x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Double decker delight

With all due respect to those involved, the ATP Masters Cup doubles event is not so much the Who's Who of tennis than the Who's That?.

John McEnroe, right, and Peter Fleming show off their trophies after winning the 1981 Wimbledon men's doubles final
John McEnroe, right, and Peter Fleming show off their trophies after winning the 1981 Wimbledon men's doubles final

With all due respect to those involved, the ATP Masters Cup doubles event is not so much the Who's Who of tennis than the Who's That?. In times past, all the great players - notably Rod Laver and Lew Hoad - would routinely compete in both singles and doubles, but these days you are more likely to spot Roger Federer buying a packet of fish fingers in your local supermarket than sharing a court with three others.

Doubles has become the preserve of the specialists. And, so, for Laver and Hoad read Fyrstenberg and Matkowski (apparently, they are very big in Poland) and their anonymous ilk in Shanghai. The top partnership in the world comprises 30-year-old twins, Bob and Mike Bryan, from Camarillo, California, winners of this title in 2003 and 2004 and past champions at all four Grand Slams. Two minutes older but one inch shorter, Mike is right-handed while Bob is a leftie (our thanks to mum and dad Wayne and Kathy, otherwise their offspring would be all but indistinguishable).

The only other difference between them is that Mike plays the drums and Bob prefers keyboard. Armed with tennis rackets, however, they are completely in tune and blessed with almost telepathic understanding, developed since they started playing in tandem at the age of two. Frew McMillan and Bob Hewitt, Wimbledon champions in 1967, 1972 and 1978, were another pairing whose powers of telepathy was the stuff of a vaudeville mind-reading act. They must have been as close as the Bryan twins, I ventured. "Not so,'' Frew told me. "In 12 years together, Hewitt and I never once had dinner. In fact, we seldom talked. We had very little in common.''

But the most inspired union of them all, more potent than gin and tonic, more harmonious than the Everly Brothers, more adventuresome than Batman and Robin, was that of Peter Fleming and John McEnroe, winners of 50 doubles titles - including Wimbledon in 1979, '81, '83, '84 - and 14 of their 15 Davis Cup matches. Fleming first encountered his future close friend and accomplice at the Port Washington Tennis Academy in New York in 1972.

Stung by lavish praise being heaped upon a 12-year-old McEnroe, he struck a bet with one of the coaches that he could give 'that scrawny kid 4-0, 30-0 of a start and kill him...' "I was the typically cocky 16-year-old. Anyway, we went out right after lunch, I gave him 4-0 and 30-0, and he beat me five sets in a row. I might have beaten him 6-2, say, off level, but he just bunted the ball back, and ran and ran and ran.

He competed like a terrier. Even at that age, once John McEnroe got his teeth into you he never let go. He was a unique talent." Under the watchful eyes of the Australian guru Harry Hopman and Tony Palafox, who had won the Wimbledon doubles with fellow Mexican Rafael Osuna in 1963, Fleming and McEnroe became regular practice partners. "They didn't allow cards at the academy so John and I used to play chess. Whenever I played him the game would last three hours.

"Neither of us ever had any thought of resigning no matter how hopeless the situation looked. "Our joint attitude was: 'the punk will make a mistake and I'm just going to hang in there till he does. Then I'll have him'." When McEnroe joined the tour in '78, it seemed only logical that he enlist his boyhood rival to act as his regular partner - "I was the only guy he knew" - and so began the most formidable double act in tennis.

Asked to nominate the best doubles team in history, Fleming famously replied: "McEnroe and anyone..." rphilip@thenational.ae