Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hooking up and splitting up, in doubles

A doubles partnership is very much like a marriage. Some people enter it at a whim, not really expecting anything to come from it. In such cases, usually nothing does. The players involved may enjoy a win or three, but once they get past the infatuation phase, they discover that they really don’t have what it takes to last. And they split.

Other players are doubles flirts. They play first with this one, and then with that one, never settling down, never committing to any of their hook-ups. Some such players often don’t even decide on a doubles partner until they get tossed out in singles, and then grab at the first chance that happens across their path. For them doubles is just a convenience, a way to keep in shape and to make some extra money.

Some partnerships should never have happened in the first place. This is especially the case when one member of the team is in it only for him or herself and could really give a crap about the other. When John McEnroe teamed up some years ago with Steffi Graf, only to have her withdraw from the tournament, he churlishly griped all the way to the sports pages. Never mind the fact that Steffi was a pro who would not have canceled for frivolous reasons. Never mind the fact that she was seriously injured.

Other partnerships, like some marriages, are so full of drama that you wonder why both players even bother. It wasn’t until the Bondarenko sisters, Alona, 25, and Kateryna, 23, figured out a way to stop bickering with each other on court that they finally started winning tournaments. Alona acknowledged this in an interview after they won the 2008 Australian Open doubles championship: “Last year we played not very good doubles because sometimes we fought on the court. But now we start to listen to each other and understand, and maybe that’s the key.”

Listening and understanding are certainly key ingredients of any lasting partnership. So too is having a good work ethic. And being both complimentary of and complementary with each other. A good doubles partnership is like a marriage in which each half completes the other, and yet both individuals remain their unique distinct selves.

This is how I have always felt about Cara Black and Liezel Huber. Black is the diminutive one from Zimbabwe, one of the few Africans on the tour. She has won some 70 titles, and is one of only three women to complete the Grand Slam in mixed doubles. Liezel Huber is the tall one, originally from South Africa, but who fast-tracked her way to American citizenship in 2008 in order to compete for the US at the Beijing Olympics. And ever since they won Melbourne in January 2007, Black has played doubles with no other partner than Huber. Their partnership has thus far lasted a solid five years.

And now some are now saying that they’re heading towards a split. The basis of the rumor seems to be first that Huber showed up in Charleston without Black, and proceeded to win this event with Nadia Petrova. As a result of this win, Huber has now edged Black out as the higher-ranked in their # 1 ranking. Thanks to her win at the Family Circle Cup event, Huber now has 9135 points to Black’s 9015. And just like that rumors of a divorce between the # 1 ranked players started to swirl.

Honestly, it feels like when one of those gossip rags start insinuating that a Hollywood couple must be breaking up just because one was seen at an event without the other. Just because people are married doesn’t mean that they have to be joined at the hip at every moment. And just because one member of a doubles team doesn’t play an event doesn’t mean that the other should stay home and twiddle her thumbs. I am going to wait until Black and Huber make a formal announcement. Until then I will choose to believe that they are two mature women who enjoy playing with each other but are perfectly capable of spending healthy time apart.

To be fair, Huber’s words in the post-tournament conference were ambiguous enough to allow speculation to shine through. “My situation is kind of up in the air,” Huber announced in the interview. But she also said, “Cara and I are a team”. Some see these words as both contradictory and ambiguous. I think that folks may be creating competition between two women where there was none. It’s like we’re not happy unless we can turn every female partnership into a version of “Mean Girls”.

Huber and Petrova hold trophy and flowers after winning doubles final at Family Circle Cup Tennis in Charleston.

1 comment:

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