It was a nice second serve for doubles, with good bite. The receiver in the ad
court, a left-hander, returned safely low and slightly cross-court. Server,
moving in, volleyed wide and deep to the lefty's forehand. Lacking time to
generate the severe topspin he would have liked, the lefty tried a semi-offensive lob down the middle. Server and partner, having seen thousands of
like trajectories, let the ball float on, just past the baseline.
It was over. The 1998 ATP World Doubles Championship, November 18-22--five
days of head-to-head competition at
Hartford among the world's top doubles pairs--had come to an end. So too the long year of pro doubles warfare,
begun eleven months earlier in Australia.
It was also the end of a superb tennis career. Jacco Eltingh of the
Netherlands, the server of the final point and the world's top-ranked doubles
artist, was now departing from competitive play. After seven years with
partner Paul Haarhuis, a raw-boned countryman whose abilities closely matched
his own, Eltingh at 28 had now finished on top.
Haarhuis (front) and Eltingh.
What a year it had been for Eltingh-Haarhuis! The Netherlanders captured two
1998 Slams, winning Roland Garros and then defeating Woodforde and
Woodbridge -- the Woodys -- in a five-set final at Wimbledon. Earlier, Haarhuis had
passed up the Australian Open to be with his wife during the birth of their
first child. (Eltingh, playing with Jonas Bjorkman, won the event.) Then in
late summer, when Eltingh-Haarhuis were top-seeded at the U.S. Open, it was
Eltingh who departed for the birth of his first child. Now, having just won
five matches in five days against the world's best, Eltingh-Haarhuis were
unquestionably the champions of their sport.
Surely Tennis Server readers who watched the Hartford final on ESPN were, like
me, dazzled by the play of Eltingh and Haarhuis. Late in the match I scribbled
in my notebook the words, "Can anyone play doubles better than this?" Soon
after the last point, I asked the two men whether this match had been their
very best. Replying, they acknowledged that today had been exceptional, but that in
actuality their absolute best had come earlier this year--on clay at Monte
Carlo, in their 6-4, 6-2 semi-final blitz of the Woodys.
It has been a memorable week for me too. I had watched nearly every point of
every match and, even better, had been able to talk repeatedly with the
players. My notebook gradually became filled with observations and thoughts,
some of which follow.
THE SERVE IN DOUBLES
It is sometimes said that the confrontation between server and receiver in
tennis is a lot like the one between pitcher and batter in baseball. The
Hartford matches reinforced the point. Like the pitcher, the servers employed
a necessary level of power, spin, and accuracy. More significantly, like the
pitcher, all servers used a variety of all three -- power, spin, location -- mixing
things up to keep returner from setting up to wield the power and accuracy
inherent in today's rackets.
The best place to watch the server-receiver confrontation is from directly
behind server at moderate height in the stands. From this vantage point, serve
placement is easily recognized, and the bend of the ball's path during and
after the bounce can be nicely seen. One can observe, for example, how in
serving his customary slice Paul Haarhuis can trade off the amounts of power
and spin at will, causing the ball to bend leftward. (Haarhuis serves right-handed.) I watched Haarhuis slice toward an opponent's backhand-side hip,
curving the ball nastily into the body after the bounce, and other times serve
to the wide corner of the deuce court, the bend driving receiver off court.
The serving-returning game is more critical than many people realize. In the
13 meaningful matches at Hartford (two late round-robin matches had no bearing
on the tournament outcome), less than 73 percent of in-court serves were
returned into play, and many of these were weak shots, easily dispatched by
server's partner at net. Thus, little more than half of all points required a
first volley by server. Admittedly, as is generally understood, net-play and
volleying skills are at the heart of doubles. But the serve and return are
just as crucial.
It seemed contradictory. If serving is so important, why are the apparently
most talented tennis servers not the doubles champions? Why are 120-mph
serves, seemingly needed to win in singles, just not seen in top doubles?
Haarhuis explained that given the court geometry of doubles and the presence of a
powerful and aggressive partner at net, the server's inherent advantage is
huge. It is very difficult to make an effective return of even a moderately
forcing serve, he continued. In short, Haarhuis said, a server's advantage
from a firm but controlled first serve is so great that he simply must not
waste it by delivering a fault. While watching the matches with these thoughts
in mind, I concluded that what is important in top-level doubles serving is
that (1) first serves should be moderately forceful, mainly by using plenty of
variety, (2) a high percentage of such first serves absolutely must be put
into play, and (3) the second serve must be almost as strong as the first,
even if a few double-faults arise. At Hartford, 64 percent of first and 86
percent of second serve attempts were delivered into court.
