Singles, doubles, toil and troubles

#ACE Magazine delves into the differences between singles and doubles in tennis

Why don’t the top men play doubles as well as singles whereas a lot of the top women do? One theory is that the men’s game is so attritional and the athleticism required so high that they cannot afford to compromise their fitness by playing doubles as well. That might hold true for the Grand Slams where the men are playing five sets, but is it really the case on the regular ATP Tour? As Jamie Murray said:

“With sudden-death deuce and 10-point tiebreaks instead of a full third set, a 90-minute match is quite long these days, so the endurance aspect goes out of the window.”

Nevertheless the theory is given some credence by the Indian Wells Masters in March, where a lot of the players do play doubles – Djokovic, Nadal, Thiem, del Potro, Dimitrov, Wawrinka, Kyrgios and Murray all entered this year, with varying degrees of success. Indian Wells is the only tournament on the circuit which is played over a best-of-three-set format and lasts over a week, so maybe the players feel they have the extra time and energy for doubles.

It’s a relatively recent development, however. John McEnroe famously played doubles, even winning nine Slam titles to the seven singles Slams he claimed. Before him the likes of all-time greats John Newcombe and Roy Emerson won more doubles Slams than they did in singles, though they won plenty of both. Even Pat Rafter won the Australian Open doubles (and reached the semi-finals of the other three Slams) to go alongside his two US Open singles titles.

The Olympics have also shown that players better known for singles can combine fruitfully when necessary: Boris Becker and Michael Stich won in 1992 despite not being able to stand each other (Pete Sampras and Jin Courier teamed up that year too, but with less success). In 2004 Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu won Chile’s first ever Olympic gold medal after saving four matchpoints on the fourth set tiebreak, and four years later Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka took the gold.

But the Slams are dominated by doubles specialists. What is a doubles specialist? Doubles is largely a game of control and angles rather than power and depth; for example, shorter shots can be effective – and taking the pace off a shot can be a good option, particularly if that enables you to dip the ball at your opponent’s feet.

Movement-wise, up the court and back – getting to the short ball, covering the lob – is far more relevant than side to side court coverage.

The biggest difference in shot-making is probably that the ball needs to be hit flatter and lower as the highly topspun groundstrokes which typify a lot of modern singles play are a liability in doubles, being too easy for the opposing net player to pick off.

And maybe this is where the women have an advantage. They generally hit the ball flatter with less spin so do not have to make as many adjustments to their game when it comes to doubles. Watching French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko playing at Wimbledon was to watch someone essentially playing singles on a doubles court, albeit very well indeed. That is not to criticise – the young Latvian has a charming personality off court and plays highly entertaining tennis on it – but merely to point out that the differences between singles and doubles in the women’s game appear much less profound.

We took the opportunity to ask some of the professionals what they felt the key differences were - see below to find out what they said.

Jocelyn Rae and Laura Robson playing mixed doubles at The Championships, Wimbledon

Laura Robson & Jocelyn Rae

Laura Robson & Jocelyn Rae are part of the Great Britain Fed Cup doubles team.

Robson: “Jocelyn and I play pretty well together, we just try and enjoy ourselves. In doubles you don’t focus only on yourself so there is maybe less intensity and less pressure on you as an individual. We’ve known each other so many years that if one of us gets down we both know how to pick the other up."

Rae: “Doubles is a tough format, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for error, but it’s also very exciting and you have never won or lost until the last point. I think it’s fun to watch too, and if you ask the majority of people around the country what they tend to play at their local clubs, it is doubles so they can relate to what we are trying to do.”

Jamie Murray and Martina Hingis played mixed doubles at The Championships, Wimbledon

Jamie Murray & Martina Hingis

Martina Hingis & Jamie Murray are a recently established doubles team with already 2 mixed doubles Grand Slam titles under their belt.

Hingis: “Having confidence and comfort in the partnership is the important thing”

Jamie: “Most doubles players have played with a lot of partners – if you have a different playing philosophy from the other guy, maybe it just doesn’t quite click. You have to spend loads of time together of course, so you need to get on well off the court too. People watching can probably relate to it more than singles because that’s what they’re playing at home, at their local clubs or parks. Tennis TV shows every doubles match at all the Masters Series events, which is great.”

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