Bryan brothers would be tested in this dream doubles tournament
Building the dream doubles tournament (cont.)
It sounds as if Bob and Mike Bryan will be around forever. Not literally, but close. Now that they hold all four major doubles trophies at once after winning Wimbledon, they speak of longevity and the notion of getting even better with time.
And why not? The twins turned 35 in April, but they fly about the court like a couple of college kids. Their energy and court coverage pose massive obstacles for any opponent, to say nothing of a spiritual connection unique to their brotherhood.
It seems entirely plausible that the Bryans could be winning titles together at 40, putting every significant doubles record out of reach. Wimbledon seemed to validate the notion that they form the greatest men's team of all time, and it's hard to argue that, but it got me fantasizing about a mythical tournament featuring history's greatest teams.
Comparing eras is largely a pointless exercise, particularly as it relates to evolving technology, but it's slightly more palatable in doubles. I would allow anyone's favored racket or string configuration, and it certainly wouldn't matter to someone like John McEnroe, who was equally adept with wood and graphite as his career progressed.
My primary goal is to remind fans about the history of doubles, and that, in my opinion, a number of teams could take down the Bryans. We are now in an era of specialists, far removed from the days when the top singles players competed regularly in doubles.
"The Bryans have a stupendous record and are clearly among the best ever," historian Steve Flink said in an e-mail, "but they don't compete against that many great teams because so many top singles players skip doubles. In some ways, the great teams of the past had much tougher competition. This is not to diminish the Bryans, who are magnificent. But it would be great to see them in a tournament like you're imagining."
Were this event to actually occur, on the mythical planet of Let Cord, I'd make sure to put a premium on entertainment value. I'd create the team of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, for example. I'd take liberties with the likes of Pancho Gonzalez and Patrick Rafter. But nothing would take place beyond the realm of reason. And if you'd never paid much attention to doubles, this tournament would change your mind for good.
(Quick note: As good as they were in the 1960s and '70s, the team of Frew McMillan-Bob Hewitt will be barred from the event. If you've followed the story of Hewitt's facing allegations that he sexually abused young girls he coached in South Africa -- and especially Mary Carillo's on-site piece for HBO -- you understand why.)
The 16-team field, in no particular order:
1. The Bryans: Might as well get this out of the way: These guys have won a record 15 majors, including last year's U.S. Open and all three so far this season. That non-calendar Grand Slam only heightens a reputation that required no embellishment. There are those who scoff at the Bryans and their near-telepathic levels of communication, preferring to watch players teaming up from scratch and learning each other's moves. Once you've seen the Bryans in person, such skepticism seems a bit misplaced.
2. John Newcombe and Tony Roche: They held the record of 12 majors until the Bryans came along. The dashing Newcombe was devastating in all phases of the serve-and-volley art, particularly the second serve. The left-handed Roche was best known for his sublime volleying technique, surely one of the best ever witnessed. The Australian pair won five Wimbledons together between 1965 and '74, Roche always manning the ad (or left) court, and they scored Davis Cup-clinching victories against Spain in 1965 and '67.
3. John McEnroe and Peter Fleming: Who formed the greatest doubles team of all time? A lot of experts simply answer, "McEnroe and anybody." There's never been a player quite like him around the net, with a distinctive style and astounding reactions. Fleming was a towering, big-serving guy who could get on top of opponents in a hurry. Longevity wasn't in the cards for either man, but as McEnroe told Tennis.com, "What people forget is that we played 10 Grand Slam doubles finals and won seven. Before they start telling everyone how great the Bryan brothers are, look at some of those numbers."
4. Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez: I was never quite the same after watching Gonzalez play the old L.A. Sports Arena on the professionals' barnstorming tour in the mid-1950s. His talent, fiery temperament and elegant athleticism were so compelling, you couldn't take your eyes off him. Kramer, another player who grew up in the Los Angeles area, was Gonzalez's predecessor as the king of the pro tour and a man who lifted the serve-and-volley attack to new heights. Gonzalez had an admirable doubles career that included pro titles with Don Budge, Pancho Segura, Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver, as well as the 1949 Wimbledon championship with Frank Parker. Kramer was part of six winning teams at the majors, winning three U.S. Opens with his most reliable partner, Ted Schroeder. Records indicate that Gonzalez and Kramer never teamed up, but I'm here to help. They're playing together in this tournament, and I'm dearly hoping that McEnroe gets a chance to deal with Gonzalez's icy glares.
5. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: Once again, I'm cheating a bit for the sake of pure entertainment. You'd be crazy not to crave this partnership, and because I've decided to hold this tournament at Wimbledon, all the better. The two have been on opposing doubles teams before, including Rome 2007 and Indian Wells 2011, but never on the same side. Here's a chance to watch Federer focus intensely on net play -- once a great strength, but essentially a back-burner option in recent years. As for Nadal, forget about the knees. He's never felt better. Everyone in this tournament is 100 percent healthy and in his prime.
6. Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase: I can see the pre-match scene now, fans bumping and jostling outside the court, a couple of fights breaking out, perhaps a small bonfire. Who could even imagine these two together? Remarkably, they rose to the heights, winning the 1973 Wimbledon and the '75 U.S. Open. It makes a crazy kind of sense, considering the immense amount of talent involved. Nastase could hit any shot on his best days, often inventing one or two, and Connors was the ultimate purveyor of pure desire. And this just in: With these two committed, I have batch of new offers from the TV networks.
7. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde: The Australians formed one of the few modern-day teams to dominate the Slams circuit and stay together for an extended period, winning 11 majors. Opponents dreaded the prospect of facing the right-handed Woodbridge on the right court and the 6-foot-2 Woodforde, a lefty, on the left. Woodbridge was an accomplished singles player (ranked as high as 19th) who won four more majors with Jonas Bjorkman and six in the mixed, including the 2001 U.S. Open with current Tennis Channel analyst Rennae Stubbs. Woodforde, who also peaked at No. 19 in singles, was among the most highly sought-after players in history and won five more majors, including the 1989 U.S. Open with McEnroe and the 1993 Wimbledon mixed title with Martina Navratilova.
8. Stan Smith and Bob Lutz: They came out of USC, where they won two U.S. Intercollegiate doubles titles together (1967-68), and proved to be a force on tour for years. They left a huge mark on the U.S. Open, winning it four times, including the 1980 championship in a five-set battle against McEnroe and Fleming. The 6-3 Smith earned the No. 1 U.S. singles ranking four times and ranks with the all-time Davis Cup players. He and Lutz were responsible for the clinching point in nine Davis Cup ties, and they were 13-1 overall in that competition.
9. John Bromwich and Adrian Quist: Let's go a bit further back in time. Before Australia's global takeover of men's tennis in the 1950s, these two Aussies compiled an astounding doubles record. They won majors as early as 1939 (U.S. Open) and as late as 1950 (Wimbledon), racking up eight straight titles at the Australian Open along the way. Bromwich was a natural left-hander who confounded his opponents by serving right-handed, using two hands for right-side groundstrokes and one hand (his left) on the left. Quist, although just 5-6, was an agile volleyer who manned the left side.
10. Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor: The Bromwich-Quist team appeared to be unstoppable until this pair came along, representing the first wave of talent from the legendary Harry Hopman era. At a time when Australia had little impact in singles, Sedgman became the world's No. 1 player and was virtually unbeatable from 1950 through '52. McGregor became such a worthy doubles partner in the right court, Bud Collins noted that "they went together like gin and vermouth." Hopman, often stingy with a compliment, claimed McGregor owned "the most extraordinary overhead of all time." And behold the results: Sedgman-McGregor won the calendar Grand Slam in '51 and nearly repeated the following year, winning the first three majors before losing the U.S. Open final to Merv Rose and Vic Seixas. By 1953, both had joined the pro tour and were thus ineligible for the majors.
11. Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad: Historians would suggest pairing Rosewall with Fred Stolle, on the basis of career results, but I love the Rosewall-Hoad connection. They were Australia's "whiz kids" in the early 1950s, born just three weeks apart and making huge impressions by the age of 17. They were longtime rivals in singles, Rosewall with his peerless backhand and Hoad displaying talent so formidable that many experts consider him the greatest player they ever saw (recurring back problems and an ambitious lifestyle cut short his prime). But they did plenty of great work together in doubles, winning three of the four majors in 1953 and the U.S. Championships in '56. A more aesthetically pleasing pair of tennis players could hardly be imagined.
12. Don Budge and Gene Mako: They were the kings of doubles in the late 1930s. Although Budge is best remembered for winning the singles Grand Slam in 1938, he teamed with Mako to win the U.S. Championships three straight years (1936-38) and Wimbledon in 1937-38. I'd try to get them a first-round match against Rosewall and Hoad, just to compare Budge's classic backhand to Rosewall's. Mako was no Hoad, but he's a Hall of Fame member who filled the right court superbly alongside Budge. Even when Mako came down with a sore shoulder, an injury that would torment him for years, Budge insisted on the partnership, and they helped the United States beat Germany and Great Britain to win the 1937 Davis Cup.
13. Stefan Edberg and Patrick Rafter: If it doesn't ring a bell, it shouldn't. Two of history's greatest volleyers never teamed up on the big stage. But I'm here to fix that. The tournament wouldn't be complete without these two working their magic around the net. In another era, each would likely have posted sensational doubles records. As it was, with singles at a premium, Edberg was part of three major doubles titles (including both the Australian and U.S. Opens in 1987, with Anders Jarryd) while Rafter won the 1999 Australian Open with Bjorkman.
14. Henri Leconte and Yannick Noah: I have to apologize here for not including Tony Trabert and Seixas, mainstays of the U.S. Davis Cup teams of the 1950s, but I'm selling out to the entertainment side once again -- and I'm not sure too many people would protest. Leconte and Noah were consummate entertainers, supremely athletic with a whimsical side, and an absolute delight to watch. They won just one major together, but it was the 1984 French Open, surely a sight to see.
15. Dennis Ralston and Chuck McKinley: Two great collegiate players -- Ralston out of USC, McKinley from Trinity -- became a dominant force in the 1960s. They were Davis Cup heroes in '63, leading the U.S. to a 3-2 championship victory over favored Australia and the formidable doubles team of Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser. McKinley, on the left court, stood just 5-9 but developed a wicked overhead to counteract opponents' lob tactics. Teamed with Ralston, a top-notch singles player who became the U.S. Davis Cup captain, they won the U.S. Championships in 1961, '63 and '64.
16. Roy Emerson and Rod Laver: Nobody in history owns as many major titles as Emerson, and 16 of his 28 came in doubles. He had many great Australian partners, notably Fraser and Fred Stolle, but I need Laver in this tournament, for obvious reasons. They were cut from the same cloth -- both emerging from cattle ranches in rural Queensland -- and proved to be a tremendous team when they got together, winning the 1961 French Open, the '69 Australian Open and the '71 Wimbledon.
I'd also like to isolate Emerson as the very essence of this tournament: supremely fit, all-around athlete, a sportsman of the highest order -- and ready to have a roaring good time come sundown. I will sign off with this passage from one of Emerson's greatest admirers, Rex Bellamy, in the British writer's book Love Thirty:
"Emerson was a big hit at parties. He drank enormous quantities without getting drunk. All the beer did to him was increase the fluency of his demonstrative gifts as a raconteur. He could act both parts while describing points in a particular match, whirling about the room as he played imaginary lobs and drop shots and gave a running commentary at the same time. Usually, such points ended with Emerson poised near a beer-laden refrigerator."