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Tennis

Longing for the days when the game's giants played doubles

Bucharest, October of 1972. A crowd gathers eagerly for the doubles match between the United States and the host Romanians in the Davis Cup final. Stan Smith and Erik Van Dillen know they'll be in for a severe test of their talent and, more important, their emotional stability. The two men on the other side of the net are Ilie Nastase, commonly known as "Nasty," and the glowering Ion Tiriac, once labeled "Count Dracula" by former Sports Illustrated writer Curry Kirkpatrick.

Now, that's my idea of an intriguing doubles match.

Somewhere along the line -- and it's safe to pinpoint the mid-1980s -- doubles lost its way. It remains one of the great athletic spectacles when performed at the elite level, but the details are largely a mystery to the general public. Even hardcore tennis fans drift in and out of partisanship. Whether it's Davis Cup, Wimbledon or another Grand Slam event, it's something one can afford to miss.

The caliber of play is hardly the issue. You know that if you've watched Bob and Mike Bryan systematically outclass opponents with their uncanny quickness and anticipation. This is more about star power, and the fact that the world's best-known players seldom go anywhere near a doubles match.

All this came to mind Monday night as I watched the great John McEnroe play a doubles exhibition at the SAP Open in San Jose. He's no longer prepared to race around a singles court for three hours (he turns 53 on Thursday), but McEnroe remains a master at the net. Teamed with the youthful Jack Sock against Gael Monfils and Steve Johnson, the NCAA singles champion from USC, McEnroe crafted sublime volley winners of all kind, reminding people that he'll likely go down as the greatest doubles player who ever lived.

And yet, without McEnroe or some other legend from the past, few fans would have cared about a doubles exhibition. People thrive on familiarity in any sport, a sense of who's playing and what they've accomplished. These days in tennis, mainstream sports fans don't start paying attention until the singles quarterfinals of a major.

As great as they are, the Bryan twins represent the problem -- at least from this viewpoint. They are, almost literally, the same guy on court. It's a little bit creepy to watch them so ridiculously in tune with each other's strategy and celebratory gestures. More intriguing is a stylistic contrast, the kind we saw so often in the past: Rod Laver-Roy Emerson, Arthur Ashe-Tom Okker, Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova (they rarely played together, but they won the 1976 Wimbledon). Perhaps the greatest men's team of them all, McEnroe and Peter Fleming, mixed a brooding, scruffy genius with a suave power broker, connected by East Coast roots and a thirst for sarcasm.

Can you imagine Jimmy Connors playing doubles with Nastase? They didn't just scare people; they won the 1973 Wimbledon and the '75 U.S. Open. Navratilova and Pam Shriver were total opposites in many ways, but they won five Wimbledons in six years (1981-86) and four out of five U.S. Opens (1983-87).

Some would put Venus and Serena Williams in the Bryans' category, but I never saw it that way. In carving out one of the most impressive records of modern times, Venus and Serena unveiled their true personalities in doubles. It was all about laughter, sisterhood, unbridled dominance; they should have been arrested, they had so much fun (and may yet, in the London Olympics).

It's rare, though, to see genuine superstars playing doubles on today's tour. To say the least, that wasn't always the case.

Take it all the way back to the Roaring Twenties, when French tennis aficionados believed they owned the four greatest players in the world -- Rene Lacoste, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon -- and were delighted to watch those "Four Musketeers," as they were called, contest the French Open doubles finals of 1925, '27 and '29. The top players didn't always travel to Paris in those days, but in the United States, the elegant and charismatic Bill Tilden brought tennis into the public's consciousness and was a dominant doubles player (four titles) at the U.S. Championships throughout that decade.

By the post-World War II years, the French doubles finals were a kaleidoscope of delight, featuring the likes of Pancho Gonzalez, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Tony Trabert, Pancho Segura and a couple of men known best for their coaching, Harry Hopman and Lennart Bergelin.

The global centers of attention, then as now, were Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. In the post-war years at the All England Club, it was a matter of routine to see the very best women in the world -- Maureen Connolly, Doris Hart, Shirley Fry, Louise Brough, Margaret Osborne -- in doubles finals. As the years went on, whatever the Grand Slam venue, fans were treated to the sight of such doubles teams as Maria Bueno-Althea Gibson, Navratilova-Billie Jean King (probably the two best doubles player in the history of the women's game), Margaret Court-Virginia Wade, Stan Smith-Bob Lutz, Hoad-Rosewall and John Newcombe-Tony Roche, among countless others featuring the most compelling names of the day.

Money, not surprisingly, became a life-changing factor. McEnroe and Navratilova never gave up the passion, and such names as Stefan Edberg, Pat Cash, Goran Ivanisevic and Steffi Graf had major doubles impact in the 1980s, but a new day was at hand. It wasn't long before the most successful teams struck a rather distant chord with the public: Fitzgerald-Jarryd, Flach-Seguso, Leach-Pugh, Fernandez-Zvereva, Novotna-Savchenko, the Jensen brothers (amazingly, they won the '93 French) and the record-shattering pair of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge.

That's not going to change, regrettably. You won't see many of the top players pairing up, with the exception of Davis Cup/Fed Cup commitments, and it's rare to see a Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal engaging in such whimsy (they teamed up together in Toronto last year, and promptly lost in the first round).

We are left, mostly, with the memories. In the 1992 Davis Cup final, the U.S. and Switzerland were tied 1-1 as the doubles match arrived. On a storied team that included Andre Agassi and Jim Courier, McEnroe and Pete Sampras were assigned the doubles against Marc Rosset and Jakob Hlasek. It was a tense, emotional match, and in a recent interview, Courier recalled McEnroe "getting in Pete's face and getting him fired up. It was kind of wild to see."

McEnroe and Sampras prevailed, the U.S. went on to clinch the tie, and a page of history was written. At San Jose's HP Arena on Monday, McEnroe resurrected a few of those memories. He played to the crowd all night (the man has decent comedic timing) and patiently signed autographs afterward. When a couple of fans offered him rackets to sign, he paused to give proper due. They were wooden rackets -- like McEnroe, remnants of another time.

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