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OPEN ERA AT 50: DOUBLE DUPLICATION FOR AUSTRALIA AND AMERICA

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

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.

Bryans

Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe

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

 

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WIMBLEDON ATP REVIEW: RESILIENCE FROM DJOKOVIC AND OTHERS

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

This is technically an ATP review of Wimbledon, posted one day after my WTA review of The Championships at the All England Club. To be sure, this piece will primarily focus on the past fortnight in men’s tennis. However, if we’re being honest, the theme of resilience pervaded both singles tournaments at SW19 this year.

Stop and consider how much — and how often — players worked to overcome towering obstacles. In some cases, these were injuries or interruptions. In other cases, the hurdles were mental blocks, the familiar demons of so many performers in a solo-athlete sport.

This tournament produced seven players who made their first Wimbledon quarterfinal: Camila Giorgi, Julia Goerges, Kiki Bertens, Daria Kasatkina, John Isner, Kevin Anderson, and Kei Nishikori. Of those seven players, Giorgi and Goerges made their first major quarterfinal of any kind. Isner made just his second major quarterfinal, his previous showing coming seven years earlier at the U.S. Open.

Several additional players made the second week of Wimbledon (the fourth round) for the first time. Karolina Pliskova did so for the women, among many others, and Gael Monfils finally broke through on the men’s side, in addition to several other peers.

This was the tournament of the comeback, the fortnight in which players who had undergone profound hardships in varying contexts took big steps forward. Monfils and Pliskova were the comparatively modest examples of this dynamic.

At the top, the two singles champions could not have made more emphatic statements about their ability to take a roundhouse punch, get off the canvas, dust themselves off, and become number one, lifting a trophy on the most famous court in tennis.

Angelique Kerber and Novak Djokovic both went through a tennis version of hell in 2017. The reasons for the hell were different, but the misery was profound in both instances. No great champion — barring an extremely rare exception — goes through a career without some form of interruption or adversity. Even the very best in a profession get knocked down at times. When that moment occurs, and they must process the pain of injury, or the anxiety of doubt, or the sting of a narrow loss that shouldn’t have happened, they absorb the frustration every other human being goes through. More precisely as tennis players, they confront the negative vibes an 89th-ranked player confronts after letting a round-of-64 match slip through his fingers.

All tennis players go through these moments of biting, searing disappointment… but only the great ones use those moments as fuel to get back to the top of the sport. Many good players use those occasions to go on a quarterfinal or semifinal run, but the elites know how to squeeze every last drop of education, awareness, and improvement from past hardships at the biggest tournaments. Kerber and Djokovic, given fresh life by coaches new (Wim Fissette) or old (Marian Vajda), didn’t climb three-fourths of the way up the mountain. They scaled the peak, as champions do. Djokovic in particular — since this is mostly an ATP review — wrote his name in the great book of tennis history alongside Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by completing his own comeback from injury. All three men can now say they were kicked to the curb by a physical derailment and lifted a major trophy in response.

This was the Wimbledon of the bounce-back.

One can very reasonably say, without hyperbole, that the eight singles semifinalists — four men and four women — all authored stories of considerable resilience at this Wimbledon.

Jelena Ostapenko served terribly in her first-round Roland Garros loss. Playing poorly is never good, but Wimbledon demands the ability to serve at a reasonably high level. One can’t advance deep into this event without having a moderately productive serve. Ostapenko — who reminded us that she, too, is a champion — transformed her serve in the short period of time between Paris and SW19, making the semifinals and changing the course of her season.

That was a profound turnaround, and yet of the eight singles semifinalists, it was the least substantial one in a larger context.

Kerber’s and Djokovic’s ascendancies have already been noted and discussed, en route to stirring and memorable championships at the All England Club. Then consider Serena Williams, doing what she did near her 37th birthday, as a mom, with very little 2018 match play, after a literal near-death experience in the process of childbirth. No embellishment there, just straight truth.

Julia Goerges made her first Wimbledon semifinal at age 29. She had never gotten past the fourth round of any major before. She tightened up so many times at the biggest tournaments in tennis. Finally, her moment came. Finally, she freed herself up and played with the right balance of clarity and relaxation.

