Whether measured in prestige, prize money, or public attention, the doubles
game in pro tennis remains far behind the singles. An encouraging sign this
year was the decision to play best-of-five sets in the men's doubles at
Wimbledon. But the game also suffered the loss of the great Mark Woodforde,
who retired at age 35.
Woodforde's departure ended the ten-year run of the Woodys. In their career
together Woodbridge and Woodforde won more tournaments than any other pair in
the Open era, including eleven Slams and the Olympics crown in 1996. Last
year, the Australian pair triumphed at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, took the
silver medal at the Olympics, and finished #1 in the year-end standings for
the fourth time.
Todd Woodbridge's partner for 2001 became the Swedish star Jonas Bjorkman,
former partner of Pat Rafter. In January the new pair swept through a
succession of close matches to win the Australian Open. In March
Bjorkman-Woodbridge reached the finals of Masters events Indian Wells and the
Ericsson. Wayne Ferreira and Kafelnikov won at Indian Wells and Novak-Rikl
won in Miami.
The strong play of Bjorkman-Woodbridge carried into the European clay season.
The Swedish-Australian duo missed the Italian, won by Ferreira-Kafelnikov,
but won the Monte Carlo and German Opens. Nestor-Stolle were second at the
Italian and German, the Aussies Eagle-Florent at Monte Carlo. As listed
above, the pair from India Bhupathi-Paes won at Garros, and Americans Don
Johnson and Jared Palmer won at Wimbledon.
The ATP points standings at mid-year show Bjorkman-Woobridge well ahead of
the pack. The closely bunched second-place contenders include the pairs
mentioned above along with the exciting Bryan twins from America and the
excellent Czech pair Pala-Vizner, runners-up at Garros. Any of them are close
enough to reach the top but to do so must significantly outperform
Bjorkman-Woodbridge during the summer on hard courts in North America and at
Doubles retained its historic large role in Davis Cup play, even though Cup
matches are not counted in the year's official points race. In February
Bjorkman joined countryman Nicklas Kulti in defeating Novak-Rikl in Sweden's
3-2 Cup triumph over Czech Republic. Then in April he paired with doubles
specialist Aspelin in a five-set win over Russia's pair. Meanwhile two other
pairs each recorded important victories in Cup play. Haarhuis-Schalken
contributed wins as the Netherlands defeated Spain and Germany, while
Federer-Manta won twice in helping Switzerland defeat the U.S. and in the
Swiss losing effort against France.
Which are the leading nations in men's doubles?
Australian players won the most men's doubles matches at this year's
Australian Open, while players from Czech Republic led at Roland Garros and
the U.S. contingent led at Wimbledon. Adding up the matches won at all three
Slams, U.S. leads Australia narrowly, with Czech Republic third. Well behind
was the next echelon--France, South Africa, and Sweden.
Talk is endless on how to upgrade pro doubles. Most people believe that the
top stars in singles should be encouraged to play doubles also. In actuality
the reverse is happening as the need for ample rest between matches in order
to win in singles becomes more evident.
Small improvements suggest themselves. It would help if partnerships stayed
together longer, especially if the pair members are countrymen, as in Davis
Cup. Pair members should wear similarly colored clothing, easily
distinguishable from their opponents'. The notion that it's acceptable to
withdraw midway in doubles events should be ended. Extending the average
length of points in men's doubles, perhaps by allowing server only one serve,
might be explored.
I also like the idea of staging a few doubles-only tournaments. I formerly
enjoyed covering the year-end world championship of doubles, held in Hartford
until moved last year. The event featured the year's top eight pairs in a
week of head-to-head play. Press and television attention was weak, however,
as the year-end women's singles and doubles championships were held the same
week in close-by New York.
But Hartford suggested that other doubles-only events could be attractive and
might help in reversing the decline of doubles. In such all-doubles
tournaments, all matches might be best-of-five. Alternatively, a
double-elimination, round-robin, or consolation scheme might be used, thus
allowing fans to become familiar with the contenders as the week progressed.
Such all-doubles events would carry points in the year's ATP race.
The thought stirs that two tournaments that are now held on the same week
might pair off. Each could offer singles one year, doubles the next. An
obvious pairing might be the Indianapolis and Washington mid-August
tournaments. The result would be deeper quality in the competitive fields at
each location, as well as an interesting variety from year to year for local
But would sponsors and fans turn out to watch players like Bjorkman and
Woodbridge, along with newcomers like the Bryan brothers, in the absence of
singles superstars like Agassi and newcomers like Roddick? The answer
probably would depend on the efforts of the promoters and writers.
Garros: Ruano Pascual-Suarez
Women's pro doubles matches are attractive to watch, probably more so than
men's. The recent Wimbledon final, for example, which was seen on tv in the
U.S., offered brilliant, imaginative tennis. Serves were returned more
effectively than in the men's game, so that extended and fast-paced points
became the norm. The winners, the U.S.-Australia pair Lisa Raymond and Rennae
Stubbs, showed aggressive doubles tactics featuring an unusually vigorous
style intent on taking command of net center. Aggressive poaching happened on
many if not most points, while poacher's partner often reacted with amazing
quickness to cover the space vacated by poacher.
But despite the brilliance of Raymond-Stubbs, it seems clear that the
Williams sisters remain almost unbeatable in women's doubles, having won
Wimbledon last year, the Olympics last fall, and Australia in early 2001.
Serena and Venus are not instinctive net attackers, but their serves and
serve-returns are so strong that they are able to defeat top opponents
anyway. Still, reflecting the Williamses inactivity since Australia, the
top-ranking pair for 2001 to date is Raymond-Stubbs, who add to their
Wimbledon crown the Tier-One championships at the Pan-Pacific and at
In Fed Cup play this year, doubles has been almost invisible. Because the
doubles match is played after all four singles matches are completed, the
doubles has been meaningless in 11 of the 12 engagements involving the World
Group nations to date. (In Davis Cup engagements, the doubles is played third
and is always meaningful.)
A nice happening this year was the presence in the Garros and Wimbledon
doubles of the great Martina Navratilova, who competed at 44 as partner of
Do the top women singles stars, like the top men, avoid entering doubles
At Wimbledon last month neither Hingis, Davenport, nor Capriati entered the
doubles, and the Williams sisters withdrew after the second round. These were
the five top-seeded women in singles. But otherwise, the picture was very
different. The next 19 seeded singles players, from #6 through #24, all
played in the doubles as well.
Thus the medicine offered above for men's doubles--occasional separate
events--is not workable in the women's game. Instead, the following thought
Each tournament now honors and rewards separately the champions of singles
and doubles. It seems to me that an award might also be made to the player
who excels in combined singles and doubles play. Toward this award a player
might earn one point for each singles win, one-half point for each shared win
in doubles. Thus honors would go to a singles champion, a winning doubles
pair, and an overall tennis champion.
A running tally showing the standings in combined singles and doubles might
then be kept through year's end.
If the overall champion's award is ample, it seems likely (1) that the top
superstars would be drawn back to doubles, (2) that general interest in
doubles play would rise, and (3) that the sponsor who offers the trophy and
prize money would reap much satisfaction and good will.
I hope that readers of Tennis Server who attend the Legg Mason in Washington
DC during August will say hello when they see me, equipped with press badge,
notebook, and floppy hat.