Eltingh and Haarhuis are masters of the server-returner confrontation.
Haarhuis was voted the top serve-returner by the players at Hartford. When
Mark Knowles and Daniel Nestor were asked why they were consistently dominated
by Eltingh-Haarhuis, they pointed to the effectiveness of the second serves of
the Netherlanders, especially Eltingh's. Interestingly, after defeating
Knowles-Nestor in the Hartford final, Eltingh and Haarhuis said essentially
the same thing. The strongest aspect of the Knowles-Nestor game, they said,
was their ability to attack second serves of opponents. Eltingh and Haarhuis,
by putting most first serves into play and by delivering strong second serves
when needed, largely neutralized the Knowles-Nestor strength.
DOUBLES BY CLAY COURTERS
Pre-tournament handicappers gave little chance to the seventh-seeded team, the
French pair of Oliver Delaitre and Fabrice Santoro. As the three days of
round-robin play unfolded, Delaitre at five-foot seven revealed powerful
ground strokes and serve returns, which he delivered using the techniques of
today's clay-court sluggers. Santoro exhibited a more varied game, though his
modest height and his two-handed hitting from both sides also suggested a
preference for the back court. (Santoro's #41 ranking in singles was tops
among the players at Hartford.) At age 31 and 26, respectively, both men
showed excellent foot speed. The two had agreed in early 1998 to concentrate
on doubles, and Delaitre indeed stopped playing singles entirely. Having won
three tournaments since September and having upset Eltingh and Haarhuis at
Stuttgart in October, the pair broke into the top eight only late in the year.
The Woodys (front) vs. Delaitre/Santoro.
Their hot streak continued at Hartford. They upset the Woodys in three sets on
the first day, and gave Eltingh-Haarhuis a good fight the next, taking the
first set -- the only set lost by the Netherlanders all week -- before bowing 4-6,
7-5, 7-5. They then defeated the fine team of Ellis Ferreira and Rick Leach,
thus reaching the Saturday semis, and won the first set against Knowles-Nestor, bowing out at 6-3 in the third.
In all their matches, Delaitre-Santoro played conventionally aggressive
doubles, returning well, trying to obtain command of the net, and volleying
effectively once on net. But their greatest strength lay in their ability to
fight back when pinned in deep court with both opponents at net. Their court
mobility was plainly an asset in extending points, but it was their strong
shotmaking that allowed them repeatedly to turn things around in such
situations. After their second victory, Delaitre in a quiet voice described
He began by explaining that he and Santoro were pleased that the court surface
at Hartford was not too fast, helping back-court play and minimizing the usual
advantage of their opponents in serving. Against a pair of good retrievers
like themselves, Delaitre continued, it was hard for even the strongest
opponents to close out a given point. When at baseline, he went on, the French
pair always fight hard to keep the points alive as long as possible, perhaps
hitting a bullet directly at one of the opponents, then one up the middle,
perhaps rolling a soft one just over the net cord, meanwhile mixing in the
threat of an overspin lob. They hope for an error from opponents or a weak,
short reply--a sitter. To beat them, he concluded, their opponents must keep
hitting strong, deep volleys, one after another.
Plainly, the Delaitre-Santoro outlook fits their talents nicely and bids well
for next year's clay season if not sooner. We will see more of this pair.
AMERICA'S TEAM AND THE I-FORMATION
Johnson and Montana (rear) in I-Formation.
The other underdogs were the Americans Johnson and Montana. Don Johnson, 30, a
lefty, the stronger and at six-three the taller of the pair, played four years
at University of North Carolina. Montana, 29, who is more the baseliner in
singles, played at University of Georgia. Neither has approached the top
hundred in singles. But they won the doubles at Monte Carlo this year,
defeating Eltingh-Haarhuis in the final. At Hartford, Montana played with a
wrapped knee, looking ahead to arthroscopic surgery the next week.
Johnson and Montana play with lots of energy and have sound volleying and
overhead skills. They are best known, however, for their use of the I, or
tandem, formation, which seems designed to make up for their relatively modest
serving abilities. Prior to every serve, server's partner takes his net
position directly in front of server, kneeling below the level of the net. As
soon as the serve passes the net, the net man rises and moves slightly to one
side or the other, as prearranged, thus taking responsibility for that side as
well as the center. Server moves forward to the other side. The idea, Montana
explained, is to distract the returner by the unusual movements of the pair,
and to take away returner's customary shot across the lowest part of the net.
