Since his return to the doubles court last month at Queen’s Club, there have been times when Andy Murray has looked to be on the verge of one of the furious, self-lacerating rants for which he has long been famous. He misses a shot, throws a hand up in frustration, shoots a look toward his player box, and begins to shake his head and mutter darkly to himself—to “chunter,” as they so memorably put it in Murray’s neck of the woods.
If Murray were playing singles, this would inevitably lead to more of the same—more fury, more chuntering, perhaps a teeth-baring howl and a sarcastic thumbs-up in the direction of his team. But because Murray is playing doubles, he doesn’t have time to get lost in his own gloom. Instead of talking to himself, he has to slap hands with his partner, discuss their strategy for the next point, and help maintain an air of optimism on their side of the net. Murray can’t let his shoulders slump, or give into his rage, for more than a split second.
This enforced positivity has, for the most part, worked well for Murray so far. He and Feliciano Lopez won the title at Queen’s, and while Murray and Pierre-Hugues Herbert were eliminated from the men’s doubles at Wimbledon on Saturday, he and Serena Williams looked like a formidable and fun-to-watch duo in their first-round win in the mixed.
During all of these matches, Murray has shown fans a different side to his personality, and a wider look at his shot-making repertoire. I’ve never been put off by his often-dour on-court persona in singles, perhaps because (a) I like Murray’s subtly versatile game, and (b) I’ve seen the funny, thoughtful, honest, honorable person he is away from the court. But I’ve also enjoyed watching him interact with Feli and Serena over the last month, and I’m guessing many fans would be intrigued to see him in a different, less agitated frame of mind, and in a less-isolated situation. Singles hangs us out to dry and makes us shoulder the weight of the world alone; in doubles, we share the weight with someone else. You can see the difference in every move and facial expression Murray makes on court.
Doubles also calls on different, more varied tennis skills. It’s a shot-maker’s game, and it forces you to play more decisively and proactively than you do in singles. Murray is a shot-maker, of course, with some of the best hands in the game. But he also doesn’t go out of his way to do anything spectacular or risky in singles; he’s just as happy to win with consistency and defense if he can. In doubles, though, Murray must play aggressively. He has to fire his returns at the opposing net player or dip them at his feet; follow his own serve to net or make a daring poach on his opponent’s return; throw up towering topspin lobs and hit softly angled volleys. Seeing the full Murray in doubles makes me wish we had a chance to see him use his whole arsenal in singles.
This isn’t only true for Murray, of course; all of the top players show off different parts of their games, and different facets of their personalities, in doubles. Rafael Nadal is a chatterbox with his partner, and one-man whirlwind at net. Serena shows a nose for the putaway volley and the angled ground stroke that she often holds in reserve in singles. While Novak Djokovic will never be a natural doubles player, the format gives him more chances to perform for a crowd and bond with a fellow player. Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka always seem energized in each other’s company. Enthusiasm, rather than solitary stoicism, is rewarded in doubles, and it’s contagious in an arena.
All of which makes it a crime that the top players don’t play doubles. Tennis has the stars, but because they only play singles, the sport doesn’t maximize their value. The only way doubles will gain a bigger audience is to have the top singles players—i.e., the players who fans are emotionally invested in—involved on a regular basis. How do you make that happen, when the Federers and Serenas of the world don’t need the money? One idea is to make the rankings reflect singles and doubles results; another is to make doubles mandatory at a certain number of events per year. Both proposals are obviously long shots right now, but the idea should be pursued and taken seriously.
Murray’s doubles matches over the last month have been proof of that. The atmosphere for his Queen’s final with Lopez was electric, and Centre Court was full late into the evening for Murray and Serena’s mixed match today. The fans got to see Murray hit a brilliant short-hop lob that he has never hits in singles, Serena trade forehands with a male opponent and come out ahead, and Murray and Serena give each other pecks on both cheeks when it was over. Those are moment worth trying to make happen at every tournament.