January 22, 2000

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Doubles troubles

Rohit Brijnath

So you're a tennis junkie, know your western grip from continental, know a slider (leftie serve out wide) to one down the T (serve down the middle), know that John McEnroe was born in Weisbaden Air Force Base, Germany and that the Head Intelligence is not a IQ test but a revolutionary new racket.

Good for you, but want to impress me, tell me this?

Who's the top seed in the men's doubles at the Australian Open? Or the second seeds?

Don't know, don't blush, don't be ashamed. Neither do 99 per cent of the visitors to Melbourne Park. Nor some of the (singles) players at the Open!

For the record its Nestor/Stolle and Ellis Ferreira/Rikl, and there's a fair chance that barring Stolle (and it's not old Fred who lost in three straight Wimbledon finals 1963-64-65, but his son Sandon) you've never heard of the rest.

You should have, for boy they can play.

If tennis can be sexy (that's if you have an imagination beyond Ms. Kournikova legs, and Ms. Elder Williams' dress) then doubles is it (Of course, this is when doubles is played well. When it's not, go find that cold beer fast). It is unpredictability meshed with invention; you'll see more overheads and lobs than in an entire day of singles play, more volleys than you'd collect in an entire week when two of today's soporific baseliners are at it. It has angles singles players can't find, subtlety which singles players can't spell, and half-volleys which are so rare in singles play that you'd have to search an archive to find them. And when four men are at the net volleying fast and furiously at each other, you'd think you have a front seat to the Gunfight at Ok Corral.

So it's nice to know that doubles is a dying art, or to be precise men's doubles.

Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes On Thursday last week, Court No.1, at least initially, was as empty as a bar on Monday morning, so what if doubles' best advertisement Paes-Bhupathi (well, not the way they played that day for certain) were playing two local Aussie boys. A couple of Swedes (!!!!) sauntered in, ah genuine fans I thought, till they peeled of their shirts, lay back, eyes closed and soaked up a tan in peace.

Funny that, for 30 minutes earlier everyone was wide awake, the court was like a tuna tin, with a hundred heads thrusting over the wall for a peek at the action, as a women's doubles match was played out. Sure, the top seeds and defending champions Rennae Stubbs/Lisa Raymond were out there, but the crowds were focused on someone else.

They're opponents, the unseeded Martina Hingis/Monica Seles.

It's the first rule of tennis. Stars sell. Rikl, Nestor and Ferreira sound like my local real estate agent. Seles and Hingis carry with them an echo of greatness.

All over tennis it's the same story. All the top women players ... Lindsay Davenport, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Jelena Dokic, Anna Kournikova, Mary Pierce ... find time to play doubles; few of the men ... not Sampras, Agassi, Rafter, Safin, Henman, Norman, Hewitt do so regularly, immediately robbing the event of star quality. It's ironic isn't it then, that doubles most shining star, its most riveting practioner ever, was actually a singles player. As they once said, the greatest doubles team ever was "John McEnroe and anyone".

This specialization, into either singles or doubles with limited cross-over, "is concerning tournament directors", says Brad Drewett, executive VP, international group, ATP Tour. As well it might, for you have 64 players usually arriving for singles and a completely different 64 (give or take a few) arriving for doubles, which makes hospitality and daily allowances a nightmare (if 60 per cent of singles players played doubles the costs would swiftly decline). It's concerning because no man's alive who can remember a full house for doubles.

The result: tournament directors want to downsize doubles play, to restrict the draw to 16 teams or so, content with the cream, nothing more.

Why don't men play. Simply, there's too little to gain. If McEnroe used it in lieu of practice, to sharpen his game; today's baseliners find no reason to learn, nor master, the volley. Scheduling, says Drewett, is a killer. Often men find themselves playing a doubles match close to midnight, with a key singles match less than 12 hours later.

"They have to prioritise," says Drewett, and there goes doubles.

Money says Rennae Stubbs, "Maybe they make so much of it playing singles that they don't need doubles." Dreweet disagrees, saying, "There are players like Sampras and Agassi who don't play for money." The inference: theyve got enough, they're chasing history. Drewett might want to retract that quote after Yevgeny Kafelnikov's moan that singles players don't earn enough, specifically in comparison to golf.

Yet this much is true, doubles earnings are minimal. At the Gold Flake Open, for instance, if memory serves me correctly, the Black Brothers, who won, earned $23,000 between them. Not enough to fuel Yevgeny's personal jet even.

What irks doubles players is that they are obviously second class citizens, to be endured, but scarcely pampered. There was understandable fury, when at the World doubles championships in Bangalore, the ATP's CEO Mark Miles, a visitor to all major tournaments, failed to appear. "A scheduling conflict," says Drewett, and it is but a decent man's attempt to cover for the boss.

Indeed, so desperate are the men's players that they agreed to hand over 1 per cent of their prize-money, to find somebody to market their tour. "It's still on the table," says Drewett, who says he'd love to promote doubles, like the singles players have been in the ATPs New Balls Please campaign, but that budget constraints exist.

It hardly helps that doubles players confuse the issue. Says Drewett, "In the past I could have probably marketed the Woodies, or Leander-Mahesh or Jacco Eltingh-Paul Haarhuis, because they come from the same country and that makes it a national team." But today Nestor-Stolle is Candian/Australian, Ellis Ferreria/Rikl is South African/Czech, third seeds Kaeflnikov/ Wayne Ferreira are Russian/South South African. Tennis divorce is painful too. Start promoting a team and they split. Last year it was the Indians, this year who knows.

If there is hope, and fortunately that has not fled yet, it is history.

Doubles is a traditional form, and thus will never embrace complete extinction. But breathing with the help of a respirator is hardly much of a living.

Rohit Brijnath

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