Watching the top men's pairs at the year-end World Doubles Championships in
Hartford in bygone times was a delight. The classic doubles style prevailed,
where every pair instinctively drove to close-in net position and, once there,
played with full aggressiveness. Many of the doubles stars were unaccustomed to
close press attention and were therefore eager to help the writers on hand.
For myself, it was a heady experience to be recognized and indeed appreciated
by the players I was writing about.
My too-few journeys to Hartford stopped after 1999. The season-ending
tournament moved to India and was played in Bangalore for years 2000 and 2001. (The
latter was played in early 2002.) It was not held at the end of 2002 but was
restored last year, co-located in Houston with the Masters Cup singles, an
arrangement to be repeated this fall. In the current format, unchanged for many
years, eight pairs will compete in round-robin play leading into semi-final and
The ranks of the top doubles pairs have changed gradually in the five years
since Hartford amid the retirements of such artists as Mark Woodforde, Paul
Haarhuis, Sebastien Lareau, and Rick Leach. During the period 2000-2004 only one
twosome has won more than two Slams, as shown here:
Woodys, 2 (both in 2000)
nine other pairs, 1 each
CONTENDERS FOR HOUSTON
Probably the leading doubles team of the last five years grew from the former
superstar-pairs Bjorkman-Rafter and the Woodys. Since they combined, Jonas
Bjorkman and Todd Woodbridge have captured five Slams including the last three
Wimbledons. Woodbridge's serve-returning talents from the deuce court have been
universally extolled for many years, and Jonas brings a complementing
quickness and firmness in hitting. Other pairs serve harder, but the all-around
prowess of Bjorkman-Woodbridge remains hard to overcome and fascinating to watch,
epecially on grass--the same surface where the Woodys most excelled.
Bjorkman-Woodbridge currently rank third in the ATP standings for 2004.
In second place for 2004 to date are Bob and Mike Bryan. It's hard to believe
that it was six years ago, summer 1998, when I watched the twins fresh from
Stanford in one of their early pro appearances. On that occasion they rescued
the Saturday night program here in Washington after the featured match, a
singles semi-final, was cancelled at the last minute. The youths wholly captured
the at-first-disappointed crowd with their endless bouncing between points,
unrestrained hand slaps and chest bumps, and their all-around aggressive play. The
winners in that night's semi-final, Grant Stafford and Kevin Ullyett, were
barely able to prevail over the youths. I talked in the players' room afterwards
with Stafford, who told how hard it had been to compete against both the
brothers and the gallery. He predicted that the brothers would become national
favorites in what he saw as a bright future for them.
That future has indeed been bright. The Bryans won their first Slam at Garros
last year, were runners-up at the subsequent U.S. Open, and captured the
year-end event in Houston. They thus stood atop the ATP rankings for 2003, up from
third place in 2002. The twins are indeed magnificent to watch in action
though their between-point gyrations have been moderated somewhat. They drive the
ball firmly, move forward with aggressiveness, show unrestrained quickness and
abandon at net. They anticipate in moving to cover openings created by
partner's movement, they serve and return well, and they show absolutely positive
mentality at all times. They remain a critical asset for U.S. hopes in the
coming Davis Cup final with Spain and thereafter.
Currently the world's top-ranked pair is a veteran combination, both members
in their thirties. In the years since Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor first won
a tournament together in 1994, they have been regular partners, finishing in
the year-end Top Ten seven times. Nestor has a wonderful left-handed doubles
serve and serve-return, and Knowles produces complementing quickness and
aggression up close. Knowles-Nestor finished #1 in the rankings for 2002, having won
Australian Open in that year, and #3 last year. They are the U.S. Open 2004
champions and almost surely will finish this year #1 regardless of what
happens at Houston.
