Doubles makes a big splash at ATP finals

Doubles makes a big splash at ATP finals

Published Dec. 15, 2009 2:22 a.m. ET

It has always been one of the great contradictions of the game -- the majority of club players play doubles yet few will bother to watch it at the professional level.

It has never been quite as simple as that, of course. Scheduling problems at major tournaments often mean that doubles gets put on outside courts at off-peak hours and even a revamp of the format -- no ad points and a tiebreaker in lieu of the third set -- has not significantly increased the amount of exposure doubles gets on television.

But none of the above was a factor at the ATP World Tour Finals, which ended Sunday in London. To their joy and disbelief, the world's top eight doubles teams found themselves performing in front of crowds that were never less than 12,000 and frequently as big as 16,000 day after day. And all of it on Tennis Channel.

"It's been really special," said Mike Bryan after he and his twin brother Bob ensured that the U.S. came away with some silverware by winning the doubles title over Max Mirnyi and Andy Ram. "Just looking up to see the packed house gets the adrenaline going. This is definitely the biggest showcase for doubles we've ever seen."

Even more amazing, perhaps, was the fact that Bryan was not just talking about the finals. At 12:30 pm on opening day well over 12,000 people were in their seats to see the first doubles of the tournament. And that proved to be the case at every session -- two a day, first a doubles then a singles.

The ATP tournament committee had talked long and hard about how they should present the matches, but the formula they eventually came up with proved near perfect. Chris Kermode, the tournament manager, had started out with a comfort zone of 125,000 tickets sold for the eight days.

"Considering the fact that this was the first year and that tennis on this scale had never been staged at the O2, which is the other side of London to Wimbledon, I thought that would have been a satisfactory figure," he said.

Kermode soon realized he had been far too conservative. In the end, 256,000 tickets were sold and tennis in Britain had risen to a new level.

The fact that the doubles played its full part in that was an added bonus. Bob Bryan caught the significance as a result of a visit to the O2 just before the tournament started.

"I went to a Beyonce concert here on the Monday night -- sold out, mind blower. Then coming here to play and seeing the exact same crowds was awesome. To take this huge pop star and then put tennis players out there and get the same draw ... just incredible."

Mark Knowles, the Bahamian who was closely involved with the doubles changes when he was on the ATP Players Council a couple of years ago, was equally thrilled at what he witnessed.

"The ATP have done brilliantly," he said. "They've given us a platform and we've seen the crowds respond. The people have come out and have reacted to what we have been able to provide. When we saw all those people in the stands, we were pretty pumped up. Playing in front of sparse crowds as we often have to, you don't get the same energy. That has not been a problem here and everyone's play has benefited, I think."

The success of this event in London has proved a couple of things. First, if you tell people you have the best in the world on offer and people believe it, they will come in droves -- even if they haven't heard of some of the players on view. Second, the attendances last week exploded the myth that no one in Britain is interested in tennis once Wimbledon is over. There is obviously a hunger for the sport that was not being satisfied. Now, for the next four years at least, it will be.

Richard Evans, who commentated at Wimbledon on BBC Radio for 20 years, has been covering tennis since the 1960s and has reported on more than 150 Grand Slams. He is the author of 15 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He lives in Florida but is still on the tour 20 weeks in the year.


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