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Save the doubles!

Once one of the pillars of the sport, the doubles game is slowly fading into oblivion. We trace its decline and what can be possibly done to revive its appeal

Mike et Bob Bryan, Wimbledon 2013 Mike et Bob Bryan, Wimbledon 2013 – © Tennis Magazine / Panoramic

At a time when we are thinking about how to evolve the format of our beloved game to make it as appealing as possible to the way our consumption patterns have also evolved, we should perhaps also start seriously tackling how we could sustain a discipline that was once a major factor of our sport, and which now appears to be in full decline: the doubles!

With a characteristic lack of diplomacy – which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s always wrong – the American Reilly Opelka threw a few pebbles in the pond recently and created a storm online when he said that “doubles players are the most ‘overpaid’ athletes on the planet”.

When you put it like that, it may be a little harsh, but today, any tournament director would confirm it: with rare exceptions like the Bryan Brothers a few years ago, the French duo of Nicolas Mahut/Pierre-Hugues Herbert or the Williams sisters on the women’s side, doubles players do not really help sell tickets. However, tournaments are obliged to allocate them prize money that is more than generous when compared to how much value they actually add in real terms to the event.

The stars no longer play doubles

Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Hebert, Montpellier 2022
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Hebert, in Montpellier in 2022, credit: JB Autissier / Panoramic

How did we arrive at this nasty situation? The observation is quite simple and isn’t a recent one. The increase in pace on the tour and in individual tournaments over the last two or three decades has gradually led the stars of the game to almost no longer play doubles, besides specific times such as the Olympic Games or team events.

From this stems another debate: if the stars decided to practise doubles a little more often and a little more seriously, the best singles players would also be the best doubles players, well ahead of the best current doubles specialists who would no longer exist…as was the case before, from the origins of the game until the 1980s, so to speak.

Federer Nadal Laver Cup 2022 doubles
©Antoine Couvercelle / Panoramic

That may be true, but the doubles specialists in question deserve to be given a chance to prove it wrong, by allowing them to regularly compete against top players throughout the year. This would enhance the value of their performance and star value. It would also enhance the overall credibility of the doubles game.

A doubles that counts.. for the singles?

Now, how do you do it? We will certainly not ask Novak Djokovic tomorrow to aim for the place of world No 1 in doubles, an objective that probably interests him as much as the memory of his first broken string. However, it seems that we could think about measures that could encourage the best singles players to invest more in doubles, and vice versa for that matter.

For example, as some are asking, one could require a minimum ranking in singles to be able to register in doubles. Or think about a scale that would allow doubles results to be taken into account in the singles rankings, as is the case on the ITF junior circuit. Or something else…

What is certain is that this discipline unanimously loved by club practitioners and by spectators on special occasions, a discipline, which is also highly educational especially for young players as they develop, cannot continue to exist in this way which appears to be leading to its downfall. What if we made reviving the doubles game a priority objective in 2023?

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