The combination of a right-hander and a lefty is disproportionately seen
among top doubles pairs. Of the twenty Slam championships 2000-2004, righty-lefty
pairs have won nine. The Bryans and Knowles-Nestor are examples of such
pairings, as were the Woodys. Another example is the world's current #5 pair,
Llodra-Santoro. Fabrice Santoro is a crowd-pleasing master in both singles and
doubles, whose two-handed, spinning shots from both sides carry amazing accuracy
and deception. Fabrice, 31, is a veteran of the Davis Cup wars, having won the
final-round doubles for France in both 2001 and 2002 with different partners
(Pioline and Escude). He and hard-hitting left-hander Michael Llodra, age 24 and
6-3, have performed brilliantly together in the last two years, winning
Australian Open in both 2003 and 2004 and taking second place at Houston last year.
A physical problem to Santoro spoiled this fall's Davis Cup semi-final for
the French team. After playing the opening singles Fabrice had to withdraw from
the doubles. Llodra with a different partner then played well but lost in a
five-setter. The result left Spain with a 2-1 lead in matches and virtually
ended French hopes for reaching the Cup final.
Physical height is certainly an asset in tennis, especially in serving and in
handling lobs. But most doubles shots are directed low to the net, and when
close-in exchanges ensue there are advantages that shortish players bring.
Neither Wayne Black nor Kevin Ullyett are tall, but the Zimbabwean pair has
finished in the top ten for the last three years and currently ranks #4 in the 2004
tally. Both are surprisingly strong overhead, and both show excellent doubles
skills in all areas. They are by no means baseliners.
Bhupathi-Mirnyi and Paes-Rikl
The breakup after 2001 of the wonderful pair from India Leander Paes and
Mahesh Bhupathi was a disappointment to almost everyone. Bhupathi-Paes had seemed
a fortuitous natural partnership, with complementing strengths and both from
the same tennis nation. Leander is mercurial by nature, both on court and off,
while Mahesh seems restrained. The two seemed on good terms during their
Hartford appearances, and during matches they usually wore identically designed
clothing. Watching closely, I concluded that Mahesh, who played the ad court, was
the solider of the two in serving and serve-returning, though Leander was
better known from singles and was by far the friendlier and more communicative to
me. Since the split, they have reunited only for Davis Cup and the Olympics
or in preparation for these events. Mahesh's regular partner now is tall Max
Mirnyi--a wonderful server and solid volleyer. Bhupathi-Mirnyi ranked #2 for 2003
and are currently #6 for 2004.
Leander, 31, who was out of action for much of 2003 with a brain lesion, is
now paired with the fine Czech player David Rikl in another righty-lefty
combination. (Rikl is the left-hander.) Paes-Rikl stood tenth in the points race
two weeks ago, but last week they lost a costly first-round match in Madrid to
Bhupathi-Mirnyi, greatly dimming their chances for winning a place in Houston.
The pairs discussed above (probably except for Paes-Rikl) should be among the
eight pairs at Houston. Nearly all competed in the indoor Masters event in
Madrid and will be next playing in Paris. Knowles-Nestor and the Bryans reached
the Madrid final, where the former pair, playing at their best, won in
straight sets. Any of them could win at Houston. The Bryans won at Houston last year,
defeating Llodra-Santoro in a five-set final by the margin of a single
service break. Knowles-Nestor has been plainly the strongest pair in the very recent
past, but my guess is that the brothers will find a way to regain their
winning habit against them. If you like long odds, Paes-Rikl is worth considering
despite their fading chances for qualifying.
There has been much stability in women's doubles over the five years. Sixteen
of the 20 Slams in women's doubles 2000-2004 were won by just four pairs, as
Ruano Pascual-Suarez, 7
Serena and Venus Williams, 4
Three of the Slams of 2004 were won by Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paolo
Suarez, extending several years of excellent success. Both are about 5-7 tall--on
the shortish side in women's tennis nowadays--and both are from countries not
renowned for doubles champions. (Ruano Pascual is from Spain and Suarez from
Both are good singles players though not quite at superstar level. In
doubles, as practitioners of today's one-up, one-back women's game, neither
regularly comes to net directly behind serve, though both tend to be quicker than most
other women to move forward as rallies develop. Whichever partner is in the
net position is quick and aggressive, ever prepared to take command at the
middle. The back-court player is usually close to or in front of baseline, ready
to move forward if a reply is soft or, more typically, to cover any territory
briefly opened by partner's movement. Their on-court teamwork is magnificent to
watch, and their seeming delight in enjoying the game is inspiring. Their
three Slam triumphs of 2004 assure Ruano Pascual-Suarez of the #1 ranking at
Four pairs customarily compete in the year-end doubles event, which will be
held inside Staples Center, Los Angeles, week of December 8. The Williams
sisters will not be playing doubles there, but there will almost surely be two
other pairs on hand who have both defeated Ruano Pascual-Suarez at least three
times this year. It is probable that at Staples Center Ruano Pascual-Suarez will
have to play against not just one nemesis pair but both.
