March 18, 2010

Turning Doubles Talent into Singles Strength

For years women have seemed to understand that playing doubles can, in fact, improve your singles game. Martina Navratilova, Lindsey Davenport and Kim Clijsters are just a few of the ladies who've been ranked #1 in both disciplines. It might make sense that a talented singles player could easily translate his or her ability onto the doubles court. But these days, pairs specialists are finding their stride all on their own.

Take Sam Stosur, ranked #1 for sixty-one weeks in 2006-07 -- she reached a career high #11 singles ranking in February. Though she's won two Major doubles titles and finished runner-up a handful of times, she just took home her maiden singles trophy last year. Despite some disappointing results to start the year -- she lost in the first round of her hometown Slam, the Australian Open -- this week at the BNP Paribas Open she's been in top form. Through her first three matches she hasn't dropped a set, last beating defending champion Vera Zvonareva in less than ninety minutes.

In the quarterfinals she'll meet Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, currently half of the #3 doubles team on Tour. She's only ranked thirty-third in singles, but she's been mighty impressive in Indian Wells, taking out world #6 Victoria Azarenka and #15 Yanina Wickmayer, both in straight sets. She's probably still a long-shot for the title, but it's certainly been a good week for her solo game.

In the meantime the men are beginning to take their cue from the ladies. While the only gentleman to my knowledge to hold the top spot in both singles and doubles was John McEnroe, we're starting to see a few more of the sport's elite try out the wider court.

The pair of John Isner and Sam Querrey, who played the singles and doubles finals on the same day in Memphis last month, have also made the semis in California. They'll face their first seeded team of the tournament next, but regardless of the result their performance already surpasses what either did in the singles bracket. Even Rafael Nadal, who held a doubles ranking of #26 way back before you knew who he was, has teamed up with Marc Lopez as a wildcard entry in the desert. They opened with a victory over third seeds and perennial powerhouses Leander Paes and Lukas Dlouhy.

Sure there's the argument that spending so much time on court can tire out the men's singles players who already face longer yearly schedules than the women and have to withstand best-of-five set matches at the Majors. But there is clearly something -- net work, quick reflexes, discipline -- learned on a doubles court that serves a purpose to players on their own, and there are plenty of guys out there who can use the benefits.

And, if nothing else, it sure is fun for us all to watch!

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