It Takes Two to Tango
By Kiran Gupta
Day Six of the Australian Open 2018. The crowd on Rod Laver Arena are waiting patiently for Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova to take centre stage for their blockbuster encounter. Tens of thousands of eyes scan the schedule in gleeful anticipation of the Swiss maestro, Roger Federer who follows them. Ash Barty, Simona Halep, Sascha Zverev and Juan Martin Del Potro are just a few of the other names that can be seen on this day in the Melbourne sun.
Very few will look down to Court 8. Even fewer will bother to walk over to spectate. But this is where the magic will happen.
Nicolas Mahut, famous for playing the longest match in singles history at Wimbledon, is playing alongside his partner Pierre-Hugues Herbert. On the other side of the court is the largely unheralded Chilean-Belarusian team of Hans Podlipnik-Castillo and Andrei Vasilevski. The crowd is barely half full. Few would have known anything about the underdogs before the match. However, they put together an inspirational display of fight. Finally, Podlipnik-Castillo hits a beautiful volley on match point to secure victory. The subsequent hugging of supporters, coaches and lifting aloft of the Chilean flag ensures there is not a dry eye in the house. However, apart from the few hundred spectators at the match few would ever know. This is the world of doubles tennis.
It is an unfortunate reality that doubles tennis has come to be regarded as the ‘ugly duckling of the more illustrious singles game. Even though Australian icons Sam Stosur and Ash Barty have won the two most recent doubles grand slams - The Australian Open and the US Open respectively - it has got relatively little media attention. Mate Pavic, Marcelo Melo, Demi Schuurs, Nicole Melichar. These players are at the pinnacle of the doubles game and yet are virtual unknowns to the casual tennis fan. Even tennis icon John McEnroe, himself the winner of seven doubles grand slams, remarked in a recent interview with The Times of London, “Doubles—why are we even playing it?... The doubles [players] are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles.” So what has happened to the doubles game?
It is certainly true that there are more “doubles specialists” (those who don’t play singles) in the game than before. Only 48 of the 128 men’s doubles players are the Australian Open were in the top 100 for singles. It has also been observed by many sports journalists that the doubles game has become a game of “big serves and big returns,” the implication being that there are less grinding rallies than we have become accustomed to in the singles game. According to tennisabstract.com, there is some truth to this. At the 2019 Australian Open, the average men’s doubles rally was 0.7 shots shorter than its singles counterpart on average and on the women’s side this discrepancy was 0.5 shots. While there is a distinction here it is certainly not as great as the media sometimes portrays it.
Furthermore, shorter, more high-octane points can be both exciting and different for a new sport-watching audience. Accounting for the common criticism of singles tennis that it has become too monotonous, with endless baseline rallies, it seems increasingly likely that doubles could fill a void that singles simply cannot. While points may be shorter, surely that is better for a generation with shortening attention spans?
I spoke with Olympic Silver Medallist and 2019 Australian Open Mixed Doubles Champion Rajeev Ram who described the doubles game as a “very exciting brand of tennis that offers some different skill sets [to] singles [such as] quick reactions and good teamwork.” He believes that doubles “adds a new and very interesting dimension to the game that does not exist in singles” and this combined with what he characterises as the pinnacle of the doubles game, “the teamwork between partners” makes for a game that appeals to the younger generations. American doubles specialist Nicholas Monroe also spoke with me and argued that doubles is “fast-paced” and popular on the recreational court as “many older people play doubles at their home clubs.” The passion with which these players discuss their sport show how much potential doubles has on the global stage and what a great product it can be.
As with anything there are reasons why doubles has fallen down the pecking order of sports watchers. Coach of former top 10 player Janko Tipsarevic and advisor to many ATP doubles players Dirk Hordorff said to me that he believes that there should be “better promotion of doubles matches” and “a separate doubles court” that the ATP uses to promote the game. He also notes that sponsors “do not exist” for doubles and “nobody buys tickets” and indeed, Rajeev Ram also notes that doubles players “do not have the same notoriety as singles players” and the key to addressing this is to “get [doubles] on TV more.” Ram has a point here. Only seven of 195 doubles matches at 500 level (the second tier tournament on the ATP tour) were even produced for television. Unfortunately until this vicious cycle is broken doubles tennis will not regain its popularity.
It’s a long road back to popularise the doubles game. Every TV station in Australia would have been showing Roger Federer’s straight sets win over Richard Gasquet on that day at the Australian Open, not one likely to mention the patriotic triumph of Hans Podlipnik-Castillo and his partner out on court 8. However, the people sitting on that court who saw the joyous face of their proud coach and the delighted legion of Chilean supporters will never forget the moment when the underdogs took the biggest win of their career. The power of doubles tennis will never be lost on them. And with the dominance of tennis’ biggest stars (Federer, Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Serena Williams) ending as they enter the twilight of their careers, the administrators would be very wise to promote this fast-paced, energetic game to their young fanbase.