Have you ever been in a room full of people and felt invisible? If so, you’ve sampled life as a doubles player. At the Australian Open, lots and lots of doubles matches are played, but almost all of them seem to take place outside of most people’s consciousness. I’m as guilty as anyone of this neglect: I could give you a very detailed breakdown of the singles tournaments this fortnight, but only the headlines at best from the doubles events. This dynamic is not exclusive to the Australian Open, of course. Most tennis tournaments are like it, although the sheer number of singles matches at Grand Slams perhaps exacerbates the disparity, one which is reflected in the prize money, in the court assignments, and in the media coverage. The two disciplines occupy the same physical space, but seem to be worlds apart in terms of significance.
So, this morning, while most people were watching Naomi Osaka vs Elina Svitolina on the Rod Laver Arena, I took my seat on the adjacent Margaret Court Arena to put an end to my disregard for doubles this fortnight.
In Agatha Christie’s ‘Mystery of the Blue Train’ novel, Hercule Poirot says, “at the tennis, one meets everyone.” Clearly he wasn’t at the doubles, where one meets almost no one. Despite the usually-ticketed Margaret Court Arena being available to grounds pass holders today, this was like tennis in an empty box compared to the packed arenas for the biggest singles matches.
The four players were four of the best: Bob & Mike Bryan, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre Hugues Herbert. The American twins were playing their first Grand Slam since Bob’s hip injury, while the French pair were looking to take a vital step en route to completing their career Grand Slam. The match was a good one, as Herbert and Mahut continued their dominance over the Bryan Brothers with a 6-4, 7-6 victory.
Herbert and Mahut really do make an exceptional duo: the trajectory of Herbert’s loopy shots contrasts sharply with Mahut’s flatter ball. Mahut is probably stronger on serve, Herbert on return. They also have moments of madness, where the game all of a sudden becomes very difficult for them, like when the Bryan Brothers recovered from a break down in the second set to force a tiebreak. I’ve found this trait makes Herbert and Mahut very watchable, keeping many of their matches in the balance.
As for the Bryans, they’re no longer at their best, but their hand-skills, experience and nous keep them extremely competitive at the top of the sport. And there has been an additional layer of intrigue surrounding Bob this week as he made his comeback from hip surgery. It’s expected that Andy Murray will undergo the same operation, so his every movement has been scrutinised. Bob seemed to play at a high level today, particularly on serve, but he did seem a little short on dynamism when moving forwards and backwards.
I had planned to spend most of the day on the Margaret Court Arena, watching three doubles matches back-to-back-to-back. But after popping into the media centre for lunch, my day at the doubles was curtailed. I suddenly got swept up by the singles drama: Serena losing match points, Pouille performing miracles on return against Raonic. And this is the problem for doubles: it’s so far back in terms of prestige, that it’s so hard to prioritise it over singles, for fear of missing out. Unless the top singles players try their hand at doubles – like they do at exhibition events such as Laver Cup and Hopman Cup – bridging that gap is impossible.
I suppose there could be stylistic reasons for why doubles is the less popular form of the game. It’s certainly played at a different pace to singles. For fans who prefer teasing baseline rallies, there isn’t much to keep you entertained when the tramlines are in. Rallies can break down as quickly as they start, particularly in the serve-dominated world of men’s doubles. It’s also more difficult to have dramatic contrasts in styles in doubles. The court is crowded. The tennis has less room to breathe, if you like. Players can’t put their personalities across so easily.
None of this is to degrade doubles. There’s also so much to enjoy about it. The synergy between the players. The dynamic movement and fast reactions. The expertise at the net. The hand signals. It’s a vital form with different skills and different personalities.
The Davis Cup and other team competitions are the places where doubles really thrives - when it’s the centre of attention, when fans will cheer anything. The staccato rhythm of doubles suits this environment – quick-fire rallies are exciting, and less exhausting for fans to engage with than drawn-out baseline duels. And it’s also where doubles shares the same stage and stature as singles’ it’s worth valuable points, it doesn’t clash with singles, and it’s often the highlight. But it’s awfully difficult to strike that balance at Grand Slams, where fans flock to see the names they know. As things stand, doubles will remain in the shadows.