Doubles tennis or speed-dating?6 min read . Updated: 29 Apr 2015, 07:27 PM IST
Tennis partnerships are no longer long, hard-fought relationships, but quickies that get the job done
If you look closely, the doubles world in tennis isn’t too different from the eternal human quest for “the one". Just as in the world of relationships, doubles partnerships too have moved from the long-and-steady to the frantic tones of speed-dating.
“Two weeks" is what Canadian doubles specialist Daniel Nestor gives a partnership before he is ready to pull the plug. The verdict is, of course, delivered with a cheeky smile, but he is not entirely joking.
Nestor, 42, was one half of the potentially solid pairing with India’s Rohan Bopanna that began this new year. Come February and the Dubai Open and the tension was already palpable. Though the duo won the title in Dubai, most of the talk during the week had been about their ensuing split.
“Most of the Canadians are pretty easy-going. But Nestor is hard to please," Bopanna said in the post-victory press conference in Dubai on 28 February, in response to Nestor’s “two-week" jibe.
“There is no such thing as proper relationships on the doubles tour," Nestor said. “You have to watch your back at all times. I’m kidding, of course."
No one laughed.
It was like watching two people on the precipice of a break-up. They did finally split up two tournaments later, after the Miami Masters. Nestor joined forces with another Indian: Leander Paes.
Of all the high-profile partnerships that were forged at the beginning of 2015, almost none have survived. Nestor split with Bopanna, Paes with South Africa’s Raven Klaasen, and Serbian doubles veteran Nenad Zimonjic with Pakistan’s Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi. On the women’s side, Sania Mirza switched from Hsieh Su-Wei to Martina Hingis.
Mirza may be one of the fortunate ones for whom the change worked, and worked quickly. With the tactical nous and experience of the former singles world No.1 Hingis on her side, she was able to win three tournaments on the trot (Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston) and rise to No.1 in the doubles charts.
But most, especially on the men’s side, haven’t been able to justify the constant partner-swapping.
“It has become almost comical how quickly they are breaking up," says Mark Knowles in a phone interview. The Bahamas doubles star, who retired in 2013, now has a ringside view of the doubles “carousel" and believes the game has taken a turn for the worse over the last five-six years.
“The climate has changed since when I was playing. The players are now looking over their shoulders constantly, there’s no job security, no continuity, no loyalty, no real regard for each other. It has become a cut-throat business. There is an unwillingness to develop, to try and get better as a team. It has individualized the game a lot and I think it is hurting doubles," says Knowles, 43.
Knowles was part of the wave in the 1990s that established doubles as a specialist art. Australian star couple “Woodies" (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde), Knowles-Nestor and Paes-Bhupathi were the headline acts. Of late, only American twins Mike and Bob Bryan have stuck with each other long enough to leave a lasting impression. Team ethos has become a thing of the past, with players rarely even ready to sign up for a year.
With the rule changes in 2006, which saw the introduction of the no-ad rule and a match tiebreak in place of the third set (thus making the doubles game sharper and shorter), a lot more singles players have infiltrated the doubles scene. The one clear edge the doubles players had was sustained time with each other to make the team greater than the sum of its parts. They seem to have conceded that advantage. Not surprisingly, the No.1 doubles team of 2015 is Fabio Fognini-Simone Bolelli, the Italians whose main gig is the singles tour.
“The doubles world isn’t unsettled in my opinion, but I do think players are getting worked up over their individual rankings and their points tally," Bopanna says in an email. “The patience levels required to stay and work on a team and fight through have hence reduced."
Rankings are more than mere markers in tennis. They decide which tournaments you are good enough to enter, and whether you will be seeded, and that’s why they can put considerable strain on a partnership.
“If one waits too long for a partnership to click, one could drop considerably in the rankings," Mirza says in an email interview. “The chemistry has to be good and there are no guarantees that the partnership will work out until we have tried it out. Generally, both the partners begin to understand when it is not working out."
For Indian fans, doubles has been dominated by the long, seemingly never-ending, will they, won’t they saga of Paes and Bhupathi. Their every success, every spat and every heartbreak has been followed. Bhupathi’s semi-retirement and the 2012 London Olympics fiasco (where both Bhupathi and Bopanna refused to partner with Paes, though he was the No.1 doubles player from India) may have put a full stop to it, but it was great drama while it lasted.
Now, the doubles teams have the magic and durability of cardboard cut-outs.
The Zimonjic-Qureshi pairing began with a compromise. With both of them being primarily deuce (right) side players, the Serb had made the switch to ad (left side) court. But he wasn’t quite able to make the adjustment and wouldn’t give it more than two months to settle.
“I think he wasn’t really comfortable playing there," Qureshi had said during an interview in Dubai in February. “I did offer to switch over to the ad side, but he didn’t want to. He has had most success playing over the deuce side and I do understand his reasons; he is 38 and maybe feels it’s too late to change."
As a result, Qureshi doesn’t quite have a stable partner on the tour, though he is scheduled to play with Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller at the French Open, which starts on 19 May, and Wimbledon in June. His former partner of “India-Pakistan Express" fame—Bopanna—has teamed up with Romania’s Florin Mergea since the Nestor split and will play the next two Grand Slams with him.
“I believe that if they think they can do better with someone else, they should have every opportunity to try. I respect their decision and move on. Yes, it is hard to break it off, but when I am calling off the partnership, I think honesty is the key with your partner," Bopanna says. “The atmosphere in the locker room is mostly relaxed. But it’s just like a relationship, you end up spending a lot of time together, naturally sometimes there are bound to be bust-ups. We are in a professional sport, so one can’t be sitting and holding grudges and being negative."
Knowles isn’t surprised at the “lack of animosity" among the players. Most of them have been at both ends of rejection and have learnt to live with it.
“It’s just like relationships in real life," says Nestor. “The grass always is greener on the other side and you think it’s going to get better." Knowles, whom Nestor dumped dramatically in 2007 after 13 years, is in sync with his former partner on this. “They are going around looking for solutions that aren’t necessarily there."