John Isner, age 33, made his first major semifinal of any kind. We all knew that Isner’s lack of mobility, a consistent backhand, and a credible return of serve, plus a taller strike zone for his groundstrokes, prevented him from being CONSISTENTLY good at Wimbledon. To be very clear here, it’s not a surprise that Isner OFTEN failed at Wimbledon. Isner’s margin for error in five-set matches is plainly much lower than in three-set matches. The surprising aspect of Isner’s career at Wimbledon — and at the majors in general — is not that he failed to make the second week most of the time. It’s that he failed to make the second week with relentless and numbing regularity. A player with Isner’s serve — one would think — would surely make a major quarterfinal once every eight or nine majors, every two years or so. Yet, entering this Wimbledon, Isner had just one major quarterfinal to his credit, in 2011. The paucity of good results at majors was a profound source of disappointment. Isner could have let that reality drag him down once again. (To be honest, the rain very probably saved him against Ruben Bemelmans in round two — but credit to him: He used that delay well.) Instead, Isner made history and came within two points of a Wimbledon final.

Isner has gone where more talented players such as Nicolas Almagro and Philipp Kohlschreiber have not yet gone (and probably never will go): to a major semifinal.

Rafael Nadal — remember him? — has been written off by many tennis analysts at Wimbledon, but the point many missed was that if Nadal got the right draw — NO BIG SERVERS — in the first week, Nadal could make a deep run again. He did, coming within an eyelash of another Wimbledon title. As Milos Raonic might have told Juan Martin del Potro, “Rafa technically didn’t reach the final, but hypothetically, the Djokovic match WAS the final,” as anyone and everyone could see on Sunday.

Nadal might still win Wimbledon. We were reminded what a problem solver and competitor he is at this tournament. Djokovic made the biggest and strongest statement of all, but Nadal’s feats are not to be forgotten… or taken for granted. None of the Big 3 should be written off — they keep reminding us of that.

I close with the man who didn’t win Wimbledon, but who won a lot of new fans and captured new hearts at this tournament.

Kevin Anderson, much like Julia Goerges at all four majors — and much like Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon in particular — kept bumping his head into a relatively low and specific ceiling at important tournaments. For the longest time, Anderson had trouble getting past the fourth round at majors. Like John Isner, Anderson arrived at age 30 with a surprisingly barren resume at the majors, relative to his talents. Many people in and around professional tennis — in the coaches’ boxes, in the locker rooms, on the practice courts — will tell you that hitting the ball well is not the primary task of tennis players. They can all do that at a relatively high level. Managing Timothy Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Tennis” — the game between the ears — is almost always the foremost challenge (and gateway) on the road to greatness. Sorting out the mind unlocks achievement, and with Anderson, it has been no different.

What is special about Anderson’s rise — and what will be special about this Wimbledon 30 years from now — is that Kando did something extremely rare in the Open Era of tennis: He made his first two major finals after turning 30. Andres Gimeno, born in 1937, made the 1969 Australian Open final and the 1972 French Open final. Not many other names, if any, can be found on the list of players who made their first two major finals after hitting the big 3-Oh.

What Anderson also owns is the satisfaction of knowing that he has now made more major finals than these big names: Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, David Ferrer, and David Nalbandian. Does this mean Anderson has had a better career than some of these guys (Delpo and Berdych in particular)? No. However, it does mean that Anderson has changed the way he will be remembered. You always get remembered differently in tennis when you cross the river from “once” to “twice” in any meaningful achievement. More precisely, Anderson — unlike his U.S. Open, in which Sam Querrey was his quarterfinal opponent — had to beat Roger Federer in these Wimbledon quarterfinals, from two sets down, to make the final. He had to win a 6:36 semifinal against (arguably) the most imposing server in men’s tennis to make his first Wimbledon final. He competed as well as his body would allow him to in the final. Everyone could see he gave it all he had.

Anderson — a socially conscious, gentle, and generous man whose initial reaction after Friday’s semifinal was to comfort Isner more than celebrate his own victory — is a terrific ambassador for tennis. He will carry this heightened “ambassadorship” to the U.S. Open and should then do the same at the Laver Cup in Chicago, where the University of Illinois man will receive a hero’s welcome. He reached the ATP top five (just in time, too, given the hardship of defending his U.S. Open points from last year) and became a bigger tennis star at just the right time. He deserves these blessings on the merits of his play; it sure helps when the person is someone everyone in tennis can easily cheer for.

From Djokovic to Kerber, from Isner to Goerges, from Serena to Rafa, from Ostapenko to Kando, this was the Wimbledon of resilience. This tournament was a banquet table of inspiration, a buffet laden with stories marking the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

Source: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images Europe
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WIMBLEDON WTA REVIEW: THE BLURRED LINE OF BALANCE

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The WTA of 2018, like the WTA of 2017, is nothing if not balanced.

In 2017, the WTA produced only one repeat major finalist over the course of the season: Venus Williams, a finalist in Australia, returned to a major final at Wimbledon. The other six slots occupied by major finalists belonged to one-time participants in 2017: Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys.

