While catching up on all of the tennis I missed while actually watching tennis in Indian Wells, I came across this article by Ben Rothenberg for the New York Times about the future of doubles. I had been thinking about it a lot when I saw this post from Judy Murray. How can we get people more excited about doubles?
I love watching doubles. It’s lively, fast-paced, and fun. It’s also a great way to indoctrinate people to our sport. Doubles points and thus matches tend to be shorter than singles, particularly with the addition of the super tie-break in the final set at most tournaments. While there are plenty of exciting long matches, even the most dedicated fans can get a little weary after three or four hours. Let’s face it, as a society our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and keeping points quick leaves plenty of time for tweeting (or a beer and bathroom break!)
A couple of years ago, I was covering the Davis Cup tie between the USA and Brazil in Jacksonville, Florida. My parents lived in the city at the time and I invited my mom to join me. Let’s just say she’s not much of a tennis fan, but she was nice enough to accompany me for the weekend. I thought Davis Cup would be great for a tennis newbie because of the atmosphere. (I was wrong, it was a dud, but let’s leave the problems with Davis Cup for another post…) Anyway, on Day 1, poor Mom had to endure 3 hours and 36 minutes of some of the most boring tennis I’ve ever seen live. Luckily the Bryan Brothers vs. Melo/Soares doubles rubber turned things around, not for the USA, but for my mother. The Bryans may have lost, but the exciting five set match made three and a half hours fly by and won over both the lifeless crowd and more importantly my mother.
Here are a few of the main issues I see with the current state of the ATP Doubles Tour.
Media: Players need to recognize the problem. Some have, and that’s a good start. I mean, if you go to any tournament, it’s obvious that doubles matches are less well attended (excepting those featuring the Bryan Brothers or top singles players) and highly accomplished doubles players walk the grounds virtually unrecognized. We need to make those players more recognizable. Tournament promotional appearances, autograph signings, and exhibition matches are a great way to get some more buzz for individual players. Popularity is based on personality. We need to give the players a personality.
I’m not sure I agree that pro-ams are necessarily the answer to raising doubles players’ profiles, but it’s a great sign that they’re willing to participate and raising their profile with the media is an extremely important first step to increasing the audience. The fact is most fans only have the opportunity to go to one tournament per year, if that. When opportunities are so few and far between, those fans want to see the players they see on TV and read about in newspapers, magazines, and online. If journalists aren’t writing about doubles and aren’t requesting interviews, tournament goers are going to continue to eschew doubles matches in favor of practice sessions or singles matches with lower ranked players.
Partnership Longevity: One of the critical points from the Times’ article was Ross Hutchins’ observation that doubles teams need to stay together longer to build a fan base. This is absolutely key! Right now a lot of doubles partnerships are a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of affair. Look at Daniel Nestor and Rohan Bopanna, both highly accomplished doubles specialists, who made it just three months as an official team. Other than the Bryans, I can’t think of a single top team that’s stuck it out together for more than a year or two. It’s a little heart-wrenching for a fan to grow attached to a team only to have them break up and have to choose sides since they’ll inevitably be playing each other.
Not only does the constant partner merry-go-round confuse fans, constant partner swapping can hurt a player’s seeding at tournaments or chances of qualifying for the ATP World Tour Finals. The top eight teams in the Race to London qualify.* So, let’s take the Nestor/Bopanna for an example. They currently sit in sixth place in the Race, with 1,020 points from six tournaments. Now both players will have to start over from 0 with their new partners. Depending on what part of the season player splits occur, some of the top players for the year could be left out of the World Tour Finals.
*Well, actually the top seven teams automatically qualify and then up to two teams that won Grand Slams that year, ranked between 8 and 20. Have you read the ATP Rulebook? There’s a lot of intricate stuff in there.
A Nation of Fans: Like it or not, fans tend to gravitate towards players and teams that represent their country, whether or not they’ve ever heard of them before. I’m sure we’ve all heard the loud “USA” chants at the US Open, the rowdy Aussies in Melbourne, or the contingents of several South American countries which turn up to support their players in Miami each year. I think part of the difficulty for doubles is that the teams are often made up of players from different countries and that doesn’t give them an automatic fan base.
A few years ago, a friend and I were watching a first round doubles match at the US Open between Robert Lindstedt/Horia Tecau and a wildcard team of two US players I honestly can’t remember. It was on one of the outer courts with just a few rows of bleachers on each side of the court, but was reasonably full with enthusiastic American fans. My friend and I were pro-Lindstedt/Tecau after their Wimbledon run that year and when we applauded after a winning point, the man next to me asked if I was Swedish. I suppose I must’ve looked confused because he qualified the question with the fact I was cheering for the Swedish/Romanian pair. When I said no, that I was American and just a fan of that particular team, it was his turn to look shocked.
I think this again goes back to fans not being exposed to doubles players as individuals. Rafael Nadal’s fan base extends far beyond Switzerland and fans flock from every corner of the world to support Roger Federer. I’ve never seen that kind of player specific loyalty in doubles. But, I think it’s possible if we allow fans the opportunity to see doubles players’ personalities and the way they interact as a team.
Even the ATP rules are somewhat favored towards compatriots who team up. Davis Cup points do not count towards an individual’s doubles ranking, but they are allowed in the Race. For example, Bob and Mike Bryan won their Davis Cup rubber against Great Britain in this year’s first round, which gained them 50 points in the Race. They’re currently in 10th place. Without those Davis Cup points, Raven Klaasen and Leander Paes would be in 10th place. Teams like Klaasen and Paes do not have the chance to gain those points since they can’t play for the same Davis Cup team.
If you have any ideas on how to improve the visibility of doubles, I’d love to hear them. Bring on the tweets/comments.