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Tennis: Doubles over singles

Indian tennis is increasingly being defined by doubles wins as the physical grind of the singles game sees our players fall by the wayside

Leander Paes at a practice session ahead of the ATP Chennai Open. Photo: PTI
Leander Paes at a practice session ahead of the ATP Chennai Open. Photo: PTI

Two Indian teams in an ATP final for the first time was an unparalleled achievement in our tennis history. Rohan Bopanna, in the company of India’s latest aspirant to doubles glory, Jeevan Nedunchezhiyan, got the better of the upcoming pair of Purav Raja and Divij Sharan 6-3, 6-4 in the Aircel Chennai Open on 8 January.

There are five Indian men ranked in the top 100 in the world doubles rankings: Bopanna (28), Sharan (55), Raja (61), Leander Paes (64) and Nedunchezhiyan (86). The highest-ranked singles player that we have is Saketh Myneni (199).

This is a wonderful time for Indian doubles. Sania Mirza spent 91 weeks as the world’s No.1 doubles player before being overtaken by Bethanie Mattek-Sands earlier this month.

But the story has a flip side. The rise in doubles has left the singles game stranded.

“It’s much harder work in singles. To play singles, you have to be superbly fit while doubles does not require that much... it’s a physical thing," explains former Indian Davis Cup captain S.P. Misra. The grind can be such that India’s best singles player of late, Somdev Devvarman (career high 62, July 2011) retired at the beginning of this year citing injuries and a lack of motivation.

“I wanted to be in the top 100 and started reaching a point through injuries where I felt it will be tough for me to come back to the top 100. Once I realized that, I decided it was time to stop," Devvarman told PTI.

The good showing in the doubles twosome format heralds the coming of age of a trend that was first started by the attention-grabbing exploits of Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. The doubles maestros won three Grand Slams together. Even after they split, they kept winning regular trophies with different partners. Paes now has 18 and Bhupathi 12 Slam wins.

Sania Mirza (R) and Bethanie Mattek-Sands at the Brisbane International tennis tournament semi-final. Photo: AFP

Bopanna and Mirza next embraced doubles to achieve far more excellence than they managed in singles. Bopanna’s best standing of 213 in singles (July 2007) does not really paint a true image of his potential as he chose to focus on doubles, where he reached as high as world No.3 (July 2013). Mirza’s 27 career-high ranking in singles (August 2007) stays the yardstick by which an Indian woman’s tennis reach is still judged but it has been her rampant domination in doubles that defines her career.

Heath Matthews, Mirza’s physiotherapist in her formative years, says that while the infrastructure of courts in India is adequate, it’s the lack of know-how of physical training that hampers the development of players.

“I am still shocked on a daily basis when I meet and see the training programmes of elite athletes in India. At the basic level it is very difficult to find a trainer who will not overtrain. Concepts like periodization, data analysis and a scientific plan to optimize physical potential don’t exist except at the very top," says Matthews who is now head, sports science and medicine, Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai.

The game of tennis has changed a lot since the days of Ramanathan Krishnan (the Wimbledon singles semi-finalist in 1960 and 1961). The ball size is bigger, the pressure has been reduced. The courts are now largely slow and hard and advancement in racket technology has made the sport a gruelling slugfest. It has become far more physically demanding.

“To win in singles, one always needed good legs. But now with the hard courts, the load on the body is all the more. It takes far more work off the court to stay strong enough to win top-level singles. Longevity is impacted if one does not have the right kind of support system," says Paes, who is still carrying on in men’s doubles at 43.

Bopanna’s focus shifted to doubles at the age of 27, and that’s roughly the age that Indian men tennis players give up on singles and focus on the doubles game.

Changes in the rules of men’s doubles in Tour events, beginning 2006, led to shorter contests with no-ad points and a 10-point super tiebreak in lieu of the third set. It made the game faster and matches shorter. The changes were in response to the tournament directors demanding that doubles be scrapped altogether from tournaments since it did not attract large enough crowds. A case in point being the finals at the Aircel Chennai Open where, despite the historic high of two Indian pairs facing off, the crowd response stayed tepid. But the rule changes have altered the game forever.

“It’s become more akin to a shoot-out," says Paes. “There is less time for recovery and the speed of the game has gone up. Purists can argue about the lost charm of doubles but at least ATP has kept the sport alive."

Success under the new rules comes to those who are adroit at crafting percentage plays. Hands, more than just legs, count in this format.

“Indian players have always had good skills with the racket...a more well-rounded game. Doubles is about net play and our guys are good at that," says Davis Cup coach Zeeshan Ali.

The new rules haven’t gone down well with a man whose 78 doubles and 77 singles titles hardly take away from his colourful ability to call it the way he sees it. John McEnroe, in a December 2013 interview with The Times, London, was his usual curt self: “Doubles—why are we even playing it? ... 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."

Present-day doubles is certainly easier on the body. “The amount of fitness required for doubles is practically half, if not less, than what’s required for singles," adds Ali. But, he explains, even India’s doubles prowess may not go on forever. “The lack of artificial surfaces and the focus on a more all-round game with equal emphasis on volleys and overheads vis-a-vis ground strokes has led to these skilful players who are now doing well in doubles. Coaching even in India is now more focused towards churning out baseline belters."

The doubles trend is not all pervasive as of yet. After all, India’s best singles player, Saketh Myneni, didn’t really take up Paes’ offer of making him a Grand Slam winner if he committed to doubles. Nor did Devvarman choose that route. Our other present singles top 300 player is Ramkumar Ramanathan (273), who was outclassed in the first round of the Chennai Open by the injury-prone Yuki Bhambri (381). Among women, no one is close to replicating Mirza’s singles highs. Ankita Raina (267) and Karman Thandi (536) are our best.

Singles are what draw the maximum crowds and the format of the sport that commands respect wherever tennis is played. But for India, a singles winner remains a distant ambition.

Efforts are on by former players to unearth India’s next big singles star. Bhupathi runs a bunch of academies, even Mirza and Bopanna have their own facilities. Devvarman has tied up with the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association to work with developing players and “...teach them about the work ethic and the professionalism required to do well on the pro circuit. It’s about hard work and inculcating the right habits".

“Till the time there are a bunch of specialized centres working together to unearth the next player, India will have to rely on extremely talented freaks like Leander and Sania," says Matthews, lamenting that it’s left to the assertion of individual brilliance alone for want of a system.

It is undeniable that till India develops a network that will see modern scientific training penetrate down to the grass roots, tennis, or for that matter any other sport, can hardly hope to consistently build athletes who can take on the world. For world-dominating singles wins, Indian tennis will have to grow a whole new set of legs. For now, let’s continue to cherish our doubles wins.

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