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Between The Lines
October 24, 2004 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
 
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Pro Doubles:
Previewing Houston and L.A.

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

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 final rounds.

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:

Bjorkman-Woodbridge, 5
Knowles-Nestor, 2
Llodra-Santoro, 2
Woodys, 2 (both in 2000)
nine other pairs, 1 each

CONTENDERS FOR HOUSTON

Bjorkman-Woodbridge

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.

The Bryans

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.

Knowles-Nestor

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.

Llodra-Santoro

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.

Black-Ullyett

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.

WOMEN'S DOUBLES

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 here tallied:

Ruano Pascual-Suarez, 7
Serena and Venus Williams, 4
Raymond-Stubbs, 3
Clijsters-Sugiyama, 2

Ruano Pascual-Suarez

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 Argentina.)

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 year's end.

The Others

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..

MIXED DOUBLES

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 watch.

--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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