Coco Gauff and former partner Catherine McNally reached the BNP Paribas Open quarterfinals last year.
PHOTOS VIA GETTY
Last March, en route to an astonishing 37 consecutive match wins and six consecutive tournament titles, Polish tennis player Iga Świątek claimed the women’s title at the BNP Paribas Open tournament. American Taylor Fritz won the men’s, beating three-time champion Rafael Nadal, who is to tennis as Lionel Messi is to soccer. No wonder the tournament at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden draws global media coverage and the largest attendance of any tennis event outside of the four Grand Slams.
In tournament tennis, singles competition always gets headlines, but at Indian Wells, doubles gets respect. Many of the sophisticated spectators here relish what most sports media all but ignore. Even if you live in the Coachella Valley, you likely won’t see the doubles results on the nightly sportscast unless a local is playing.
You have to wonder why. Doubles tennis is widely perceived as more exciting than singles, with superior speed and the aggressive net play for which a singles match might as well hold a moment of silence. Many players, professional or pathetic, claim that doubles is more fun than singles.
Pam Shriver, a commentator for ESPN and the Tennis Channel, won 112 doubles titles, including 22 Grand Slams, 20 of those with partner Martina Navratilova. “We had a blast,” she says. “We had great chemistry. Obviously, it’s fun when you win, too, right? For two years and four months we didn’t lose a match.”
Tennis GOAT Roger Federer’s last professional match in September was a profoundly emotional, wildly popular doubles game with partner Nadal at the Laver Cup in London. Yet only a tennis nerd can name the No. 1 doubles teams ranked by the men’s Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association. (There are no formal ratings for mixed doubles, and many tournaments, including Indian Wells, do not contest it.)
Shriver and Navratilova worked the Federer/Nadal Laver Cup match for the Tennis Channel with ATP singles/doubles player Reilly Opelka. “Once it was over, there really weren’t any words to say,” Shriver says. “That’s like once-in-a-lifetime doubles. We’ll never see that again.”
Throughout their 20-year careers, Bob and Mike Bryan were the most successful doubles team ever, with 118 career titles, 16 Grand Slam titles, and two wins at Indian Wells. Native Southern Californians, they spent 438 weeks as the No. 1–ranked doubles team. There is no greater advocate for the game than their father and coach, Wayne Bryan. “If you took the top 10 singles points [played] at the U.S. Open,” he says, “and compared them to the top 10 doubles points, there would be no comparison. The doubles would obliterate singles [with] just the craziness of points and the entertainment value.”
“If you go to any public park or club on a Saturday morning, nine of the 10 courts will be playing doubles.”
The BNP Paribas Open, he says, gets it. “The founders of the tournament, Charlie Pasarell and Raymond Moore, were both excellent doubles players,” Bryan says, “and they emphasized doubles at this tournament. Indian Wells has come to be known as one of the top doubles formats in the world. All the top players play, the crowds love the doubles there, they put it on big courts.” His sons, he says, “always considered it their home tournament.”
Moore attributes his tournament’s doubles success to several factors. One of them is the Bryan brothers, who have both a Southern California and international following. “As a top-ranked doubles team for so many years,” he says, “they brought visibility to doubles at Indian Wells.”
Another factor is the choice booking the BNP Paribas Open enjoys in the nearly yearlong professional tennis season. Singles players are obliged by the ATP and WTA to participate in a certain number of tournaments at certain levels, and Indian Wells is the first 1000-level event of the year. (Only the Grand Slams rate higher.) Top singles players often play doubles at Indian Wells, Moore said, because if they lose early in the singles draw, they get additional practice and competition where both the weather and the golf are first rate. “We take care of those players,” Moore says, meaning that their expenses are covered.
Early-season competition brings fresher bodies to an increasingly physical sport. Shriver compares Indian Wells to the WTA Finals, where the top eight players and teams compete at the end of the season in November. In 2022, American doubles partners Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula also played singles and were clearly gassed. “They went 0-for-9 collectively,” Shriver recalls. “That was tough to watch … the way they were is how hard it is in today’s game to make the championships in both events. … It’s a rarity [to qualify for both], and I think we saw why.”
Bryan concurs. “At the end of any tennis season, most of the guys are injured.” At the last ATP Masters 1000 in 2022, he ays, two players ranked in the top eight were out because of injuries. “You’re never going to see a guy, in my opinion, that is No. 1 in the world in both singles and doubles.”
