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Between The Lines
August 4, 2001 Article

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The Pro Doubles Wars

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Ray Bowers

MEN'S DOUBLES

2001 WINNERS
Australian: Bjorkman-Woodbridge
Garros: Bhupathi-Paes
Wimbledon: Johnson-Palmer

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 U.S. Open.

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 fans.

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.

WOMEN'S DOUBLES

2001 WINNERS
Australian: Williams-Williams
Garros: Ruano Pascual-Suarez
Wimbledon: Raymond-Stubbs

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 Charleston.

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 Sanchez Vicario.

Do the top women singles stars, like the top men, avoid entering doubles tournaments?

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 is presented.

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.

--Ray Bowers

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


 

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