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Life is a game of doubles

We may like the drama of singles tennis, but we identify more with doubles players. Nic Brown writes.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2011 20:43 IST

Unless you're a genuine tennis fan, it's unlikely you can recall a single doubles match. There are some obvious reasons doubles doesn't draw more fans. It's harder to build allegiances to shifting teams than to a single player. And doubles suffers from a lack of star power. Once, this wasn't the case. John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Arthur Ashe - all regularly played doubles. Now, few top players, under pressure to keep pace with the inexorable rise in the game's physicality, can risk an injury moonlighting in doubles.

But there's something deeper at work. People spend more time playing doubles than watching it for a reason. It parallels too closely the struggles of our own lives: working with others; toiling in the shadows; getting second billing. Not getting paid enough. Maybe we don't watch doubles because we are all doubles players. When we're relaxing on our couches, it's the escape into the fantasy of singles tennis that we want, with its amplified and simplified clash.

And so we forget that doubles is such excellent theatre. With two players trolling the net and the other two staying back, the 'butterfly shape' (as David Foster Wallace described it) of today's baseline-heavy singles game splinters into some cubist sketch as angles proliferate and tactical options multiply. It's as if the game has been projected through some cosmic kaleidoscope, everything fractured, more colourful, more complicated, perhaps even more beautiful.

If you persevered in watching doubles, you would have seen something memorable. It was last Saturday, the second round of mixed doubles at this year's Open. The best mixed doubles team in the world, Liezel Huber and Bob Bryan, were playing Jack Sock and Melanie Oudin, two American teenagers on the fragile cusp of promising careers. What I expected to be a shellacking turned into a match so tight I could barely breathe. What was most compelling wasn't how Oudin and Sock manhandled their opponents, but how they behaved toward each other.

After each point, they smiled coyly, giggling. On changeovers, they chatted until one took a sip of water, at which point the other would too, as if to avoid any awkward silence. They looked like two freshmen on a first date. The whole thing was so endearing I forgot about the Serena Williams and Mardy Fish matches I'd been yearning to see. Best of all, Sock and Oudin played 65 minutes of unbelievable tennis, and won. Later, in the mixed doubles finals, they won their first Grand Slam together.

It's sad that more tennis fans didn't tune in. But it's sadder still to think that Sock and Oudin played so well they'll soon, like many before them, cease playing doubles at all. Doubles players don't set out to be doubles players. They are almost always excellent singles players who, for one reason or another, find themselves temporarily failing to excel. But that's one of the things I love about doubles. It allows players who may not be stars on their own to keep doing what they love, and sometimes lets them win. There's a lesson here. It's called teamwork. It gets things done that you can't do alone.

New York Times

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Sep 11, 2011 20:42 IST