Doubles Down

September 4, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to the US Open on Friday.  I’ve been going every year since back in the days of Forest Hills.  I usually try to find a good doubles match.  It’s not hard.  Doubles has more action – the rapid flurry of volleys back and forth across the net, the ball zipping at a pace that leaves you gasping at how the player can even get a racket on it let alone zing it back to a precise spot.  

Yet doubles remains pretty much ignored – ignored by the media and by the public, even those who trek out to the Open.  Only the Bryan twins can attract a crowd, and they lost in the first round.  (I’m told they were off their game.)

When the team that beat the Bryans, Ivo Karlovic (6' 10") and Frank Moser (6' 6") played their next match, against an Italian team, the stands were all but empty.

And I had the feeling that about half the people there had some personal connection (coach, friend, wife, girlfriend) to one of the players.
I can think of a few reasons

1.  Fans follow individual players.  In other sports, fans follow teams, but the teams are connected with cities.  (I still check the Pirates scores even though I couldn’t name a single player on the team.)   Tennis teams are less permanent.  Part of the appeal of the Bryan twins is that we can be sure they will stay together as a team.

    To bring in new fans and generate enthusiasm among old fans, you need not just a star – a highly talented player. You need a celebrity – a Michael Jordan, a Joe Namath, a Tiger Woods.  If someone is really good, the publicity machine and turn him or her into a celebrity.  It’s hard to make teams into celebrities.  (This is true in other fields.  Yo-yo Ma, Andres Segovia, and Wynton Marsalis expanded the audiences for their respective instruments and musics.)

    The other quality that develops fan following is consistency.  Fans want someone who’s going to be in the finals tournament after tournament.  That’s much more likely in singles, which is often dominated by a single player (Connors, Sampras, Agassi) or just a handful of players who meet regularly in the finals (Federer and Nadal, Borg and McEnroe).

2.  In singles, it’s easier to see athleticism.  In doubles, the players make incredible shots, but they work in a relatively confined space.  Singles players run back and forth across the whole court, speeding and sliding and occasionally diving. 

3.  Television wants the individual celebrity.  The medium brings us “up close and personal.”  It wants a simple story with a clear ending, a head-to-head match.  I suspect that’s one of the reasons soccer still cannot find much of a TV audience.  Doubles, like soccer, depends not just on individual performance but on strategy that may be hard to see.  Singles is easier to understand.*

4.  The USTA relegates doubles to the periphery.  The difference in prize money tells the players what’s worthwhile and what isn’t.  In the old days, many players entered both the doubles and the singles draws.  No more.  It doesn’t make economic sense. 

    In its scheduling of matches at the Open the USTA treats doubles matches as though they were like the restrooms.  You have to have them, and some people may want to go, but they’re not something you want people looking at, and you don’t want to talk much about them in public.


*Single strategy, despite the efforts of commentators, is not all that complicated.  I remember a post-match press conference where an interviewer kept asking the winner about his strategy and his opponent’s counter-strategy.  I can’t remember who the player was – this was many years ago – but he was European, and he seemed puzzled by the question.  Finally he answered, “I heet the ball to heem.  He heet the ball to me.” 

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