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MATCH POINT: Djokovic-Krajinovic seal Paris Masters opener

For only the third ATP event this year, Novak Djokovic has added doubles to his program. Paired with fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic in the Rolex Paris Masters, on Monday, the two won their first-round match, beating Australians Luke Saville and Alex de Minaur, 4-6, 6-4, 10-7. Come Wednesday, Djokovic-Krajinovic will play the sixth-seeded team of John Peers and Filip Polasek.

To fans around the world and those in attendance, the chance to see a superstar like Djokovic be tested in another discipline is both captivating and edifying. To Peers and Polasek, who last month won Indian Wells, it’s a chance to go toe-to-toe versus the very best. To tournament organizers, it’s yet another way to add sizzle and draw spectators, viewers and media coverage. For Djokovic, it’s a chance to both showcase and build skills—assets he might well need when Serbia plays Davis Cup next month.

But the sober reality of contemporary tennis is that the vast majority of singles players rarely play doubles. As of this Monday, Djokovic over the course of his career had played 1,176 singles matches – and 132 in doubles. Contrast this with John McEnroe: 1,081 singles and 647 doubles. Even further down the ranks, the decline in participation is clear. Australian legend Mark Woodforde reached a career-high ranking of 19 in the world in 1996. Over the course of more than a decade as a pro, Woodforde played 631 singles and 895 doubles matches. In contrast, the man currently ranked 19, Denis Shapovalov, has competed 240 times in singles and 79 in doubles.

The reason usually cited for the lack of singles players entering the doubles is that tennis has become far too physical, that the harsh demands of competition versus increasingly deeper fields have made doubles too much of a threat to the bigger quest for singles glory. To a degree, this has always been true. The late Dennis Ralston, a star player in the ‘60s, once told me that, “At a big event like Wimbledon, it can really compromise you to play a long singles match and then have to go out and play a doubles match right after. That can wreck you for the next day with everything from recovery to practice. You’d hate to have that happen while you were competing at a major.” While on five occasions McEnroe won the singles and doubles titles at the same major, no man has done that since Yevgeny Kafelnikov’s Roland Garros twin run in 1996.

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Djokovic and Krajinovic are reuniting on the doubles court for the first time since February's ATP Cup.

Djokovic and Krajinovic are reuniting on the doubles court for the first time since February's ATP Cup.

Economics also plays a big role here. McEnroe’s payday for winning the 1979 US Open singles title was $39,000. First round losers that year received $525. So the chance back then to take home an additional $7,875 with a doubles triumph was motivational for all, from McEnroe (who won it that year with Peter Fleming) through the ranks. In contrast, 2021 US Open singles winner Daniil Medvedev earned $2.5 million. More significantly, first round singles losers won $75,000. Yet even McEnroe was an outlier. Such top-tier rivals of his as Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas and Ivan Lendl only played doubles at the majors in the early stages of their career.

But there’s also a stylistic factor. Ever since the emergence of Connors and Borg in the early ‘70s, tennis with each passing decade has become more and more of a baseline-based game. For players like Ralston, McEnroe and the entire cadre of Australians that ruled the sport from 1950-’75, a serve-and-volley singles style went hand-in-hand with the way doubles was played. Roy Emerson, winner of a men’s record 28 majors (12 singles, 16 doubles) between 1959 and ’71, once noted that during all the years he played Wimbledon, he never once served and stayed back at the baseline. Since Emerson’s volley-dominant time, everything from the ascent of the two-handed backhand to topspin-heavy groundstrokes, composite racquets, polyester strings and slower court surfaces have strongly tipped the table in favor of the baseliner. A youngster seeking to build a playing style like Borg or Djokovic has a hard time seeing the value of coming to net as anything more than a diversionary tactic.

Yet while there’s plausibility in skipping doubles at the majors, why not play it at least occasionally at other events? From a standpoint of promoting pro tennis, it certainly would aid the cause of these great many non-Slam tournaments that work hard to find sponsors and generate attendance and media coverage. To see a wide range of singles players in doubles offers yet another glimpse into their personalities. That said, the needs of a promoter are not always in sync with the physical, mental and emotional challenges a globetrotting professional player faces.

Perhaps instead, on a more personal basis, might current pros view doubles as a way to gain a competitive advantage? The BNP Paribas Open, the Masters 1000 event played in Indian Wells, Calif., takes place over two weeks. But because the men’s singles draw is never larger than 96 players and all singles matches are two-out-of-three sets, there’s ample capacity for doubles. Rafael Nadal has entered eleven times, twice winning the title. Quite likely, the time Nadal spent playing the kind of transitional points seen only in doubles significantly aided the front court movements and strokes that helped him win Wimbledon twice. For another edifying example, see how much playing doubles has enhanced Coco Gauff’s game. Surely, such rising young players as Jannik Sinner, Sebastian Korda, Jenson Brooksby and many others could borrow a page from Nadal and Gauff and use doubles as a way to broaden their arsenals.