In the past 30 years, we have seen a large increase in the popularity of tennis in the United States. Viewership, advertising, attendance and the overall tennis economy have grown significantly over the course of these years. However, as much as our overall industry has gained ground in the world of sports, we have experienced a comparative decline in the attention we pay to doubles. Thirty years ago, there were more professional tennis players that competed in both singles and doubles on a regular basis. When John McEnroe was the number one player in the world in singles, we often forget that he was also the number one player in the world in doubles at the same time.
Due to level of fitness that is now required to compete at the highest levels, it has become more difficult for players to commit to playing in both the singles and doubles flights in the same tournaments. Ultimately, in recent years, more professionals have been forced to choose between the two options. Given the fact that the prize money for winning singles tournaments is so much larger than it is for doubles, more professionals have chosen to turn their back on doubles and focus their efforts on singles. With singles tournaments offering much larger purses it is obvious why they attract the strongest players in the world.
Like all sports, the promotion of tennis trickles down from the top. When television and other media focus almost all of their coverage on singles, it makes it nearly impossible for spectators to be exposed to doubles and become long-term fans of the event. Without a base of long-term fans and without an influx of new fans to doubles, we are creating a cycle that is hurting the promotion of our entire sport.
In addition to the change in professional tennis, there has also been a change in college tennis. College tennis matches, or “duels,” used to use the same format for singles and doubles. Both types of matches were played in a two out of three set format with standard scoring. Years ago, the NCAA changed this format, shortening the doubles matches to eight game pro-sets which are still used today (shortened formats, including no-ad scoring and 10-point super tie-breakers, are now used in professional tennis as well). In Division I college tennis, a team only earns one doubles point for their school by securing two out of the three doubles matches, whereas, all singles matches are each worth one point. All of these factors slowly contribute to the diminished role that doubles plays in our sport.
Interestingly, in recent years, we have seen a sharp decline in the classic net-rushing style of play. In the United States, we have seen a devastating drop-off in the forward-moving game, mid-court skills, volley skills and the all-court style of play. It is my belief that we are finally seeing the repercussions of not teaching these skills enough in years past. There is no doubt that this deficiency is greatly because we are not playing enough doubles, and thereby, not gaining enough experience moving forward.
We need to bring doubles back to the forefront of professional tennis in order to start a chain reaction throughout the sport. We can accomplish this by incentivizing professionals to play more doubles events. This can be done either by setting up a bonus structure or by balancing out prize money distributions. We could also alter the format that is used in both professional tennis and American college tennis in order to legitimize the doubles events. Showing more doubles matches on television and in other media would help promote the event and bring in new fans. Incentivizing or even requiring juniors to play a minimum number of doubles tournaments per year in order to maintain their rankings would be another step that the USTA could pursue to bring back doubles. As teaching professionals, we need to spend more time working on doubles in order to bring back the all-court game style and potentially build more of an interest both events. When working with middle school and high school tennis players, we have to remember that only four team members compete in singles during a meet, while the majority of the team competes in doubles. Let’s also not forget that when we play doubles, we are having fun, socializing, developing better communication skills and finding a sense of teamwork and camaraderie that cannot be found in singles play.
Jimmy Delevante is a USPTA-certified teaching professional and a National High-Performance Coach. He is the director of tennis at the Suffolk County Junior Tennis League Training Center, a former ATP professional tennis player, and master pro at Sportime Kings Park.