SI Vault
 
SINGLY FEEBLE BUT DOUBLE TROUBLE
Frank Deford
May 13, 1974
South Africa's Frew McMillan and Bob Hewitt are two lesser lights on the pro tour, but put them together and they're killers, as they proved again last week in the WCT doubles championship
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 13, 1974

Singly Feeble But Double Trouble

South Africa's Frew McMillan and Bob Hewitt are two lesser lights on the pro tour, but put them together and they're killers, as they proved again last week in the WCT doubles championship

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Montreal is an appropriate location for a doubles championship, since it is the maddening law of the land that everything said or written comes double, English and French, Francois et Anglais. Not since Canada inflicted upon us Robert Goulet, who can't sing the national anthem in any language, have men of goodwill been forced to listen to anything as torturous as four days of doubles announced in duplicate: "Advantage, avantage...double faute, double fault." But mercifully, doubles is so fine a game to watch that one can endure assaults to the other senses nicely, nicely.

When practiced by the new champions, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan of South Africa, doubles is also an art form, as presumably swordplay, surgery and marriage are at their highest levels. Performing with grace, precision and �lan, the South African pair utterly outclassed a field of the best eight teams on the World Championship Tennis tour in the only major doubles tournament there is. To make $20,000 apiece, they clobbered Swedes in the quarters, Americans in the semis and Australians in the finals, whipping the Forest Hills titleholders, John Newcombe and Owen Davidson, 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, 6-2.

Doubles is sort of a handsome stepchild. It is often more exciting than singles, with longer rallies and more strategy, and most of the spectators who also play the game are more attuned to doubles. What Bill Tilden said half a century ago still suffices: "People enjoy doubles more than singles because they have to do less work, have a partner to blame for defeat and someone to listen to their gripes as they play."

But despite its popularity, doubles is given short shrift in the big time. As recently as 1971, for example, the U.S. Men's Doubles Championship at Forest Hills was considered so trifling that everybody concerned was content to let the finalists play a nine-point tie breaker instead of a last set to determine the winners. And when it comes to doubles, money is no object. Indeed, it barely exists at all. World Championship Tennis awards just $900 each to the doubles winners of its regular weekly tournaments—and that is only $400 more than the losers of the first-round singles matches get.

"It's ridiculous," says McMillan. "Far more people identify with doubles, and it's usually a better game, because with four players instead of two there's less chance of one side dominating the other. Yet here tennis is getting more and more commercial, and its best product is going begging."

Although the casual clothes that most pro tennis players wear off the court might suggest otherwise, none of them has taken formal vows of poverty. As a consequence, instead of hustling for doubles pittances, some either just go through the motions or tank outright. After both members of a team have been eliminated in singles, the pay scale all but encourages them to dump their doubles so they can go on to the next tournament and practice for the big singles money. When a change of surface is involved—say, when the tour is moving from a fast artificial court to slow clay—so many teams may be dumping that it can look more like a superfecta race at the trots than tennis. "You see your opponents across the net having a conference," says one of the Montreal qualifiers, "and you wonder whether they're planning to hit out or into the net." Sometimes clever surrender strategy is demanded. In his book Match Point, Marty Riessen recalls a tournament a couple of years ago in which he and his partner, Tom Okker, lost purposely in order to make an early departure. In the locker room, players will openly joke about their intentions to take a doubles dive.

"The Montreal tournament has helped the situation," Newcombe says. "When I played WCT two years ago, before they had this championship, the dumping was commonplace, but this year, at least in our group, I could count on one hand the matches that were thrown outright." Still, even if a clear-cut fix isn't in, the players are not going to give the customers their money's worth so long as doubles money remains a bagatelle.

"Right after we qualified for this," says another Montreal player, "we had some matches that got started late in the afternoon, and when we couldn't beat the other guys in straight sets, all of a sudden I started thinking, what the hell do I want to win this thing for and have to hang around for a couple hundred bucks, which will just about cover my hotel and taxes."

At least the situation is being recognized. Already the Grand Prix circuit has begun to determine its singles finalists by including some consideration of doubles performance, and last week in Montreal the players were discussing a proposed new prize schedule that would allot 20% of the total money to doubles. Mike Davies, the WCT executive director, agreed that a doubles hike within that range was called for. Certainly 20% ought to be the minimum amount. Doubles is 20% of the Davis Cup, for example, while the women's Wightman Cup is 29% doubles, and both the Federation Cup (for women) and the new World Team Tennis are one-third doubles. But beyond what the promoters pay, the players themselves—and notably their powerful guild, the Association of Tennis Professionals—are going to have to police themselves and denounce the hanky-panky if they want to retain the public's faith in all facets of the game.

Another problem that doubles surfers from is the lack of team continuity. Few pairs stay together long enough to become any sort of entity. Not since 1959 have the same two players won Wimbledon and the U.S. title in the same year, and the political splintering of the game makes it increasingly difficult for teams to stick together for any length of time. WTT, which opens this week, will only accelerate that trend; even the McMillan and Hewitt team will be split up for much of the rest of the year. The prototype modern doubles champion is Roy Emerson, who has won more Big Three ( Wimbledon, French, U.S.) doubles titles than any player in history by playing doubles like Zsa Zsa Gabor plays marriage. In one stretch back in the '60s, Emerson won six straight French championships—with five different partners. And the vogue is toward convenience couplings. On the WCT tour this year, such bizarre combinations as an Englishman-Mexican, Yugoslav-Aussie, New Zealander-Egyptian and Italian-Rumanian not only competed together but actually won tournaments. Doubles, sadly, is no longer a game between regular teams, but between these two guys and those two guys.

Continue Story
1 2 3