© Ella Ling

Rafael Nadal portrait

Doubles avoids sudden death


When the ATP announced, at the end of 2005, that they would be changing the scoring system for doubles, it caused a storm among the top players who believed it would be the end of their livelihood. The introduction of sudden-death deuce and a deciding third-set “Champions” tiebreak, instead of a full set, would, they said, reduce their sport to a side issue, a lesser form of the game and almost a laughing stock.

At one stage, there was even a threatened strike but it died down and the players got on with it. An increase in prize money has no doubt tempered their anger but they have also enjoyed increased exposure on television, where previously they only made it at the end of a long day at Wimbledon, or perhaps for the mixed doubles final.

The new format is now into its sixth year and you only have to look at the field in Indian Wells to see that it has been a success, far more so than the ATP Tour and the television companies who encouraged the changes, could have hoped for. In the desert, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray all played doubles as well as singles. In part, that is because it is the first event on a new continent and in part it is because many of them were gaining some practice for the Olympics later this summer.

But in part it is because they can do it without harming their singles and anything that gets the top singles players playing – so long as it is not at the expense of the regular doubles specialists – is surely a good thing. Back in the day, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg used to play singles and doubles in every event, including at the grand slams. In this more physical era of punishing, gruelling five-hour singles epics, that is far more difficult and for a while none of the big names bothered.

So it was the rule allowing players to use their singles ranking to gain entry into doubles which has really encouraged the top players, especially the likes of Nadal and Murray, especially, to turn their hands to the game. For television companies, knowing that a match is likely to last around 90 minutes, no matter what, makes scheduling easier and makes them more likely to include some doubles in their plans.

It is worth noting that had it not been for the Bryan twins, Mike and Bob, who have led the sport for a generation and kept American audiences interested, things might have been different. But the brothers have kept doubles in the limelight, kept it engaging and made it fun to watch. All of which made it a real shame that they had to pull out of Indian Wells when Mike was struck down by the virus sweeping through the Coachella Valley. The BNP Paribas Open is the only major title they have not won and they undoubtedly deserve the full set.

Michael Llodra may have to look at his calendar for the rest of the year after his “unfortunate” incident in Indian Wells, when he allegedly made a racist towards a fan. Notwithstanding the fact that the fan was of Korean origin and not Chinese, as he apparently said, his initial apology was so poor you wonder what will happen when he applies for a Chinese visa later this year. On his website on Wednesday, he tried to make another apology on his official website, saying everyone who knows him, knows he is not racist. He then tried to say that he was frustrated because he had been forced to play his doubles straight after his singles, which is not really an excuse.