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John McEnroe (right) and Peter Fleming. Photo: Getty Images
John McEnroe (right) and Peter Fleming. Photo: Getty Images

From tennis to badminton, here’s to a culture of doubles

The doubles versions of most racquet sports today are dominated by doubles specialists, a far cry from not so long ago

Doubles is an entirely different game. This applies to tennis, badminton, table tennis, and whichever other sport also features doubles. Watch someone play singles, then watch somebody else play doubles: the difference can be like chalk and cheese, both fascinating in their own ways.

Yet it is a constant wonder to me that doubles is so much less popular than singles, in whichever sport. Singles players rarely play doubles, and doubles matches rarely attract more than a handful of spectators, even at top tournaments.

And certainly in tennis, this is such a sad break from the past. John McEnroe, for example, was simultaneously the best player in the world at singles and at doubles. His long-time doubles partner, Peter Fleming, famously said as much: “The best doubles pair in the world is John McEnroe and anyone else"—and Fleming himself was no mean singles player, reaching as high as #8 in the world. Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini, long-time rivals in singles, played plenty of doubles together, as did Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver.

The list is long and illustrious; and yet, probably starting in the mid-1980s, doubles in tennis became increasingly a sport for specialists. The state of the modern doubles game so troubled McEnroe—of all people—that in a 2013 interview to the Times of London, he said:

“Doubles — why are we even playing it? … You guys know I love doubles. But I look at it now and say, what is this? I don’t even recognize what this is. I don’t know what doubles is bringing to the table. The doubles are the slow guys who aren’t quick enough to play singles."

Even with McEnroe’s jibe, the list of contemporary doubles players is long and illustrious too—Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis, the Bryan and Jensen brothers, Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (the “Woodies").

But as you see, it is dominated by doubles specialists. About the only regular doubles players in recent years who have also regularly played and done well in singles are Hingis and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena.

And the story is not too different for other racquet sports.

Here in India, it’s dismaying, but not really a surprise that one of India’s finest badminton players—admit it, you thought I’d mention Saina Nehwal or P.V. Sindhu, P. Gopichand or Prakash Padukone here—Jwala Gutta, recently told the press that “India still doesn’t have a doubles culture".

What could Gutta have meant?

After all, India’s greatest tennis triumphs have been in doubles. So there’s a culture in that sport, certainly, of Indian players taking to the game and doing well. But what about badminton?

Gutta and her long-time partner, Ashwini Ponnappa, won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and silver in 2014. So you know these are world-class players. Yet she says things like this: “the consistent support that singles players are getting is way more than doubles"; “we have always been given step-motherly treatment"; “it takes guts to take up doubles in India".

It certainly takes guts, not least because so few of us fans really pay attention. I mean, so many of us Indians watched Sindhu play for gold at the Rio Olympics last August. But try this simple test: Have you watched Jwala Gutta play? Or wait, have you heard of Jwala Gutta, as much as you’ve heard of Nehwal and Sindhu?

In your answer to those questions lies the truth in her lament about a doubles culture.

All of which is such a pity. Because even if the great players like John McEnroe and Saina Nehwal don’t play regularly—and despite McEnroe’s jibe—the doubles game in every sport is a treat to watch.

In tennis, it plays out mostly at the net, with quicksilver volleying, sharp angles and freak shots frequently attempted. Not what you’d typically see in a singles match. Plus the court is wider, because the “doubles alleys" along the sides can be used; this allows even more creativity.

In table tennis, there’s the requirement that teammates must alternate taking shots; if the same person takes two shots in a row, her team loses that point. That rule itself opens the game up in ways you don’t see in singles.

In tennis, what can result is an eye-popping duel, especially if the teams are equally adept at the net. The ball flies back and forth, racquet to opposing racquet. McEnroe was a master at the game, able to pull off fabulous volleys and find creative ways to keep a rally going. (Watch him and Fleming play—and lose!—a fine 1984 Davis Cup match against Sweden’s Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd in the video below.) Watching a competitive match, you can actually see how players plan and play as a team: the strategy, the tactics, the way they move as each point unfolds.

As for table tennis, YouTube is a great place, as for much else, to see top-class doubles action. Here are two of my favourite clips. Watch especially for the stellar defensive slicing of the ball (the women), and for a couple of remarkable inside-out backhands that flash past the helpless opponent (the men). Watch how the players position themselves to take those alternate shots.

Doubles in badminton can be just as scintillating. Maybe we can show Jwala Gutta we believe that, show that we can build that doubles culture: Start by watching her play with Ponnappa.

Here they are playing an Uber Cup match last year:

Here they are playing the Canada Open final in 2015:

Watch for how they communicate, for the way a deliberately gentle serve sets up a point, for the touch play at the net and much more. Watch, in other words, for the unique charms of doubles.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Jukebox Mathemagic: Always One More Dance.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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