‘It’s the bedrock’: doubles fights for attention amid tournament squeeze

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

For the first time since he earned the distinction, the No 1 men’s tennis player in the world returned to home soil at Queen’s Club to compete not too far from where he grew up. Joe Salisbury has won four grand slam titles overall and has occupied the top ranking for 12 weeks and counting. As the second youngest person inside the top 25, at 30 years old he is only just beginning.

But all those milestones were achieved in doubles, so instead of being scheduled on the Centre Court for a big homecoming, he occupied the much smaller second court where he and his partner, Rajeev Ram, lost quietly in their second match. In recent years, Great Britain has become one of the most successful men’s doubles nations in the world, with four players in the top 40. If this country struggles to provide a platform on the biggest stages for doubles, there are few other places that can.

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Whether doubles should, can or will ever receive sufficient attention is such a common theme that, during the early stages of Eastbourne last week, it was referenced out of the blue by Judy Murray: “Don’t tell me there’s no appetite for doubles in Great Britain,” she wrote on Twitter, retweeting a photo of a doubles match on an outside court filled with spectators. “Doubles is the bedrock of club and school competition. Of course we want to see doubles.”

Many supporters of doubles argue with similar logic, pointing out the potential of the discipline if the sport could tap into its popularity at club level: “If you look at a lot of tennis fans, when they play tennis they play doubles,” says the world No 40 Lloyd Glasspool, a fast-rising British doubles player who, alongside his partner, Harri Heliövaara, upset Salisbury and Ram that day.

Doubles is entertaining and in the context it can receive significant attention. The problem is that the context usually involves top singles players. In January Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis whipped up crowds into a frenzy en route to their surprise triumph on home soil. Over the past week, the biggest story in tennis has revolved around doubles as Serena Williams and the singles No 3, Ons Jabeur, formed a surprise partnership on the American’s comeback, reaching the semi-finals in Eastbourne.

But the final days of Eastbourne reflected the fundamental problems with singles players competing in doubles. First Jabeur withdrew from the semi-final, then Jelena Ostapenko withdrew from the final. In the end, Aleksandra Krunic and Magda Linette won the title without hitting a ball in the final two rounds.

Serena Williams’s pairing with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne brought attention to doubles
Serena Williams’s pairing with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne brought attention to doubles but Jabeur’s injury withdrawal highlighted its brittleness. Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images

It is difficult to support a team when they are constantly changing: “When you have a team and when they don’t play good for a few weeks, then they split. So people need to see the same team for a long time,” says the former No 1 Nicolas Mahut. Peter Lebedevs, the Dallas Open ATP 250 tournament director, agrees: “The Bryan Brothers are one of the greatest teams ever and you knew every week that Mike and Bob were playing together.”

Given the minimal interest from broadcasters and even on-site fans in some territories, some tournaments are not enamoured by the presence of doubles at all: “I think for many tennis tournaments, doubles is more of an obligation rather than something which is interesting, with the exception of local players who play doubles and reach finals. For the rest, nobody is following it and it’s true that for the tournament it’s quite a big investment,” says Jean-François Collet, tournament director of the Gstaad ATP 250 event.

Collet says that the only time Swiss TV was ever interested in broadcasting doubles in Gstaad was last year when two young Swiss players, Marc-Andrea Huesler and Dominic Stricker, won the title. “I think the majority of 250, and maybe 500 also would prefer not to have the doubles. But it belongs to the ATP and I think it’s also important for players, maybe for young players also, to have the opportunity to earn some money through doubles. But it’s true that in terms of interest, TV rights and so on it doesn’t bring so much.”

Lebedevs points out that doubles players are valuable for tournament activities, such as meeting local schoolchildren while Marcel Hunze, the tournament director of the ‘s-Hertogenbosch ATP 250, notes the added value of additional matches: “When you play a final, and there is only a singles final, there’s only one match for the fans. I think it’s of added value to have at least two matches.”

At the French Open last year, the French Tennis Federation’s mask slipped. With Covid limiting crowd sizes and revenue, the doubles event was disproportionately affected, with prize money falling by 25% compared to the 6% drop for singles. Even in normal times, doubles players operate under different unwritten rules from others, which most say they are totally fine with. For example, booking practice courts: “It’s always a bit harder,” says Glasspool. “As a doubles player you have to either do super early in the morning or super late in the evening until the tournament.”

For Mate Pavic, who at 24 years old became the youngest men’s doubles No 1 for more than two decades in 2018, his humble hope is just for a little more promotion: “I think it would be good for the sport if we were more recognisable around the world, not only singles players. It’s getting better but I think there’s still a lot of room to improve. It’s not easy to be top 10, 20 doubles so we deserve a little bit more to be recognised.”

It is a common sentiment: “We have to promote maybe a little bit more,” says Édouard Roger-Vasselin, Mahut’s partner. “I’m sure the fans and the people would love to watch some doubles and have new tennis stars also.”

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