After all his injury woes, Andy Murray was warmly welcomed back at Wimbledon this week by just about everyone. The BBC (the host broadcaster) has been delighted to feature the only British man to win the Men’s Singles title in the last 80 years; British tennis fans have been thrilled to see their hero in action again after fearing that they might never get the opportunity to do so; and many other players, both male and female, have expressed their pleasure that Murray has not had to retire prematurely. Of course, while he adjusts to his new metallic hip, he is only playing doubles, but the hope is that he will soon play singles again soon, perhaps even in the US Open. That would be wonderful news for tennis in general, particularly British tennis, and for Murray himself. However, if it doesn’t work out, then, as Murray himself has speculated, he could focus exclusively on playing doubles. And if he does, he might just be the man to revive interest in, or “reboot,” the four-player format.
The last high-profile and highly ranked male singles player to play doubles regularly was John McEnroe, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. McEnroe, who was arguably the greatest serve-volleyer in the history of tennis (although he himself ranks both Rod Laver and Pete Sampras above him), was an absolute natural at doubles, winning nine Major Men’s Doubles titles, including the Wimbledon Men’s Doubles title five times. In fact, he was so good that his regular and self-effacing doubles partner, Peter Fleming, famously said that the best doubles team in tennis was “John McEnroe Plus One”. That comment downplayed Fleming’s own contribution to their multiple Major successes, but it also correctly identified McEnroe as the last man to be consistently ranked at World No.1 in both singles and doubles.
Of course, McEnroe was merely continuing the near century-old tradition that both male and female tennis players would play both singles and doubles, and occasionally mixed doubles as well, especially at the four Major tournaments. McEnroe’s own hero, Laver, also won nine Grand Slam doubles titles, even completing a career doubles Grand Slam by winning the doubles titles at all four Majors, whereas McEnroe, just as in singles, only ever triumphed at Wimbledon and the US Open.
There are many reasons why doubles has gone into seemingly terminal decline since McEnroe’s heyday, but the most important one is probably the single most important change in the history of tennis, namely the shift from wooden rackets to non-wooden rackets from the mid-1980s onwards. Non-wooden rackets offered both greater power and greater control when hitting the ball and as a result they soon made the serve and volley style that had been the dominant style of tennis for most of the 20th century almost obsolete. With the exception of Pete Sampras, who was such a great serve-volleyer that he could still rush the net even as other players were retreating to the baseline, serve-volleyers soon found themselves standing helplessly at the net as a succession of passing shots flew past them. And with the decline of serve-volleying, there was a corresponding decline in doubles play, in which the ability to volley is absolutely crucial.
Doubles has not died out completely, but it has declined to the point that almost all high-ranking male singles players no longer play it. Several high-profile female players, notably the Williams sisters, have continued to play doubles, but that is largely because women’s tennis, which still only consists of three-set matches even at the Majors, is far less demanding, both physically and in terms of time, than men’s tennis.
It is in that historical context that Murray’s decision to return to tennis by playing doubles is so fascinating. He has almost followed the advice of Bob Bryan (one half of the greatest male doubles partnership ever) to the letter by focusing on the four-player format first, because it is far less demanding than singles; put simply, a doubles player only has to cover half the court, whereas a singles player has to cover the whole court. Of course, Murray being the physical freak that he is, he has decided not to ease himself back into tournaments gently but instead entered both the Men’s Doubles (with Pierre-Hugues Herbert) and the Mixed Doubles (with Serena Williams) at Wimbledon.
It remains to be seen how far Murray can progress at Wimbledon in the two doubles events, especially as Serena Williams is still nursing herself back to full fitness after the series of injuries that have followed her time away from the WTA Tour to give birth. It is perfectly possible that she will soon decide solely to focus on the Women’s Singles, especially if there is any backlog of singles matches next week.
However, even if Murray only ends up playing in the Men’s Doubles for a sustained period, he has already transformed the interest in and the attention paid to doubles, both by tennis fans in general and by the media. That was perfectly demonstrated by the scheduling of his first round Men’s Doubles match on No. 1 Court, when such a match would ordinarily have been confined to the outside courts.
Of all the top male players of the last 10 or 15 years, Murray has always had a special affinity for doubles. It may simply be because he grew up alongside his older brother, Jamie, and the pair often played doubles together. Indeed, their partnership continued all the way to the Davis Cup, where they famously paired up in 2015 to win critical doubles matches against France, Australia and Belgium, en route to Britain’s first Davis Cup triumph since 1936.
Murray’s record in mixed doubles is patchier than in men’s doubles, but he still has a serious pedigree, having won Olympic Silver in 2012 with Laura Robson only a few hours after he had won the Olympic Singles Gold by defeating Roger Federer. And given the combined brilliance of Murray and Serena Williams, if they do end up playing together in Wimbledon’s second week, the likelihood is that they will go close to winning the event, even though they have never played Mixed Doubles together before.
The decline in doubles has gone on for so long now that it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that even Andy Murray can arrest it, and that would be true even if the worst happens in his singles career and he decides to concentrate exclusively on doubles. The demands on singles players’ time are so great now, especially at the Majors (which, other than the Davis Cup, are the last arena in which five-set matches are played), that for men especially it is almost impossible for them to play both singles and doubles to a high level.
However, if Murray cannot save doubles, he may be able to reanimate it, or reboot it, for the 21st century. There is clearly still some appetite for doubles among the general tennis-watching public, as demonstrated by the excitement that Murray has generated since his return from injury, first at Queen’s Club, where he astonishingly won the doubles title alongside Feliciano Lopez in his first tournament back after injury, and now at Wimbledon. If the worst happens for Murray personally, and he ultimately decides that he cannot play high-level singles again and plays doubles only, then his presence in the four-player format could be part of a series of wider moves to restore some of the former status of doubles.
Such moves could include having designated “Doubles Days” at Majors, for example on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, or even dedicated doubles tournaments. Perhaps there could even be a dedicated “Doubles World Cup”, in which the greatest singles players of both genders could exclusively focus on playing doubles.
Whatever happens next, Murray’s return to tennis in doubles has been the biggest shot in the arm for the four-player format for decades. The difficulty now will be to sustain the interest that he has generated, especially if, as seems likely, he eventually abandons doubles to return to the highest level of singles play. At the very least, however, by playing doubles so well after so long away from the court, he has reminded everyone who watches tennis that what is probably the most popular form of the game worldwide (generally, more people play tennis recreationally in doubles pairings than in singles, particularly at club level) is also one of the most exciting forms of tennis, full-stop.
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