Famous Five: After Federer and Nadal teamed up for Team Europe in the Laver Cup last weekend, we look back at the five greatest men’s doubles pairings in tennis history.
Theoretically, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who successfully paired up for Team Europe in the inaugural Laver Cup last weekend, are the greatest men’s doubles pairing in history. After all, they are routinely described as the first and second best male tennis player ever (although in which order depends on whether you’re a “Fed-Head” or a “Rafalyte”). Nevertheless, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered among the very greatest doubles partnerships, as the finest men’s doubles pairings have won Grand Slams, Davis Cups and much else besides.
Here are the five greatest men’s doubles pairings.
- THE MURRAY BROTHERS (Finest hour: helping Great Britain win the 2015 Davis Cup)
Judy Murray is the mother of all tennis mothers, having given birth to and then coached not one but two World Number One players. In 2016, Andy and Jamie became the highest ranked players in singles and doubles respectively, and if they have fallen off those lofty perches this year (in Andy’s case, largely as a result of debilitating injury) they remain among the greatest players in their specialist fields.
Both Murray brothers have achieved doubles success with other partners, notably in mixed doubles. As well as winning the singles gold at the London Olympics, Andy won silver in the mixed doubles with Laura Robson, while Jamie has won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon twice, first with Jelena Jankovic in 2007 and then a decade later with Martina Hingis, with whom he also won this year’s US Open mixed doubles title. In addition, Jamie won the 2016 Australian Open men’s doubles title and the 2016 US Open men’s doubles title with John Peers and Bruno Soares respectively.
Nevertheless, the Murray brothers’ finest hour as doubles players came when they combined to guide Great Britain to Davis Cup glory in 2015, for the first time in 77 years. Although Andy’s heroics in playing both singles and doubles in the Davis Cup were rightly hailed, Jamie was also instrumental in that victory, particularly in the quarterfinal against France and the semi-final against Australia, when the Murrays defeated powerful French and Australian pairings in Mahut-Tsonga and Hewitt-Groth respectively. The semi-final victory, in particular, was authentically epic, lasting five sets and more than four hours, and it remains the Murray brothers’ finest few hours on a tennis court together.
- ROGER FEDERER AND STAN WAWRINKA (Finest hours: helping Switzerland win their first Davis Cup in 2014 and winning the Olympic doubles title in Beijing in 2008)
Until Roger Federer’s remarkable renaissance in 2017, during which he won two Majors (the Australian Open and Wimbledon), it had looked as if his final great achievement in the game was going to be helping Switzerland to win their first ever Davis Cup in 2014. That year, Federer was finally able to deliver the greatest team tournament in tennis for his country, but if anything the triumph owed even more to the efforts of Stan Wawrinka than those of Federer himself.
The two great Swiss players have not always had an easy or even particularly friendly relationship. It must have been difficult for Wawrinka to labour in the shadow of Federer’s unmatchable greatness for so long and equally it must have been at least a little galling for Federer to see Stan overtake him eventually, not only as Swiss Number One but in the world rankings. Indeed, less than a week before their Davis Cup victory over France, there had been an unseemly bust-up between the two players at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, when Federer’s wife, Mirka, was accused of calling out between points and even accusing Wawrinka of excessive complaining.
Nevertheless, Federer and Wawrinka put aside their differences and paired up beautifully the following week to defeat France on clay in Lille. Not only did they win one singles rubber each, but in the doubles they defeated a typically strong French pairing of Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau. Although they had won the 2008 Olympic doubles title in Beijing i (in the process defeating the top-ranked pairing on this list in the semi-final), their Davis Cup triumph was even greater, as Davis Cup doubles, unlike Olympic doubles, is played out over five sets rather than three.
- THE WOODIES: TODD WOODBRIDGE AND MARK WOODFORDE (Finest hours: 11 Major men’s doubles titles and helping Australia to win the 1999 Davis Cup)
In tennis, “the Woodies” are not Messrs. Allen or Guthrie, but Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde, two fine singles players who became an almost unbeatable doubles team. Their accomplishments as a pairing are legendary, especially in Australia, which has probably produced more great men’s doubles teams than any other country. As proof of that, one need only consider the astonishing fact that between 1956 and 1969, which was the golden age of Australian tennis, not only were the winners of the Australian Open all Australian pairings but so were the runners-up. Nevertheless, in the great Aussie doubles pantheon, the Woodies still rank ahead of other magnificent pairings such as Rod Laver/Bob Mark and John Newcombe/Tony Roche.
