INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—“You played doubles so well,” Bud Collins said to Rafael Nadal yesterday in the Spaniard's post-match press conference. “Why bother with singles?”
“I think I play better doubles, no?” Nadal answered with a smile. Then, as usual, he went philosophical: “It’s a better life if you play doubles than singles, that’s for sure.”
You could glimpse what that life might be like for the top four singles players in the world on Friday at Indian Wells. Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray all made rare appearances with partners on their sides of the net. All four, not too surprisingly, won. And they all seemed to be having fun while they were at it. It did look like an easier life. On one level, there was a gimmicky quality to this line-up. For the tournament, it livens up what might have been a predictable first Friday, but at the same time the matches are only semi-meaningful for the top guys. Which, in a way, makes it more entertaining, because you get to see them in a slightly more relaxed setting, one in which they’re allowed to have fun playing tennis again.
First up on center court were Nadal and Marc Lopez, the defending champs and world champions at making doubles look like, if nothing else, a great goof. After winning here last year, they giggled their way through their post-final press conference. A friend of Nadal’s sat behind the reporters; whenever he or Lopez caught his eye, all of them cracked up all over again.
Nadal, more than his other fellow singles specialists, throws a doubles match out of whack with his pace and spin. When he gets a look at a ground stroke, the difference in levels between him and everyone else on court becomes stark. Even the best doubles players have no answer for the heavy weight and vicious dip of his shots. They were good enough in 2010 to take Nadal and Lopez, a 29-year-old who achieved his highest singles ranking of No. 106 seven years ago, past the veteran Slam-winning team of Nestor and Zimonjic in the final.
In yesterday’s match, Nadal returned from the deuce court, which seems criminal in a way—wouldn’t you want to give him a chance to let him rip his forehand in the ad court? But you can’t argue with success: He and Lopez extended their career record to 17-3 by beating another seeded team. As always, Nadal played the role of the jumpy pep-squad leader. His uncle Toni has said that the old aggressiveness that he showed on court as a kid has a chance to come out in doubles. And Nadal does play a surprisingly forward-moving game for a baseliner. He’s adept at the net and knows how to play the—not as easy as it looks—I-Formation, where the net man kneels over the center service line. He also, like most baseliners, lets a lot of balls go past him at the net that a doubles specialist—a Llodra or Zimonjic, a Bryan, or especially a Paes—would have knocked down their opponents’ throats.
When Nadal says “an easier life,” he’s not talking about money or even about the physical aspect so much as he is the mental part of the sport. It’s a huge relief psychologically to have someone else to share the burden, like having a net below you where there once was a bottomless pit. You can see that Nadal is liberated by that fact. He’s liberated to be more peppy and upbeat, but he’s also liberated to show more negativity. After missed shots yesterday, he threw his arms in the air and stared at the sky more often than he does during singles matches. He could afford to lose a little of the fearsome emotional control that every successful singles player must maintain. That makes life easier.
Next up were Federer and Stan Wawrinka against two aging, slightly injured guys with strong dubs pedigrees, Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi. It went so quickly that I caught only passing glimpses of this match; by the time I got down to a decent seat, Mirnyi was shanking a return 20 feet out on match point. From what I did see, it seemed that neither of them could handle Federer’s serve, and neither were ready for Wawrinka’s explosive return.
Who’s the better doubles player, Federer or Nadal? I didn’t see enough to say for now, and they’re in different situations regarding their partners. While Lopez is a marginal tour member, Wawrinka is almost a top-guy ringer in his own right. It seems that, not surprisingly, Federer plays a more traditional doubles game than Rafa, using his slice and cutting balls off whenever possible. I’ll try to make a more thorough comparison between the two greats on the doubles court after the next round. But you have to think Federer and Wawrinka are going to be tough to beat.
Out on Stadium 2, Novak Djokovic took the court with his own fellow Davis Cup partner, Viktor Troicki. Djokovic is not a natural doubles player. He has good hands at the baseline and can crush a swinging volley, but he’s not a great classical punch volleyer. Yesterday, though, he made up for it by patrolling the baseline for long stretches. He hit high, heavy topspin shots that pinned his opponents back and let Troicki roam up front. While Djokovic can look uncomfortable during a doubles rally, he thrives on the camaraderie of it. When the Serbs won a spectacular match point, he pumped his fists and screamed as if they’d won the Davis Cup all over again. Exhibition-ish or not, the fans ate it up. Doubles felt alive.
Last but not least were the Murray brothers, Andy and Jamie, who followed the Serbs on Stadium 2. Their match with a Brazilian duo was the best of the four, filled with cat and mouse rallies and deft changes of pace. Andy brought a much stronger serve and return than anyone else, and he was absolutely masterful at deadening the ball at the net and putting it at his opponents’ feet. I thought for a second that Murray could have been a truly great doubles player in another lifetime, a Frew McMillan without the hat, and maybe he could have. But while he owns every trick in the book, he failed consistently at the most basic shot of all, the straightforward first volley that you must be able to hit after you serve. He dumped half a dozen feebly into the bottom of the net. It was Andy’s brother, Jamie, who was the hero of the day. Energized by his brother’s presence, he kept cutting slices low, making his opponents hit up, and slashing forward to slam the next ball past them. It’s a vintage doubles ploy, but none of the four singles greats pulled it off the way Jamie did.
Would the game be better if the top singles players still played doubles? There’s no question—what tournament director wouldn’t want to be able to show these guys off twice a day? And the doubles game itself would likely be transformed if their creativity were a regular part of it. I’ve often thought that if the rankings were singles and doubles combined, this might happen; the key would be making doubles Grand Slams a matter of prestige again, to the point where a player would be judged on his total Slams rather than his singles Slams, to the point where being a great “tennis player” would involve doing both well. But for the moment, money has made this impossible. The top guys don’t need it, so their forays into doubles will continue to have the air of exos. They'll continue to be breathtakingly good at certain parts of the doubles game and highly deficient in others.
Still, getting a chance to sit in the stadium and watch Roger Federer, and then wander straight to a back court to watch Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray is not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon. To paraphrase Nadal, it's a vision of a better life for a tennis fan.