US Open…Doubles Rarely Seen

By Mark Winters

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Doubles is rarely seen on the big courts…which is the result of a double-team in itself.

Those responsible for match scheduling prefer singles for two main reasons…to maximize ticket buyers and march to the tune played by television networks that are always looking to bugle-up viewer numbers.

Doubles rarely earns “Prime Time” spots in a day’s play…serving as a “Gates have just opened” kickoff, a “Time to get a snack and go to the restroom” break between singles matches or a “Fake value” nightcap in giving fans an extra match beginning so late that few are interested in staying to watch it.

It is ironic because recreational tennis, for the most part, is a doubles activity. Yet few “hobby players” seem interested in watching the best perform….

Overlooked is the fact that there is more to playing doubles effectively than bludgeoning the ball. It requires “reading…”, meshing with a partner; being in sync with an individual emotionally as well as during the points being played. First-class doubles is based on “innate feel…” for the game which should make it a thoroughly entertaining Grand Slam event…

The US Open Men’s and Women’s Doubles semifinals and finals had an abundance of backstories. Doubles specialists were showcased in the men’s last eight. In the top half of the draw, Rohan Bopanna of India and Matthew Ebden of Australia, the No. 6 seeds, downed the resuscitated but unseeded French duo Pierre-Hughes Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, the 2015 US Open titlists, 7-6, 6-2.

In the lower half, in a No. 3 edges No. 2 seed result, Rajeev Ram of the US and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain slipped past Ivan Dodig of Croatia and Austin Krajicek of the US, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3.

The “Keep it close…” theme carried over to the final as Ram and Salisbury, the 2020 Australian Open winners, survived a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 tussle.

Joe Salisbury and Rajeev Ram after claiming the title.
Photo: Darren Carroll/USTA

With the victory, they became the first team to win three US Open Men’s trophies in a row in… forever. Actually, it had been 109 years since Tom Bundy and Maurice McLoughlin, a California tandem, triumphed 1912 to ’14 when the tournament was the US National Championships.

(Historically, Bob and Mike Bryan of the US were Australian Open champions from 2009 through 2011. But Australian Todd Woodbrige owned the Gentlemen’s trophy pursuit at The Championships…in two sequences. From 1993 to 1997, he teamed with fellow “Woody” Mark Woodforde for titles at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Five years later, this time with Jonas Björkman of Sweden, he began a three-year doubles championship run at SW19.)

On the three-time success, Ram said, “A lot has to go right. You have to get really lucky.”

Waiting for the trophy ceremony to begin, Salisbury sat with his head covered by a towel in an effort to hide his tears. “I don’t know why this one seems more emotional than the others,” he admitted. “I don’t remember crying after any matches, especially not ones that we’ve won, even at the Grand Slams. There’s something about being here, about doing it, doing it again and doing it after the year we’ve had. We had some struggles, some pretty low times.”

He added, “It will be something that I will carry with me forever.”

Deservedly so… But so will a point played in the third set… Serving at 2-4, Ebden hit a forehand that skimmed Bopanna’s right elbow and went over the net for a winner. Bopanna instantly told the chair umpire (leading to his team losing the point). Fortunately, he reacted because the quickness of the point caused his opponents and the umpire to miss the “graze.”

Once made aware of what had taken place, the umpire explained the situation to the crowd, and they warmly applauded the sportsmanship.

Bopanna told the ATP media, “I don’t think anybody really saw it. So, I claimed it on myself. That’s the person I have been through my career. …It doesn’t matter what the scoreline or what the occasion of the match is…if something is not right, I will say something…”

During the trophy presentation Ram said, “Rohan and I are really close… We have been playing for the better part of 20, 25 years on tour together and I have never seen anything like that… It just shows what kind of guy he is and how deserving he is at this point in his career to be playing for these kinds of titles. I don’t have the words to say how much I appreciate the sportsmanship… You are an inspiration to all of us.”

Rohan Bopanna and Matthew Ebden in the final. Photo: Getty/Sportstar

The women’s last eight featured players with mixed involvements in the game. The semi in the draw’s top half pitted “Specialists” against “Both”, (meaning a tandem that also played the US Open Women’s Singles). Being more accurate, it featured “Recent” and “Renewed” pairings. Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe first played together at the Canadian Bank Open, in Montreal, this past August.

Dabrowski hails from Canada. Routliffe has a tapestry background, having trained and played for Canada (and happens to live in Ontario). While attending the University of Alabama, she was the 2014 and ’15 NCAA Women’s Doubles winner with Maya Jensen but represents New Zealand (where she was born). Adding to the weaving, Dabrowski stands 5’10” and Routliffe tops the tape at 6’3”.

Hsieh Su-wei and Wang Xinyu, the 5’7”and 6’0’ tall Taiwanese/Chinese 2023 Roland Garros champions, were their opponents. The taller tandem, seeded No. 16, crushed the No. 8 seeds, 6-1, 7-6.

It is important to mention that after they won this year’s Ladies’ Doubles at The Championships, Barbora Strýcová told Hsieh that she would be retiring at the US Open, so she should find another partner for New York.