Cara Black and Renee Stubbs defeated Ruano Pascual-Suarez in the Wimbledon
semis this year and then went on to win the championship, thus stopping the
latter from achieving the classic Grand Slam. Black-Stubbs also defeated the
leaders in the final of the Tier One tournament at San Diego 2004. Cara is a fine
doubles artist, sister of Byron and Wayne Black of Zimbabwe. She competed in
Staples Center last year as partner for Russian player Likhovsteva. Australian
Stubbs won three Slams in recent years in partnership with American Lisa
Raymond (listed above). Raymond and Stubbs were a wondrously aggressive pair, who
were seldom seen lingering in back court.
The other nemesis for Ruano Pascual-Suarez this year has been the
Russian-American pair Petrova-Shaughnessy, who defeated the leaders four times including
at the Tier Ones at Key Biscayne, Rome, and Berlin. Petrova-Shaughnessy
captured all four of these tournaments, and they also won the summer outdoor event
in Los Angeles, defeating Black-Stubbs. Nadia Petrova is a strong athlete, 5-10
and age 22. Meghann Shaughnessy at 5-11 is three years older, with long
experience both in singles and doubles.
The array of Russian stars provides various doubles combinations, including
one pair currently in the world's top four and likely to compete in L.A..
Svetlana Kuznetsova, this year's U.S. Open singles champion, and veteran Elena
Likhovsteva, 29, were the runner-up pair in three Slams this year. Last year at
age 18 Kuznetsova was regular partner for Martina Navratilova.
A rare intrusion into the ranks of the elites happened at the Athens Olympics
in 2004, when the unexpected winners were Li and Sun. The Chinese women
defeated Ruano Pascual-Suarez in the final round but will not compete in Los
Angeles. The rapid rise of Li-Sun as well as another Chinese pair, Yan-Zheng, both
ranking close to the top eight pairs for 2004, suggests further rise in 2005.
Clues as to the likely winners at L.A. may be sought at the indoor Tier Ones
just completed in Moscow and Zurich. Ruano Pascual-Suarez reached the final at
Moscow but lost there to Russian pair Myskina-Zvonareva. Ruano Pascual-Suarez
and Black-Stubbs both reached the final at Zurich, where Black-Stubbs
prevailed thus notching their third win over the frontrunners this year.
Petrova-Shaughnessy were knocked out early. The Black-Stubbs victory at Zurich indicates
that they should be deemed the favorites at L.A..
There is no year-end championship event in mixed doubles, and no points race
for crowning an official champion pair. Two pairs reached the finals of two
Slams in 2004--Wayne and Cara Black of Zimbabwe won Wimbledon and were second at
Garros, and Australians Todd Woodbridge and Alicia Molik were runners-up at
both Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Hopman Cup honors were captured by Americans James
Blake and Lindsay Davenport. Thus it seems to me that the twosome most
deserving of the year's mixed-doubles crown are the siblings Black.
Only the Slams and Hopman Cup stage mixed doubles. The men's and women's
tours also intersect at Key Biscayne and Indian Wells, both of which will become
two-week-long events. It would seem attractive to add mixed doubles in both
cases, and a year-long points race in mixed doubles could be started. If the
pros themselves look down on the mixed game, it nevertheless provides a dimension
familiar to many fans from their own play and intrinsically interesting to