Body and Mind

For Tennis, Two Are Better Than One

Players Taylor Townsend and Desirae Krawczyk go deep on why doubles is the best game in town.

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“TENNIS IS SO ... LONELY,” Andre Agassi wrote, in his famously raw 2009 autobiography, “Open.” “Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement. …”

Agassi was speaking, of course, of singles.

If singles resembles a moody night perched solo on a barstool, sipping a stiff bourbon, mulling over your life, doubles is a raucous club bender with your bestie. The agonizing self-talk of singles shifts to an uninterrupted stream of giddy directives in doubles, from staccato shouts: “You!” “Me!” “Go!” to muttered strategy behind fists, like wartime generals or little kids with walkie-talkies. Then there’s the nonsyllabic celebration: the whoops, the roars, the high-five-chest-bump hug. Or the earnest consolations, the pep talks in between sets.

But most delicious to watch and to experience as a player, is the silent communication — seemingly telepathic — of an excellent doubles team, moving with the deft sensitivity of ballroom dancers. Coaches tell you to shift with your partner as if attached by a bungee cord, but when you’re watching the most skillful doubles teams (historically, sibling duos such as the Bryan brothers and the Williams sisters), the effect is closer to pack hunting.

Singles led the way in tennis history, with Wimbledon’s first singles championships taking place for both men and women in 1884, but it took nearly three decades for doubles to follow. In public parks and country clubs across the U.S., most recreational and league matches are doubles, but at the U.S. Open and other major tournaments, it’s singles that grabs the spotlight. A perfect storm of prize money, TV coverage, and star players seeking bigger purses and fewer injuries means that singles matches are often packed, while doubles must settle for a smaller fanbase.

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When you listen to tennis doubles devotees and legends, however, it’s clear that the team aspect isn’t just fun for them, but it’s also where they come alive. Billie Jean King, who won 39 Grand Slams, was known to value her doubles titles more than her singles achievements.

Taylor Townsend, a popular American player rapidly rising up the doubles and singles ranks, reports that she’s able to access more fun and freedom on the doubles court. “I’m doing my thing, being myself,” she says. “It’s a lot less cerebral. I just play in doubles; I’m able to take myself and my emotions out of it.” In singles, she says she’s a lot harder on herself. She’s working on applying the buoyancy she finds in doubles to her singles matches, so she can be as compassionate with herself as she is with her doubles partner.

Some players, such as American Desirae Krawczyk, a former college player, swiftly become “doubles specialists” when they go pro. With 10 women’s doubles titles and four major mixed-doubles championships to her name, Krawczyk’s decision to focus on doubles has paid off. “I didn’t love singles as much my first year on tour,” Krawczyk says. “With doubles, I did well consistently and quickly. I had a lot more fun.” Winning, she adds, is “addictive.”

Krawczyk says she can’t wait to take on doubles competition at this year’s U.S. Open with her current partner, the formidable Dutch player Demi Schuurs. “It’s electric. I love the rowdy, city vibe and the night matches.” Krawczyk, known for her fierce baseline play, says she loves playing with Schuurs, who is “great at the net. We set each other up well.”


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Townsend, who will be playing with Canadian Leylah Fernandez in New York, says that the two enjoy a bond that goes beyond their feared lefty forehands. “We share the same values. She pushes me, and I push her. You have to find someone you can be real with.” The biggest anxiety many amateur doubles players face is disappointing their partners, something Townsend quickly dismisses as wasted energy. “You can’t worry about that,” she says. “You’ve got to focus on your own game. Nobody ever plays perfectly together.”

Perhaps doubles, in our individualist-obsessed culture, will never receive the adulation of singles. But think of it as the cool indie band with a cult following, with sick angles and lightning reflexes that singles could never come up with. Everyone knows about Novak Djokovic’s serve returns. But if you want to hear stellar Grand Slam trash-talking, check out Taylor Townsend in mixed doubles. “Come on, hit me!” she hollered at the net in a Wimbledon second-round match, as Marcelo Arévalo prepared to take an approach shot. Now that’s punk rock.


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Our Contributors

Brittani Sonnenberg Writer

Brittani Sonnenberg is the author of the novel “Home Leave,” which was selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Texas Monthly, Lit Hub, Travel and Leisure, Racquet Magazine and NPR. She is based in Austin, Texas.

Michael Dunbabin Illustrator

Michael is an illustrator based in the northwest of England. He has previously worked for The New Yorker, The L.A times, Rolling Stone, and Barrons.

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