During the early 2000s, detractors and doomsayers were heard throughout the tennis media: professional doubles tennis was dead. Regardless that doubles is the primary vessel for recreational tennis players in North America and the cornerstone for USTA league play, the pros on the doubles tour would not be able to save the game on a professional level. Tennis commentators spoke of lack of star singles players, lack of dynamic doubles pairings, and lack of interest from fans. The legendary Hall of Famer-turned-commentator John McEnroe (arguably the best doubles player of all time) asked the question, “Why are we even playing doubles at this point?” The ATP and WTA enforced new rules to try and make the game more attractive for the singles stars: no ad scoring and super tie breaks instead of 3rd sets. And yet, the dark clouds still hung over the game.
The winds of change started to blow in 2014 with the formation of young, successful partnerships (like Sock and Pospisil) and the continuing emergence of the Bryan Brothers dominance on tour. Martina Hingis became relevant again. Flash forward to a 2015 that saw the renaissance of both the WTA and ATP doubles tour’s relevance, proving that doubles isn’t dead.
Participation of elite singles players
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray all played doubles at multiple tour stops this year. Beyond just playing doubles, they often formed partnerships that caught the interest of both avid and casual fans alike. Andy and Jamie Murray captivated social media with their Davis Cup heroics throughout 2015. Then Andy went on to team with the likes of both the legendary Leander Paes and the young and infamous Thanasi Kokkinakis. Novak Djokovic too brought his brother (Djordje) to the court for a doubles appearance at the China Open. Sania Mirza and Hall of Famer Slam winner Martina Hingis formed one of the more successful doubles partnerships over the past decade, winning Wimbledon, the US Open, and the WTA Tour Finals. Lucie Safarova (#9 in the world) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands captured the first two Slams of the season in Australia and Paris. Leyton Hewitt and Kokkinakis, Stan Wawrinka and Benoit Paire, and Borna Coric and Viktor Troicki were just some of the veteran/young gun pairings that drew fans into side courts of tour stops this year. The participation of these elite singles players brought respect, attention, and skill to the doubles tour. With many of these singles players not making out of the second or first round in the doubles draw, it allowed a more common tennis fan to see what skill was required to be a doubles specialist.
The Stability and Fragility of the Game Equals Intrigue
The stability and fragility alike of the doubles tour helped to bring intrigue and media attention. The early season break up of then current #1 women’s team of Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci caught the tennis world off guard. Holders of the career doubles’ Grand Slam, they had been a dominant force on tour; however, success was not enough to hold the two together as both wanted to focus on their singles career, which did seem to benefit Vinci’s run to the US Open final and famous victory over Serena Williams in the semis of that Slam. The Bryan Brothers’ dominance of the ATP Tour waned, allowing other teams to claim the spotlight. Teams like Fabio Fognini and Simon Bolleli, Jean Rojer and Horia Tecau, and Pierre Hughes-Herbert and Nicholas Mahut all found Slam success on tour this year. Many of the partnerships formed this year were tailored with the specific purpose of beating the Bryans at their own game: big serving and confident low-risk volleying. But even with the Bryans’ struggles, ESPN and other tennis outlets still showed their matches (and others) on tv often in 2015 due to the interest and buzz around the duo. Other young partnerships also brought attention to the tour. Young guns Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil continued to garner much mainstream sports media attention with their power and on-court bravado, which was only heightened by Sock playing with the likes of Nick Kyrgios and John Isner as well this year. Then to bookend the breakup of Errani and Vinci, Jamie Murray announced in November that he and John Peers were terminating their successful partnership after the best season the two had ever had with each other or with anyone else in their career. Twitter exploded with comments from fans across the globe after all of these instances this year just demonstrating that people pay attention to the doubles game and its place on tour is more than deserved.
The Rio Boost
Doubles is always a hotter commodity for tour players in the seasons directly leading up to the Olympics, and this past season and upcoming season are no different. Martina Hingis and Roger Federer captured the attention of both tennis and mainstream sports media alike when announcing they would be playing mixed doubles at Rio. Two of the most legendary players in the game today announcing they would be seeking a gold medal together adds both interest and credence to the sport of doubles, and the spot that it holds in tennis world. Djokovic also teamed with several Serbians this season, spiking questions about his intentions in Rio. Djokovic played with Janko Tipsarevic several times this season, Nenad Zimonjic, and even Filip Krajinovic. Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson found success this season, reaching the US Open semiinals, and Querrey teamed with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to reach the US Open Mixed Doubles final.
The upcoming Olympics begs tennis fans to ask questions about the possibility of Nadal (who has stated he plans on playing doubles and possibly mixed doubles at Rio) teaming with Fernando Verdasco or one of the younger Spaniards (as he has done both in 2015) for a run at doubles gold. Will Milos Raonic team with Daniel Nestor in Rio or will the more doubles seasoned Vasik Poposil be the legendary doubles specialist’s partner? Will the established and successful Spaniard tandem of Garbine Muguruza and Carla Suarez-Navarro hold an advantage over newly formed women’s doubles teams, or will primetime (if not consistent) partnerships like Williams sisters and the Czech Fed Cup tandems reign supreme?
A doubles tour that has seen champions the likes of Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Chris Evert can’t afford to have it’s place lost on tour. To survive in a tight prize money and media market the game will have to continue to grow and evolve, but if 2015 is any indication, evolution is possible and healthy for the doubles game. 2016 should prove to be an exciting year for both the doubles specialist and singles invaders alike on the doubles tour.