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.
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.
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.
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.