By André Rolemberg
Tennis is a lonely sport. You are on your own: it’s only you, your opponent, and the thrill of trying to battle through a match. There are no coaches, no teams, and no help once you step on court, except the stringer who works almost non-stop during a match (and might deserve a bit more credit than we give them).
But are we really alone? So often we forget that you can actually play doubles in tennis. There is literally a team version of tennis, and communication is key, as is positioning on court and where you place the next shot. At its worst, doubles is a highly strategic game and more akin to a chess game than singles, due to the think-a-move-ahead quality which is absolutely crucial. At its best, it is the fastest form of tennis, and the players’ reflexes are likely unmatched in comparison to singles players.
Why, then, does doubles seem to always take the back seat in tennis? With all the skill and brain game involved, it should be attractive to many audiences, even more so due to its quick nature, where matches normally finish within a reasonable hour-and-a-half (the length of a soccer match, and not too much longer than a hockey game).
Of course, singles gives a different vibe to the sport. The rhythm and shots are different. Players covering the court, doing it all by themselves, makes a huge difference and some rallies and shots show a form of athleticism that is, sometimes, as the legendary tennis commentator Rob Koenig puts it, “near the gods, where no mortal may approach.”
But that should not be enough reason for a doubles team to make half the amount of money a singles player makes for reaching the same round, or in the extreme case of tennis, be almost entirely forgotten in the greatness conversations. Doubles specialists are rarely mentioned when we talk about achievements in our sport. Often, the highest regard given to doubles prowess is when talking about great singles players who have done well in doubles too. Martina Navratilova, Venus and Serena Williams, John McEnroe, and even this year’s double Roland-Garros champion Barbora Krejčíková have their doubles achievements mentioned as addendums, or tie-breakers for how great they were.
Or have you never heard something like:
"Navratilova and McEnroe were incredible players. It’s amazing what they accomplished, and on top of that they had amazing doubles results too."
Why is doubles such a secondary modality in tennis? How did it become a sport without a spark, without any “wow” factor?
I would argue that it is an idol problem.
It is quite hard to identify with a sports team if they don’t have a name.
You can admire a doubles team, only to see them play with a different partner the next week. The lack of consistency in doubles, the constant changing of partners without further notice, is very hard to follow and frustrating for fans.
Unless you are a die-hard fan of a specific doubles player, you would not know why they changed partners. And consequently, a horrible question would pop out: “Oh, I thought they were a team?”
There is no sense of continuity, no sense of belonging in doubles. Fans simply can’t relate. A singles player will always be themselves even if they change part of their identity. They will always be the same person. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray will always be themselves. That’s easy to track, easy to remember, easy to relate because you always see the same game style. They implement new things, but you witness their growth and decline.
You might argue that team sports also have a high turnover rate. It is true, and it is also true that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lebron James’ fans will still be their fans even if they get traded. But these are not the norm in team sports, they are outstanding people who have a specific following.
However, rarely is a team sports fan following a single player. They have something that will never change, or will change rarely and in very slow and noisy fashion: a team name.
The name, the brand, the jersey. The history remains, everything will be written under the name of the team. Real Madrid is not the same it was 10 years ago, but it was still Real Madrid. Manchester United has decades of history, despite having had hundreds of different players. Ronaldo played in both teams.
What does doubles have that give any sense of consistency? If a player plays for their own name, the other becomes just a tool for winning, a necessary annoyance. Might as well play singles. But doubles players are team players. They change partners to try and get a good fit, a good partnership that will allow each other to bring out their best individually and as a team.
Without something to play for, a consistent narrative, something that will remain no matter what, fans just lose interest. They do not sense the team is really a team, just some short-lived business venture. You help me out, and I help you in exchange. Where is the glory in that? Where are the ideals?
Good examples of successful doubles partnerships have that in common, that they always give out a sense of something more, beyond just a contractual partnership. The Williams sisters were trailblazers who fought for themselves, defended themselves and their families from outsiders and racism. They were a team. The Bryan Brothers were twins who grew up playing together, who had something special that was unique to them, almost a mystical connection. They were a team. The “Woods” were a friendship formed by fate, a partnership that was destined for greatness, with the magical connection between their names. They were a team.
Fans hearts will be broken, but a simple “we decided this partnership already gave everything it could” then moving along like nothing happened, is a horrible way to break a fan’s heart. They didn’t support the partnership only to see the players show quickly how unimportant it was to them, it was merely a business thing. They can be friends all they want, this is not a group project in university, it is a professional sport that has to potential to inspire and bring happiness to millions.
Without a sense of playing for something greater, there is no connection. Without significant history, there is no build-up. Without work, tears, and precious moments together over many years, there is simply no way a relationship can be built. One with each doubles player, one with their fans.
The impression that is left is apathetic. Doubles does not matter. It is simply a money grab, where players who didn’t succeed in singles go to in order to keep playing tennis.
And the saddest part is that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I opened this piece by praising doubles players for their insanely good reflexes, their sharp minds and strategic thinking, their immense and underappreciated talent.
These players are hungry for win, they love the fight and the grind just as much as the singles players.
However, doubles has the fundamental problem that it is a true team sport, still living in the mentality that it is an individual sport. And that, as you may have guessed, does not make any sense.