We are done with three of the four majors in 2018, and so far, the same dynamic applies: Only one player has repeated as a major finalist. Simona Halep made the finals in Australia and Roland Garros. The other four slots were occupied by four different players: Caroline Wozniacki, Stephens, Serena, and Angelique Kerber. Serena might become the season’s second repeat major finalist at the U.S. Open. Kerber will face a much tougher road in New York with players such as Elina Svitolina and Wozniacki — who don’t know how to handle Wimbledon — being back in their element on hardcourts.

So there you have it: A woman nearly 37 years old might be the only player who can prevent the WTA from having seven different major finalists (in eight possible major final slots) for two straight years. If neither Serena nor Kerber make the final at the U.S. Open, the days of 2016 — when those two players occupied six of the WTA’s eight major final slots, three apiece — will be long gone.

It is true that Serena is back on tour, which makes her the force to be reckoned with more than any other in the sport. It is also true that after making the Wimbledon final — greatly exceeding expectations, very much including her own — the idea of Serena doing more incredible things not just next year, but at age 40 (should she want to play that long), is hardly ludicrous. Maybe Serena will end the year 2021 (when she turns 40) still imposing, still the toughest out in women’s tennis, still the player at the epicenter of the drama. She’s Serena Williams — as she reminded us this Wimbledon, of course she is capable of pulling that off.

But what if she doesn’t? Then what?

That’s the question on my mind — and on the minds of a lot of people who follow women’s tennis — after Wimbledon.

Here’s the two-sided reality of the WTA’s world of balance: On one hand, lots of seeded players have a shot to win majors. Halep and Wozniacki were highly ranked when making major finals this year, but Stephens, Kerber and Serena were seeded 10th or lower en route to major finals this year. Halep and Kerber have been the two most consistent players on tour this year, but after them, the notion of consistency has eluded many of the WTA’s top players.

This brings up the other side of the WTA’s existence: While lots of seeded players have a chance to win majors, few can be trusted. Wimbledon underscored this reality.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 3 Jul

Image – Jimmie 48

Of the top 10 seeds at Wimbledon in 2018, only three had previously made a Wimbledon final: Muguruza, Venus, and Petra Kvitova. Muguruza — who seems to do well at either Roland Garros OR Wimbledon in a given year, but never at BOTH in the SAME year — remained true to her history by crashing out of the Big Dubya in week one after making a semifinal run in Paris. Muguruza remains erratic and enigmatic at the majors, and her Stan Wawrinka-like tendency of showing up once every few majors is still intact. “Trust” is not something she merits on a relentlessly consistent basis; “trust” is better applied to the notion that she will raise her game in France or at the All England Club each year, but not at both places, and certainly not in Melbourne or New York, where she has yet to flourish.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 3 Jul

Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic in action during her first-round match at the 2018 Wimbledon Championships Grand Slam tournament – Jimmie 48

Venus is 38 and going through a tough season. Kvitova needs comfortable playing conditions to be at her best, and the warm-to-hot weather at Wimbledon did not line up in her favor. All in all, none of the top 10 WTA seeds at Wimbledon entered the tournament meriting complete trust. Past performance at Wimbledon or on grass was unconvincing for most; for the three women who had previously reached a Wimbledon final, the circumstances attached to 2018 did not offer much reason for encouragement.

Sure enough, none of the top 10 seeds performed at levels which justified any particular degree of trust. Reasonable people will disagree, but for me, Madison Keys’ third-round loss to Evgeniya Rodina was the most disappointing result of any top-10 WTA seed at Wimbledon. Not at least being able to test her game against Serena in the fourth round represented a wasted trip to the All England Club. Keys should be so successful on grass, and yet Wimbledon is the one major where she hasn’t yet reached the semifinals.

What we have on the WTA Tour is a picture of health. Balance, depth, unpredictability, quality tennis — they’re all evident, and they all emerged at Wimbledon. Yet, alongside the compelling tennis lies the accompanying reality that the top-10 seeds weren’t part of the fun. Interesting matches were played and a number of proven players stepped up, Kerber most of all, but the absence of any top-10 seeds from the quarterfinals was impossible to ignore.

This is why the question raised above — what if Serena doesn’t remain a top-tier force akin to 2016? — hangs over the WTA Tour. Will each major tournament be a “wheel of destiny”? I hasten to say: This is not a bad scenario. The WTA’s unpredictability last year and this one has coincided with highly entertaining tennis — so what if there’s a different final matchup each time? If the journey is pleasing, the destination is easy to accept.

