Why do top Indian tennis players only win in doubles?

Sania Mirza has two Grand Slam titles. Mahesh Bhupathi has 12. Leander Paes has 13. All in doubles or mixed doubles, none in singles. Today, Paes is once again in the finals of the US Open men’s doubles. What gives?

Confession: I'm not much of a tennis player. I can hit the ball about, sure, make some fine shots every now and then. I also think I have something of a court sense and I like volleying. But ask me to keep up a rally beyond a few shots, or think a rally four or five shots ahead like the greats do, and I'll invariably make some stupid error.

Further confession: You should see me playing doubles. When I do, I manage to plumb ever-newer depths of tennis idiocy. I never know where to position myself on court in relation to my partner. I go for and usually fluff shots that are rightly my partner’s. I leave alone shots that my partner rightly expects me to take. In general, I feel on a doubles court like a headless chicken playing blindfolded.

To mix a metaphor. Or three.

And all this holds even though I've been playing, or trying to play, doubles since nearly the first day I picked up a racket. (Though I far prefer playing singles).

Conclusion: I simply cannot play this doubles game.

And yet, if it's at all true that in sports we mimic those among us who become stars – think cricketers who've modeled themselves on Viru Sehwag or Rahul Dravid, badminton players who want to play like Saina Nehwal – then I'm just baffled by my ineptness.

Because I must stack my doubles ignominy against the steady stream of outstanding doubles players India has produced, especially in the last several years. Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna, Sania Mirza – all have won or (in Bopanna's case) come close to winning Grand Slam titles. All have made good money and careers from their doubles talents and are respected on the doubles tour.

I mean, think of this. The 2013 US Open, into its 10th day as I write this, featured an Indian I bet most of us have not heard much about: Divij Sharan. But yes, he's another doubles player. He and a Taiwanese partner actually won a couple of rounds in the men's doubles before getting knocked out in the third.

I cannot help wondering: Why have none of these guys done as well in singles?

Though let's get some things down first: Paes has had substantial singles success. He won the junior Wimbledon and US Open titles, one tournament, has a match victory to savour over Pete Sampras, several spectacular Davis Cup matches and, perhaps above all, an Olympic bronze medal.

All in singles.

Sania Mirza was ranked as high as 27 in singles, was actually once seeded at Wimbledon, has also won a tournament; and she has beaten Marion Bartoli, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva. And India's best current player, Somdev Devvarman, focuses largely on singles, in which he consistently flirts with a top-100 ranking.

Despite these impressive records, both Mirza and Paes are now known as doubles specialists. The other players I mentioned above don't have anything like their kind of singles record.

So are top-flight Indian players somehow suited only for doubles? Why are they unable to succeed at singles at the highest level?

I think any answer to that has multiple facets.

Firstly, and this is just speculation: given how hard it is to find a court to play on in India – they are in short supply, they usually belong to exclusive clubs, they are often in terrible condition – if you're a player wanting a game, you often end up playing doubles. Because otherwise you keep folks waiting.

I had an odd exposure to this early one morning a few years ago at the courts near my home. When I got there, there was nobody else playing so I practiced my serve by myself. Three more men turned up 15 minutes later and sat watching me.

"Why don't you join me," I asked, "either one of you for some singles, or all three of you and we can play doubles?" (Of course you know which of those I really wanted to play). Politely, but pointedly, they declined. "We're waiting for our fourth," one of them explained. And they sat that way for another 15 minutes, when their fourth man arrived. That is, these guys would rather wait for a doubles game – and with their specific partners – than play singles.

My feeling is, the average Indian club player grows up playing plenty of doubles and, therefore, getting pretty good at the game. Notable exception: me.

Secondly, while top-flight doubles is a wonderfully quick and athletic game, having a partner does compensate for shortcomings in your game that would be swiftly exposed, and exploited, in singles.

Take just one example: If you're a righty and your forehand service return is better than your backhand, you might choose to play your doubles in the deuce court (on the right as you face the net). Because there, you reason, a serve out wide will make you stretch on the forehand, not the backhand, and at full stretch you have more faith in your forehand. Your partner can handle the wide-to-the-backhand serves in the ad court.

But in singles, you have to switch between the deuce and ad courts on every point. Your opponent will quickly figure out your backhand weakness and begin pounding it. Nowhere to hide, you see, on a singles court.

I think some of this applies to our top Indian players: they all have some weakness that they have never quite shaken, that a singles opponent would expose mercilessly.

Bhupathi has never been particularly quick around the court. Mirza has a superb forehand but a suspect backhand, and has had a string of fitness problems too. Bopanna's serve is a rocket, but the rest of his game doesn't quite match up.

And with Paes, Andre Agassi explained it best. The two faced off in the 1996 Olympics semi finals and Agassi wrote about that match in his wondrous biography Open:

"In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He's a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour's quickest hands. Still, he's never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs – he's the Brad [Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all his junk, he flies to the net, covers so well that it seems to work. After an hour, you feel as if he hasn't hit one ball cleanly – and yet he's beating you soundly. Because I'm prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6 6-3."

Says it all. Paes is swift, clever, a terrific volleyer – all those things. But a player like Agassi will quickly figure out his "junk" (and I don't think Agassi meant that word entirely as criticism), knuckle down, "stay patient" and win.

In his finely observed essay on world-class pro tennis, via the experience of the journeyman player Michael Joyce (The String Theory), David Foster Wallace makes the point I'm trying to make here. Wallace describes a match in which Joyce dismantles his opponent, a big Canadian player called Dan Brakus. Then: "Michael Joyce will later say that Brakus 'had a big serve, but the guy didn’t belong on a pro court.' Joyce didn’t mean this in an unkind way. Nor did he mean it in a kind way."

It's just the way things are at the top: if you have just one strength, you'll "get torn to pieces", which is another Wallace quote about what Joyce did to Brakus.

For a third and final point, playing singles is a lonely, single-minded (pun intended) business. It comes from the very nature of the game. You're out there on your own, battling your personal weaknesses and demons as much as you're battling the guy across the net. You have nobody – not even a partner on court – to turn to for help and encouragement. And what's more, you can be doing this for several hours at a stretch with – at the top level – thousands watching your every move. It has to be an unnerving, searching, all-encompassing examination of character. No other sport mixes nerves, skill and profound loneliness in quite the same way. No other sport throws you into that particular, peculiar cauldron like tennis does.

From his autobiography, The Outsider, this is Jimmy Connors's take: "It takes a strong, focused personality to be a singles player, and … I possessed that gene in spades." I'm not persuaded that any of the best Indian tennis players of the last several decades – going back to the Amritrajs and Krishnans – had that gene in spades.

This doesn't mean they can't have glittering tennis careers. But for me, it does go a way toward explaining their success in doubles. Given which, I'd be grateful for some tips.

Dilip D’Souza writes to keep his cats fed. This pursuit has resulted in four books (most recently, "The Curious Case of Binayak Sen" and "Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America".) and several writing awards (the Newsweek/Daily Beast Prize and the Outlook/Picador prize, among others). The cats seem happy. Follow him at https://twitter.com/DeathEndsFun


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