The singular joy of a doubles life

Bud Collins explains how riches await the unsung masters of a neglected art

DOUBLES, that clandestine, back-court pastime at the Big W, seems banned from polite conversation. What dirty little secret is there about doubles that keeps the more entertaining side of tennis out of sight and off the sporting pages?

It didn't used to be like this in a time when it was taken for granted that great players (Laver, Newcombe, Nastase, Smith to cite a few) actually new how to cohabit with three people - some of them even of the other sex - and enjoy themselves immensely, transmitting that joy to us weekend hackers who shamelessly indulge ourselves in same.

Rod Laver, arguably the greatest of champions to be seen on the greensward, numbers among his seven Wimbledon titles two in the mixed, alongside Darleen Hard in 1959-60.

But ask Andre Agassi about mixed doubles and he might respond that it's none of our business what tactics and formations he and Brooke Shields employ.

Doubles of any sort is nowhere these days. Not done, old boy. If you played doubles as well as singles, when would you have time to count your money? Can you imagine Andre sharing his side of the turf with anyone other than possibly Michael Jackson, and then only in a pro- celebrity charade?

No male player has scored a Wimbledon double since 1970 when John Newcombe won both singles and doubles titles. His partner, Tony Roche, with whom Newc won five titles, was also useful in singles, a finalist in 1968, and semi-finalist in 1969 and 1975.

Newcombe and Roche expected to give the customers twice as much of themselves for the price of admission - and those were the days of more tennis per hour with no courtside chairs on which to sag for 90-second intermissions.

But can you even name the 1994 men's doubles champions? I thought not. Did somebody say: "The Woodies"? Was there a vote for the delightfully barmy brothers Jensen? You'd be correct on the first count. The Woodies, Mark Woodforde from Adelaide and Todd Woodbridge from Sydney, victors the past two years, have attracted a following of their own in the mould of the Aussie old boys such as Jack Bromwich-Adrian Quist, Lew Hoad-Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson-Neale Fraser, Peter McNamara-Paul McNamee.

Aussies have won 26 men's titles since 1948, probably because doubles is second nature to them - Australian babies always reside two-to-a-bassinet in maternity wards, to get the feeling. The red-headed Woodforde and the choirboy-faced Woodbridge are seeking to become the first three-straight winners since Newcombe and Roche's 1968- 69-70 reign. They line up the same way; the lefties Roche and Woodforde in the advantage court, the righties Newcombe and Woodbridge playing the deuce. And they do have lives of their own as substantial singles players, Mark ranking No 31, Todd No 37.

But a subculture of Foreign Legion types, anonymous doubles-only characters has developed in recent years, a reaction to the main men deserting that side of the game, thus widening employment opportunities for the low-ranked.

Take Patrick Galbraith, a crafty 28-year-old American left-hander often seen in the company of the Canadian Grant Connell. Galbraith could wander around Wimbledon incognito, yet he earned $400,000 last year as a courtmate. Another specialist, Cyril Suk, half the size of his celebrity sister, Helena Sukova, made $210,000 last year with a number of strange court fellows.

My favourite, Trevor Kronemann, a Minnesota mammoth, looks like a fugitive from World Cup Rugby at 6ft 4in and 17st, but he's a $200,000-a-year man, though. Two other masked men, the Floridian Greg van Emburg and the pony- tailed Italian Christian Brandi pick up about $100,000 a year in the furtive enterprise. "It's a living," says Van Emburgh. "Beats working for a living," says Kronemann.

However, the exuberant, rugged Jensens, the brothers Luke and Murphy, out of a backwater called Ludington, Michigan, have parlayed one decent title - the French of 1993 - and a rollickingly zany act on court that could have been a music-hall hit into million-dollar incomes, mostly on endorsements. They are amusing, but they didn't stick around long. If the Jensens could only play as well as they act, Agassi might have a box-office rival.

But they keep the rallies alive for a while. That's why doubles is more fun to watch than singles. But at the Big W, and everywhere else along the men's tour, playing together is a hush-hush topic like incest or lewd behaviour.

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