This question about Serena’s staying power is not meant to suggest that the WTA has a “good future or a bad future” ahead of it. No — that’s not the intent behind that query. The purpose of the question is to determine if we’re going to continue to witness constant variety in finalists and champions, or if a few players will become regulars and replace Serena at the year’s biggest tournaments.

Sloane Stephens, in her last four majors, has gone from champion to first rounder to finalist to first-rounder. That’s Muguruza’s music, played to a higher volume level on your radio dial. Jelena Ostapenko lost in round one in Paris and then made the Wimbledon semifinals. Madison Keys thrived in Paris and stubbed her toe at SW19. Svitolina made the quarters in Australia but then failed to get out of the first week in France and at Wimbledon. 2018 Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens and 2018 Wimbledon semifinalist Julia Goerges are not portraits of rock-solid consistency at majors, either.

This is a volatile tour right now — again, that’s not a bad thing, but when evaluating players, I am looking at the WTA and waiting for the next player who will subdue most of the tour at majors. Halep and Kerber are exemplars of a positive consistency… but are conspicuously isolated in that regard (and even Halep lost early at Wimbledon, but after winning Roland Garros, she gets a pass). Where is the next especially great career coming from? Muguruza and Stephens, at their best, look like 10-major-winning players, but they don’t yet exhibit 10-major-winning tendencies. Ostapenko needs to beef up her serve, but when she is crushing return winners, she is a matchup nightmare for much of the tour.

The bottom line after Wimbledon: Women’s tennis, collectively, is in great shape. So much good tennis was played at Wimbledon, producing a blockbuster final between two players who are proven champions and offered a delicious contrast in styles. The uncertainty attached to WTA tennis is not a negative, but for the top players on tour other than Serena, the task of creating a career which will be spoken of in reverential tones seems more remote and unrealistic than ever. The 2018 U.S. Open might begin to change that dynamic, but we won’t truly know if the sands are shifting until next spring at Roland Garros.

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CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF OPEN TENNIS: TREAT DOUBLES WITH RESPECT

Saqib Ali

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Jane Voigt

This year is supposed to be a celebration for tennis. It’s the 50-year anniversary of the Open Era for the game. In 1968 professionals were invited to join the amateurs to play at the biggest tournaments, the grandest being Wimbledon.

That year also marked a divergence. The quintessential doubles teams that featured Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Margaret Court, and further back, Bill Tilden, Suzanne Lenglen and Don Budge, faded. In their place stepped marketing. A proud American invention, it reshaped tennis by selling demographics, psychographics, and the benefits of individual accomplishments. Gone was the notion that doubles teams could make a living at tennis.

“For years before the Open Era, U.S. doubles championships at Longwood Cricket Club in Massachusetts was an entirely separate tournament from singles, which was held in Forest Hills, New York,” Douglas Perry of Oregon Live wrote.

Those, too, folded.

In came the promise of a return on investment that, according to marketing, required targeting individual performances and, as a result, elevating celebrity. This pair of business priorities replaced on-court teams.  

Sponsorships and broadcasting contracts steered the game. Tournament committees were tied to bottom-line results. Court assignments became centerpieces of daily discussions. Placement on Centre Court became a singles garden because each player now had a backstory, millions of followers on Facebook and Instagram, plus the longevity of titles and promises of more. Tennis, perceived as an elitist sport from its beginning, had swallowed the poison pill. The nature of the game changed.

Racquets became space-age weapons used in battles. Polyester strings let players swing out, as fast as they could, the thwacking sound when a ball hit the stringbed a bullet to the chest of viewers. This was a fight.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 7 Jul

Image – Jimmie 48

The term “doubles specialist” became fashionable, even if it sounded somewhat derogatory. Were these men and women less athletic? Not really, but they could not compete individually given the intensity of the game and its 24-7 drumbeat of fitness requirements, on-court practices, sponsorship pressures and media demands.

Here’s where tennis took another tumble: It did not teach advertisers, broadcast executives and the public, the would-be fans, the far more complex and entertaining nature of doubles, despite knowing that more “club players” favored it. The cry, “Why don’t they show more doubles on TV?”, went unanswered because no one of import heard it or wanted to hear it and address it.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 6 Jul

Image – Jimmie 48

Doubles didn’t have enough stars, the marketers said. They were unknown entities, not salable. It was bad for TV. No close-ups. No backstories. No storyline. And yes, no celebrities. Teams were flung together, for the most part, on tournament registration deadlines.

In an attempt to revive doubles, the ATP in 2006 introduced no-ad scoring for the first two sets and a super tiebreak, first to 10 by two, for the third set.

