The ATP has decided to bring some peace and quiet to the doubles competition controversy. In June, the ATP announced changes to doubles matches that included a tiebreaker at 4-4, no-ad scoring (at deuce, the returning team chooses which side to receive and the next point wins the game), and, starting in 2008, restricting doubles to players in the singles draw except for two places. The doubles specialists sued the ATP and threw mud at them in the press but the ATP Player Council and Tournament Council came to an agreement during the Masters Cup in Shanghai.

No-ad scoring remains but sets will stay at six games. Instead of a third set, there will be a match tiebreaker: first to ten points, win by two. Doubles will not be restricted almost exclusively to singles players but entries will be determined by a player’s singles or doubles ranking, whichever is higher. Previously, only doubles rankings were used.

The press release announcing the agreement has two interesting statements. The agreement says that “promotional initiatives will be funded and implemented by the doubles players, ATP and ATP tournaments.” Let me get this right. Doubles players will have to pay to promote themselves. The tournament directors don’t want to market doubles players. Many tournament directors would love to get rid of doubles altogether. The ATP and the tournament directors seem to be saying, “We could market you but it won’t do any good. If you players chip in some money, we’ll prove it to you.”

Let me get this right. Doubles players will have to pay to promote themselves.

The second interesting part is the announcement of new members to the ATP Board. Perry Rogers is now the player representative for the Americas region. Rogers is the close friend and manager of Andre Agassi. True, he is very familiar with tour players, but he was never a player himself. The ATP used to be the players union but now it represents the players and the tournament directors, an unholy alliance of parties with different interests resulting in strange situations such as the doubles players suit against the ATP. By suing the ATP, doubles players were suing themselves!

If Rogers takes a role similar to union executives such as Donald Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, then he could strengthen the players’ role in the ATP. It’s not as effective as establishing a separate players union but it could increase players’ power if he’s willing to threaten a job action.

While we’re talking about doubles and Shanghai, lets look at the Masters Cup final in the doubles competition and see if the new changes will help.

The team of Leander Paes (India) and Nenad Zimonjic (Serbia-Montenegro) played against Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro of France. Unlike the singles competition – four of the top six singles players were injured or did not turn up – all of the top doubles players were in the draw. Seven players had been ranked number one in doubles at some point in their career. That hardly makes up for the singles mess, though, does it?

Each team had a big server who likes to whack the ball and a light server who is a finesse player. Llodra and Zimonjic are the big servers. Santoro and Paes are veteran players near the end of their career. Santoro will drive you crazy with spin and placement while Paes moves all over the court to confuse his opponents and cut off their shots.

In the fourth game, Llodra smashed a ball right at Paes who stuck his racket behind and between his legs to scoop the ball off the court and, unfortunately, hit it over the opposite baseline. You don’t see that shot in singles. Llodra lost his serve in the sixth game but got the break back with two good plays in the next game. After Paes served Santoro wide off the court, the left-handed Llodra covered the middle and hit a beautiful backhand winner past Zimonjic. Remember that shot. On break point, Llodra hit four very hard shots right at Paes before Paes finally hit one of them out.

And that’s how this match went. Llodra hit hard shot after hard shot at his opponents’
bodies, Zimonjic went for the angles, Paes ran all over the place and Santoro hit funky two-handed dipping shots so softly that his opponents had no choice but to hit the ball up and brace for the return smash.

It’s easy to see why the ATP wants to shorten doubles matches. Players meet at the baseline for conferences between every point. Santoro and Llodra require two hand-slaps per conference, one at the beginning and one at the end. Then there is Paes’ serve: after he chooses a ball, he likes to rub it on his belly. The belly rub is followed by endless ball bounces and a service motion that takes forever.

Llodra celebrated with a loud yell as he twisted his body and extended his hand then bounced the ball off his forehead. Good thing this was not a bowling tournament.

The disapproving television announcers point out that players are supposed to walk directly to the other side of the court after the first game of each set but “they always have to find an excuse to stop.” One announcer found the ATP changes unsatisfactory: “(they) go some way to reducing the length of the matches but I’m not sure it’s enough, personally.” His partner bemoaned the presence of chairs that allow players to sit during breaks. “You used to have three set singles matches over in under an hour … before you had chairs, they used to just walk round and get on with it.” Good thing these guys are not on the ATP Board of Directors. They’d probably take away the players’ water bottles.

Paes and Zimonjic barely won the first set with an 8-6 tiebreaker. They used the momentum to break Santoro in the third game in the second set but then there was trouble. Paes had been missing first serves all match long. His first serves are slow enough but his second serves are pop-ups – around 80 mph. In a game that was thirteen minutes long, Paes lost his serve then his partner Zimonjic hit two double faults and lost his serve to go down 2-4. They looked demoralized and out of rhythm. Doubles can be a lightning quick game, balls come at you so fast – unless Santoro is hitting them – that you have to respond automatically. If you feel a little bit off or show the slightest hesitation, you’ll send the ball over the baseline or into the net.

Llodra and Santoro won the second set, 6-3, to even the match. After six boring games, the third set was at 3-3 and I started to pine for no-ad scoring. Better than that, how about a match tiebreaker and forget the third set altogether?

With Llodra serving at 4-5, Santoro ran back to the baseline to run down a lob then hit his own lob that landed on his opponents’ baseline. Zimonjic followed with an overhead and, after an exchange of cross-court shots, Llodra hit another beautiful backhand down the line past Zimonjic to even the set at 5-5. Llodra celebrated with a loud yell as he twisted his body and extended his hand then bounced the ball off his forehead. Good thing this was not a bowling tournament.

In the tiebreaker, Llodra and Santoro were up 5-3 even after a fifteen shot, rocket fast net rally ended with Llodra volleying the ball long. At 5-4, Llodra served to Zimonjic. Paes started at the baseline but moved forward to soon and Llodra hit a gorgeous reflex volley to the spot that Paes vacated. On the next point, Paes popped up a good Llodra serve and the match was over.

After seventeen years on the tour, Santoro had his first Masters Cup title. Llodra, the crazy one, emptied his bag and threw shirts, towels and wristbands into the crowd. Then he took his shoes off and threw them into the crowd. Then he took his shirt off and threw that into the crowd. Unfortunately he stopped there. Llodra may have been the first tennis player in history to receive his trophy barefoot. I hope the Chinese were not offended.

Doubles is a repeating stop and go cycle, an exciting full court ballet of four players moving crosswise and forward and back. Smashes, slice volleys, poaches and aces are sandwiched between endless conferences and glacial service motions. The changes won’t cut out the conferences or speed up the action between points, but no-ad scoring will make every point in a game more important and signficantly shorten matches. It might also force players like Santoro and Paes into retirement earlier. With no-ad scoring, slow servers will be more of a liability because it will be harder to hold serve. It might sound cruel, but that would help the game.

Since match tiebreakers will shorten matches, tournament directors will be more likely to put doubles on show courts for better exposure. Encouraging singles players to enter the doubles draw by using the singles and doubles ranking as an entry ranking sounds like a good idea but only the lower ranked singles players would be interested. The winners in today’s match took home $100, 000. If Roger Federer had beaten David Nalbandian in the singles final, he would have won $1 million dollars plus a $100, 000 bonus because he won all of his round robin matches. He won one more match than Nalbandian. Why would Federer enter a doubles competition if he could win the same amount of money for one match?

Bring on the changes. Not that it means I will watch more matches, mind you, but I’m more likely to take a peek now and then.

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