The I-formation tactics were plainly helpful in Johnson-Montana's first-day
upset of Bhupathi-Paes. The Americans then lost to Knowles-Nestor, but they
next won an exciting three-setter over Sandon Stolle and Cyril Suk, the 1998
U.S. Open champions. There were no breaks of serve in the match, and all three
sets were decided by tiebreakers. America's team was finally eliminated in
Saturday's semis by Eltingh-Haarhuis.
Several other teams used the I-formation on occasions -- on certain break points
for example. The all-lefty pair of Ferreira-Leach used it frequently when
serving to the deuce court. After their win over the Woodys they explained
that their left-handed slice serves down the middle would bend to the right,
pulling Woodbridge to court center. Meanwhile, the I-formation would force him
to return in an unaccustomed direction and deny him the lowest part of the
net. Later, Woodbridge analyzed his returning of the Ferreira-Leach serves in
exactly the same terms. Next day it was interesting to watch Ferreira-Leach
consistently use the same tactic when serving to Santoro.
THE OUTLOOK FOR 1999
The absence of Eltingh-Haarhuis should open up next year's race. The Woodys,
third this year, plan to remain together and will surely be a foremost factor,
certainly a good early bet to regain their perennial Wimbledon championship.
Bhupathi-Paes, the youngest players at Hartford and 1998's second-ranking
pair, will also contend for the top. Paes, who Americans will remember from
his victory in singles over Sampras at New Haven, is a mercurial performer of
exciting quickness, while Bhupathi seems the solider and more dependable
member of the pair. One surmises that when a point is urgently needed, an
opponent is better advised to hit to Paes.
Knowles and Nestor were finalists at both Hartford and the U.S. Open. Both men
were healthy at Hartford for the first time in three years and are eager for
1999. Meanwhile South African Ellis Ferreira (no relation to Wayne Ferreira)
expects to continue as partner of Rick Leach, who has been successful with
many partners. (Leach and Jonathan Stark, both Americans, won Hartford last
year.) Stolle and Suk are splitting up.
Haarhuis's partner next year will be doubles specialist Pat Galbraith, 32, a
left-hander who usually plays the deuce court. Galbraith's game will be softer
than Eltingh's, but he plays aggressive and crafty doubles and will bring a
different dimension to complement Haarhuis. Meanwhile the intentions of Jonas
Bjorkman and Pat Rafter, who missed Hartford this year because of Rafter's
knee surgery, remain unannounced.
Asked where the new American doubles stars are likely to come from, Eltingh
mentioned Brian Macphie (who at 26 is no rookie) and Justin Gimelstob, 21.
Gimelstob and other young players, Eltingh continued, need yet to improve
their sense of doubles and doubles skills. Later, another player mentioned the
Bryan twins, who are new on the pro tour this year and are now playing on the
Challenger circuit. The Bryans won attention in reaching the doubles final in
Washington this summer.
All the players wish that the pro doubles game would emerge from the shadows,
and all agree that it should be promoted better. The Woodys pointed out that,
partly because of their own fame, doubles has indeed advanced in the last five
years or so. Prize money has improved, and there are financial incentives for
the singles stars to enter doubles events. The Woodys and others said that it
helps when partnerships stay together for many years.
I had been wondering whether doubles would be more attractive to spectators if
servers were allowed only one serve. Serves would be returned more often and
generally more effectively, so that extended rallies should become more
frequent. There would certainly be more breaks of serve. (The serving pair won
67 percent of all points at Hartford, 54 percent of second-serve points.) When
I put the thought to Stolle and Suk, both players were instantly negative.
Eltingh noted that the balls had already been made softer toward the same
I tried a different tack in a later interview. I reminded the winners of one
prolonged, crowd-pleasing point late in their match. Unrestrained cheering
followed the end of the point. In contrast to this exciting action, the
remaining two points of the match consisted of serve-return errors. I was
shocked when one of the partners replied by saying that he could have ended
the point early but had purposely extended it. I first doubted that the player
was telling me the truth, but he said that he prolongs points sometimes (to
entertain the fans, it was clear). Afterwards, I realized that if true his
remarks had confirmed my thinking -- that a way should be found to make points in
doubles last longer.
Two days later, back in Virginia, I was disturbed by a news story where John
McEnroe, alluding to the Hartford event, said that he at age 39 could still
beat today's players. Having watched McEnroe disappoint in Davis Cup doubles
late in his active career, I at first thought his words foolish. Still, my
recollection of Richard Gonzales competing fiercely at 40 (in singles!) argues
that McEnroe might still be competitive in doubles. It would be fascinating to
see him re-enter the doubles wars with a strong partner. I would go a long way
Additional Photos from the ATP Doubles Championships