“The ATP said the changes were designed to help tournament officials and broadcasters with their scheduling because the duration of matches it easier to predict,” ESPN reported.

Truncated doubles matches were nowhere in sight when the Bryan brothers made their Grand Slam debut at the 1995 U.S. Open. The identical twins, Bob and Mike, are now the most widely recognized doubles team. They’ve won 16 men’s doubles Grand Slams and Saturday, at Wimbledon, Mike won his 17th, a record he now shares with John Newcombe. That 17th title was won with Jack Sock. It was Mike’s first major without Bob, who hasn’t played since Madrid due to a hip injury. Earlier in the week Mike reclaimed the number one ranking at 40 as well, becoming the oldest doubles player to do so and expanding his legendary notoriety.  

These two fought the idea and reality that shortening doubles matches would open the door for top names such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to climb on board, although they entered tournaments occasionally for giggles. Playing doubles and singles would increase the chances of injury, from their perspectives. But the cameras were sharply focused on Federer and Stan Wawrinka at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when they won Gold: two famous singles players.

Venus and Serena Williams were and are the exception to marketing dictates. Singles Grand Slam champions. Doubles Grand Slam champions, in women’s and mixed. Olympic gold medalists in singles and doubles. They are always a top priority for tournaments, broadcasters and advertisers, much more so than the Bryan brothers. The Bryans could probably walk through LAX without being stopped for a selfie. Can’t say that for the Williams sisters.

The Williams sisters transcended tennis and sport, reaching the heights of international celebrity, just as Federer has done. But Serena and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, attended the wedding of friend Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. Federer wasn’t there.  

Ten years after the ATP and the WTA bit the apple of promise with no-ad scoring, their failure is palpable. Doubles did not gain more TV time; it was not seen as a money winner.

“It’s nonsense, I think,” Jamie Murray said, as reported in Tennis. “They’re not putting matches on center court or on TV, so just put us on the outside courts and let us play normal scoring.”

Sunday at Wimbledon, ESPN broadcast Jamie Murray and Victoria Azarenka against American Nicole Melichar and teammate Alexander Peya in the mixed doubles final. ESPN broadcast the match almost in its entirety, which Murray and Azarenka lost, 7-6(1), 6-3. The “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also showed the men’s and women’s doubles finals on Saturday.

Brad Gilbert, Jason Goodall, Pam Shriver and Rennae Stubbs went a long way to teach viewers about the magic and mystery of doubles. They were fountains of knowledge, presenting reasons behind team movements, tactics and opportunities grabbed and lost. They filled in players’ backstories, recognizing each person’s contributions to the match and tennis. They educated viewers. They should meet with tournament directors, broadcasters and media, and sell them a package deal of ideas that would boost bottom lines and expand viewership of tennis. They should advocate for doubles, which would be a grand way to celebrate 50 years of Open tennis.  

If something’s not done soon, the Bryan brothers and Williams sisters will retire. Then who will carry the torch for doubles?

“There’s no need for me to keep going out there if he [Bob] is gonna be on the shelf for a long period of time,” Mike said, ESPN reported. “I figured out that why I love this game is playing with him.”

One last comment on Wimbledon’s court scheduling.

Jana Novotna died last fall from cancer. She coached Barbora Krejcikova, a fellow native of the Czech Republic, up until her death. How fitting it was that all four players in Saturday’s women’s doubles final were born in the Czech Republic.

2018 Wimbledon Championships - 5 Jul

Image – Jimmie 48

Krejcikova partnered with Katerina Siniakova, while the opposing team was the aforementioned Melichar — born in Brno, Novotna’s birthplace — and 43-year-old Kveta Peschke. What a rich tribute — and story — this could have been if placed on Centre Court, but this championship match was put on Court 1 Saturday. Krejcikova and Siniakova won, after which Krejcikova dedicated her Wimbledon title to Novotna in one of the more powerful moments of the whole fortnight.

Let’s not delay the point. These women lost out because 20 years ago, in 1998, Novotna won her one Wimbledon singles crown on Centre Court. That cathartic moment came five years after a televised and painful loss in 1993 to Steffi Graf, when Jana cried on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent. The image is deeply ingrained in our minds. Had the women’s doubles final been assigned Centre Court, instead of the men’s doubles, Wimbledon could have promoted the moment forged by Krejcikova and Siniakova on Saturday, marketing to its continual pursuit of tradition and greatness.  

A saving grace for Wimbledon? Melichar and Alexander Peya won the 2018 mixed doubles title, defeating Murray and Azarenka… on Centre Court.

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