October 29, 2008

Doubles, Doubles, Toil & Trouble

Halloween is fast approaching, and the ghouls and goblins are haunting the eerily quiet doubles' courts as paired players make their own bid to play for the year-end championships next week.

Both the women's Bell Challenge in Quebec and the men's BNP Masters in Paris feature some of the best talent in doubles -- even if they are overshadowed by their solo counterparts.

I've long been of the opinion that doubles tennis never gets the attention it deserves. To some extent it makes sense that the top players would eschew the doubles bracket in an effort to avoid potential injury and focus on their singles game. It's rare to see the matches broadcast, even during the major tournaments, unless it's the championship or there's a rain delay. Even at the high school level, doubles is relegated to the back courts while the "star" singles athletes get top billing.

But watching a real high-quality match can often be more dramatic and entertaining than anything two solo players can pull off on the court.

This year at the U.S. Open, I was able to watch Virginia Ruano Pascual and her partner Anabel Medina Garrigues take on Americans Raquel Kops-Jones and Abigail Spears. The Spaniards, seeded fifth at the tournament, were given a run for their money by the hometown -- or home-country -- favorites, losing the first set and being forced into a third set tiebreak before pulling out the win. But with hard-hitting volleys, multiple heart-pounding gets and reaction times that would rival the most skilled marksmen, there was no doubt that these ladies were working for their buck.

And while the very top singles players seldom make any real effort in doubles, usually happily languishing in the triple-digits for rankings, the opposite isn't always true. Katarina Srebotnik is currently ranked #3 in doubles and #21 in singles while Ai Sugiayama is #4 and #31 respectively. Jonas Bjorkman, currently part of the fifth best doubles team in the world, was once ranked as high as #4 on his own.

At the top of the women's game right now are Zimbabwe's Cara Black and the U.S.'s Liezel Huber. Together they've won a jaw-dropping nine title matches since January, including the U.S. Open -- Cara also took the mixed doubles championship in Flushing Meadows, beating her partner Liezel in straight sets. Incidentally, the #1 women's singles player, Jelena Jankovic, has won a relatively paltry four tournaments in 2008.

On the men's side all eyes are on the Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, the twins who regained their #1 ranking after winning the U.S. Open in September. Bob pulled out of the Davis Cup semifinal match against Spain with a shoulder injury, but the two are back in top form in Paris this week, looking to capture their sixth title of the year.

Despite the dominance of both pairs in their respective fields, there is unfortunately a huge discrepancy in the rewards of both games. Jelena, for her four titles and no majors, has taken home $2.7 million this year just in prize money; Cara Black, including her take from the U.S. Open, has made only $730K. The Bryans together have earned a combined $1.5 million, less than a fourth of what Rafael Nadal has won. Sponsorships and endorsements, of course, add even more to the purse of singles players.

Every now and then you begin to hear rumblings that singles players should be required to enter the doubles draws at major tournaments. To an extent that happens at the Olympics, where Roger Federer won gold with Stanislas Wawrinka, and at Davis Cup and Fed Cup matches -- Mardy Fish stepped in for Bob Bryan against Spain, and actually won. And you occassionally see a pairing like Nadal and Argentina's Juan Monaco, who've already notched a first round win this week in Paris.

But what about the rest of the year?

Purely for the entertainment value I think there's a great argument for it -- imagine watching heavy hitters like Federer and Andy Roddick pounding down Nadal and James Blake. But even from a strategic standpoint I feel there is a benefit, forcing players who are traditionally content to wear down the baseline to develop a real serve-and-volley game and ultimately improve their overall play. Yes, the potential for injury or exhaustion is a concern, but isn't that just time they'd be spending on the court anyway?

And maybe a few recognizable names in the doubles draw is all the sport needs to get people interested.

So drive the ghosts off the courts, grab a couple of friends and get out there and play!

'Til then, I'm off to find myself a Halloween costume!

Happy Haunting!

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