How Underdogs Could Win Wimbledon Doubles

Yesterday, wildcards Jonathan Marray and Frederick Nielsen won the Wimbledon doubles title.  Nobody saw that one coming–in recent years, men’s doubles has been dominated by a small number of specialists.  When a team outside the top 10 wins an event, it’s often thanks to a top singles player or two.  Marray and Nielsen sit comfortably outside either category.

How did they do it?  Obviously, they played great tennis, winning big point after big point against some of the best doubles teams in the world.  (They played a fifth set three times in the tournament, but the Bryan brothers could only take them to four!)  Beyond that, there are structural elements making it possible: Men’s doubles has steadily become more equal, as better equipment and training have leveled the playing field.  The event is underdog-friendly, and it is particularly so at Wimbledon.

Hold machines

In most men’s doubles matches, breaks of serve are as rare as in a John Isner fifth set.  In yesterday’s final, the server won 73% of all points.  Mathematically, that translates to a hold rate of 93%, or one break every 14 games–less than one per set.  (In fact, it was even lower than that: three breaks in 53 standard games: 1 per 17.7.)

First serve percentages are even more remarkable.  Yesterday, both teams won 80% of first serve points.  In the two semfinals, more than 80% of first serve points resulted in wins for the server, and the Bryans won 85% of their first offerings.  For comparison, consider that on grass, Roger Federer’s career first serve winning percentage is 78.6%.  You get the picture: service breaks are very hard to come by.

When there are so few service breaks, sets (and by extension, matches) can hinge on a very small number of points.  Marray/Nielsen played 27 sets in the tournament, and 13 were decided in a tiebreak.  Of those 13, 11 were 7-4 or closer.  The wildcard champions squeaked through five of their six matches.

A few good points

Men’s doubles is dominated by the serve, and when the surface favors servers even more, matches–even best-of-five matches–hinge on just a few important points.  Consider Marray/Nielsen’s third-round upset of Qureshi/Rojer: 7-6(5) 7-6(4) 6-7(4) 5-7 7-5.  Essentially, 56 games–every game to the first three tiebreaks, and then to 5-5 in the final two sets–had no purpose other than wearing down the other side.  If only one or two points had gone differently in the first two sets, the AntiPak express would have won the match in the fourth set, and the Bryans would probably be lifting the trophy as usual.

This isn’t to lessen Marray/Nielsen’s achievement–far from it.  Fast-court doubles has been reduced to a thirty-point contest, and the underdog duo won all five of those mini-matches in which they found themselves.  The other 250 points function simply to prove that both teams belong there.  And any team that can win 70-75% of service points has a good chance of proving themselves.

Once you’ve reduced the match to 30 points, luck–and mental fortitude–play a bigger role.  If you’re playing Novak Djokovic on the singles court, you can be as mentally strong as you want, but if you don’t have top-ten skills, you’re going to lose.  In doubles, steely nerves at 4-4 in a breaker, maybe with a couple of lucky netcords or reflex volleys thrown in, can be enough.

While there is certainly some skill that separates the Bryan brothers from the Ratiwatana brothers, even the journeymen Thais pushed Lindstedt and Tecau to tiebreaks in two of their three first-round sets.  I hesitate to use the word “clutch,” but on Centre Court, with a hundred thousand pounds on the line, tiebreaks are about more than serves and volleys.  What the wildcards proved over the fortnight is that, at least for two weeks, they possessed the rarest of modern doubles skills: They could play the big points with the big boys.