When tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988, the news was greeted with one overriding question: Why? The sport, after all, already had its own version of the Games in the form of the Grand Slams, held four times a year. And the idea of millionaire athletes bunking in the Olympic Village seemed to go against the aspirant, amateur spirit of the competition.
What a difference 28 years makes. The shift from apathy to ardor began in 2000, when the first generation of players to grow up dreaming of gold arrived in Sydney. That year Venus Williams and Roger Federer caught Olympic fever and never recovered.
Since then, tennis at the Games has been transformed. In 1988, the crowded, team-oriented format—singles, doubles and mixed are jammed into one week—was thought to be a bad fit for a superstar-based sport. Now, when Williams gets to Rio de Janeiro, she'll enter the game’s most spectator-friendly competition. The Olympics, that former bastion of amateurism, gives us more of the superstars we want to see than does any other tournament. Top players are happy to enter multiple events when they have a chance to earn medals for their countries. Federer has a singles silver and a doubles gold; Andy Murray has a singles gold and a silver in mixed. The biggest winners, though, are the fans.
This spring, at Indian Wells, when Rafael Nadal got in some pre-Olympic practice with his Spanish partner, Fernando Verdasco, we saw how much a big-name doubles team can energize an event. The excitement their matches generated made me wonder: Is there a way to entice top players to enter the doubles draw at every tournament?
This is a question that tennis 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 no avail, to lure them back by upping doubles purses and shortening match lengths. While doubles is a proven crowd-pleaser, it remains a sideshow played in mostly empty arenas, with scant TV coverage. The fans have little knowledge of, and less emotional attachment to, the best doubles teams.
One way—maybe the only way—to change that would be to make the rankings a combination of singles and doubles results. This idea may sound far-fetched, and it’s not on anyone’s radar right now, but it would help solve many of tennis’ current problems.
With every star from Novak Djokovic to Serena Williams on down involved, fans would have an emotional rooting interest in doubles. With rankings on the line, players would be forced to learn the skills that doubles teaches: volleying, chipping and charging, using lobs and angles. That would bring net-rushing, and all the shots that come with it, back to singles. Tennis has let the doubles half of the sport wither on the vine. This is a way to bring it back to life.
Changes would be needed to accommodate the added matches. The men would likely no longer play three out of five sets at the majors (except in the final, the way they do at the Olympics), and no-ad scoring might have to be used at one-week tournaments. But speeding up play is one of the goals of tennis officials worldwide; this system would shorten matches and put marquee-name players on the court more often.
For now, a combined ranking system remains a long shot. But the current popularity of the Olympics once was as well. All we can do this summer is watch our favorite players share their joy with their doubles and mixed partners in Rio and wonder: Why can’t the rest of the season look like that?
Originally published in the July/August issue of TENNIS Magazine.