The Double Specialists Play a Different Game
In tennis, many of the top names in the doubles are not the same names that are the top seeds in the singles draw. John McEnroe, who won both the singles and doubles (with Peter Fleming) competition at Wimbledon this year, is a rare entity -- a top ten player that takes the time to participate in the doubles.
Anders Jarryd of Sweden is another. Following Wimbledon, he was ranked 10th in both singles and doubles. But, unlike McEnroe, Jarryd was first known as a good doubles player before his ranking started moving up in the singles.
It's not that others in the top 10 don't have good doubles games. Many either don't want to put up with the late matches and erratic scheduling, which is an acknowledged part of playing the game, or they feel they can only afford to concentrate on the singles, because that's where the money is. Before his rise on the ATP/Atari computer, Ivan Lendl used to play doubles often and well. The top seed at the Volvo International, Andres Gomez, was once known more for his doubles play than for his singles. Teamed with Hans Gildemeister, Gomez as part of a strong Chilean Davis Cup team.
Then there are the other players -- Stewart, Edmondson, Slozil, Taygan, Gunthardt, Taroczy, Flach, Seguso, Graham, Warder, Motta, Willenborg -- to all but the diehard doubles fans, almost unrecognizable as top names in the game, yet these are the top seeds in the doubles action at the Volvo International.
Sherwood Stewart and Ferdi Taygan are bonfide doubles specialists, making their living in tennis in what is considered the hard way by most of the players -- playing only in the doubles. "You can make good money at it, but only if you get to the finals almost every week," said Mark Edmondson, Stewart's partner. "One singles win gives a paycheck that is more than about five doubles wins."
Despite this discrepancy, more and more players are participating in the doubles. "We used to have a hard time filling up our 32-team draw," said the Volvo assistant tournament referee Curt Tonge, "but the increase in prize money and the ATP point have made everyone get interested again."
It's necessary to possess great endurance and perseverance if the game of doubles is your pleasure at a tennis tournament. Singles is the prime action at most tournaments even if only the prize money, and not the press and attention, is any indication.
Doubles matches are usually played late in the afternoon and even the top seeds can find themselves playing to a mere handful of people off on a side court as the sun is setting. By the time the doubles action gets under way -- and the action is always fast and furious with reflex volleys, powerful overheads, and deadly lobs -- the majority of fans have had their fill of tennis for the day and have left the stands to head home or to go out on the town.
The large difference in the financial rewards means that no tennis player purposely sets out to become a doubles specialist, it just happens to him. "When I was younger, I hated training," said the 38-year-old Stewart. "I had all the shots but I just didn't want to work that hard at it. I was having too good a time." Not being one that enjoyed long rallies or liked staying out on the court all day in a singles match, Stewart began using his shot-making ability effectively in doubles.
His first success came with Fred McNair, another doubles specialist, then he teamed with Ferdi Taygan, and now Stewart is doing well with Edmondson, an Australian serve and volleyer. Last year, Stewart became the first "doubles only" player to pass the million-dollar mark in career prize money earnings. His endurance is evident as he has appeared for nine consecutive years in the top 55 of the prize money board. Only Jimmy Connors, Wojtek Fibak, Vitas Gerulaitis, Brian Gottfriend, and Guillermo Vilas have accomplished that feat.
"If I hadn't concentrated on doubles," Stewart said, "I don't think I'd be in the game today." This isn't because he doesn't enjoy playing singles, but more that the influx of younger and stronger talent into the game makes it harder for relative "oldtimers' like Stewart to keep up with the pace.
The newcomers to tennis balance out the wily veterans in the Volvo doubles draw. For younger players just starting out on the Grand Prix tour, playing the doubles can be very beneficial. The money they make keeps them going from week to week, and they get additional match competition. "The doubles can be very good for young players," said Bob Brett, formerly a Rossignol team coach and currently the coach for Harold Solomon and John Lloyd, among others. "It helps them get used to coming into the net and volleying -- it helps to put a little versatility into their game."
Playing in the double can also be a hindrance to those players who wish to improve their singles game. Rob Seguso, one-half of the team that won the doubles at the Italian Open, the U.S. Pro in Boston, and was the runner-up in Newport, explained, "If we do well in the doubles, then we don't make it to the next tournament in time to qualify in the singles. Before we came here, my partner [Ken Flach] hadn't played a match in singles for over a month."
Playing only the doubles, even if they are winning, can cause the players to lose confidence in their singles games. "They are totally different games," said Seguso. "You have to be quick at net with good reflexes and the poaching movement is completely different than what you would do in singles. Also, the best return shot in doubles is short and low, forcing your opponent to hit up, but the idea in singles is to hit deep."
What constitutes a good doubles team? Number one, the team shouldn't be just a pick-up for a week. Although there are some players who play doubles well with anyone, the successful teams have usually been together over a period of time. The two Americans, Flach and Seguso, played together in college before turning pro. "I think it's extremely important to play with the same partner," said Stewart. "I haven't been able to win a match with someone else this year."
This "togetherness" helps players get ahead of the fast-paced game. Knowing your partner's style of play can be the difference when all four players are at the net and the ball is being volleyed rapidly from racquet to racquet. "When we are all at the net," said Edmondson, "I have a 90 percent chance of knowing where he's [Stewart] going to hit his shot, so I have a good chance at guessing how it will come back and so be leaning the right direction."
Stewart and Edmondson have the classic attributes of a good doubles team. Stewart's forte is his return of serve and Edmondson is a strong serve and volley player. Whereas it is important to break the other team's serve, it won't give the breaking team an advantage unless they hold their own. "Sometimes one service break can mean the match and that's what makes the return of serve so important," explained Edmondson. "But, you still have to win your own serve so that gives the serve and volley player an advantage."
Who plays the ad and who plays the deuce court is also an important factor in winning doubles. Contrary to popular belief, the pros often play the stronger, or perhaps steadier, player in the deuce court rather than the ad court. Right-handers have difficulty returning a back-hand cross-court from the deuce court. The ideal shot is an inside-out backhand hit low enough cross-court to avoid the opponent ready to poach at the net, yet forcing the server to volley up to allow your partner to put it away.
The player on the ad side, however, can hit the natural cross-court backhand shot, but he often has to return more game deciding balls and, therefore, is put under more pressure. Both players have to know how to play the angles, and unlike singles where a back court player can hold his own with a serve and volley player, taking and controlling the net becomes the key to winning doubles.
In addition to the fast-paced action, another fun aspect of watching professional doubles is observing the interaction between doubles partners. Even men who have been partners for years treat each other with the utmost respect. "Getting angry with your partner is not the most productive thing to do," said Taygan. "Everyone experiences frustration, but the idea is to work together."
By the quarters, semis, and finals, the doubles action will be moved to more reasonable times and it won't be necessary to miss the six o'clock news to see a good doubles match. With the likes of defending Volvo champions Stewart and Edmondson, and teams like Slozil/Taygan and Gunthardt/Taroczy -- all stalwarts of the doubles game -- competing against the up and coming young teams, the weekend action is guaranteed to be even hotter than the weather.
Postscript: And for fun, enjoy this vintage video about the Volvo -- small rackets, short shorts, what's not to like!