The Evolution of Dingles (Soubles?)
The week at the PNB Paribas Open, the tournament held a 32 player ATP doubles event and a whole bunch of singles players showed up for the party. Clearly, this is something that has long been desired; i.e., get the big names out to give doubles a boost. But rarely has it happened at least to this degree.
Being a doubles player (and I use this description loosely when I attend these events), I always have a significant interest in seeing how the game is played at the highest levels. Doubles is, or at least historically has been, a very different game from singles. Players served and volleyed, they returned and came to net or looked for the earliest opportunity to get into the front court. They were looking for the opportunity to finish the point with a well placed volley or a powerful overhead.
Today, as more singles players participate in the doubles draws, we begin to see playing styles change. We first saw this in the women’s game where the one up and one back formation became a staple for the singles player playing doubles. But this week, this development is equally obvious on the men’s side. For example, players are playing two back on return of serve, not only because big serves may cause more balls to stray to the net person or because one of the players may be having difficulty with retuning on the given day, it is now an offensive tactic. Singles players seek to use their big forehands to pass or hit through players at the net; and these tactics are proving effective. So I began asking for whys. Why are more singles players in the doubles draw, and why are singles tactics now so effective.
In 2006, major changes were implemented in the professional doubles game. A 10 point tiebreak was substituted for a third set and all games would now be scored on a no ad basis. These changes would apply for all tournaments except Grand Slams. It was argued that this would be greatly beneficial to doubles because it would get more name singles players involved in these draws; and that, in turn, would create greater interest in this segment of tennis. More cynical folk believed these changes were largely motivated by money concerns. Tournaments and television would now be able to use doubles as filler for the singles draw because the duration of matches would become much more predictable. Also tennis purists felt that matches would become much more a matter of luck when you turn to a tiebreak instead of a full set with the match even at one set apiece.
At the time, many people were outraged. Tennis players and fans do like their traditions. However, it appears that most are adapting and we are seeing some of the promises come to fruition. On the one hand, doubles is more user friendly for television and tournament directors; and as our sport gets ever greater media exposure, this factor should not be overlooked. We see a few of the doubles finals on television, and more doubles matches on show courts. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that we are seeing significantly more men singles players in the doubles draws. Well at least until this week at the 2011 BNP Paribas Open. Looking at the big picture, in 2006 there were approximately 34 male players who appeared in the top 100 of both singles and doubles. Currently, there are roughly 29. Both then and now, the very top players rarely participated in doubles: For example, in 2010, Federer played doubles in two tournaments, while Nadal participated in 5.
That said, in the 32 team doubles field at Indian Wells this week, 34 of the 64 players are ranked in the top 100 in singles. These numbers rival those of the women where more than 50% of the two lists (top 100 for singles and doubles) overlap. In some respects this is exciting news. The best male players in the world are now playing doubles.
What has this meant in the tournament? Well we have failed to resolve the often debated question of whether pure talent trumps strategy and tactics. Although all eight seeded teams in the draw have been eliminated, of the eight teams remaining 8 of the 16 players are among the top 100 singles players in the world. That is, the ratio has remained roughly the same. There was a stunning beat down of the number 2 seed by Federer and Wawrinka; however, for the most part, the matches have been highly contested.
Of the 24 matches played to get to the quarterfinals, there have been 12 third set tiebreaks; and very few sets were decided by more than a single break of serve. Often the doubles specialists seemed overmatched by the singles players strokes; for example, when Nadal was able to set his feet and rip a forehand, Dlouhy and Hanley rarely put their volleys back in play. Still superior positioning and better volleys and lobs allowed them to keep Nadal and Lopez off balance such that the match finished 7-5, 6-7, 10-7 for Nadal and Lopez; and could have easily swung the other way.
Still, doesn’t everybody want to see the best tennis players in the world squaring off? Well, maybe. It certainly isn’t a Renaissance through which top singles players develop into equally accomplished doubles players such as Emerson, Laver, Rosewall, etc. Clearly the casual fan loves to see the players they hear about most. They come to the tournaments to see the top three or four men and women singles players in the world, and fail to appreciate the intricacies of the aggressive doubles game such as most of the high level ATP doubles specialists play. Of course, maybe if these singles players do play more doubles, they will develop some of these skills; however, for many it seems to be more a matter of getting in a less tedious workout between matches.
So, as was the case with the women, we are tending to see something of a hybrid game. It reminds me of a practice game we play sometimes called dingles. In dingles, you begin with four players on the court and two balls in play. Two players on the same side of the court synchronize their serves and play cross court singes points; then, when a shot is missed, a player calls out “dingles” and all four players shift into a doubles competition using the ball still in play.
In the video accompanying this piece, you will see some of the very best women and men doubles players on the tour today. Yet you will still see the singles influence in their games. For example, the men can no longer immediately come to net after virtually every return. And many of the women jump back to the baseline after serving like Meghann Shaughnessy. Still here the balance is still heavily weighted in favor of traditional doubles skills. As you watch the clips, try to see how these elements of singles and doubles meld together to create a very effective strategy.
So why are singles tactics becoming effective in the doubles game. Well one explanation is technology. Racquet and string manufacturers have definitely built a better mouse trap. With the benefit of current racquet and string technology, the game of tennis has changed enormously in recent years. Every player seems to have incredibly powerful groundstrokes; and, in singles, getting to net to finish a point has become relatively rare (unless you are Ivo Karlovic). It seems to make more sense to hold at the baseline and bang balls until you get a short one that permits you to crush a winner.
Consequently, while there are still a few female players who have solid net games, women’s doubles matches often evolve into a crosscourt singles match with an obstacle (the net player). Now in the best case with this strategy, the net player is a sniper picking off floaters or misdirected shots that come in her direction; however, only a few are active and aggressive at the net, with an eye to finishing the point or soliciting a forced or unforced error because the opponent focuses on them instead of the ball.
So,.is it possible we will see this scenario in the men’s game? I certainly found myself considering this as I watched Federer and Wawrinka stand at the baseline and pick apart number the two seeds (Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor) as they tried to hold the net; or, when Nadal would crush forehand after forehand at Dlouhy and Hanley.
I would really hate to see the men’s game lose its richness and complexity only to become a groundstroking exhibition as we have seen to some extent in the singles game. Still as the week has progressed and I have watched players such as Xavier Malisse and Alexandr Dolgopolov play an incredibly exciting and entertaining brand of Dingles, I am being won over. Hey, technology and power are probably here to stay. If the traditional doubles game cannot survive in this environment than it has to evolve. Besides, if this new version of the new hybrid game vs. the old school brand of doubles can produce matches as competitive and entertaining as the Dolgopolov/Malisse squaring off against the Bryans, then I say, bring on the dingles!