As a doubles pairing, baseliner Woodforde and natural volleyer Woodbridge complemented each other perfectly, and on all surfaces. They were most famous for winning a record six Wimbledon men’s doubles titles, but they also won all the other Majors at least once. However, as has been the case so often in the Open era, when doubles play has inevitably taken a back seat to singles play, their greatest achievement came in the Davis Cup, where doubles play is still absolutely central (and not just because it is played on the middle Saturday of a weekend tie). That was in 1999, when Australia beat France in Paris and the Woodies defeated yet another fine French pairing of Olivier Delaître and the sublimely gifted Fabrice Santoro. For the Woodies, it was the crowning glory of a glorious career, as the following year Woodforde retired from playing. Although Woodbridge would go on to win another five Major men’s doubles titles with Sweden’s Jonas Björkman, that tally was still less than half the 11 Major men’s doubles titles that he won with Woodforde, his perfectly alliterative and perfectly complementary playing partner.
- JOHN McENROE AND PETER FLEMING (Finest hours: seven Major men’s doubles titles and helping the USA to win three Davis Cups)
It was Peter Fleming who came up with perhaps the greatest saying about doubles when he declared that the finest doubles pairing in men’s tennis was “John McEnroe plus one”. That comment by Fleming was typically self-effacing, but McEnroe always regarded him as his perfect doubles partner. Like the Woodies, McEnroe and Fleming were a terrific combination of talents, with the tall, right-handed Fleming often banging in the powerful serves and McEnroe, perhaps the finest volleyer the game has ever seen, cutting off almost every attempted return at the net.
Fleming reached as high as Number 8 in the singles world rankings before, like so many doubles specialists, deciding to concentrate on the two-man format. Indeed, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, he and McEnroe were by far the finest pairing in the men’s game, winning four Wimbledon men’s doubles titles and three US Open men’s doubles titles, although, like McEnroe himself in the singles game, they never managed to win either the Australian Open or the French Open. In addition, they were pivotal to the three Davis Cup titles that the USA won in the four years of competition between 1979 and 1982.
However, like McEnroe’s singles career, the McEnroe-Fleming partnership did not really survive the extended break that “Supermac” took from tennis in 1986 after marrying the similarly fiery Tatum O’Neill the year before. Just as McEnroe himself was never quite the same great player again when performing on his own, the McEnroe-Fleming pairing did not win another Major title or Davis Cup. Indeed, when Fleming retired from playing tennis in 1988, McEnroe seemed to find a new lease of life, at least as a doubles player, winning the 1989 US Open men’s doubles title with Mark Woodforde (before Woodforde teamed up with Todd Woodbridge) and the 1992 Wimbledon men’s doubles title with Michael Stich. Interestingly, both Woodbridge and Stich resembled Fleming in being tall, big-serving complements to McEnroe’s own brilliant net play, but neither of them could quite replicate the giant compatriot with whom McEnroe achieved true doubles greatness.
- THE BRYAN BROTHERS (Finest hours: 16 Major men’s doubles titles and helping the USA to win the 2007 Davis Cup)
Perhaps the Bryan brothers, Bob and Mike, are the greatest ever pairing in men’s tennis because, being identical twins, they came as a package right from the start. They were certainly the perfect doubles pairing in that Mike is right-handed and Bob left-handed, and both men are well over six foot tall and natural, indeed wonderful, serve-volleyers, which is still the perfect style of play for a doubles player even if it has largely vanished from the singles game.
When they were competing alone, as it were, the Bryan brothers were virtually unstoppable. They finished as the year-end highest-ranked pairing in men’s doubles a record 10 times, in addition to winning 16 Major men’s doubles titles, including winning each individual Major at least twice.
It is only in the Davis Cup that their record is less than stellar and that is not due to their own abilities or lack of them. While they have won a phenomenal 24 doubles rubbers in Davis Cup ties and lost only five, their greatness as doubles players has not been matched by the greatness of the American singles players beside them. Indeed, it probably says everything about the undeniable decline in American men’s singles tennis over the last 20 years that, despite the Bryan brothers’ own phenomenal Davis Cup record, the USA has won only one Davis Cup in the Bryan brothers era. That was in 2007 against Russia, when Andy Roddick and James Blake won enough singles points to go alongside the point in doubles that the Bryans almost guaranteed.
The relative failure of the Bryan brothers in the Davis Cup (at least compared to their own extraordinary achievements as a doubles pairing in the Grand Slam events) is part of a wider picture, in which they have been the greatest ever men’s doubles pairing but at a time when doubles tennis has almost faded into obscurity. Even the great John McEnroe, hailed by regular partner Peter Fleming as the greatest doubles player ever, has questioned the continuing need for doubles in the 21st century. And yet, as the Davis Cup semi-finals proved and as the Davis Cup final later this year will hopefully confirm, at its best doubles tennis is arguably the sport that requires the quickest reflexes and the fastest of fast-twitch fibres, and those qualities were certainly evident in these five great pairings.