Montreal is an appropriate location for a doubles championship, since it is the maddening law of the land that everything said or written comes double, English and French, Francois et Anglais. Not since Canada inflicted upon us Robert Goulet, who can't sing the national anthem in any language, have men of goodwill been forced to listen to anything as torturous as four days of doubles announced in duplicate: "Advantage, avantage...double faute, double fault." But mercifully, doubles is so fine a game to watch that one can endure assaults to the other senses nicely, nicely.
When practiced by the new champions, Bob Hewitt and Frew McMillan of South Africa, doubles is also an art form, as presumably swordplay, surgery and marriage are at their highest levels. Performing with grace, precision and élan, the South African pair utterly outclassed a field of the best eight teams on the World Championship Tennis tour in the only major doubles tournament there is. To make $20,000 apiece, they clobbered Swedes in the quarters, Americans in the semis and Australians in the finals, whipping the Forest Hills titleholders, John Newcombe and Owen Davidson, 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, 6-2.
Doubles is sort of a handsome stepchild. It is often more exciting than singles, with longer rallies and more strategy, and most of the spectators who also play the game are more attuned to doubles. What Bill Tilden said half a century ago still suffices: "People enjoy doubles more than singles because they have to do less work, have a partner to blame for defeat and someone to listen to their gripes as they play."
But despite its popularity, doubles is given short shrift in the big time. As recently as 1971, for example, the U.S. Men's Doubles Championship at Forest Hills was considered so trifling that everybody concerned was content to let the finalists play a nine-point tie breaker instead of a last set to determine the winners. And when it comes to doubles, money is no object. Indeed, it barely exists at all. World Championship Tennis awards just $900 each to the doubles winners of its regular weekly tournaments—and that is only $400 more than the losers of the first-round singles matches get.
May 12, 1974
"It's ridiculous," says McMillan. "Far more people identify with doubles, and it's usually a better game, because with four players instead of two there's less chance of one side dominating the other. Yet here tennis is getting more and more commercial, and its best product is going begging."
Although the casual clothes that most pro tennis players wear off the court might suggest otherwise, none of them has taken formal vows of poverty. As a consequence, instead of hustling for doubles pittances, some either just go through the motions or tank outright. After both members of a team have been eliminated in singles, the pay scale all but encourages them to dump their doubles so they can go on to the next tournament and practice for the big singles money. When a change of surface is involved—say, when the tour is moving from a fast artificial court to slow clay—so many teams may be dumping that it can look more like a superfecta race at the trots than tennis. "You see your opponents across the net having a conference," says one of the Montreal qualifiers, "and you wonder whether they're planning to hit out or into the net." Sometimes clever surrender strategy is demanded. In his book Match Point, Marty Riessen recalls a tournament a couple of years ago in which he and his partner, Tom Okker, lost purposely in order to make an early departure. In the locker room, players will openly joke about their intentions to take a doubles dive.
"The Montreal tournament has helped the situation," Newcombe says. "When I played WCT two years ago, before they had this championship, the dumping was commonplace, but this year, at least in our group, I could count on one hand the matches that were thrown outright." Still, even if a clear-cut fix isn't in, the players are not going to give the customers their money's worth so long as doubles money remains a bagatelle.
"Right after we qualified for this," says another Montreal player, "we had some matches that got started late in the afternoon, and when we couldn't beat the other guys in straight sets, all of a sudden I started thinking, what the hell do I want to win this thing for and have to hang around for a couple hundred bucks, which will just about cover my hotel and taxes."
At least the situation is being recognized. Already the Grand Prix circuit has begun to determine its singles finalists by including some consideration of doubles performance, and last week in Montreal the players were discussing a proposed new prize schedule that would allot 20% of the total money to doubles. Mike Davies, the WCT executive director, agreed that a doubles hike within that range was called for. Certainly 20% ought to be the minimum amount. Doubles is 20% of the Davis Cup, for example, while the women's Wightman Cup is 29% doubles, and both the Federation Cup (for women) and the new World Team Tennis are one-third doubles. But beyond what the promoters pay, the players themselves—and notably their powerful guild, the Association of Tennis Professionals—are going to have to police themselves and denounce the hanky-panky if they want to retain the public's faith in all facets of the game.
Another problem that doubles surfers from is the lack of team continuity. Few pairs stay together long enough to become any sort of entity. Not since 1959 have the same two players won Wimbledon and the U.S. title in the same year, and the political splintering of the game makes it increasingly difficult for teams to stick together for any length of time. WTT, which opens this week, will only accelerate that trend; even the McMillan and Hewitt team will be split up for much of the rest of the year. The prototype modern doubles champion is Roy Emerson, who has won more Big Three (Wimbledon, French, U.S.) doubles titles than any player in history by playing doubles like Zsa Zsa Gabor plays marriage. In one stretch back in the '60s, Emerson won six straight French championships—with five different partners. And the vogue is toward convenience couplings. On the WCT tour this year, such bizarre combinations as an Englishman-Mexican, Yugoslav-Aussie, New Zealander-Egyptian and Italian-Rumanian not only competed together but actually won tournaments. Doubles, sadly, is no longer a game between regular teams, but between these two guys and those two guys.
