Doubles players to sue ATP in revolt over changes to rules

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The Independent Online

This latest mutiny within the men's game has been caused by the ATP's changes in the structure of doubles matches leading up to the "2008 initiative", after which only players who gain entry to ATP events with a singles ranking will be allowed to play doubles.

A group of the world's leading doubles players called a press conference at the US Open yesterday to announce their decision to take legal action, saying their aim was to preserve an integral part of the sport and protect their future livelihood.

The ATP has ruled that from this month doubles matches at many tournaments will feature games that do not use an advantage point and sets played to five games rather than six, with a tie-break at 4-4. Possible scores will be 5-0, 5-1, 5-2, 5-3 and 5-4.

According to the ATP, the changes are designed to "appeal to fans and better showcase the tandem game".

Mark Knowles, vice-president of the ATP Players' Council, said that the doubles players were willing to make concessions concerning the new scoring system if the ATP directors rescinded the 2008 initiative. "How are the ATP going to promote a product that doesn't exist?" he said.

Knowles was shocked to read a newspaper report quoting Horst Klosterkemper, the ATP president for Europe and player relations, as saying that "doubles had essentially become a charity event for players".

"We have to fight," Knowles said, adding that the doubles players were not seeking damages but the restoration of the traditional game. The panel of players included the 24-year-old Barker twins, Richard and William, from Solihull, who are students at Rice University, Houston, and won the Inter-Collegiate Doubles Championship. They said they had decided to retire from the sport because they did not play singles and saw no future for doubles.

"We're here to represent the guys of the future," William said. Richard added: "Players like me, and younger than me, will never get a chance to play doubles if they don't have a high enough singles ranking." A legal representative said that litigation would cost between $50,000 (£27,000) and $100,000 "to get this far" and "a few hundred thousand dollars if the ATP chooses to fight the case hard."

Many of the "doubles enhancements," approved by the ATP Board at Wimbledon were initially recommended by a research and development doubles project team, chaired by Klosterkemper and including player representatives, tournament directors and ATP staff.

The team evaluated data from four target groups: fans, players, media and tournaments. One hundred players, equally represented from the Top 100 in doubles and singles, were interviewed and 4,837 fans responded to an ATPtennis.com survey.

Analysis of the ranking systems at all levels of tennis also was undertaken.

"All groups clearly acknowledged that doubles is an important part of tennis, but believe some enhancements were necessary," Klosterkemper said.

"Singles players said they would consider playing doubles on a more consistent basis if changes were made, citing the length of matches, which average more than 90 minutes, and scheduling difficulties as reasons for the lack of participation.

"The project team not only found remedies for these challenges, but also identified some format changes that will broaden the appeal of the game for fans."

Rafael Nadal, the 19-year-old French Open champion and world No 2 who has played doubles at seven of his 14 tournaments this year, said: "I think these are good changes. I have already played some doubles and will continue to do so in the future. More singles players will probably do like me and play more doubles under the new format. Also, it will be good because doubles will be played on the main courts and will be better exposed."

But Roger Federer, the world No 1, who does not play doubles other than when representing Switzerland in the Davis Cup, said he would not play more.

Jonas Bjorkman of Sweden, the world's top doubles player, said: "I play singles and doubles, and I think that's what every player should be encouraged to do."

Many of the top players have reason to be single-minded, particularly as they battle for points, prize-money and prestige at the Grand Slam championships.

This week has seen the early elimination of Andy Roddick, America's main hope for the singles title, leaving the astonishing 35-year-old Andre Agassi to share the burden of home expectation with Robby Ginepri and the New Yorker James Blake.

Blake, who is due to play Nadal in the third round today, has made a remarkable return to form after a dreadful 2004, when he broke his neck colliding with a net-post, had shingles and had to face the death of his father.

"I'm very excited to be here," Blake said after defeating Igor Andreev of Russia, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4, on Thursday night.

"Last year, watching on television, this was what I was dreaming of, playing a night match at the US Open again. When I was a little kid, I never thought it was possible. Now I've done it a few times. It gets better and better every time.

"I knew what to expect with what I've been going through the last week and a half [winning in New Haven] and with my friends and family coming out. I don't think Igor quite did. It hit him pretty quickly there. They were pretty vocal."

Agassi, who defeated the Croatian giant Ivo Karlovic 7-6, 7-6, 7-6, is due to play the Czech Thomas Berdych, the man who dumped Federer out of the Athens Olympics

"We played once in Australia," Agassi recalled. "We got done with that match and I said, 'He's a top 10 player'. He just seemed to do so many things well. He made you work for every point. I've got to believe he's only got better. I'm looking forward to a good quality match."

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