Two players good, four players dull

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A trivia question for you tennis fans: can you name the team that won the men’s doubles title at this year’s Australian Open? At Roland Garros? At Wimbledon?

If you are drawing a blank, no need to feel ashamed: Horst Klosterkemper, who heads the European operations for the Association of Tennis Professionals, claims that a number of journalists he polled had no clue either, and their ignorance told him all he needed to know about the current state of men’s doubles – put simply, it is dying.

To revive it, the ATP has announced changes that will dramatically alter the way men’s doubles is played. Whether the proposed cure is worse than the illness is a question being fiercely debated as the men’s tour winds its way towards New York and the start of the US Open a week on Monday.

Under the new rules, which will take effect immediately following the Open, all doubles matches will be best-of-three sets and sets will be five games instead of six, with a tiebreak to be played in the event the score reaches four games apiece. Games will also not include the advantage point; if the score is 40-40 (deuce), the next point decides the game. (These changes do not apply to grand slam events and there is as yet no indication that the slams will adopt the same rules.)

More controversially, the ATP says that, beginning in 2008, doubles draws will generally be open only to players who are also entered in the singles competitions.

Klosterkemper said that by almost every measure – television coverage, prize money, fan interest – men’s doubles was in dire shape.

The depth of the crisis was brought home to him at this year’s French Open. Following the women’s semi-finals, the American twins Mike and Bob Bryan and the team of Daniel Nestor and Mark Knowles, two of the best pairings in the world, took the court for what was expected to be a riveting doubles showdown. But the stadium emptied. Klosterkemper says: “When consumers don’t like a product, you have to redesign it.”

Klosterkemper said that the heart of the problem for men’s doubles is that the best players do not take part; the Roger Federers and Andy Roddicks might play two or three doubles events during the season but otherwise concern themselves only with singles.

In considering changes to men’s doubles, the ATP evidently solicited opinions from a number of top singles players. It claims that those who responded said doubles required too much time and was insufficiently lucrative.

But even if doubles is made less time-consuming and more remunerative, the biggest stars are still unlikely to play. So far, the only marquee attraction who has expressed an interest is Rafael Nadal, and there is a sense that he was just being diplomatic.

Roddick, speaking last week in Cincinnati, said the changes enacted by the ATP would have no effect on him. “I don’t think I’ll play more,” he said. “My focus is singles, and if I need the extra practice, I’ll go out on the practice court.”

That has been the attitude of the top men for most of the Open era. Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and Andre Agassi all generally steered clear of doubles. Among the modern legends, only Stefhan Edberg and John McEnroe played tandem tennis on a regular basis.

Women’s doubles, at least by comparison, is in relatively decent shape. The biggest stars play doubles more often than their male counterparts.

Not surprisingly, the ATP plan has drawn fierce criticism from doubles specialists, who are concerned for their livelihoods and fearful that the new rules will ruin their game.

They point out that with most singles players nowadays treating the net as if it were an electronic fence, an influx of such players will likely turn doubles into an insipid baseline slugfest. They also point out that at a time when tennis in general is not exactly thriving, making the rules more complicated is probably not the best strategy for attracting new fans, a view that seems to be shared by a number of singles players and quite a few commentators.

The more cynical suggest that the ATP is simply trying to placate tournament directors, many of whom regard men’s doubles as a money pit and who would just as soon see the game disappear entirely. That may well be true, and the ATP has certainly done itself no favours by refusing to make public the report it did on the state of men’s doubles. On the other hand, it does not require a McKinsey study to see that men’s doubles is in serious trouble, and while the ATP’s reforms are certainly open to question and may very well backfire, it is probably wishful thinking to believe that just a little extra promotion can somehow rescue it from the deep rut in which it now finds itself.

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