Seeing doubles

DAVID W. UNKLE and PATRICK WILLIAMS -- Special to SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 7:39 AM ET

NEW YORK -- Two decades ago, John McEnroe sat atop the tennis world, holding the top ranking in both men's singles and doubles.

By the time McEnroe wrapped up his career, he had 69 doubles titles to his name en route to an 867-192 career record.

Under a new format to be instituted in ATP tournaments, singles players like McEnroe will be encouraged to play doubles in a condensed match format.

The collateral effect of the ATP format could result in making the doubles specialists an endangered species.

Choosing the fortnight of the U.S. Open, the most-attended tennis event in the world, a group of men's doubles players, including Canada's Daniel Nestor, Mark Knowles, Bob and Mike Bryan, and Mahesh Bhupathi filed suit in U.S. District Court in Houston, alleging that the ATP's efforts to purportedly "enhance" doubles competition is in fact a concerted effort by tournament directors to run the second-tier doubles players out of the game.

Following this year's Wimbledon tournament, the ATP announced fundamental changes to the rules concerning scoring in doubles as well as how players would qualify for doubles tournaments.

Deviating from the storied tradition of tennis, the new rules completely divorce entry requirements from past competitive success in doubles competition.

"I think what the ATP tour is doing is disgraceful," said Australia's Rennae Stubbs, a top-ranked women's doubles player.

"Look at this match, (the stands) are packed, people are excited to watch it and (the ATP) is trying take that (aspect) away from regular tournaments and condense it into an exhibition," added Stubbs, who along with doubles partner Cara Black lost in Wednesday's quarter-final match against Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur.

According to a press release from the international law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. and the Houston-based firm of Ellis, Carstarphen, Dougherty & Goldenthal P.C., who are representing the players, the suit alleges that "the actual aim is to turn the doubles circuit into nothing more than a marketing tool for the promotion of singles tournaments."

The players also allege that "the ATP's directors have violated their fiduciary obligations to the players by enacting rules that prevent doubles players from competing, contrary to the express wishes of the players."

In the same press release, Mike Bryan said, "The players voted against it and the tournaments passed it anyway, so it's a pretty corrupt system," on the 8-0 vote by the Players' Council which is comprised of mostly singles players.

"If the WTA ever tried to do that, we would do the same thing, I guarantee you," said an emphatic Stubbs.

While the proposed changes will not impact Grand Slam events, which are governed by the International Federation of Tennis, the impact is likely to be significant.

If doubles players are prohibited from playing ATP events because their singles rankings are not high enough to secure entry to singles draws, they will lack the ATP standing to be eligible for doubles draws at the Grand Slam events.

According to an interview with Tennis Week, ATP director Horst Klosterkemper commented that "doubles does not draw the crowds that singles does" while suggesting that doubles controversy, not competition, is what garners coverage from the media.

Another factor, according to Klosterkemper, is the lack of revenue generated by doubles play.

He also pointed out that more than half of the singles players responded that they would be interested in playing doubles if the matches were "remarkably shorter."

According to the article, the average doubles match lasts 96 minutes, often with some reaching three hours or more.

Stubbs believes that singles players "are too busy worrying about their own game" to become fully immersed in a doubles quagmire.

"I would think the singles players would think, 'What are you doing?' because I don't think they really care," said Stubbs.

"That's what (the ATP) doesn't understand -- (the singles players) don't care. They're playing singles and making millions of dollars."

Stubbs also believes that there is a mutual respect that exists between singles and doubles players, citing Andre Agassi as an example.

"Trust me, (Agassi) sits and watches a doubles match and says, 'I don't know how those guys do that.' I mean, he's the first guy to admit how unbelievably good these doubles players are."

"He would never step foot on a doubles court with some of these great doubles players because he's afraid to get hit," joked Stubbs.

According to Bryan, "99 per cent of the players who I've talked to think it's gonna be bad for doubles and fans."

One such player is Lleyton Hewitt, who won his first Grand Slam in doubles with Max Mirnyi at the 2000 U.S. Open.

"I hardly played any Grand Slam doubles, and I just pick my weeks here and there," said Hewitt.

"I think you can understand why some of the guys are disappointed, but does it affect me? Not really," said the Australian who next faces Jarkko Nieminen in the men's quarterfinals.

For now, the remainder of the 2005 ATP tour promises to be filled with much debate over the future of doubles tennis.

"I played singles, but one of the greatest games you'll ever play is the game of doubles, said Stubbs.

"It's an art to play doubles, to basically grab a hold of your balls and poach on a guy's second serve," Stubbs commented.

"People will never understand what it takes."

David W. Unkle is a freelance sports writer and contributor to SLAM! Sports. His work appears on several news outlets along with hosting The Topcat Sports Show in the Philadelphia market. David can be contacted via the Show's website at http://www.topcatsports.org or topcatsports@canoemail.com.

Patrick Williams is also a freelance sports writer and frequent contributor to SLAM! Sports. Patrick can be contacted at patrickwilliams@canoemail.com.


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