doubles tennis

Doubles is double the fun at Barclay’s ATP World Tour Championships

By Jane Voigt, owner of DownTheTee.com 

November 7, 2012 — You’ve heard this before, “Why don’t they show more doubles?”

Why indeed.

But ask any producer and you’ll hear the expected rap, “It doesn’t sell ad space.”

The response is enough to shove dreams of American realism – the rags to riches story – in a deep hole. Their reasoning diverts to money, not entertainment, not consumer desires, not the absolutely awesome nature of the game of doubles.

Have they ever really watched it? Followed it? Way more interesting than singles.

First, four players are on court. That mathematically equals twice the entertainment and ticket value, twice the tennis, and twice what you would expect as added coverage. That means more jobs! Think about that you international politicians. You want an uptick in popularity, promise to televise doubles. It’s a slick ticket made in re-election heaven.

The political benefits aside, doubles fanatics, which we all know are more numerous than singles fanatics, can get their fill this week by tuning in to The Barclay’s World Tour Finals from London. Not only are the top eight teams from the year on hand to delight the packed O2 Arena, they are first up each session. You could conclude they are the premier matches of the week.

Here are more reasons doubles are twice the fun.

Two people play to win a point, game, set and match. Two means a relationship; they are partners. This logically suggests the introduction of complicated human interactions, which is lost in singles competition. Unless, of course, you construe the rantings of a player toward a support box as interaction.

Teams converse between points. Do knuckle bumps, high fives, signal tactics to their partner before a toss, and if the Bryan brothers are battling … chest bumps. Can’t see that in any other sport. Soccer players may leap into each others arms, but so can the brothers. They won’t skid across a tennis court on their knees though, for obvious and injurious reasons. Well, maybe on grass.

Let’s face it, doubles is way more interesting to watch. Teams serve and volley, change sides, yell ‘out’ so their partners don’t do something stupid like give away a point, and find every lucky angle and spot on a court.

They hit deep ground strokes, short under-spins, half-volleys, and magnificent overhead smashes that crack like a whip.

With four players at the net, the rata-tat-tat of volley exchanges builds audience energy to a fevered pitch. It’s a wonder the men don’t hear it.

It’s wild. It’s exciting.

Doubles is a complicated game, too, because of its nature. In singles every ball is for you. Not so in doubles. There is order to returns and movement, although scrambling to cover an open spot may look like mayhem.

The Teams

Bob and Mike Bryan are the best at movement. As twins, they intuitively know what the other will do. Their expectations are in sync, which puts them at a mighty high level of performance in sports. One person can enter the zone, yes, but two acting as a team … not so easy. They are the number one seeds this week.

Throughout their career they have clinched 82 ATP titles — the most of any doubles team. They will end 2013 at number one for the eighth time, and the fourth consecutive. At the U. S. Open they won their 12th slam, an Open-era record. To top off their season, they won a gold medal at the London Olympics.

Daniel Nestor and Max Mirnyi are the defending champions. So far they are 1-1 in round robin play. They seem to be in the ‘harder’ group, along with Wimbledon doubles champions, Jonathan Marray and Frederik Nielson. They are 2-0 and the most unlikely team on hand.

Marray is the first native-born Briton to play in this tournament; and Nielsen teamed with Marray seconds before the deadline to enter Wimbledon this summer. Nielsen’s record has been about singles and after this week he will return to that discipline, leaving Marray to search for a partner. If they continue to mesmerize win, he won’t be left out in the cold for long. But, then again, partners are not just a matter of availability.

Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek were the last team to qualify. It’s Stepanek’s inaugural World Tour Championship.

Scoring

With all the fun available for fans, the choice of no-ad scoring has been hard to understand. And, any promotion that dares to intimate this is a ‘fifth grand slam’ should have their funding cut. No major tournament would allow no-add scoring.

The lovely dynamics of doubles is negated in this format. At 40-all, the serving team picks the side from where they’d like to serve. This point ends the game. Ordinarily, these top-flight teams groove to a different rhythm. Teetering between ad-in and ad-out is familiar. They are trained for this. It gives them chances to come back, use their strengths – both mental and tactical. The better team can hold with more consistency, which is the pinnacle of skill in tennis.

