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Go for Two
IMAGINE THIS: Eager to capitalize on the appeal of one-on-one basketball, the NBA stages mano-a-mano competitions before and after every regular-season game. The court dimensions change slightly, and there are a few quirky new rules, but it's wildly entertaining basketball. Sure, Shaq and LeBron, wary of risking injury, seldom play. But this event features many familiar players as well as other bailers whose skills are especially suited to this cognate game. Better still, the one-on-one duels are included with the price of admission. Total bonanza, right?
Here's the funny thing: Such an ancillary competition exists in tennis, yet it's treated as an unsightly blemish. Doubles, they call it Just last week at the Australian Open, the top teams were routinely assigned to play in the hinterlands of Melbourne Park. Second-seeded Mahesh Bhupathi and Max Mirnyi played on court 21, a Sherpa's trek from the main venues. They won a gripping three-setter, but their audience comprised all of a few dozen fans.
Once, success in doubles was the mark of a complete tennis player. The sport's brightest lights entered both the singles and doubles draws, and doubles specialists enjoyed quasi-celebrity status. Today, doubles is all toil and trouble. "It's tough," says Todd Woodbridge, who on Jan. 17 set the record for career doubles titles with 79. "You're not always made to feel so welcome."
It's hard to make much sense of this. Doubles is the preferred game of most recreational tennis players. Plus, it's the answer to most of the standard critiques of contemporary tennis. You mourn the decline of the serve-and-volley game? Most doubles players head netward every chance they get. Turned off by players mindlessly bludgeoning the ball? The average doubles point is double-stuffed with wickedly sharp angles, deftly placed lobs and clever tactics.
Doubles is stuck in, to use a tennis term, no-man's land. There is hope, however, for a renaissance. The return of 47-year-old Martina Navratilova has raised the profile of doubles on the WTA tour. Identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan are the top team in the men's game. These double-gangers are personable Californians with movie-star good looks and, of course, a built-in story line. Many tournament directors are finally scheduling the doubles finals immediately before the singles finals, which provides a better showcase. Maybe doubles will again get its due as the bonus—not the onus—that it is.
Venus Williams's Quick Exit
Venus Williams's third-round loss was the story of Week 1. Questions about her game and commitment, first raised in 2002, reached a climax in Melbourne. How many more losses can her delicate psyche take? Have injuries, family trauma and the ascent of her sister Serena sapped her motivation? When will she address the shortcomings in her game—her forehand and second serve?
At the same time, much credit is due to her conqueror, 30-year-old Lisa Raymond. A flashy, athletic player best known for her doubles skills, Raymond combined an ironclad game plan with brilliant and confoundingly varied shotmaking. She played the match of her career. As she told SI shortly after, "To put it all together just felt so amazing!"