The Case for Doubles

By Jane Voigt

Washington — Citi Open took a risk opening night. It featured men’s doubles. In years past that slot was filled with big name ATP singles’ players. 

So if you’re a doubles’ fan, and most people in the U.S. are, you can thank Mark Ein for the changeup. When the DC venture capitalist bought the tournament in March, he planned on highlighting doubles because it’s popularity on another tour — World Tennis Tour — which he co-owns along with one of its teams, The Washington Kastles. 

“We’re putting a real focus on doubles at the event [Citi Open] — it’s a terrific piece of the competition and entertainment value for fans,” Ein told The New York Times.

A brainchild of co-founder Billie Jean King, the WTT format encourages crowds to be raucous. It plays popular music between points and changeovers. And it uses quick-scoring and features lots of doubles: men’s, women’s and mixed. And according to its website it’s the only professional sports league where men and women have equal roles, which was important to King. That can’t be said for men’s, women’s and mixed doubles on either tour or at Grand Slams. Doubles, instead, is mostly viewed as the step-child of tennis.  

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Andy Murray. Citi Open 2018. 

“It’s not the priority,” Andy Murray said in his pre-tournament press conference, where he and his older brother Jamie will play doubles for the first time in three years. “But when you get more of the top singles players playing, like the draw here is brilliant. There will be brilliant doubles matches and people will enjoy them. It’s like when Serena and Roger played doubles at Hopman Cup. We don’t see it enough and when we do people enjoy it.”

So is “a doubles match only as attractive to tournament schedulers as its singles star power,” as The New York Times asserted? Or can the landscape of tournaments shift, giving doubles equal time on major networks? What would it take to convince TV to schedule doubles as regularly as singles matches?

Ein envisions expanding viewership of doubles and, perhaps, stop the attrition of tournaments — ATP and WTA — from the United States, which Ein noted has dwindled from 48-12. 

“They could make it mandatory that you [singles players] play three or four doubles events a year,” Murray suggested. “If they made it mandatory, I think it’d be easier to sell.”

To get this doubles ball rolling should tournaments, broadcasters, tennis committees, the ATP, and the WTA play a role, the way a marketing department would sell a product? Is viewership king and contracts, therefore, written with that as the goal? There’s nothing wrong with making money, but there is something wrong when a large population of tennis players ask to see doubles and their demands go unnoticed. And, let’s face it, marketing is all about satisfying consumers. 

“Tennis in general — the slams, the ATP, the slams — could do a better job of selling doubles because it’s often seen as an ‘extra’ to the tournaments, but not given center stage” Murray began. “The men’s doubles final at Wimbledon had a great crowd. And when I and Feli [Feliciano Lopez] played Queens the crowds enjoyed it. I think everybody has a bit of a responsibility to try and grow back that side of the game, as well, because that’s what most social tennis players play not only in the U.S. but in the U.K., as well.”

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Stefanos Tsitsipas. Citi Open 2018. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Ein’s assumption of all the risk involved in managing the only 500-level ATP and WTA International events in the U.S. will either see the 50-year-old classic stay in Rock Creek Park, or nearby, or lose it completely, after the 5-year contract expires. More lucrative offers were turned away as Ein vied for ownership, so interest won’t fade. If Ein doesn’t buy it outright Citi could relocate, which would disappoint the Washington Education & Tennis Foundation, the beneficiaries of Citi Open. It would also mean Arthur Ashe’s vision for this tournament, which he founded alongside Donald Dell, to hold it in a public park not a country club or private facility would be lost.

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Nick Kyrgios. Miami Open, 2018. Photo credit Karla Kinne tennisclix.com.

So what happened opening night? 

Juan-Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah, the top doubles players in the world and the number-one seeds at Citi Open this week, played top-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrios, two hot singles players who had never paired up. Cabal and Farah are the reigning Wimbledon champions in doubles, the first Columbian team to ascend to that height. They only play doubles and, as a result, commentators call them “doubles specialists,” similar to Mike and Bob Bryan, Raven Klaasen and Michael Venus, Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo, who are here this week in DC. 

“We just need you guys, the ATP, the social media, to promote those things,” Cabal said later. “If they do that they’re going to have a good product to sell.”

There is a chance that doubles, although the game of choice of most “club” players, wouldn’t serve the powers that be. According to the same article and Eric Butorac, former pro doubles player and now director of player relations for the U.S. Open, “Fans want to see the stars play.” Butorac watched Tsitsipas and Kyrgios play opening night. “I wanted to see how they would be together. That was the most intriguing part of the match.”

And speaking about relationships on court, Mike and Bob Bryan were supposed to have contributed to this story; however, they were off promoting doubles as they’d done throughout their lives. 

Whether doubles breaks down doors on the tours will be debated. Chances are things won’t change unless people recognize that doubles’ stars are just that and that the game is completely different from singles. However, celebrity rules in sports. Saying you saw Andy Murray win the U.S. Open has a different status than saying you watched Andy and Jamie Murray win a doubles match on stadium court at Citi Open. 

ESPN now contracts all Grand Slams. During the second week, when draws narrow, singles matches are shown on ESPN and ESPN2 in the U.S. There’s no incentive for ESPN to relinquish scheduling of singles for doubles, either, with its ESPN+ streaming service taking up the slack. 

Perhaps the best route to give doubles its due is through a venture capitalist, like Mark Ein, who will push and push the game, first here in DC, and then, who knows where. Or, if this venture capitalist could snatch the reins away from other bidders in March, why not another venture capitalist founding a live-streaming channel exclusively for doubles?

Finally, this afternoon on a side court here Rojer and Tecau played Mike and Bob Bryan, defeating them, plus the Murray brothers played Klaasen and Venus. That smaller venue drew bigger crowds than any singles match on Stadium Court Friday. Go ahead, thank Mark Ein. 

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