Monday, March 17, 2014

The state of ATP doubles

Once again Indian Wells had many singles players playing doubles thanks to its two-week format. Some teams consisting of singles players were able to upset established doubles teams, for example Federer/Wawrinka beat the 2010 US Open runner-ups Bopanna/Qureshi and two-time Grand Slam champions Paes/Stepanek in their semifinal run. The recent Australian Open champions Kubot/Lindstedt were defeated on the first round by F. Lopez/Robredo, both of them known mostly as singles players. The eventual champions, the Bryan brothers, were forced into the match tiebreak against Isner/Querrey, a team of singles players.

After those results, one can question the level of doubles on the ATP Tour. In the 2010s, singles players have been winning the Indian Wells title three times out of five, Rafael Nadal twice partnering doubles specialist Marc Lopez in 2010 and 2012, and Dolgopolov/Malisse in 2011. There have been also other examples where singles players can beat good teams of doubles specialists. For example, the last two World Tour Finals champions got beaten by singles players in the Davis Cup soon after those titles. The 2012 Tour Finals champions Granollers/M. Lopez were beaten in the Davis Cup final by Berdych/Stepanek. OK, Stepanek is a great doubles player. But last year's Tour Finals champions Marrero/Verdasco got beaten on this year's Davis Cup's first round against Haas/Kohlschreiber, neither of whom is particularly known as a doubles player.

Singles players have had success also in the Olympic doubles. In their run to doubles' Olympic gold in 2008, Federer/Wawrinka beat doubles specialists like the Bryan brothers and Bhupathi/Paes. At the 2012 Olympics, the silver and bronze were won by Llodra/Tsonga and Benneteau/Gasquet, of whom Tsonga and Gasquet play doubles quite rarely.

I think it is quite obvious that there are singles players who could have success in doubles if they played it more often. Fernando Verdasco is an example of a good singles player who has successfully started to play doubles on a regular basis. Still, I don't think top singles players would dominate doubles if they played there. Federer/Wawrinka were beaten in Indian Wells by the eventual runner-ups Peya/Soares, so the final was occupied by doubles specialists despite many singles players' presence. Also Federer/Wawrinka didn't steamroll the other doubles specialists they faced during the tournament. I believe today's top-level doubles tennis is doubles at its very best, despite some players with good doubles skills concentrating only on singles. But singles players playing doubles regularly would add depth to the top of doubles tennis.

But how to make more singles players playing doubles on a regular basis? Yevgeny Kafelnikov is the last man who won singles and doubles at the same Grand Slam event, at the 1996 French Open. Nowadays you could not imagine that happening; the top singles players concentrate solely on singles in slams, playing seven best-of-five singles matches is physically taxing enough. That's why I see very little hope to see the best singles players playing doubles at slams. But I think the players ranked between 10 and 20 could play doubles more often at slams. They usually don't have so deep runs in singles that playing doubles would hurt them, especially as a deep run is not guaranteed in doubles either. Playing doubles more often might also bring something to their singles game, especially improve their net game, even though unfortunately that is not so important in today's baseline-dominated game. But I can see also those players ranked between 10 and 20 rather concentrating solely on singles; by making it one round further in singles, they can earn more than by making the doubles quarterfinals. And I don't think doubles’ prize money should be increased. John McEnroe questioned the status of doubles by saying doubles specialists are players who could not make it to the top in singles and that's why he suggested abandoning doubles and chanelling the prize money to lower-ranked singles players. I don’t agree with him about abandoning doubles, I think doubles belongs to tennis. But singles is the main thing in tennis and I think you should not be able to make a living by playing solely doubles unless you are really good in it.

Maybe the tour should promote doubles more to add the prestige of winning doubles titles. That might encourage more singles players playing doubles on a regular basis. The players whose chances to win singles titles in big events are slim might play doubles for the prestige of winning, even if that might hurt them in singles. Look at the Olympics, even the big names of singles' game are playing doubles as they can play for the Olympic medals only once in four years and the prestige of doubles’ gold is close to the prestige of singles’ gold. I think the ATP could do a lot to promote doubles. They could increase doubles' coverage; I think many fans were willing to see the Federer/Wawrinka vs. Peya/Soares semifinal from Indian Wells as there were two famous singles players there. But that match was not televised as television channels don't want to show doubles. Actually, even Challenger Tour doubles matches are streamed better than Masters Series doubles matches. I think that is shameful and the ATP should do something on it. I think they should ensure coverage at least from Masters semifinals and finals, preferably from earlier rounds, too. Who cares about doubles if you cannot see it? If you think doubles' coverage should be increased, you can sign a petition here.

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