The start of the Miami Open women’s doubles tournament saw top teams struck down by singles stars as Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber dethroned defending champions Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the first round. Despite the early chaos, the doubles specialists ultimately held court: No. 5 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara will take on No. 8 seeds Haley Carter and Luisa Stefani for what will be the biggest title in either of their careers.
Often on the periphery of their own landscape, the specialist surge in Miami solidifies a post-pandemic shift where those most focused on the discipline are capitalizing on the power vacuum left by teams like Hsieh Su-Wei and Barbora Strycova—who have split in the wake of Strycova’s maternity leave—and even Mertens and Sabalenka themselves, who won the Australian Open but vow to play less doubles to maximize their singles.
Luisa Stefani and Haley Carter paired up in the summer of 2019, and have already reached two finals in 2021. (Getty Images)
Former world No. 5 Daniela Hantuchova has been taking in the action as an analyst for Amazon Prime Video, and, on the tenth anniversary of her own Miami doubles triumph with Agnieszka Radwanska, noted the Sunshine State’s unpredictable weather can yield surprising results —especially on the doubles court.
“Just look at me an Agi; I don’t think anyone would have expected us to win; we certainly didn’t!” she said on Saturday morning.
“I think these days, every team has a shot, and it can come down to momentum. You can have a team who has one good tournament together and that confidence can translate into the next few. That appears to be the case with the Japanese team, who has already won twice this year and is into the finals in Miami.”
Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara are aiming for their third title of 2021. (Getty Images)
Aoyama and Shibahara, who played college tennis at UCLA, first paired up in the summer of 2019 to immediate success, winning three titles out of five finals, and have been equally efficient since the lockdown ended with two more titles and back-to-back Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances. Carter reached the 2019 Bogota final with Shibahara before partnering Stefani, and has been on an equally upward trajectory; the American/Brazilian duo are also playing their third final of the season.
“I think what draws fans to doubles teams is the energies and personalities of the players. Sometimes the bigger contrast, the better, because they can combine so well. You see a lot of partnerships where one plays more aggressively and the other has the touch at the net. That’s certainly been one of the more effective combinations of late, but I think the fans want to feel an energy and sense of fun emanating from the team.”
That fun was evident when, in only their fourth tournament together, Hantuchova and Radwanska took Miami by storm in 2011, knocking out established teams like Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina en route to a titanic championship match against Liezel Huber and Nadia Petrova, one that was decided by a 10-point tie-break.
Daniela Hantuchova and Agnieszka Radwanska surprised the field by winning the 2011 Miami Open. (Getty Images)
“It was one of the most fun weeks I’ve ever had in doubles. Aga and I are very similar as people and had very similar routines at tournaments. I remember how we would practice from 7-9 in the morning so we could spend the rest of the day by the pool or at the beach, having good times! I think that’s one of the reasons why we did so well; we just didn’t mind hanging out off the court.
“We beat some unbelievable doubles team who played so much longer together. That’s what can make doubles so hard to predict because you can have an experienced doubles team on one side of the court, but then the two of show up! So much about success in doubles and mix comes down to having fun, and that’s what we did. I’m sure Agi would agree because we would be laughing so much in practice. We had that fun off the court, but we worked extremely hard during our practices, and in the matches, we just didn’t expect to do much of anything. It’s just one of those moments we both look back on with big smiles on our faces.”
Hantuchova maintained a healthy doubles schedule throughout her nearly two decades on tour, frequently playing singles, doubles, and mixed at major tournaments at the behest of longtime coach Nigel Sears.
Hantuchova won her second mixed doubles Grand Slam at the 2002 Australian Open with Kevin Ullyett. (Getty Images)
“He saw how much it could help me improve. It’s so different from practice, and it’s an opportunity to make the shots you’re working on in a match situation. It doesn’t matter if it’s a singles or doubles court when there is still that pressure of competition. A lot of times, I would work on my singles game most by playing doubles. It really helped me use the skills I had in my game in matches, and that made me much more confident to use them in singles.
“It can also give you confidence when you’ve lost early in singles, to still be involved in the tournament. There is just nothing like match play, especially given the circumstances and that we’re grateful for any tournaments we have these days. I think players should be using that opportunity to make the best out of it.”
In the months leading to her 2002 Indian Wells singles breakthrough, a still-teenaged Hantuchova was already halfway to a Career Grand Slam in mixed doubles, a feat she completed in 2005.
“For me, personally, mixed doubles helped me even more because when do you get the chance to practice against guys who serve at 200 km/hr right into the body? That definitely helped improve my return game.
“There’s also the social aspect, because tennis can be such an individual sport that it’s so much fun to be able to make friends and share the court. It was through doubles that I was able to build a friendship with Ai Sugiyama that lasts to this day, and it would have never happened had we not played doubles together. I also enjoyed playing mixed for that reason; it was so much fun playing with the guys. You never know just how much good can come out of a single decision.”
Hantuchova is heartened to see next generation talents like Iga Swiatek, and the popular American team of Coco Gauff, and Caty McNally—otherwise known as “McCoco”—similarly making the most of the opportunity to fortify their development on the doubles court.
“For Iga, being as competitive as she is, any opportunity to be on the match court, she’ll take. I think playing with Bethanie can help her to feel more comfortable on the doubles court. Bethanie is one of the best doubles players we’ve had in the last couple of years, and it can give you so much confidence to share the court with someone who has that level of experience.
“I remember when Ai Sugiyama and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario asked me to play with them, I suddenly felt like a better player just because of their confidence in me! I think Iga must feel the same way alongside Bethanie, and feels a motivation to step up and improve as a doubles player. That can only do her good in singles, as well.”
Swiatek reached the Roland Garros doubles semifinal the same week she captured her maiden major singles title on the terre battue. In Miami, she shrugged off a third-round loss against a resurgent Ana Konjuh to enjoy a successful doubles run with partner former world No. 1 Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Aoyama and Shibahara eventually ended their run after a match tie-break in the semis, and together the rising Japanese stars will aim to score a third win in four meetings with Carter and Stefani in Sunday’s championship match.