Double Fault


On Sports

There are doubles matches being played in the U.S. Open. By good players. A trophy will be awarded. And no one seems to care.

On The New York Times tennis blog, Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati asked the art critic Michael Kimmelman why that is. Kimmelman suggested that tennis is “aspirational.” Many tennis fans—recreational doubles players themselves—are the kind of people who live in “modest homes and cook modest meals” but read Architectural Digest and study sous vide cuisine. They grew up dreaming of being the best, and the best play singles. “Doubles reminds them that they’re no longer young, that life can be disappointing, that not all dreams come true, and that not anything is possible,” Kimmelman wrote. “Well, maybe that’s a little too Dostoeyevskian, but you get the point.”

Well. Of course tennis is aspirational; most sports are. But the “modest home” theory seems a little weak (especially considering the stratospheric prices of Open tickets!). I suspect that the real answer is simple: doubles is ridiculous. It’s fine to play—if you have four people, only one court, and bad knees. But let’s not pretend that it’s something more exalted.

I’m told that true tennis fans love doubles. The intensity, the strategy, the quick hands! The all-around quality of the game! So it may be that I’m discrediting myself. It may be that you will no longer take me seriously. To you serious people, I say: I’ve tried, I really have. I’m still trying. Yesterday, even though Rafael Nadal was playing and Andy Murray was down, I watched Vania King and Yaroslava Shvedova, the Wimbledon champions, take on Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Iveta Benesova. The match, won by King and Shvedova in a third-set tiebreak, was as good and thrilling as doubles gets. Watching the players demonstrate their shifting formations, deft adjustments, and quick reflexes was exciting, like watching President Obama swat a fly. But how many times do you really want to watch Obama swat a fly?

What really bothers me about doubles, though, is not boredom. It’s more fundamental. The problem is that doubles is played by partners. Two people simply should not stand on the same side of the net. Part of the reason tennis is so compelling is that a player has to confront the fact that she’s out there by herself. A doubles player does not. Consider the Bryan brothers, the best doubles team playing, one of the best teams ever. One is left handed, one right; one is Bob and one is Mike. Otherwise, they pretty much share a life. The zygote did not fully split. They always have each other. They are never, ever alone.

Playing singles, you cannot seek advice from a teammate or a coach; you cannot punch or taunt or chase your opponent. You can only hit the ball. Sometimes, your greatest competition is yourself. Tennis, to me, is Jelena Jankovic, shrieking in desperation as the wind whipped her ponytail and her shots. It’s Ana Ivanovic—talented, sweet, pretty, a former No. 1—chasing bad service tosses under pressure. It’s Rafael Nadal, touching his face and plucking his shirt, the tennis player’s way of crossing himself. Even when the stakes are nonexistence, the isolation can be hard. I like to play with the sun to my back, and not only because it’s easier to see the ball. I want to watch my shadow. It keeps me company. Overcoming loneliness can be the greatest challenge, and the most important one.