Tennis: Pair pressure

By David Leggat

Here's three popular notions about doubles tennis: It's not taken seriously; it's not played by the world's best racquet wielders; and there's no money in it.

Well, think again.

To those who earn their corn on the doubles circuit it's serious indeed.

With some exceptions, the world's leading singles players dabble in the pairs event and generally enjoy it.

In his prime, John McEnroe was not only the world's best singles player but also the finest doubles operator, as 67 doubles titles suggest.

And as for the money, just ask Todd Woodbridge.

The 33-year-old Australian last year took his earnings past US$10 million ($14.1 million). A staggering 82 doubles crowns sit alongside two singles titles and his 16 Grand Slam doubles triumphs are an Open era record.

Now think of world No 1 doubles exponent Mark Knowles of the Bahamas. The 33-year-old, who didn't get higher than No 96 in singles and didn't win a singles title, has won more than $US4.3 million from doubles, with 35 titles. He played 27 doubles tournaments last year, no singles.

Tomorrow afternoon the doubles finalists in the Heineken Open will square off for a US$16,500 winners cheque, which they will split.

That pales by comparison with the singles money. The Open champion will pocket US$55,000.

But it is possible to make a good living out of the team game.

Argentine Gaston Etlis is the world No 17 doubles player. He never rose higher than 114 in singles, has three doubles and no singles titles, and has won over US$1.4 million.

Then there's American Jim Thomas, who won the Auckland doubles crown in 2001 with South African Marius Barnard.

Like Etlis, Thomas also has three doubles titles to his name, didn't get close to a singles crown and has over US$419,000 in winnings.

Etlis and Thomas, both 30, are serious about their doubles. Etlis and his Argentine partner, Martin Rodriguez, world No 15 in doubles, played Thomas and Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in a quarter-final yesterday, both preparing for next week's Australian Open.

In a tight match Gonzalez and Thomas won through 7-5 7-6 (7-4).

Etlis, who switched his focus from singles to doubles about three years ago, said the key to being successful at doubles was mental rather than physical.

"You have to like it. That's very important. It's very different from singles, and you have to be in shape," he said.

Thomas, world No 65 in doubles whose best singles ranking was 288, said over a period it dawned on him that he was not going to make the big time if he stuck with singles.

Thomas played 33 tournaments last year - no singles - and he's enjoying his tennis more, has learned to appreciate it rather than get too wound up at the end product.

Thomas said certain basic elements are the same between the two versions of the game.

"The two most important shots are still the serve and return," he said. "You'll find the guys who are most successful in singles or doubles do those two things very well.

"After that there's more emphasis on volleying in doubles. My groundstrokes weren't very good but in doubles it's not really an issue."

Thomas pointed out that when the best singles exponents venture into doubles they generally prosper because the quality and precision of their serve and return remains intact.

As for the money, yes a good living can be made, as Woodbridge and Knowles could testify.

"If you play well you can live very well," 30-year-old Etlis said.

Thomas, who has spent most of his career ranked between 55-80 in doubles, concurred but pointed out the prizemoney can be deceiving.

"You spend a lot of money on travelling. Prizemoney doesn't take into account expenses or taxes you pay in different places.

"The guys who are doing it love what they're doing. It may not pay so well but we are all hoping to do better, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it."

He said there was a degree of camaraderie about the doubles brigade that isn't present among the singles specialists, many of whom eye each other like gunslingers in the old West.

"We do see each other a lot, practise against each other and you tend to spend more time around guys who are at your level. You have more to talk about.

"I know the singles players from my country but aside from that I don't know many singles players. But the doubles players I know from everywhere," Thomas added.

There are practical reasons for their closer relationship. You never know when you might need a partner in a hurry.

"Guys are aware of that. They want to be on good terms," Thomas said.

Etlis reckons the perception of doubles would change if there was more money washing around.

"If you put US$1 million into a doubles tournament it will be very important. If you put US$5000 to the winner, maybe it's not so important. It's all about money," he added.

As always, it's the bottom line that counts.

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