Day 3 of the Chennai Open is when the action usually begins to focus on the centre court. The marquee names with a first round bye finally make an appearance. The nameless, faceless competitors of the outside courts have begun to get weeded out by then. The doubles tournament has also started in right earnest.
Today’s showpiece match on centre court featured the top seed Stanislas Wawrinka, as he launched his singles campaign against Benjamin Becker of Germany. You know it is a showpiece match when cries of “Come on, Wawrinka!” begin to echo around the court even during the pre-match warm-up rituals. The Swiss world number 8 did not disappoint either. He looked much sharper than he had during his loss in the doubles first round the previous night. Wawrinka regularly pinned his opponent meters behind the baseline with his heavy, penetrating groundstrokes, even as he dominated rallies from the baseline himself. In the end, a brief rain interruption did more to interrupt Wawrinka’s rhythm than anything Becker could muster, as the Swiss made a convincing start to his tournament with a 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Even as the crowd were getting their breath back after the top seed’s clinical performance, the next match on centre court had begun. Ramkumar Ramanathan, the story of the tournament so far, and his partner Sriram Balaji played their first round doubles match against Rajeev Ram and Scott Lipsky of the USA. There was no doubt about which team the crowd was leaning towards in this match, and the atmosphere remained electric. What followed was an entertaining and evenly contested encounter. The Indians, Ramkumar in particular, did a good job of getting the crowd involved, even as they exhibited some impressive coordination and doubles skills. The contest ended with the exclamation of a match-deciding break of serve, and the Indians ensured their continued presence in the tournament with a 7-5, 6-3 win.
Having watched both these matches back-to-back, I was surprised to realize that I had actually enjoyed the doubles match more. I wondered why. After all, the singles encounter had featured a player in the Top 10 of the world, operating at a considerably high level of play. The quality of the match had been good. In contrast, the doubles match was played by a bunch of relatively unknown players. Yet, they had provided an enjoyable viewing experience. Sure, the Indian crowd support added to the atmosphere during the doubles, but then they had been quite involved during the singles encounter as well.
Perhaps, a contributing factor lies in the very structure of the doubles game, in comparison to singles. Could it be that the way the doubles game is played, and the specific demands it makes on the players, makes it an instinctively more appealing format, especially when viewed in person? Simply put, maybe it is because the doubles game just has more pace, more court, and more personality to offer the viewer.
Wawrinka and Becker might engage in the occasional breathtaking rally where they scurry from end to end of the baseline, and return bombshell for bombshell, but the pace of an ordinary tennis doubles exchange is a different matter altogether.
Very rarely did we see a measured rally in the doubles match today. Instead, it was all about the sharp cutting off of angles, quick reflexes, and instinctive volleys. It sometimes becomes hard to follow the ball in the middle of a quickfire rally at the net, which is quite the norm in a doubles encounter.
Also, between points in a doubles match, the players move at a distinctly greater pace and with more energy. This is likely due to the inherent requirement of the doubles game to visibly encourage your partner, and display more positivity. As a result, Lipsky followed his mid-court discussion with Ram before the latter’s serve, with a hop and a skip to take his place at the net. Ramkumar trotted all the way from the baseline to the net to engage in a fist-bump with Balaji, before rushing back. There remains a whole lot of physical movement on a doubles tennis court which is superfluous to the actual progress of play.
All of this combines to give a vibrant, dynamic feel to the doubles game, which is not usually associated with singles. Watching a doubles match live enhances this perception, with that much more activity on the court, involving both the ball and the players, for the viewer to take in.
Wawrinka is one of the best in the singles business when it comes to creating angles on a tennis court. His majestic single-handed backhand is an important tool for accomplishing this on a consistent basis. But even his jaw-dropping winners pale in comparison to the angles that are seen regularly being created in a normal doubles encounter.
The reason for this is the extra space that the doubles players are given to work with. The additional doubles alleys on either side of the court provide the players with the freedom and creativity needed to explore multiple angles before deciding the best stroke to play. So, when Balaji received a ball at his feet in the doubles alley of the court, conventional logic expected him to drill a half-volley backhand back down the line. Instead, we saw him wait and adjust, step back to make room, and guide a backhand crosscourt with all angle and no power, just out of reach of the opponents and just within the opposite doubles sideline. We could not but instinctively cheer for the way in which he had created an angle that we did not know existed.
In a doubles match, the additional room available and the presence of four players on court always provides fascinating exercises in the geometric tracking of the ball’s trajectory. Watching all this live only gives a comprehensive understanding of the spatial coverage possible on a tennis court.
It was insightful to watch Becker thump his racket into his seat at the changeover after losing the first set. His frustration at not being able to make headway against Wawrinka was obvious. But such shows of emotion are increasingly rare on the singles circuit, where a premium is placed on the mental control that a player exhibits. The more the player controls his emotions during a match, the more in control he is likely to be of the match itself, goes the popular perception.
However, the dynamics in a doubles encounter is quite different, primarily due to the presence of a partner who you need to share your match experience with. There is a need to balance your emotions with that of your partner for the overall benefit of the team. Hence, the words of encouragement, the slap of the hands, the chest bumps; all acts of emotion which add to the viewer’s experience.
So, we joined in today with Ramkumar as he flailed his arms about to rev up the crowd, we watched Balaji solemnly shake his index finger at his partner after winning a point, we shared Lipsky’s anguish when he sent another shot into the net and shrugged his shoulders in an exaggerated fashion at Ram, and we smiled as Ram shook his head back at Lipsky’s gesture.
If singles gives us two personalities trying their best to keep their emotions in check, the doubles game provides us with four different personalities interacting more freely with each other and with themselves. And that does make for good viewing.
In the professional tennis structure of today, the doubles format definitely comes across as a poorer version of the game, when compared to singles. The stakes are lower, the team combinations are unstructured, the organizers and viewers give a relatively lower importance to the event. There are many reasons for this, some valid and some which can be worked upon. But the fact remains that the doubles game possesses some unique credentials which lend itself well to an excellent viewing spectacle.
Anytime I catch a day of tennis live anywhere, I know my eyes will continue to scan the Order of Play for the likes of Wawrinka and Youzhny, but just as eagerly for the Bopannas and Rajeev Rams of the tennis world as well.