Novak Djokovic had just laced a sizzling forehand down the line to close out his doubles match. Elated, he chest-bumped his partner, Viktor Troicki. Later that evening, Rafael Nadal revealed just about every molar and incisor, smiling radiantly after he and his partner, Bernard Tomic, had lost a point.
The frequent message around top players entering the doubles here is usually quite rational. The desire to get court time in the desert. The event, a 56-man draw spread out over ten days, makes it easier to fit in doubles matches. And why not hone a few skills at the net?
But perhaps there’s also another reason. An ex-pro once told me about the three stages of his tennis life. In childhood, it had all begun for him as a fun activity, supplemented with basketball. Only by the time he was a junior in college did he entertain notions of being a pro. But that had happened. For a good decade, he was completely invested in the business of outcomes. Even as he won, he knew another loss was around the corner. Pressure, pressure, pressure. But then, as his career neared its end, the epiphany hit: He could once again just play tennis. Just play and enjoy.
The same holds true when watching these top players on the doubles court. Certainly they want to win those doubles matches. But there is no downside to losing. Away from the pressures of singles, paired often with a buddy of sorts – though the Nadal-Tomic pairing is rather befuddling – the player has a chance to compete, hit a variety of shots, entertain the crowd and cover only half the court. For a few moments, those who have accomplished more with their racquets than just about anyone who’s ever held one are just like so many of us on Sunday mornings – just a game.