Tennisball with a crown

The Most Successful Doubles Nations: On American and Australian Doubles Kings and Why They Could Soon Lose Their Thrones

By Tillmann Becker-Wahl

For many decades now – in a way, since the very beginnings of tennis history – the USA and Australia have been engaged in a lonely head-to-head race regarding the question of who is the most successful tennis doubles nation in the world. Well, not entirely lonely. At the beginning of the 1900s, Great Britain – the motherland of lawn tennis – was still able to take part in the chase for the crown in doubles tennis at the tournaments of Wimbledon or the Davis Cup. However, at least since the dawn of the Open Era this was a thing of the past. From then on, it has been a straight duel fought between the USA and Australia, only rarely interrupted by countries like Sweden, France or South Africa. For the time being, the USA now appears to have won this duel: the Bryan brothers, the most successful doubles team in history, have catapulted their country to previously unattainable doubles title spheres. But what exactly is it that makes US teams such extremely successful doubles players? And could there possibly be a leadership change in the making? Let’s follow the clues.

The numbers hailing from every corner of the tennis doubles world are sending a clear signal: 119 Grand Slam titles since the beginning of the Open Era, 38 ATP final wins and 32 Davis Cup wins – players from the United States made their country the undisputed doubles superpower. Only the Australian players managed to keep up, gaining a total of 133 titles and putting Down Under firmly on the map of the most successful doubles nations in the world. Trailing behind: the rest of the globe. Forty titles, most of them Grand Slams, went to Swedish players. In the doubles world, that is good enough for Bronze, while Germany with just about eight titles positioned itself in the upper mid-range.

But why is it that US Americans and Australians are so successful as doubles specialists? We have been tracing the clues – and the trail takes us right back to the time when the British invented modern (lawn) tennis.

When Walter Clopton Wingfield developed lawn tennis in the 1870s, he certainly did not anticipate the success story this type of sport would soon become. Wingfield embarked on selling complete tennis kits consisting of a ball, a racket and a net, and in no time at all, the British middle and upper classes fell in love with lawn tennis – largely owing to the fact that this game proved a welcome opportunity to meet up with friends, acquaintances and business partners.

What’s more, tennis presented an ideal opportunity to get to know the opposite sex. For in the context of tennis, and in contrast to other types of sport or social events at the time, women had been accepted as fellow players on an equal footing right from the outset. So, in order to pass the time and make matters more exciting, the British upper class not only arranged singles but also doubles matches in particular – just to be closer to the opposite sex. Doubles: a party game that at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany was often referred to simply as ‘engagement tennis’ (Verlobungstennis).

Consequently, it does not seem much of a surprise that the first tournaments held in Wimbledon from 1877 onwards only provided for singles matches. English doubles championships exclusively existed at the University of Oxford. Ultimately, it would take seven years before the Wimbledon organisers agreed to open up their tournament and include the doubles competition in 1884.

The first tennis powers are playing doubles

Meanwhile, things already moved faster in the USA. Shortly after Wingfield started selling his kits in Britain, they arrived in North America – holidaymakers had brought them back to the States. The game’s popularity quickly snowballed and finally, in 1881, the first American championships took place, known today as the US Open. Alongside the singles competition, a doubles tournament had been scheduled right from the start. The same was the case in France and also in what at the time still was the British colony of Australia. The latter, in a parallel development, witnessed the emergence of the so-called ‘Australian doubles’ – a game in which a doubles team of players is pitted against a single player. It is a version that still sparks a great deal of interest at Australian show matches today.

So, it does not come as a surprise that it only took a few years for these four countries to become the first great tennis nations. Only very few foreign players could or would take the huge travel strain upon themselves that was involved in getting from A to B in those days. In terms of participation, the British championships were mostly attended by Britons, the US championships mainly by Americans. In Down Under, Australians served the balls, and in France predominantly the French.

Simultaneously, in 1899 the idea of today’s Davis Cup was taking shape. US-American yachtsmen had already been challenging their British rivals in the America’s Cup for some time. This inspired a circle of friends around Dwight Filley Davis at Harvard to establish a similar tournament for tennis. When the Harvard students approached the president of the US-American tennis association, they found that he as well had already been contemplating the idea of a tennis world championship for a while. Davis offered to procure a cup – a trophy made of sterling silver – which, in turn, helped the American tennis association to convince the British one of the idea.

Henceforth, Davis was tasked with developing a modus operandi for the tournament. As the acting American doubles champion, it was clear to him there and then that not only the singles matches but first and foremost the doubles should decide who won the cup. In the following year, 1900, the British players already travelled to the United States in order to compete in the first ‘International Lawn Tennis Challenge’. At the Longwood Cricket Club in Boston, the US-American college players’ win took many by surprise.