The no-ad scoring in London, though, throws randomness at the competition. It doesn’t serve the tournament, players, or 15,000 fans that pack the house every session.

As a result the outcomes of the matches have an odd undercurrent. If you look at the match stats, the losing teams have won more points than the winning teams. Not by much, but it’s lopsided. This means they’ve won more service and return points.

In their loss to Mirnyi and Nestor on Monday, Robert Lindstedt and Horacio Tecau won 83% of their second service points, an incredibly high percentage. Their opponents won 43%. Lindstedt/Tecau converted all their break point changes, too. Mirnyi/Nestor went 0 for 2.

Five of the six matches have been decided by 10-point champions tiebreaks. First to ten by two. This is the only remnants of normalcy in London. They are used throughout the season. And every world tour player knows that tiebreaks should be avoided. Without regular scoring, though, the outcomes this week will not reflect the depth that these men can achieve in the sets that precede the tiebreaks. The scoring robbed them of a type of play that demonstrates their excellence. They literally cannot play their games, which is a shame for the deserved prestige assigned them.

Jane Voigt lives, breathes and writes tennis. She wrote about John Isner’s ground-breaking wildcard run at the formerly named Legg Mason Tennis Classic in 2007 for Tennis.com. She has written tennis commentary for the late, great Tennis Week print publication and online version. Hundreds of articles from Jane have been seen on TennisServer.com, too. She now maintains her own website at DownTheTee.com, and has traveled throughout the U. S. and Canada to cover tournaments. Ask her to play tennis, and she’ll prefer singles to doubles.

Mark Knowles as a Tennis Player and Father

 

By Matt Fitzgerald, Special for Tennis Grandstand

On a crisp January morning in Texas, four-time Grand Slam champion Mark Knowles found himself in an elementary school classroom in Southlake. Accompanying his eldest child Graham to a breakfast function, “Donuts For Dads”, Knowles spent the morning with his son’s classmates and fellow fathers in the area, who had made their usual plans to attend the occasion before heading off to work. But Knowles was turning out for the first time. The Bahamian’s profession is unlike anyone else’s in his community. His occupation forces him to make personal sacrifices on a consistent basis. Sacrifices like quality time with his children. But on this day, in this month of January, Knowles put his family first… and tennis second.

9,000 miles away in Melbourne, the Australian Open was just underway. It was an event Knowles had played professionally since 1993, a tournament where he first tasted Grand Slam glory in 2002. At 40 years old, it’s hard to fathom many players, if any, would forgo the year’s first Grand Slam tournament with a full bill of health. But Knowles isn’t ordinary. He’s extraordinary. Knowing it may have been his final opportunity to play Down Under, the precious time with his family is something Knowles wouldn’t trade for anything else. “I have been fortunate to have a long, successful career and I have reached a stage where all my decisions are family based as opposed to being based around my tennis,” Knowles tells Tennis Grandstand in Delray Beach.

“Things have changed a lot for me with the addition of our third child, and with my oldest son, Graham, starting Kindergarten last September. I always told myself that I wanted to be there for my kids growing up as much as I possibly could.”

His wife Dawn, whom he married in 2003, relished the change in dynamics. “Mark has a close bond with the children. For us as a couple, it was great, as we got to do so many things as a family. I’m usually doing many of things by myself,” said the Texan.

“The day in and day out of having Mark home with the kids was wonderful. One minute, he’s outside kicking the soccer ball with Brody. Or he’s working on Graham’s baseball since it’s starting up. The next minute, he’ll take Presley outside in the Baby Bjorn. There’s not a minute where he’s not with one of those kids, so it’s great for me.”

Family has always been a priority for Knowles, but with the birth of daughter Presley last March, it would seem to be even more difficult to strike a perfect harmony between his loved ones and his career. But not for the former world No. 1, stating, “I want to be a major influence in my kids’ lives. And with that comes the responsibility of being there for my wife and my kids.

