Indian Wells is my favourite doubles tournament, because it is the only one that consistently features the best doubles players. This doubtless owes to its position in the schedule, and to a certain headiness in the Southern Californian air, which encourages languorous pairings, even among burly men. It also offers annual proof that the best doubles players in the world are indistinguishable from the best tennis players in the world, but that these can be distinguished from the highest-ranked doubles players. Consequently, when these players turn up, the shaky concept of seeding becomes worse than useless.
This is not news to the top-ranked doubles players, and I very much doubt whether any of them resent the top singles players showing up, for all that it virtually guarantees a quantifiable drop in their income. Many of the changes to the doubles format in recent years have been aimed at making the format more viewer friendly, and viewers demonstrated long ago that they’re most amicable towards the best singles players. The stadium was pumping when Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer faced off in the semifinal last year – I suspect it was the most hyped doubles match of the year – and no one seemed to mind that Stan Wawrinka and Marc Lopez were on the court as well.
Last year nine of the top ten singles players entered the Indian Wells doubles event, with only Andy Roddick missing. Now Roddick has gone missing from the top ten. Coincidence? This year Federer isn’t playing, which has left Wawrinka desperate and dateless. Having toiled throughout February, Federer is doubtless entitled to conserve his energies, but by not defending his runner-up points from last year he will see his ranking tumble from No.134 to somewhere outside the top 1,100 in the world. I contend that this is not an accurate reflection of his abilities. Juan Martin del Potro and Janko Tipsarevic aren’t playing either.
But everyone else is. As is usually the case, they have paired up with whichever permutation of friend, sibling or countryman is to hand. Andy Murray will naturally play with his brother Jamie. Djokovic has teamed with Troicki, although the singles draw has sadly panned out such that they won’t be able to reprise last year’s trick, whereby they exited the doubles scant hours after Djokovic crushed his teammate in singles. Nadal, of course, is playing with Marc Lopez, Ferrer with Ramos, Tsonga with Benneteau, Fish with Roddick, and Isner with Querrey. No surprises there. Berdych has teamed up with Kubot. One of them merely sounds like an android, and one of them is.
That being said, some of the teams are strange indeed. I like Nicolas Almagro, who despite his fascinating resemblance to a Spanish Ken Doll engages in weekly struggles that are believably human, courtesy of an infinite fallibility. But I cannot imagine that his pairing this week with the laid-back veteran Mark Knowles came about via any mechanism more glamorous than a desperate grab for partners as the cut-off for registration loomed, like those last horny stragglers as the wedding reception winds down. That’s no reason to think they won’t win it, however, since last year’s titlists Malisse and Dolgopolov pulled the same stunt. They went on to beat the Bryans in the third round, and Federer-Wawrinka in the final. It was Dolgopolov’s first tour title. They will be playing together for the first time since Roland Garros.
The big story, I suppose, is that Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek will be teaming up for the first time since their title at the Australian Open, which was arguably the most stirring and moving moment of the season so far. They’ll face Ferrer and Ramos first up, which seems entirely manageable. The Bryans, meanwhile, have to contend with Raonic and Anderson, which I suspect might be either unwinnable or unlosable, and that there will be no way of knowing until the end. Both big men are recent titlists, and both boast the kind of serve designed to mock the assumption that experience and teamwork mean more than the capacity to hit the ball extremely hard past your opponent. Still, the twins should find a way, and thus earn a date with Djokovic and friend. Spare some sympathy for Llodra and Zimonjic, who must beat the 2010 champions Nadal and Lopez to get a shot at last year’s titlists. The sixth seeds, Fyrstenburg and Matkowski, will face Monfils and Kohlschreiber. Call that one.
The doubles specialists insist they love it when the top players play. Finding out whether that is true or not is why Indian Wells is my favourite doubles event. Either way, tennis wins. The very comely draw can be found here.