The history of men’s doubles in the Open Era is not primarily a story of Australia and America. It is better viewed as a story of how Australia and America set the standard for world-class professional doubles, finally encountered a more barren time period, but then gave tennis two of its greatest doubles teams ever.
Before dealing exclusively with the Open Era history of men’s doubles at the major tournaments, one has to acknowledge the years preceding the Open Era while also citing the presence of the Davis Cup and the cultural importance that tournament used to possess. It was a matter of spiritual significance for Australians to win the Davis Cup in the years which preceded and led into the Open Era. The Australian Open was comparatively less robust and accepted as one of the four majors for a long time — decades into the Open Era, to be specific — so Davis Cup was in many ways the event which gave Australia and its best male tennis players a chance to put the country on the global sporting map.
We all know how essential the doubles point is in Davis Cup ties, so it is no idle coincidence that Australia had the best men’s doubles teams at the major tournaments for decades before the Open Era began in 1968.
Fact No. 1: Setting aside the Australian Open itself — where Australians regularly participated but other notable players and doubles teams didn’t consistently fly across the globe to attend in past decades — at least one Australian won a major doubles title EVERY YEAR from 1948 through 1971. Australians won the men’s doubles at the Australian Open in 22 of those 24 years, but even if you toss them out of the equation, Australians still won at least one of the trophies up for grabs at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open.
Fact No. 2: In that 24-year streak of Australians winning at least one men’s doubles major in Paris, SW19, or New York, an Australian TEAM won the championship in all of those years except one: 1963, in which Roy Emerson teamed with Spain’s Manuel Santana at the French Open. In the other 23 years, an Australian lifted a men’s doubles major championship trophy with another Australian.
Fact No. 3: In Davis Cup, Australia or the United States won 47 of the first 62 Davis Cups, through 1973.
Fact No. 4: Australia and the United States have combined to win 60 of the 106 Davis Cups which have been completed.
Dedication to Davis Cup and devotion to doubles went hand in hand. Primarily in Australia but also in the United States, men’s doubles craftsmanship mattered as a reflection of tennis culture. Roy Emerson and John Newcombe own a unique place in men’s tennis history in that they both won at least seven singles majors and yet won more major titles in doubles than in singles: 16 dubs and 12 singles for Emerson, 17 dubs and 7 majors for Newcombe, plus two mixed doubles majors. Emerson won all of his singles titles in the amateur era, but Newcombe won most of his singles and doubles majors in the Open Era, giving him a place in tennis history which is higher than I previously thought he deserved. Researching this piece opened my eyes to how formidable and impressive “Newk” really was.
The United States did not nearly match the scope and scale of Emerson’s or Newcombe’s doubles achievements at the majors. This is part of why Emerson and Newcombe own the most major titles — across all three tennis disciplines — of any men in history, and why Australia has four of the top five men in that category. (Australia has 8 of the top 12 while America has 3, two based exclusively on doubles. The 12th man? Federer.)
Yet, while Australia was the main creator of men’s doubles champions at majors, the Americans did come up with very strong men’s doubles teams every several years to keep a pipeline going.
After World War II through the remainder of the 20th century, the United States did not dominate doubles on a relentless annual basis the way Australia did, but it continuously produced — every several years — at least one men’s doubles player who won at least five majors.
The list and progression in chronological order:
— Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas, 5 majors (partnership began in 1954; the team won 4 majors and picked up fifth majors with other partners)
— Dennis Ralston, 5 majors (first one in 1960, last one in 1966, with multiple partners)
— Bob Lutz and Stan Smith, 5 majors (all as a team, from 1968-1980)
— Peter Fleming, 7 majors (all with John McEnroe from 1979-1984)
— John McEnroe, 9 majors (7 with Fleming from 1979-1984, two with other partners, one in 1989 and one in 1992)
— Rick Leach, 5 majors (from 1988-2000 with multiple partners)
It is worth noting that Leach won his fourth men’s doubles major in 1993 and didn’t chase down his fifth until 2000. Leach’s fourth major at the 1993 U.S. Open marked a halt in the American pipeline, which produced a number of doubles teams which picked off a single major here and there, but no new doubles heavyweight. After Leach’s 1993 U.S. Open title with Ken Flach, only one American team won a men’s dubs major over the next seven years.
This is where the story of men’s doubles in the Open Era shifts from the longer, deeper histories of Australian and American doubles — well before the Open Era began — to the more recent chunk of tennis history.
