles draw there. (AP Photo)

Novak Djokovic isn’t known as a doubles player. At all. His career record in the four-man format is 43-58, and the highest he’s ever been ranked at it is No. 114. As comfortable as the 12-time Grand Slam champion looks patrolling the baseline during a singles match, that’s about as uncomfortable as he looks trying to patrol the net during a doubles match.

But there Djokovic was in Stadium 2 on Friday night in Indian Wells, clenching his fist, screaming self-encouragement, and slapping hands in celebration with his partner Viktor Troicki. The two Serbs were locked in a 10-point, match-deciding tiebreaker with Pablo Cuevas and Rohan Bopanna, in front of a packed house of 8,000. Djokovic looked like he wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

That wasn’t the case an hour or so earlier. The world No. 2 had been rusty and unsure of himself to start, but the rowdy evening crowd, with Indian Wells owner Larry Ellison front and center, helped him find his showman’s spirit. When music began to blare from the stadium on the other side of the grounds, the Djoker knew what he had to do: Turn his racquet around, put the handle up to his face, and pretend he was blowing out a saxophone solo. The clip of Nole the sax man took about 10 seconds to make the social-media rounds.

But that wasn’t the only way Djokovic went viral on Friday. At match point, he stretched for a wide serve and lasered a forehand return down the line. Half a second later, the ball was beelining past his lurching opponents and into the back wall for a winner. Again, Djokovic knew what he had to do: He sprinted across the baseline, leaped in the air, and collided chest-on with Troicki. The Southern California crowd ate it up.

Welcome to doubles, Indian Wells-style.

It has become a tradition over the last decade for the top ATP singles players to enter the doubles draw here. The tournament is early enough in the season that their games still need the work, and their bodies can still deal with the strain. The event has a mellow 12-day schedule, which allows for more downtime. Unlike the marathon majors, singles matches here are best-of-three, and doubles is two sets and a 10-point tiebreaker. And the money’s good. This year Djokovic has been joined in the dubs draw by fellow singles notables Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, Nick Kyrgios, Tomas Berdych, Stan Wawrinka, Grigor Dimitrov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Goffin, and the Zverev brothers, Mischa and Alexander.

The upshot is that fans at Indian Wells, unlike fans anywhere else, can count on getting a double dose of the game’s stars. They can also see them show off their talents from a closer vantage point than normal. The crowd for Djokovic’s match was still buzzing from watching Murray work his good-hands magic with countryman Dan Evans in another match-deciding tiebreaker, against Feliciano and Marc Lopez. Murray can be as inventive as any player on tour, but he rarely risks trying anything overly creative in singles. In the lower-stakes atmosphere on Friday, though, he savored the chance to mix speeds and spins and angles like his old idol Fabrice Santoro. Murray also found a way to go viral. It wasn’t hard, really: All he had to do was wear a red shirt. Tennis fans on Twitter, floored to see him in something other than his customary black or white, had a new hashtag on their hands: #andymurrayiswearingacolor.

What could top that? Later in the evening, the game’s most unlikely new doubles duo, Nadal and Tomic—or “Team Wackadoodle,” as Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo dubbed them—walked into the big stadium and won their first-round match. Rafa belted forehands, Bernie slid soft backhands at acute angles, and everyone wondered what the heck they were talking about during their conversations on changeovers. Even in that immense arena, a loose, sociable energy prevailed. It was a reminder that, showcased properly—with top players who fans know and care about, playing in large stadiums at night—doubles can be a superior entertainment product than singles.

So how can tennis showcase doubles like this more often? It’s a question that the sport has tried and failed to answer since the 1970s, when prize money increased to the point where the best singles players could afford to skip doubles. The tours have tried to lure them back with bigger purses and shorter matches, but doubles has remained on the sidelines, played in mostly empty arenas, with virtually no TV coverage.

There seems to me to be only one way to change this: Make the rankings a combination of singles and doubles results. The idea is admittedly a long shot. It’s hard to imagine a base of support for it among the players; the doubles guys wouldn’t want to compete with the singles guys, and the singles guys wouldn’t want to have to play doubles.

All of that said, though, a combined ranking would help solve many of what we consider the sport’s problems.

First, doubles would matter again. With every star from Federer to Serena on down taking it seriously, fans would have an emotional rooting interest. Teams would attract their own fan bases, the way singles players do today. With their rankings on the line, players would be forced to learn the skills that doubles teaches: serving and volleying, chipping and charging, using lobs, creating angles. That in turn would help bring net-rushing, and all of the shots that come with it, back to singles. Tennis has gradually allowed half of the original sport—the doubles half—to fade into the background. This is a way to put it front and center again.

Sacrifices would need to be made to accommodate the added workload. The men could likely no longer play best-of-five at the majors (except in the final), and the 10-point tiebreaker would probably have to be kept in doubles at one-week tournaments, where players have a singles match each day. But speeding up the game is one of the goals of tennis officials around the world.

The result of this system would be shorter matches that feature the star players more often; no tournament director would turn that down. Nor would any social-media director. If making tennis go viral is a goal, getting guys like Djokovic, Murray, and Nadal into the loose atmosphere of a doubles match is obviously a good way to do it. Finally, because men and women would play the same amount of tennis at the majors, the equal-pay debate would (hopefully) be eased.

For now, a combined ranking system remains a concept without a constituency. Other than the game’s fans, that is.

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