Hsieh, who made her return to competition this spring at the Madrid Open after taking an 18-month tennis sabbatical to recover from injuries that had harassed her since 2019, wanted to qualify for the WTA Year-End Championships (and the Czech Republic star made it clear she would not play the tournament). This led to a reteaming with Wang. Prior to the loss, the 37-year-old Hsieh had compiled a 16 match, (including the two majors), Slam win streak in 2023.

Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva, a German and neutral player because she is Russian “Vets” combo have been trying to play beyond their years, (35 and 39 respectively) in singles, but thanks to their “Staying on the tour…” resilience, they are still formidable… in doubles.

In the draw’s bottom half semi, they faced “The Comebackers” Jennifer Brady of the US and Luisa Stefani. Brady, a 2015 UCLA All-American, who was off the tour for almost two years because of foot, ankle and knee problems, is more distinguished as a singles player having been a 2021 Australian Open finalist and 2020 US Open semi finalist. 

Stefani, a Brazilian who was a 2016 to ‘18 All-American while playing at Pepperdine University, suffered a horrific knee injury, (partnering Dabrowski) in the semifinals of the 2021 Women’s Doubles….Nonetheless, both had returned from the IR (Injured Reserve) and were playing together for the first time.

In 2020, Siegemund and Zvonareva, first time partners and unseeded, took home the Women’s Doubles trophy.  This year seeded No. 12, they demolished their unseeded opponents, 6-4, 6-1.

All the doubles finalists had “Reputations…” for being shaky in big matches situations… And they played to form. Both sides served and lost set points in the Tiebreak. Zvonareva made costly mistakes throughout the contest… Siegemund, who is known for often taking medical timeouts when she is behind, was in character and took one that briefly stemmed the flow of what was to come…Dabrowski and Routliffe winning 7-6, 6-3.

Hsieh Su-wei and Wang Xinyu in their semifinal. Photo: Rob Prange

Continuing the “asides…” the only other time Dabrowski had an opportunity to win a major was in 2019 but she and Xu Yifan of China lost 6-2, 6-4 in the Ladies’ Doubles final to Hsieh and Strýcová in London.

If doubles fills some stadium seats, Mixed Doubles appears to be a “Family members only…” affair. Usually there is so little interest in watching a match, all that needs to be done, once the assigned “outback” court has been found, is taking a seat.

Still, the seeding highlight of the tournament was Krajicek and Jessica Pegula being the only No. 1 seeds to reach a final…which was even more remarkable because previously the US partners had never won a Mixed Doubles match at a major.

This time their four-match streak was ended by Harri Heliövaara and Anna Danilina in the final. The “Just met, playing for the first time…” Finnish/Kazakhstani team was 6-3, 6-4 better.

Beyond the score, their tennis backgrounds were fascinatingly similar. Heliövaara first drew notice winning the 2007 Australian Boys’ Doubles with Graeme Dyce of Great Britain. He was back in the news when injuries brought about his retirement in 2013 and led him to attend the Aalto University in Espoo, Finland where he majored in Industrial Engineering & Management and graduated with honors in 2017.

Heliövaara’s “Too good to be true…” tale had additional chapters… While at university, he worked part-time… His shift began at 5 a.m. at the Helsinki Airport. Coincidentally, he met a full-time employee named Sini. As he has explained, they started dating; the relationship matured; and when they decided to marry, “…she didn’t sign up to be with a guy who was traveling the world playing tennis.”

Circumstances changed this spring… Already having had a daughter in May 2021, and learning that Sini would have their second child the Friday before The Championships began, Heliövaara told his partner Lloyd Glasspool of Great Britain (who was completely supportive and ended up playing with Mahut at SW19) that he was going to take tennis paternity leave following Roland Garros.

He pointed out that some tennis fans asked him “why are you doing this…playing The Championships is a dream for so many.” He countered explaining that his reality was different “…being a tennis player never happens in isolation. I have to combine everything in life and family is a very big part of life.”

Harri Heliövaara and Anna Danilina winning the Mixed Doubles final.
Photo: Andrew Ong/USTA

The Moscow born Danilina, began representing Kazakhstan in 2011. Like her partner, injuries forced her off the tour.

In 2015, making her way back to competition, Danilina decided to attend the University of Florida…and was a member of the 2017 Florida Women’s NCAA Championship Team (which is the same school US Open Men’s Singles semifinalist Ben Shelton attended). Graduating with an Economics degree in 2018, she first drew Slam notice teaming with Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia to reach the 2022 Australian Open Women’s Doubles final, and losing 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 to Barbora Krejčíková  and Kateřina Siniaková of the Czech Republic.

During the trophy ceremony Heliövaara thoughtfully said, “I didn’t know you two weeks ago. Now I know you very well…”

Danilina added, “I want to thank my partner… It was an amazing run…”

Now, if only Grand Slam doubles coverage, in the future, could match the run…

Title photo of Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe by Al Bello/WTA

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