The major exception is Hewitt-McMillan, who have played together since late 1966—last year excepted when Hewitt was out with a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Hewitt is an expatriate Aussie who could never break into Davis Cup Coach Harry Hopman's lineup. Hopman found his temperament suspect and, indeed, Hewitt generally deports himself puerilely on court. Last week he even cursed some of the players' wives and girl friends when they clapped on a lost point by the South Africans during their semifinals match. The outburst was made all the more embarrassing because WCT boss Lamar Hunt, who had been politely moving among the players' ladies like the President at the Army-Navy game, was then seated just a few feet away from them with Mrs. Hewitt.
By contrast, McMillan, a Scotchman on both sides (Frew, which diligent proofreaders carefully change to Fred, is his mother's maiden name), is mannerly if expressionless, his face alternately vacant and stony beneath his tidy white Sluggo cap. The two partners seldom bother with each other off the court—a venue, incidentally, where Hewitt is invariably decorous.
Like Davidson, both Hewitt and McMillan were below .500 as singles players on the WCT tour. Hewitt, bald and broad in the beam, moves, by his own account, at a "waddle," while McMillan, though fast, is so slender his shorts hang at his waist as if they had been put out to dry on the line, and he is limited in range since he hits two-handed from both sides. But these deficiencies are of slight consequence in doubles, where McMillan only has to mind half a court with his zip reflexes and Hewitt's facile touch can offset his lead feet. He has such a feel for the ball that, when he is distracted or anguished between points, he will call for a ball and sort of play with it, massaging it with his racket, like a painter doodling or a tailor fondling a fine fabric.
Top-flight doubles, especially as these two play it, is more a three-dimensional game than singles. The key is not so much how the players move horizontally as how the ball is directed vertically. You seek, in the players' vernacular, to hit down on the ball (not, say, long or hard). The crucial shot is not the serve that begins the point, or the volley that ends it, but the return of serve, which invariably determines who will control the action, who will be hitting down. In the semis, for example, where the South Africans beat Ashe and Roscoe Tanner in straight sets, Tanner got a high proportion of hard first serves in, but Hewitt and McMillan simply chipped the ball back low at his feet and broke three of the first four games he served.
"You hold the whip when you serve," McMillan explains, "but you can take the whip for yourself with your return." Considering the angle of delivery and the position of the netman opposite, a player returning serve has little more than a third of a court to aim for. "But once we're returning steady," Newcombe says, "we'll get a forehand as the next shot 90% of the time, because our man at the net blocks any return to our backhands."
Newcombe and Davidson enjoy this edge because Davidson is a lefty, giving them forehands on both wings. Newcombe, a forehand-court (right-side) player, has almost always been paired with lefties, which is crucial to him now because doubles is such a game of angles, and he is used to a left-handed back-court partner determining what angles opponents must play back to him. Newcombe and Davidson are not as classic a team as the South Africans, since so much depends upon Newcombe and, in the negative sense, upon how well the opposition can exploit Davidson's weak backhand and limited serve. But the two Aussies are extremely close friends—mates. Both live in Texas now and sport similar tastes in mustaches, beer and wives named Angie.
Davidson, blunt but extremely popular, possesses consummate good taste in partners since he plays mixed doubles with Billie Jean King. Newcombe, the heavy favorite for the WCT singles championship this week, is now at the height of his powers, although his career has had an inordinate lack of attention. His thrilling comeback victory over Jan Kodes in the finals at Forest Hills last fall received only cursory notice, for example, though it was by all odds one of the cleverest, most courageous and proficient victories in the tournament's history. Newcombe has already won 16 Big Three titles, more than any modern player except Emerson and Tilden. Still a couple weeks short of 30, Newcombe will surely retire as the all-time tennis titlist.
It is rare that Newcombe loses an important final, so the South Africans' devastating victory last Sunday counts that much more for them. After a slow start on the tour, as Hewitt worked himself back into shape, he and McMillan have come on strong, have won 21 of their last 22 matches and are clearly the class of tennis. They broke Newcombe the first time he served and Davidson almost at will (seven of nine times) and, except for a wavy spot in the second set when McMillan got caught in sloppy errors coming to the net after his serve, they were never in trouble.
The South Africans are at their finest with Hewitt serving his twisting stuff, while McMillan, like a little boy made to go sit in the corner, camps by the net. Hewitt, first dinking and cutting, will suddenly make the telling, forcing shot, enabling McMillan, this specter, this apparition in a hat, two hands clutching the racket like an umbrella in a storm, to launch himself out of the corner and either kill the ball or slice it neatly into an opening.
The whole tenor of the final was established in the first game when Newcombe was broken—14 times he served, 14 times the ball came back, and usually right at his feet. In the first set the South Africans only twice failed to make service returns.
This forced the Australians to serve harder, which meant a few aces, and it even got them the second set. There at mutual set point, 6-6 in the tie breaker, Davidson snuck a dandy first serve down the middle and Hewitt could not handle it with his backhand. But it also meant double faults and second serves and wasted energy—all bogeymen in a percentage game like doubles.
Then the South Africans, like a marauding division of army ants, just went on nibbling the opposition to death. They possess intuition that is eerie; they never even have to call "out" to one another when a ball appears to be hit long. In the whole tournament just once did they not go for a ball that fell in.
"If you saw those two guys practicing on a court somewhere and you didn't know who they were," Ashe said ruefully a few hours before they cleaned his clock, "you'd think anybody on your block could beat them." But the fact is the bald guy with the paunch and the skinny kid with the cap, who look like a pickup father-and-son team, can beat everybody in the world, which they just did. And no fix was in for the doubles this week.