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Perfect Partner

Nov. 18, 2002
Nov. 18, 2002

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Nov. 18, 2002

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Perfect Partner

Australia's Todd Woodbridge is practically a lock to break the record for men's doubles championships

By L. Jon Wertheim Editied by Kostya Kennedy and Richard Deltsch

Todd Woodbridge is, as they say in his native Australia, a fair dinkum bloke. Translation: He's a genial, unassuming guy with whom you'd want to share beers. You risk provoking a barroom brawl, however, if you characterize him as a "doubles specialist" on the tennis court. "I hate being called that," he says dyspeptically. "My philosophy has always been to be an all-around player. That means playing in the backcourt and at the net, playing on all surfaces and playing singles and doubles."

This is an article from the Nov. 18, 2002 issue Original Layout

Yet Woodbridge is a singles player in the same way that Elvis was an actor. A few minor titles, a cameo appearance in the top 25 and a run to the Wimbledon semifinals in 1997 are nothing to shake a titanium stick at, but they're dwarfed by his record with a partner. Put simply, Woodbridge might be the best male doubles player the sport has known. Coupled with fellow Aussie Mark Woodforde, he won 11 Grand Slam titles. When the Woodies, as they were called, disbanded in 2000 upon Woodforde's retirement, Woodbridge partnered with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman and won two more Slam events, including this year's Wimbledon. Further, Woodbridge has won six Grand Slam mixed doubles titles with four partners (box, above). Overall he has won 74 men's doubles titles, just four short of the record set by Tom Okker. Given that Woodbridge, 31, recently stopped competing in singles and plans to play doubles full time through the '04 Olympics, odds are good that he'll break the record. "I'm always telling fans," says John McEnroe, himself a fair doubles player in his day, "'Watch this guy while he's still out there.'"

Still, Woodbridge isn't feted like a player who will require wall space at the tennis Hall of Fame. In part it's because he cuts an unassuming figure. If he travels with an entourage, it comprises his wife, Natasha, their two-year-old daughter, Zara, and their three-month-old son, Beau. But Woodbridge is also overlooked because men's doubles has never carried less prestige than it has today. As fewer and fewer tennis stars deign to play alongside a partner, doubles has become something of a subsport. With varying degrees of success, the ATP has tried--by cutting the size of draws and the length of matches, for instance--to bolster the status of doubles, lure bigger names and clean out the maligned "specialists," who make mad money but don't sell tickets.

"No one wants to see guys lose their jobs," says Woodbridge, who is also the president of the ATP players' council, "but I do understand the financial realities." The tour, he says, should "do everything to get the big-time singles guys to play." This is partly rooted in self-interest. Woodbridge and Bjorkman have a better chance of making news and playing in front of big crowds when their opponents are big names. But Woodbridge also thinks that if players were in both the singles and doubles draws, the quality of men's tennis would improve. "All these guys lose in the first round and then do nothing but sulk and practice for a week," he says. "Wouldn't it be better for them to enter the doubles draw and play matches that mean something? Playing doubles can help you with so many skills that, I swear, some of these [singles-only] guys have rocks in their heads."

Singles and doubles might use the same basic strokes, but psychologically the two games are immensely different. Singles players, intensely self-absorbed by nature, are unaccustomed to trusting teammates and conferring with them about strategy. "That's where Todd is so good," says Woodforde. "He has this unshakable confidence not just in himself but in the team. He can totally give himself to the partnership. Whether it comes from too much or too little ego, a lot of guys can't do that."

Woodbridge has plenty of game, too. He's only 5'10" and won't win any serving contests, but he has exceptionally quick hands, anticipates well and comes up with angles that would impress Euclid. Plus, he has no real weakness. "The array of shots, the mix of styles, reflex shots at the net, serving and volleying--it's all there in doubles," he says. "I just wish that all the [pros] were as enthusiastic about it as I am."

It's the lament of a living legend, one who hopes he's not practicing a dying art.

COLOR PHOTO: RON C. ANGLE/TPL

 

Thanks, Mates

These six players, including Bjorkman (above right, with Woodbridge at Wimbledon in July), have helped Woodbridge win 19 Grand Slam men's and mixed doubles titles.

PARTNER AUSTRALIAN OPEN FRENCH OPEN WIMBLEDON U.S. OPEN

Jonas Bjorkman 2001 -- 2002 -- Mark Woodforde 1992,'97 2000 1993--97, 2000 1995--96 Arantxa Sanchez- 1993 1992 -- -- Vicario Elizabeth Smylie -- -- -- 1990 Rennae Stubbs -- -- -- 2001 Helena Sukova -- -- 1994 1993