Are the days of singles stars also excelling in doubles over?
This week’s WTA Finals certainly highlight it is an increasing trend in today’s game.
The prestigious season-ending championships are rich in history. Martina Navratilova, Jana Novotna, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis are among the champions to win the event in both singles and doubles. But with no players qualifying for both disciplines this year, it emphasises how many top singles players now neglect the tandem form of the game.
This year’s top eight singles performers played a combined 59 doubles matches during 2017. Jelena Ostapenko, currently the highest-ranked doubles player of the group at No.42, played more than half.
2017 matches Singles Doubles
Simona Halep 59 7
Garbine Muguruza 65 2
Karolina Pliskova 67 5
Elina Svitolina 64 5
Venus Williams 47 0
Caroline Wozniacki 76 0
Jelena Ostapenko 65 32
Caroline Garcia 66 8
Two years ago, that number was 101 with Garbine Muguruza and Lucie Safarova competing in both WTA Finals singles and doubles events.
This is not just a circumstantial trend either – as three of this year’s WTA Finals singles contenders highlight.
Muguruza has played only four doubles events since a WTA Finals doubles runner-up finish in 2015.
Karolina Pliskova reached a career-high doubles ranking of No.11 last year. She qualified in both singles and doubles for the 2016 WTA Finals, but only played five doubles matches in 2017.
Caroline Garcia was verging on the world No.1 ranking when she made last year’s WTA Finals doubles semifinals. She entered only three doubles tournaments this season.
The emphasis is on only in each of these examples, as reducing their doubles schedule was their own choice.
Doubles tournaments 2015 2016 2017
Garbine Muguruza 14 3 1
Karolina Pliskova 16 15 4
Caroline Garcia 19 18 3
So if you’re one of the best doubles players in the world, why would you stop playing?
If anyone understands a changing women’s doubles game, it is Hingis. The Swiss champion returned to world No.1 recently, 19 years after she first rose to the coveted position.
Hingis, who achieved the rare feat of being ranked No.1 in both disciplines during the 1998 season, believes there are a number of factors.
“It’s very demanding to do both well week in, week out,” Hingis told Tennismash.com.
“Plus the (singles) prize money has tripled. So I think if you do well in singles, that’s enough motivation.”
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Prize money disparity between singles and doubles is not new. However, as the rewards for the top singles players get richer, that difference is becoming more pronounced than ever.
A look at the WTA Tour’s biggest earners this season emphasises this. The 37-year-old Hingis is one of only three doubles-only players in the tour’s top 100 earners, and one of only seven players to earn more than USD $500,000 in doubles. Contrastingly, there are 54 singles players that have exceeded that mark.
Pliskova has earnt over USD $2.9 million in singles prize money this season. Garcia more than USD $2.8 million. Muguruza has netted a tour-leading USD $4.7 million. Their decisions to reduce their doubles schedules has clearly not hurt them financially.
Hingis also believes heavier schedules are another deterrent.
“Things were easier,” Hingis said, comparing eras to when she was playing both singles and doubles regularly.
“The draws were smaller and you didn’t have to play as many matches.
“The doubles have shortened it out now playing two sets and a super tiebreak, so that definitely helps the (top singles) players when they get up there, but it’s still very demanding.”
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WTA Finals doubles contenders Elena Vesnina and Ashleigh Barty do buck the trend, both currently ranked inside the top 20 in singles and doubles.
Yet 10 of the 16 doubles players who qualified for the WTA Finals this year are currently ranked outside the world’s top 250 in singles. Six of them have no singles ranking at all.
WTA Finals 2017 field Singles rank Doubles rank
Martina Hingis Unranked No.1
Yung-Jan Chan Unranked No.1
Elena Vesnina No.17 No.4
Ekaterina Makarova No.33 No.4
Casey Dellacqua Unranked No.10
Ashleigh Barty No.20 No.13
Andrea Hlavackova No.468 No.6
Timea Babos No.57 No.12
Kveta Peschke Unranked No.20
Anna-Lena Groenefeld Unranked No.20
Yifan Xu No.657 No.17
Gabriela Dabrowski No.271 No.18
Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez No.627 No.23
Andreja Klepac Unranked No.23
Kiki Bertens No.31 No.25
Johanna Larsson No.80 No.28
A marketing nightmare? There’s undeniably a lack of star power compared to previous years.
To the WTA’s credit, their recent move to live-stream doubles matches on their social media platforms suggests they are dedicated to boosting the profile of doubles. But unfortunately that is a long-term solution, one that isn’t going to stop some fans from scanning the WTA Finals doubles draw this week and asking ‘who?’