“I would never tell any young player to go and take a doubles career,” says Todd Woodbridge, winner of 16 men’s doubles Grand Slam titles. “I finished playing singles when I was 30, and played four more years because I was on a quest of breaking records. I never went out to be a “doubles” player.”
The air-quotes are to emphasise that neither Woodbridge, nor fellow Aussie Mark Woodforde — the second half of the famed ‘Woodies’ pairing which ruled most of the nineties — considered themselves doubles specialists. They were tennis players who played singles, doubles and mixed, in an era when a number of players played doubles in the service of their singles run, whether as practice or to polish their serve-and-volleys. Woodbridge wonders why players couldn’t do the same today.
“You can’t be John McEnroe and be number one in both singles and doubles. But you should definitely aim to play both, at least to a level. On Tour, it’s two sets and a tie-break, which should take an hour ten minutes,” says Woodbridge, who also won six mixed doubles titles. “Playing doubles is not a requirement for some players, and by some I mean the top four. For the rest, there’s no guarantee that you’re going through to the quarters or semis. The players should be playing doubles if they’re not injured. But it’s a mindset as much as anything. In that sense, India and Australia have traditionally played all forms of tennis.”
But while Australia rank fifth in the terms of Open Era Grand Slam singles titles thanks to the Lavers and Newcombes, India’s Grand Slam triumphs have come on the doubles court. A number of Indians end up ditching nascent singles careers to take up doubles full time. The ones who don’t struggle to find their footing due to injuries and inconsistency.
“Firstly, young Indians need to realise that the game is physical. You’re probably kidding yourself if you think you don’t need to put in extra physicality. But India faces another issue which is a problem everywhere. Because of the prevalent style of play, the coaches are only coaching one way. They neglect the other skills. Indians in particular have relied on their hands, the feel, but I feel some coaches aren’t teaching that to the younger crop,” says Woodbridge, who had multiple run-ins with Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi in the late nineties, and partnered the latter for his 83rd and final title. “Coaches need to push the kids to the net more. Serve and volley should still be a sound tactic, not an afterthought.”
Part of the reason behind the largely specialised forms of tennis today is the homogenised modern game. Slow surfaces, large racquets and synthetic strings encourage baseline slugfests and have eliminated net-rushes and, in turn, variety. There’s no need to learn how to advance and kill points at the net when you can outmuscle a baseliner. “It would be fun to give (Novak) Djokovic and (Rafael) Nadal gut strings and then see them hit offensive strokes from defensive positions on the baseline,” grins Woodbridge. “Strings will stay, but at least surfaces needs to be different. At Wimbledon, they can tell us what height the court’s gonna bounce before the start of the tournament through turf technology. When I played, if it was a wet summer, the courts were slow and it was slippery and greasy. If it got hot, it dried out and the ball got quicker. But that was natural. The surfaces now are monitored to try and give a special television type of play.”
The changes have impacted the doubles game as well.
“It has made service important in doubles. When I was playing, there were about 20 per cent who were big servers. Now everybody has a huge serve,” says Woodbridge. “I could serve bigger now at 47 than I could when I was 27 and ranked 20 in the world (in singles).” What he lacked in service, Woodbridge made up for it with his killer instincts and volleys. With Woodforde (and later with Jonas Bjorkman, with whom he won five Grand Slam titles), Woodbridge hit his spots on the serve, formed an iron curtain at the net and played percentage doubles tennis. They would keep their opponents off-balance and unsure of their movements, by poaching and faking poaches. So when Woodbridge talks about the tennis of yesteryear, it might sound like his “back in my day” routine, but it is hard to argue when the most successful doubles pairing of all time give their predecessors all the credit. In a 2008 interview, Mike and Bob Bryan said of The Woodies: “We’ve tried to study them. We’re more like a power, caveman team. There’s not a lot of teams out there right now that truly understand the game like these guys. Doubles has changed a lot. And they played doubles the best it could be played.”
“People sometimes overlook the courtcraft of doubles. I often feel when I watch people play that they’re playing points, they are not working out when they going to win the big points, and what’s going to happen on that big point,” says Woodbridge. “We would build towards the key moment when I knew where the ball would be. We used to know where we are going to hit the ball, but we used to like to know where we are going to start a rally. I could anticipate what would happen, Mark would be the same with me. When serving on big point, or I would let him know that I am planning a lob if I get the right ball. Once he knew that, he would move differently to get to that point.” The craft today may be more rudimentary, but Woodbridge believes the doubles tennis, though still a skippable dessert for the casual fans who log in for the singles main course, get more attention.
“First they need to realise that they will always be in a supporting role. Behind the scenes, the players need to push to get to their due. But it is getting better because of social media, and ATP showing clips of their matches. Back in my day, you would only get any space because you were playing against a singles star.”