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BILL DWYRE

With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on court, tennis doubles its pleasure in desert

A men's doubles match featuring top singles players is a rarity, particularly at a big tournament like BNP Paribas Open. But Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka's victory over Nadal and Marc Lopez is a hit with fans, nearly filling the huge Indian Wells stadium and creating the day's biggest buzz.

March 18, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Roger Federer, bottom left and teammate Stanislas Wawrinka are congratulated by Rafael Nadal, top left, and teammate Marc Lopez following their doubles victory in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells on Friday night.
Roger Federer, bottom left and teammate Stanislas Wawrinka are congratulated… (Gabriel Bouys / AFP/ Getty…)

There was a rare sighting in the Southern California desert Friday night.

An official report confirmed that there was a huge stadium nearly filled with people in tennis-watching clothes. It said that they were cheering loudly every 30 seconds or so, that there was lots of smiling, fist-bumping and oohs and aahs. The report said a fun time was had by all.

But the last sentence of the report destroyed the credibility. It said the people were there watching DOUBLES.

It figured. There was a full moon.

Those familiar with tennis know the scene couldn't be real. Forever, doubles has been a warmup act. It is something played regularly by the Bryan brothers and 100 others who could be best described as failed singles players making a nice living. It is popular at your local tennis club mostly because everybody at your local club has no knee cartilage left and considers one of their greatest daily achievements getting out of bed in the morning. Doubles is less running and less liniment.

Still, further reporting established that this did, indeed, happen. The people who run this BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells are calling it the night they doubled your pleasure. Chew on that, fans.

It was Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka playing Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez in a men's doubles semifinal, and it was significant beyond the 7-5, 6-3 win by the Swiss team. Since John McEnroe left the tour, men's singles stars almost never play doubles in big events, and this one is big, one of nine Masters Series tournaments spread out over the year and carrying status only a notch below the Grand Slams.

Nadal is No. 1 in the world, Federer No. 2, and this marked the first time No. 1 and No. 2 men's singles players had squared off in doubles since 2007, when Federer (then No. 1) and Wawrinka took on Nadal (then No. 2) and Carlos Moya. It was also the latest round for a No. 1-No. 2 singles-player matchup in doubles since 1983, when No.1 McEnroe and Peter Fleming beat No. 2 Ivan Lendl and Vince Van Patten.

This double dipping happened at Indian Wells because it is a two-week event that allows for sufficient rest; because tour officials had the good sense a few years ago to change from best of three sets to two no-ad sets with a 10-point super tiebreaker that gets doubles matches over fast; because next year is an Olympic year; and because, some say, the singles stars like to stand up once in awhile and show the career doubles guys their specialty is not all that special.

Of the four on the court Friday night, in front of 15,879 — the second-best evening crowd of the tournament — only Lopez is a doubles specialist. Saturday's men's doubles final will send Federer-Wawrinka against Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine and Xavier Malisse of Belgium, both also primarily singles players.

As he was in the 2008 Olympic gold-medal match in Beijing, where he dominated the last set, Federer was the best player on the court Friday night. Nadal double-faulted twice, including on set point in the first set, and also netted a tough low volley on a break point in the second set.

It could be speculated that the large crowd had turned out not so much to see the doubles as to see the women's semifinal between No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and resurgent former No. 1 Maria Sharapova. But that turned out to be a 6-1, 6-2 breeze for Wozniacki, on a day when the other singles matches were also yawners.

There seemed little doubt that the doubles brought the most buzz this day.

Tennis may be on to something here. Certainly, it was the celebrity of Nadal and Federer that brought the fans out, especially since they have never played each other here except in a charity match last year.

Add to that the fact we are in an era of short attention spans and instant gratification. That means long, grinding singles matches with 20 ground strokes per point, often accompanied by shrieking (Sharapova), calls for coaches, trainers and bathroom breaks, may be pushing fans away.

Doubles is an hour and a half of action and you get to go buy a hot dog.

Except for the doubles, Friday was a day of metronome tennis. Novak Djokovic and Federer won in straight sets, over Richard Gasquet and Wawrinka, respectively, to reach Saturday's singles semifinals. Marion Bartoli beat Yanina Wickmayer, 6-1, 6-3, to reach Sunday's women's final against opposite Wozniacki.

Drama should not be lacking Saturday.

Nadal will play Juan Martin del Potro in the first men's semifinal, followed by Federer versus Djokovic. It is the same semifinal lineup as the 2009 U.S. Open, where Del Potro beat Nadal, then stunned Federer in the final.

Nadal has lost his last three matches against Del Potro. Federer is 3-3 in his last six against Djokovic, two of his losses coming in the semifinals of last year's U.S. Open and this year's Australian Open.

If those semifinals don't produce great tennis, maybe they can ask them to stick around and play doubles.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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