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Doubles athletes are people, too

Matt Zemek

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Jimmie 48 Photography

This is not just a story about Roland Garros, or about the four majors, but about tennis in general.

After Game 5 of the NBA Finals, in which basketball superstar Kevin Durant — clearly one of the four best players in the world alongside LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry — suffered a ruptured Achilles which will cause him to miss the entirety of next season, Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur wrote a (paywalled) piece titled, “Easy to forget that superstar athletes like Kevin Durant are people, too.”

In many ways, superstar athletes — superstars in any profession — live lives very different from the rest of us. The money they make, the fame that envelops them, the publicity which is part of their daily existence, the pressures and expectations which hound them, the privacy they don’t get, the aspirations and challenges which mark their worlds, are not easy to grasp. It is in many ways a different universe.

Yet, they are no less human than us. Life contains limits, and in those limits emerge commonalities and equalizers which put everyone on the same plane. In terms of how we treat our fellow men and women, superstardom doesn’t give anyone — not the superstar him/herself, not the “commoners” on the other side of the tracks — the right to behave poorly.

Kindness, spaciousness, empathy, forgiveness — they are always called for.

Superstar athletes ARE people, too, not gods or messiahs.

So it also is with doubles players in tennis.

They are trying to hit serves and returns, and groundstrokes and volleys, just like everyone else. No, doubles isn’t the same as singles, but it’s not as though doubles tennis is squash or cricket or badminton. No — it’s still tennis, just with two extra players and the doubles alleys.

Here we are in 2019, between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and nothing is changing — or seems to be changing — in the realm of doubles, at least not through a media lens.

Doubles is that distant cousin one invites to a social gathering out of a sense of obligation, not happiness or a desire to get to know the person. Doubles is allowed into the room, but not with any real joy or commitment, any sense of “You are welcome here! You are always valued!”

It is always the same at the majors: We get a few doubles matches on the final weekend of the tournament, this little peek into doubles lives and doubles tactics, and just as quickly, it’s gone.

It really shouldn’t be that way, and moreover, it doesn’t have to be that way.

When I spoke to Alex Gruskin of the Mini-Break Podcast after the end of Roland Garros, we talked about how to restructure the second weeks and final weekends of major tournaments. 

Alex and I both said that doubles deserves to carve out a larger portion of visibility at tennis tournaments. Making genuine attempts to treat doubles as central to tennis, rather than peripheral, would be a great start.

Remember everything (or at least the main thing?) I have emphasized about having four WTA singles quarterfinals on Tuesday of the second week of a major? If tennis did that, the four singles quarterfinals could be played on the main stadium court. Guess what could happen on the No. 2 stadium court? Three or four doubles matches could be played. Some might say that’s not a sexy ticket, but the larger point is that scheduling adjustments at majors don’t just have to be singles-focused or singles-inclusive.

DOUBLES can benefit from these redesigns, too.

What if a five-set women’s singles final was played on Sunday, along with a five-set men’s final? (That sounds pretty cool, oui?)

Saturdays at the majors would be given over ENTIRELY to doubles, while all singles finalists got a day off.

There ARE ways to make doubles more prominent, but they require imagination and a willingness to change.

Doubles players are people, too. They want more of a foothold in tennis, too, not just WTA singles players who didn’t get to play on Chatrier before the women’s final.

I don’t expect tennis to do something about this anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean the hope — or the vision — shouldn’t be articulated.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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