Rick Leach, the winner of nine doubles grand slam titles and former world number one, is quite sure that the age of the doubles specialist is coming to an end. "In the future there could be a time when tennis will have no doubles specialists given that it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up playing doubles alone," says the man who is in Chennai in his new role as Leander Paes' coach.
The ATP rule changes have seen doubles qualifying eliminated from Tour events with only Wimbledon still carrying on with the tradition. Singles ranking gets preference for doubles entries too.
"In a perfect world I would like doubles to carry on like it was in the past but then economic considerations led to tournament directors asking for doubles to be cut down," he explains. The new-age doubles-alone player is finding it increasingly difficult to break into the top rankings as he has to first win a string of Challenger titles and then hope for an entry into an ATP event.
"The way it is now, you can stay in the top 30 for a long time as winning one round at this level can give you almost as many points as winning a full Challenger." The Chennai Open awards first round winners 40 points while a Challenger win translates into 55 odd points depending on its level.
"It is more difficult now but then nothing can stop a pair if they keep winning regularly at the Challenger level. But yes, it's an exclusive club at the top," says Paes. In fact, the club is so selective that if a top player falls out of it, it is really difficult to claw back in. "Paul (Hanley, his partner beginning 2008), had a rough last year and has fallen to 50 in the rankings. He is finding it difficult to get another partner because of that," he says.
It is possible to still reach within touching distance as Rohan Bopanna has shown. In 2007, he and partner Aisam Quershi won four Challengers on the trot and as such Bopanna is now perched at 76 in the rankings. But that does not guarantee a main draw entry. "Players like Jamie Murray are exceptions as he has a brother like Andy who can partner him for getting into big events. Then, wild cards are another way to do it," says Leach. That is, of course, only for the privileged.
As of now, it is tough going for other Indians like Harsh Mankad, Ashutosh Singh and Purav Raja who are trying to be specialists in the vein of Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. "The ranking system favours singles players. It is an uphill battle for us," says Mankad.
"Doubles is a different game with a distinctive skill set. It's a pity to see it wither," sums up Leach.