As the Davis Cup expands, the old tennis nations remain invincible

The newly created Davis Cup caused another tennis popularity boom in the States, and from 1905 onwards, the initial duel between the USA and Great Britain developed into a tournament including other countries, too: apart from the two founding nations, every now and again also Australasia (a team composed of players from Australia and New Zealand), France, Belgium and Austria joined the competition to win the International Lawn Tennis Challenge. In 1913, Germany arrived on the scene as well.

After the end of World War I, the Davis Cup completed its transformation into an unofficial world championship: sometimes, more than 30 nations competed for the title. And yet, it would take many years until, in 1975, for the first time another nation than Australia, Great Britain, France or the USA should succeed in winning the Davis Cup: that country was Sweden. Italy followed next – signalling that from then on also players from other nations would form part of the world’s elite in tennis.

Nevertheless, as the chart shows, players from Australia and the USA mostly remained unbeaten in the Grand Slam doubles for a long time after that. US-American titles won at the ATP Finals provide an even clearer picture. The fact that the USA and Australia are especially successful at playing doubles can be explained on the basis of their particular tennis traditions since the late 19th century, the major tournaments these traditions gave rise to – today’s Grand Slams – and the initial travel problems the players encountered.

However, specifically in the USA, the strength of the doubles performances was boosted by another, much more crucial factor: the US-American college structure.

Early on, tennis turned out to be extremely popular among American academics, and so this sport became increasingly important at the level of US colleges. Competition, therefore, right from the outset not only focused on playing singles but also on playing doubles. In the USA, it is a matter of faith that is still valid today.

Doubles as an educational feature of US colleges

The decision-makers responsible for US college tennis as well as the college coaches themselves consider playing doubles a crucial element in forming young talents and turning them into versatile top players. And the players second that. Bobby Reynolds, the former tennis professional and college player, is convinced: “Playing doubles gives you extra competitive repetitions on serves, returns and point construction. Learning specific serving patterns, and the percentages of where those returns will be hit, is something the great tennis players implement into their singles match play.“ Rafael Nadal puts it similarly: “I want to play more doubles because it is a good way to practice things that can improve your tennis in general.“

Consequently, in order to ensure that the college players don’t just take up doubles formations on the training ground, in recent years the US-American sports league NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and the US-American tennis association have once again jointly strengthened the importance of doubles within the league system. Accordingly, the league matches of the three NCAA divisions – the so-called ‘dual matches’, in which six players of the one university compete with six players of the other – now immediately begin with the three doubles. Only after that will the players be on court for their singles matches.

But first and foremost, the results of these first three doubles matches are of particular significance: for while each victory in the singles will earn the university one point in the dual match, in the doubles only the university that was able to wrap up two of the three doubles wins a point. For this reason, the so-called ‘doubles point’ is “often the most important one in dual matches“, explains Jaco Keyser, head women’s coach at the University of South Alabama. Some of the players have started to internalise this fact – like Luca Corinteli.

In spring 2016, Corinteli played for the University of Virginia in the finals of the NCAA Division 1 Championships against the University of Oklahoma. Both Virginia and Oklahoma were able to win one of the first two doubles. The third doubles match would now decide which of the two would seal the doubles point. Corinteli and his partner Ryan Shane were serving for Virginia. “We knew“, Corinteli remembers, “it could be the deciding factor in who won the title.“ The audience was on the edge of their seats as the last doubles match unfolded.

US colleges are looking for strong doubles players

By now, this dramatic doubles situation has resulted in college coaches actively looking for strong doubles players. “As a Division 1 college coach it is critical that I find players that are not only competitive on the singles court but who are also competent doubles players“, Jaco Keyser explains. Troy University coach Scott Kidd criticises that unfortunately still “too many young players fail to understand the significance of doubles at the college level“. There are so many great singles players, he says, but “ someone who can be an asset to the team both on the singles and doubles court is hard to find. I put a premium on any player who is seasoned in both areas.”

The University of Virginia, at any rate, seemed to have found the right players at the right time. Corinteli and Shane won their doubles match – and Virginia in 2016 its third NCAA Division 1 title within four years.

So, doubles have become a matter of considerable importance for US colleges, and as such they have not only had an impact on the scouting process of college coaches. In fact, playing doubles has profoundly changed the entire training programme of the young athletes. Before he attended college, he could “count on one hand the amount of times I actually practiced doubles“, says Rajeev Ram, who won the doubles at the Australian Open in 2020. “In college we did it every day.“ Ram believes that this is the main reason why players tend to evolve into exceptionally good doubles players during their time in college.

