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Kurt Streeter

Why so singles-minded?

September 02, 2008|Kurt Streeter

All match long Monday on the grandstand court at Flushing Meadows, the fans kept rising and screaming, kept cursing and cajoling and shouting to the hot blue sky.

This was not for Venus or Serena. Not for Roger, Rafa or that long-limbed upstart Southern Californian, Sam Querrey.

This was a different animal altogether.

This was doubles.

Singles you know about. Singles gets the golden light and the big stage, the TV time and the glory.

Doubles gets the swampy back courts where the light first fades. If it's on TV, a singles blowout has occurred so quickly that they need something simply to fill the airtime.

Singles has the heavyweight champs. Doubles has the middleweights who wish they were champs.

Singles has stars. Stars who almost never play doubles.

Doubles? On the hard, seemingly unending pro tour, the guys who play doubles are called "specialists." The way I see it, that's an insult.

Granted, these "specialists" don't have the all-court moxie of a Rafael Nadal or a Venus Williams, but they've got game big enough to make a powerful impression. If, that is, they are given a chance to get some love. That chance (albeit in a limited dose because they still rarely play on center court) is what they get every year at the Grand Slams. Nowhere more than at the U.S. Open.

"The play just becomes so fast-paced and frantic," said Ken Sirulnick, a fan who watched a few feet from the grandstand court, where an Argentine pair dueled against the fourth-seeded team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Mark Knowles. "It's like pingpong out there, the angles and speed and craziness. You've gotta love it."

Here, his is a commonly heard refrain. For several days I've walked the gated grounds of Flushing Meadows, asking fans their thoughts about tennis as it is played with four players on a court instead of two. Repeatedly, I found people who had come to the U.S. Open expecting to watch singles -- until they ambled past a court prowled by a doubles ace like Lisa Raymond, possessor of perfect volleying technique. Then they got hooked on the fast points, deft lobs, caginess and high-octane emotion.

"This is just more fun to watch," said Faye Robinson, an avid supporter of Bhupathi and Knowles, who ended up losing. Robinson spoke for all the recreational tennis addicts who prefer taking the court as part of a foursome because it's less isolating and easier on the knees. "Most of the fans who play tennis are doubles players, so this is the game we can relate to."

Problem is, if you're an everyday sports fan, chances are you've not heard of any of the "specialists," other than the top American pair, Camarillo's Bryan brothers, Mike and Bob, who moved to the quarterfinals Monday..

It's unfortunate, but there are plenty of reasons for this. It's true doubles players don't have the all-court game of tennis' top stars. Instead of constant baseline banging, the "specialists" are all about short points, cutting volleys and rapid reactions. They have limitations. Don't ask them to do more than they can do. But there's a beauty to this. Put it this way: Do you look down on a guy like Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera because he can pitch no more than two innings?

Most important, the doubles game suffers because the top singles players treat the idea of teaming up as if it would give them avian influenza.

Today, the well-known singles studs rarely play doubles. They say it will sap them of their strength. If you tried taking away doubles from the greats of the past -- from a Bill Tilden or a Rod Laver, a Martina Navratilova or a John McEnroe -- know what you'd get? A booming kick serve to the gut.

McEnroe "absolutely loved the doubles and did everything to play it," said Peter Fleming, the former UCLA star who in the 1980s dominated the doubles game playing beside the hyper-talented McEnroe. "His thing was that it forces you to be sharp. You've got a very small window to hit as a target. It forces you to be aggressive and stay on top of your game in a way that practice just can't. You'd think the best singles players these days would learn from that . . . [but] they rarely make it out there."

Last month, Roger Federer played in the Olympics and won the doubles gold. In July, the Williams sisters played the doubles at Wimbledon, and took it in a walk. But at Flushing Meadows you won't find players of that caliber anywhere near a doubles match. Given the love fans show for doubles here at the Open, that's a crying shame.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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