“In a way,” he says, “Indian Wells is the start of the spring hard court season.” There’s a break in the mandatory-participation tournaments after the Australian Open, the season’s first Grand Slam, in January. So, by March, “Everybody’s fired up, and wants to play singles and doubles,” Bryan says. “Let’s face it, all the players love being in Indian Wells. They like the golf, and the weather is astonishing that time of year. Quite often it’s 75 degrees on the valley floor and they look up and see snowcapped peaks. My God. You can go all over the world and not see that. And fans come from all over the world.”
Tournament length could be a factor here. Including qualifying rounds, the BNP Paribas Open lasts two weeks. Many of the 1000-level tournaments last a week or 10 days. “It’s very tough for a top singles player who envisions himself going to the finals to play singles and doubles in the same tournament,” Bryan says.
Billie Jean King isn’t buying any of it, not Indian Wells’ propitious scheduling, its length, nor the blessed weather. “The majors [Grand Slams] are two weeks,” she points out, “and doubles isn’t popular there among the A players.”
So what accounts for the success of doubles in the desert? In typically unfiltered fashion, King says, “They probably pay the A players to play doubles.”
“We don’t [pay] and have never paid appearance fees,” Moore says. Appearance fees at high-level pro events violate the rules. Lower-level tournaments often pay name-brand players for “promotional services,” such as attending clinics and sponsor events, and for marketing, but they’re not a factor at elite tournaments.
Still, money talks. “Look at the prize money difference between singles and doubles,” Shriver says. Last year, singles champions of the BNP Paribas Open each earned $1,231,245. The doubles champs split $426,000 — almost $100,000 more than in 2016. (Grand Slam Wimbledon, by comparison, paid $2,429,000 to each singles champ, and $656,000 to the doubles team.) The payday gap has widened since regulated tour tennis evolved into a prize-money sport more than 50 years ago. According to Shriver, “Doubles was more important in the history of tennis.”
King couldn’t agree more. As a founder of the WTA in 1973, she was resolute that doubles was the bigger draw. She suggested to the 60-some incipient members that 80 percent of their prize money go to the doubles competition. The players demurred, she says, even though all the early WTA members played both singles and doubles. “I started out as a great doubles player. It made me a great singles player.
“We wanted the members to understand business and the audience, as well as their own athletic success,” King says about her effort to compensate doubles disproportionately. But, she concedes, “Ask any athlete about change, and they resist. Athletes don’t like change.”
Today, she says, “It’s different from the old days, when
A players played doubles. Few do now.”
The 2022 U.S. Open, a Grand Slam, was anomalous, however, when the Williams sisters played doubles in prime time. It was Serena’s last tournament as a pro, and Shriver says, it was one of the highest-rated tennis matches of the year for ESPN. “It didn’t matter who they were playing.”
Apart from prize money, doubles competitions suffer from anemic promotion by tournament owners. The BNP Paribas Open might be the head of this underachieving class.
Wayne Bryan recalls 2009, when sons Mike and Bob defeated Federer and his partner in a first-round stadium match at Indian Wells. Next, they beat Nadal and his partner in a grandstand. Both courts were packed. Ditto in 2014, when Federer and Stan Wawrinka played the first match of the day, a time that typically attracts slimmer crowds. It was held in Stadium 1, the premier court, and the sport’s second-largest outdoor venue. “When the gates opened,” Moore says, “there was a stampede to the stadium.” The match sold out, leaving late arrivals looking on from the big screen outside.
Nadal and Federer have each played doubles at Indian Wells 11 times — the most of any tournament on the tour.
“We promote doubles,” explains Moore, often scheduling those matches on the best courts. The Indian Wells Tennis Garden can do that, he says, because it has nine stadium courts versus the three or four at most other tournaments.
For doubles to thrive, the whole tennis establishment must buy in. “They should promote every aspect of the sport,” Shriver says. “They should promote the players who are not just the stars, promote the stories, everything about the sport. Tie it in with [United States Tennis Association] leagues because most USTA league players are doubles players.”
The governing bodies must connect with those fans, and so must the players. Shriver, like King, says players have been slow to consider innovations that bring the athlete closer to the fan. “I think doubles players could say, ‘Hey, we’re open to innovation; we’re willing to have a microphone on to listen to our huddles during the change of ends.’ ”
“Mixed doubles should be promoted massively,” Bryan offers. “You talk about gender equity … we’ve got a sport that has that. Mixed doubles is an incredibly entertaining sport.”
“I like mixed doubles best,” King says, “then women’s doubles, then singles. As long as I’m hitting the ball, I’m happy.”