Roy Emerson’s foremost doubles teammate at the majors was Neale Fraser — the two men won seven majors together, 27 separately (16 for Emerson, 11 for Fraser). Emerson also won three of his men’s doubles majors alongside Rod Laver. (Laver won six men’s doubles majors and three mixed to give him 20 majors. That number matches Roger Federer’s; it merely comes from three disciplines, not one.)
Newcombe won most of his 17 men’s doubles majors alongside Tony Roche, another of the great Australian tennis players of the 1960s and early ’70s. Roche and Newcombe were both into their 30s when they won the 1977 Australian Open title together. One can connect the long run of Australian Davis Cup prominence through the early 1970s with the final prime years of the country’s golden generation of tennis players.
The last non-Australian Open men’s doubles major won by Newcombe and Roche was 1974 Wimbledon. From 1975 through 1991 at the non-Australian Open majors — encompassing 17 years and therefore 51 major tournaments — all-Australian men’s doubles teams won only four majors. When the Australian Open finally attained genuine parity with the other three majors in 1988 — going to a full-size 128-player singles draw at a modernized facility in Melbourne Park — the best doubles teams in the world convened at that event. The unofficial identity of an “Australian doubles invitational” which had existed in previous years no longer applied. In a very real sense, the advent of the 1990s put all four majors on equal standing. Australians had a splashy new tennis complex to show to the world. They needed their doubles drought to end after Newcombe and Roche — the last of the great Aussie doubles teams in their era — arrived at the natural ends of their shimmering careers.
Enter the Woodies.
Tood Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde won the 1992 Australian Open, marking the first men’s doubles major title by an all-Australian team since Mark Edmondson and Kim Warwick won the 1985 French Open. Eight years later, at Wimbledon in 2000, Woodbridge and Woodforde won their 11th and last title as a team. Woodbridge then teamed with Jonas Bjorkman for five more men’s doubles majors, the last of which came at Wimbledon in 2004.
If Newcombe and Roche represented the first great Australian men’s doubles team of the Open Era (whereas Emerson did nearly all his work before it began), Woodbridge and Woodforde formed the other one. The halcyon days of the early 1970s might have given way to a dry spell for a decade and a half, but the Woodies revived the great Australian men’s doubles tradition at the majors.
Something similar happened in the United States precisely as Woodbridge was finishing his storied doubles career.
That final 2004 Wimbledon title with Bjorkman enabled Woodbridge to match Emerson’s 16 titles (one short of Newcombe’s 17) and become, at the time, the winningest men’s doubles major champion of the Open Era. All of his trophies were claimed within the period, unlike his celebrated Australian predecessors. One year before that Wimbledon, two brothers — Mike and Bob Bryan — won their first major at the 2003 French Open. They didn’t win any of the next nine majors played, however, so when they arrived in New York for the 2005 U.S. Open, they were not the toast of the town or an embodiment of America’s rediscovered doubles prowess.
That 2005 U.S. Open, which they won, changed the course of their careers and the way the Open Era is remembered in men’s doubles.
From 2005 through 2014, the Bryan brothers won at least one major per year, and in 2013, they were denied a Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. They are still at it on tour, still going deep into tournaments but not winning trophies at the rate they used to. Yet, their staying power evokes comparisons with the Newcombe-Roche team and with a man not yet mentioned in this piece, Ken Rosewall, whose longevity and quality in singles were accompanied by staying power in doubles. Rosewall’s first and last men’s doubles major titles were separated by 19 years (1953-1972).
There might be a long and contentious debate about whether Newcombe-Roche or the Woodies represent Australia’s best men’s doubles team ever. (Not being Australian, I’m not going to venture an opinion on that score, because that answer is best if delivered by someone who thoroughly understands Australian sports culture and can speak to the particularities of eras in a way I never will be able to.) However, there is no debate that the Bryan brothers are America’s best men’s doubles team ever. Their 16 major titles are the most by one men’s doubles team in the Open Era or any other era of professional tennis. If they can win one more title, they will tie Newcombe’s 17 and pass Woodbridge’s 16.
Australia and the United States have written most of the chapters in the story of men’s doubles at tennis’s biggest tournaments, much as they have also done at the Davis Cup. How fitting it is that these tennis nations — though hardly carbon copies of each other — both went through relative periods of drift but then retrieved their storied pasts by producing the two best men’s doubles teams of the past 25 years: the Woodies in the 1990s and the Bryans in the 21st century.
Header Image – Clive Brunskill