Peter McNamara and the Golden Age of Doubles

Sometimes the death of an individual is enough to signify the end of an era, and so it is with Peter McNamara and doubles tennis. McNamara, who died earlier this week, was one of the last major tennis players to grow up playing both singles and doubles, and although he achieved considerable success in singles, it was in doubles that he excelled. In fact, his passing is a reminder of a long-lost Golden Age of Doubles, which will almost certainly never be repeated.

McNamara died last weekend from prostate cancer. The most surprising part of the many obituaries written about him was that he was only 64, because he seemed to be much older – a throwback to the post-war glory days of Australian tennis, when the likes of Laver, Emerson and Newcombe made Australia the only realistic contenders to the United States as the superpower of tennis. In fact, McNamara was part of the generation that followed those illustrious names, and so he entered a fully professional sport, unlike Laver, for example, who had to spend arguably the prime years of his career in the mid-1960s playing professional exhibition tennis, as he was not allowed to compete at Grand Slam events after turning professional in the early part of the decade.

No doubt inspired by Laver et al, McNamara turned professional in 1974, when he was only 19, and he enjoyed a very impressive career before finally retiring in 1987, when he was still in his early thirties. Like his great predecessors, McNamara regularly played both singles and doubles at a time when the structure and calendar of tennis actively encouraged players of both genders to compete in both formats.

There were many reasons for that. First, there is absolutely no doubt that before the introduction of non-wooden rackets in the mid to late 1980s, which offered both greater power and control when hitting a tennis ball, tennis was not nearly as physically demanding a sport as it has become in the early 21st century. In addition, at a time when serve-volleying was still the dominant style of play (partly because wooden rackets did not give as much opportunity as non-wooden rackets to hit passing shots) playing doubles was thought to be the best way for a singles player to practice their volleying, which was still considered an essential skill for a tennis player to acquire. Finally, Australia’s great tradition in the Davis Cup (between 1946 and 1973 only Australia and the United States won the annual tournament) meant that young Australian men in particular were happy to play doubles, in the hope of gaining a place in the Davis Cup team as a doubles specialist if they could not make it as a singles player.

Extraordinarily, McNamara did not play in a Davis Cup-winning side, despite Australia winning the tournament three times during his career, as each time he was either injured or dropped to make way for a supposedly superior singles player, such as Pat Cash. So, his greatest achievements in tennis were as an individual, in both singles and doubles.

In singles, McNamara, who possessed a classical one-handed backhand that Cash has compared to that of Roger Federer, reached a high of No.7 in the world in 1983, which was quite an achievement at a time when the top four or five places were dominated by Borg, McEnroe, Connors and Lendl. McNamara never won a Major, but he reached the semi-finals of his home Slam, the Australian Open, in 1980 as well as the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the French Open in 1981 and 1982 respectively. However, it was as a doubles player that he achieved his greatest success in tennis and the kind of fame that only comes with playing doubles alongside someone with a very similar name.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were more prominent “Mc”s in tennis than you would find at a Scottish wedding. The most prominent, of course, was John McEnroe, but because of his often appalling  behaviour at the time (as captured in the superb documentary, In the Realm of Perfection, that was recently released), he was not universally known as “SuperMac” until much later in his career, when the ire went out of his game and with it much of the success. Instead, the original “SuperMacs” were Peter McNamara and his doubles partner, Paul McNamee, who was also Australian.

McNamara and McNamee won the Australian Open men’s doubles title in 1979, and the Wimbledon men’s doubles titles in 1980 and 1982. At Wimbledon in particular, the two “SuperMacs” often found themselves up against the other great doubles pairing of the time, McEnroe and his fellow American, Peter Fleming. McNamara and McNamee defeated McEnroe and Fleming, the defending doubles champions, in the 1980 semi-final and in the 1982 final, proving the old adage that a doubles pairing of two very good players is always likely to beat a pairing of one great player (McEnroe) and a considerably less great player (Fleming). It was Fleming who famously said that the best doubles pairing in the world was “John McEnroe plus anyone else”, but for a time in the early 1980s McNamara and McNamee proved that that was not entirely true.

The early 1980s were something of a golden age for McNamara personally, as he rose to his career high of No.7 in the singles rankings and No.3 in the doubles rankings in 1983. However, a serious knee injury caused while playing on carpet in Rotterdam meant that he missed almost all of the next two years and even when he finally returned to the ATP Tour he was not quite the player that he had been before.

McNamara finally retired from playing in 1987, but such was his love of tennis that he almost immediately took up coaching. As a coach, he did not quite scale the heights that he had managed as a player, but he was still instrumental in the early successes of Mark Philippoussis and Grigor Dimitrov, and he also coached Wang Qiang, the young Chinese woman who reached a high of No.14 under his tutelage.

McNamara only stopped coaching Qiang in February, as his health began to deteriorate. It is a testament to his teak-tough Aussie nature and upbringing (qualities that are often said to be lacking in current Australian players such as Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic) that he apparently continued playing tennis socially until very near to his death.

As one half of the original “superstar” doubles team with his near-namesake McNamee, Peter McNamara effectively paved the way for the other great doubles pairings that followed them, including the “Woodies” (fellow Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodford) and the Bryan brothers. Like all the best doubles players, his name will always be remembered alongside that of his partner. But even more than that, at a time when doubles is struggling to regain all the allure that it has lost over the last four decades (Andy Murray’s recent efforts notwithstanding), he will be remembered as one of the last links to the true Golden Age of Doubles.

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