For Ram is no exception. Many successful doubles players of recent times used to play in the US College League. Its most famous alumni probably are the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, who played for Stanford University. Currently, of the 20 best doubles players in the world, four players attended a US college (as of May 2020) – a ratio you would be hard pushed to find on the singles side.

On the one hand, this phenomenon may be explained by the high status the doubles enjoy within college tennis. But on the other, it is also down to the system of college sports itself. Players are only allowed to compete on behalf of a US university if they are not yet professionals. Highly talented young players that are already playing the tour do not fit the concept. Therefore, college tennis is primarily of interest to those players who at the age of 18 may be great talents but are not yet ready for the professional circuit. Simply put: both the idea and the system associated with college sports first and foremost produce professionals specialising in doubles, not singles. The most famous exceptions to this rule currently seem to be John Isner and Kevin Anderson.

Doubles “is something that is huge for all players, particularly in college“, observes the former doubles player Megan Moulton-Levy. “All of the college players who are playing pro are playing doubles.“ For a long time, the US-American tennis association benefited from this situation – jointly with Australia – when its players returned with the most doubles trophies year after year.

It is hardly surprising that the best doubles pairings of all times are said to consist of players that predominantly come from these two countries. Kristijan Breznik claims to have proved as much in a study he published in 2015, in which he identified the best male doubles teams from the Open Era up to the year 2014. Eleven of the 20 players in Breznik’s model either hailed from the USA or Australia. The US-American Bryan brothers secured the top spot, followed by the Australian pairing Mark Woodforde/Todd Woodbridge. Daniel Nestor from Canada and Mark Knowles from the Bahamas taking third place, however, is unexpected – and proof that already in 2014 players from other nations than the USA and Australia were able to move up and be included in Breznik’s ranking of the best male doubles players of that era.

Australia loses its supremacy

Looking at the data since 2010, the chart indicates that Australia already had to cede its supremacy in the doubles rankings. In this period, only one Australian doubles player won a Grand Slam title – John Peers on home territory at the Australian Open 2017. The US-American association, on the other hand, was able to celebrate 25 further winners – and thus 31.25 percent of all Grand Slam champions since 2010. And yet: with France (ten winners), Germany, Great Britain, Canada and Colombia (four winners each) a whole range of other nations are now lying in wait to finally seize the doubles throne for themselves.

The ATP Finals provide an even more balanced picture: since 2010, in 25 percent of all cases a US-American doubles player was able to celebrate the season-ending championship win. This may sound a lot, but no less than four nations are following in hot pursuit: France, Finland, Canada and Australia. Of all titles in this period, 12.5 percent each went to players from one of these countries. But why would the picture now suddenly appear to change, when it had been a fixture characterising doubles tennis for several decades?

On the one hand, the answer might be found in the USA itself, but on the other, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) might hold the key.

For by now, thanks to globalisation, it is not only US Americans who study at American universities. In fact, agencies are running promotions advertising help with college applications for tennis talents from across the globe. The result is that non-US-American students are finally able to enjoy the exceptional doubles training the US-American college system offers. That way, among others, no less than two top 10 doubles players – the Colombian Robert Farah (University of Southern California) and the Briton Joe Salisbury (University of Memphis) – used to play in the US College League (as of May 2020).

Moreover, time and again there are critical voices claiming that the US-American junior development system below college level disregarded the importance of doubles in recent years. The result: especially in their first year at college, US Americans were defeated by their European counterparts on the doubles court.

Another reason for the emerging strength of European doubles players could be the modified ranking system of the ITF. Already several years ago, the International Tennis Federation changed its ITF Junior World Ranking to a combined ranking system: since then, singles results are weighted at 75 percent, while doubles results are weighted at 25 percent by the ITF. This system has also changed the focus of many up-and-coming European players: they now pay far more attention to their doubles game during their education and training.

In 2019, the International Tennis Federation published the ITF Global Tennis Report. With a share of more than 22 percent of all tennis players worldwide, most of them come from China. Close behind, with a share of almost 21 percent of all players, follows the USA. Something else, however, is striking: although most doubles professionals worldwide still come from the USA (a share of 9.52 percent), they are followed by Italy (6.99 percent), France (6.22 percent) and Spain (4.59 percent), i.e. nations which, at least in part, provide comparatively few tennis players. For instance, only 2.29 percent of all tennis players worldwide come from Italy.

Could this be a sign of an American change of guard in the realm of tennis doubles? The jury is still out on that one. But from now on, the USA will presumably have to fight harder than ever to continue winning its titles in doubles tennis.

Hier finden Sie unsere Auswertung

Sie wollen unsere Auswertung der Doppel-Grand Slam-Sieger verstehen? Dann laden Sie sich das Excel-Dokument mit einem Klick hier herunter:

Datenset