- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

NEW YORK — Forget about finding a seat. Or for that matter, a place to stand.

It’s a cloudy, breezy afternoon at the National Tennis Center — day two of the U.S. Open — and the Court 14 bleachers are packed for a doubles match pitting No.4 seeds Todd Woodbridge and Jonas Bjorkman against Spain’s Tommy Robredo and Albert Portas.

As Woodbridge and Bjorkman close in on a first-round victory, fans crowd the court’s corner entrance, standing on tiptoes to take in the action. When Robredo and Portas appear to yield a match point — a point too soon, it turns out — a tall man in a khaki cap prematurely yelps, “It’s over!”

And for a fleeting moment, the troubled game of doubles seems anything but.

“Early in the week we get crowds like that quite often,” said Woodbridge, a 32-year-old Australian who has won 76 career doubles titles. “The real tennis fans, people that play the game, people that love the speed, the reactions, the reflex rallies.

“It’s when we get to the later parts of the tournaments, when the tickets become more expensive, that it becomes the corporate crowd. They’re there for a couple of hours. They keep their attention span limited to a couple of singles matches, get some lunch and go home.”

All of which sums up the sagging state of doubles. Beloved by tennis fans, the four-player game otherwise languishes in a state of deep decline — forgotten by the media, ignored by casual fans, treated with increasing indifference by the sport’s cash-strapped decision makers.

During the Open’s first week, only two doubles matches were held under the Arthur Ashe Stadium lights, both on Saturday night. One featured the ever-popular Martina Navratilova; the other had the NYPD and the city’s fire department squaring off in a truncated amateur match.

On the same day, by contrast, the top-seeded men’s team of India’s Mahesh Bhupathi and Belarus’ Max Mirnyi was exiled to the netherworld of Court 13 for its second-round victory over France’s Anthony Dupis and Korea’s Hyung Taik-Lee — never mind that the thrilling, three-set match included two tiebreakers.

“I hope doubles isn’t cut down more, but it’s hard to say what will happen,” said No. 10 doubles seed Jared Palmer. “It’s not experiencing the same kind of interest as the singles right now.”

That’s putting it mildly. For Palmer and his ilk, the train of recent indignities is long and varied:

• The ATP slashed doubles prize money at most tournaments by one-fifth this season, reducing the payout from 25 to 20 percent of the total pot; likewise, the nine Masters Series events lowered doubles money from 22 to 17 percent.

• At many tournaments outside of the Grand Slams, the doubles draw was reduced, sometimes to a Tour-mandated minimum of 16.

• On television, CBS plans to broadcast the Open’s men’s doubles final, while USA will show the mixed and women’s doubles finals. Anything else will be an unexpected bonus.

• Last summer, tennis legend John McEnroe — perhaps the greatest doubles player ever — said that he “wouldn’t shed a tear” if doubles was “euthanized.”

“I think we’ve got a bit of a rough deal,” said South Africa’s Chris Haggard, the Open’s No.13 doubles seed. “But at least there is still doubles. The way the ATP was saying it, some of these tournaments don’t even want to have it. Which is sad. Doubles has been around since the beginning of tennis.”

In years past, doubles could count on the drawing power of singles stars like McEnroe and John Newcombe. But in today’s grueling, ultra-competitive men’s game, many top singles players are wary of the wear and tear that comes with competing in additional matches.

Andre Agassi, the Open’s No.1 seed and the sport’s biggest star, hasn’t played a doubles match all season.

“I guess potentially it could be too taxing,” the 33-year-old Agassi said during last month’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic. “I’m not very big on my body warming up, playing a match, cooling down and then having to get it going again. It’s harder when you get older.”

With stars like Agassi sitting out, the doubles ranks are dominated by largely anonymous specialists, players whose singles success is at best fleeting. Consider twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan. French Open champions and the Tour’s No.1-ranked doubles team; they own singles rankings of Nos.196 and 660, respectively.

“With doubles players, there’s the perception — and in a lot of cases, it may be accurate — that they aren’t as good as the singles players, that they’re playing doubles because they can’t make it on the singles tour,” Palmer said. “That’s a big negative.”

It’s also a big reason why the Tour has made cuts, given a sluggish economy and the collapse of a $1.2billion deal with now-defunct Swiss media and marketing company ISL. While doubles draws account for nearly a quarter of the sport’s player expenses, tournament organizers claim they do little to fill seats or boost television ratings.

Earlier this year, a Masters Series spokesman told reporters that doubles siphoned nearly $10million from the nine Masters tournaments — without creating a single cent of revenue.

“Basically, I think it comes down to money,” Haggard said. “They just want to cut costs. But I still struggle to believe that getting rid of a few doubles players is going to make or break the Tour.”

Though top doubles players such as Haggard — who has earned $108,674 in prize money this season — can still make a good living on Tour, mid-level doubles players are feeling the effects of the ATP’s scalpel.

American Jim Thomas, for instance, is ranked No.78 in doubles and has earned $41,000 in prize money this season. His partner at last month’s Legg Mason tournament, fellow American Brandon Coupe, is ranked No.74 but has pocketed just $17,780.

Neither figure is insubstantial — until you factor in the costs of training and traveling on Tour, which can easily exceed $30,000 a year.

“With the draw sizes, the guys that are ranked No.60 and below aren’t making a living anymore,” Haggard said. “There used to be maybe 100 doubles players. Now, it’s very tough. Of the pure doubles specialists, I wouldn’t say there’s much more than 30 guys making decent money.”

Doubles specialists also have to contend with new ATP rules that make it easier for singles stars to enter doubles draws, regardless of their doubles ranking. In a 16-team doubles draw like the Legg Mason’s, for instance, eight pairs are accepted on the basis of their doubles rankings, five on either their singles or doubles rankings and three as wild cards.

At the Legg Mason, defending singles champion James Blake and brother Thomas entered the doubles draw as wild cards, while Andy Roddick used his top-10 singles ranking to play with friend Brian Vahaly.

“That’s been a really healthy change for us,” Woodbridge said. “We’ve got more singles names on the court, players that people see on TV. [Before], we had almost two tours going at the same time, one with doubles and one with singles. That’s not how the game is supposed to be.”

That said, the new rules also have led to a series of untimely withdrawals, mostly when players advance deep into the singles draw. When Roddick lost to Britain’s Tim Henman in the Legg Mason semifinals, he pulled out of the doubles semifinal scheduled for later that afternoon.

Roddick’s prospective semifinal opponents, Haggard and Australia’s Paul Haney, were left to play each other on a practice court. And disappointed fans were left without a match.

“There’s no question the Tour has been successful in getting more singles players in the draw,” Palmer said. “But you’re also seeing a lot more defaults, a lot more withdrawals. I don’t know if that’s good for a tournament.”

Despite the cutbacks, Woodbridge believes that doubles always will have a place in tennis. Particularly when fans get a chance to see what they’re missing.

Following their Roland Garros triumph, the telegenic Bryan Brothers embarked on an all-out media blitz that culminated with an appearance on CNN. And at a Masters tournament in Cincinnati last month, organizers promoted them with gusto, putting three of their matches on stadium court.

The result? More than 5,000 fans showed up to watch them in the doubles final — evidence that, at least on occasion, doubles can still make it hard to find a seat.

“It’s just a matter of getting the right players on the court to make it more attractive,” Woodbridge said. “The game of doubles is like the lead-up band to the star attraction. It’s never going to overtake or be bigger than the singles. But that doesn’t mean the leadoff guys are shabby.”

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