“It takes so much hard work and dedication to be a great tennis player and I have chosen to shift those energies towards being a great husband and great father for my family. Just like tennis or anything else, you have to dedicate yourself completely to it. The best part about it is that I love being with my family so much that it makes it easier to be away from the tennis sometimes.”

The couple has found it challenging to deal with the requirements of Knowles being on and off the road, in particular with six-year old Graham, explains Dawn. “Mark will say that he’s just going to play tennis for a few days, but Graham knows the difference now with how long a day is. Brody doesn’t know the time frame.

“The hardest part is the kids are getting smarter, so we can’t keep saying dad is going to be gone for a couple days, because they’re counting the days he’s away. They ask for him at night. Mark helps Graham with his homework, taking the time to read the books and oversee all of his assignments. When it’s me doing it, it’s not the same for him. His expectation is that time is for him and his dad to spend together.”

Perhaps the best decision Knowles made after having two months with his family was a return to action at the Dallas Challenger in February, a virtual hometown event that would allow him to ease back into the reality of his career. Playing an ATP Challenger event for the first time in 11 years, Knowles didn’t put himself above the level of competition at the tournament, knowing that it would be an ideal environment to acquire some match practice. “It was interesting returning to the Challenger level. It was a chance for me to get some matches in and also to play at home with family and friends watching,” says Knowles.

“The level is so high at challengers that it prepares you well for the ATP World Tour events. Being from the Bahamas, I have never had a home event. To be able to drive 20 minutes and play and then come back to your own house and be with your family was awesome!”

Partnering Robert Kendrick, Knowles reached the semifinals, and then headed off to San Jose to rejoin Xavier Malisse. The two enjoyed success during the North American summer hard court swing in 2011, winning the title in Los Angeles and reaching the third round of the US Open. They clicked more with each match in San Jose, and went on to finish in the winner’s circle to win their second team trophy. The victory gave Knowles his 55th career title, and extended his impressive streak of winning at least one tour-level title to 19 of the past 20 seasons. He also became the first player in his 40s to win a doubles title since John McEnroe (who also won in San Jose). “Playing Dallas was a huge benefit and the reason I did well in San Jose. There is no substitute for match practice and match situations,” believes Knowles.

“I always go into a tournament thinking that I can win it. I think everyone feels that way. However, I know how hard it is to win tournaments, especially coming off a prolonged break. Xavier and I were able to raise our games with each match and that is what it takes to win at this level.”

Knowles hasn’t set any specific goals for this season, but will continue playing provided his ranking holds up to gain him entry into tournaments. For Dawn, she would love nothing more than for Mark to play in another final, with Graham cheering him on from the front row. “Graham is beginning to understand sports. Before Mark went to San Jose, he said, ‘I hope you get the trophy.’ His idea of winning is Mark getting a piece of silverware. That’s what they do at his age. For him to see Mark lift the trophy would be huge. He thinks that’s the best thing in the world.”

Either way, Dawn is backing her husband 100 percent, whether he decides to retire tomorrow, at the end of the year or further down the road. Being there with him through all the ups and downs, the former model believes his accomplishments speak for themselves. “If I could waive the magic wand and give him the men’s doubles Wimbledon title, I would totally do that. But that doesn’t define his career. He’s a good candidate for the Hall Of Fame. He has a proven record with a variety of partners to show he can win.

“If he decides at the end of this year that he’s done, I want him to walk away like he’s done it all and is satisfied. I’m going to support him through that decision. He’ll go down as one of the best doubles players to play the game and I’m not saying that because I have to as his wife. In a broader context, he has earned that among his peers.”

(All photos courtesy of Mark’s wife, Dawn Knowles via the author)

Matt Fitzgerald is the web editor for the ATP World Tour and Tennis Grandstand’s resident doubles specialist. He is in Indian Wells, California this week covering the BNP Paribas Open and will be in Key Biscayne, Florida next week covering the Sony Ericsson Open. Follow Matt on twitter @tennisfitz.