Mixed reaction to new doubles scoring system

KALYAN ASHOK

RICK LEACH kept his date with destiny on that chilly night (Feb. 2) at the Kingfisher McDowell KSLTA Stadium in Bangalore. The American southpaw, arguably the most likeable character in the world of doubles, wrote a piece of trivia into the tennis chronicles. In each of the last three decades, Leach had reached the apex of doubles acclaim at least once with three different partners! In his hour of glory this time, Ellis Ferreira was his partner. The first Leach triumph in the late 80s came with Jim Pugh and in the late 90s it was with Jonathan Stark.

The Leach-Ferreira combine beat Petr Pala and Pavel Vizner who share family bonds as brothers-in-law 6-7 (6-8), 7-6(7-2), 6-4, 6-4 in the final to wind up the Touchtel World Doubles Challenge Cup which was in a way a sop of sorts from the world body for the aborted World Doubles championship.

The wait for that magical moment seemed like eternity for Leach as he scanned the gloomy skies and the wet court. From the pleasantness of the first three days, the weather had nearly turned a villain. Understandably, Leach was disheartened over the prospect of the final kicking off at all as a steady drizzle fell through the afternoon. After the depredations of this fitful rain cost nearly two hours, the final got off to a roar of approval from a goodly crowd as if to help the comeback man script another dramatic title triumph with his South African partner.

The crowd which had given him an emotional farewell last year was on its feet to welcome him back to the fold. Leach grew sentimental. "It was an incredible feeling. When I stepped on to the court, I wasn't too sure whether I would play as a 21-year-old or 37-year-old but I guess I played well enough to merit this win. It's a big bonus at 37." Leach- Ferreira pair won $145,000 as prize money and Pala-Vizner duo collected $73,000.

It was all the more sweet as Leach had emphatically said at the end of the last edition that he would quit the scene as a touring pro. "I came out of it as Ferreira wanted me to carry on for a little while and I was missing the circuit", said Leach.

The greatest Leach trait is affability. He had some nice words for the Czechs. "It was a pity that one of us had to lose out and it happened to be Pala and Vizner, it is a shame. They played great tennis", said Leach.

At the start of the five-day event, Leach and Ferreira, with an average age of 34, were not the hottest pair by any account. Their defeat in the first round of the league at the hands of bubbly Bryan twins from the U.S. nearly put the skids. But the well-heeled campaigners they have been, the two battled on. The revival started with that win over Chris Haggard of South Africa and Tom Vanhoudt of Belgium. After two patchy outings, Leach and Ferreira's fortunes took a dramatic swing when they ambushed the top seeds and Wimbledon champions, Don Johnson and Jared Palmer. It was as if this pair could do nothing wrong and the men across the net nothing right.

The Leach-Ferreira combination's strength is all about striking the right notes at the right time with a touch of ingenuity thrown in. Being two gifted left handers, the rarity in itself is a virtue. This is one pair which lives on percentages and meticulous use of the alleys. This is where the other pairs lost out.

A pair has to be judged in adversity and quite often Leach and Ferreira thrive on challenges and one such was this Czech pair. After all the pretenders had packed their bags, it was poise versus power as Leach and Ferriera faced Pala and Vizner. All Leach and Ferreira had to know about Pala and his partner was made known when the first set oscillated from one half to the other. Leach and Ferreira led 3-0. The Czechs rallied back to force a tie-breaker and when Pala split the two left handers with a volley winner, the first set belonged to the Czechs.

The second set saw Leach and Ferreira deploy stunning interceptions at the net to back up their own steady serves. An early break took them to 4-1 only to see the Czechs recover and force the issue to another tie-breaker. This time, however, the initiative stayed with Leach and Ferreira.

Pala began to falter with his first serve in the third set and Leach and Ferreira were quick to capitalise on that chink to wrap up the third set. An early break put them on course for the title but it required Leach to exhibit all his resilience to save a spate of break points against his serve before the tie could be held safe.

Pala-Vizner was the fourth seeded pair which seemed intent on enjoying some good tennis. "On day one, we never imagined we would be in the final, but being there we believed we could win it and we tried our best, we could not quite match them", said Pala, his voice quivered and his eyes were misty. It was indeed a dream run Pala and Vizner could be proud of.

Everytime they pack their bags, Pala and Vizner seemed to be inviting luck. They were ready for the flight, after their last league tie in the Bharti Group against Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, but they stopped the Indian pair in its track and stayed on to fight another day.

On the semi-final day (Feb. 1), Pala and Vizner again came to the Stadium, all set to take the flight out, but giving their best shot yet, they toppled the No. 1 pair of Palmer and Johnson in straight sets.

The match was a delightful mix of power and good planning. The wiry Czechs set too hot a pace for the American pair. The Czechs used the lob as their main weapon to come out better in this racy encounter.

The Czechs were over the moon after the triumph while Johnson put down the American defeat to too much tennis and too little rest.

"For the past five weeks, we are on the move, playing over 17 matches, without much of a break. We simply ran out of gas. They played hell of a game and deserve to be in the final" , said the gracious American like a true pro. Leach, however, ensured an American component in the final.

Leach and Ferreira beat the Australian-American combine of Mark Knowles and Brian MacPhie in a controversial tie at 6-2, 6-4. The 56-minute encounter was decided in the first set itself, so to say. With MacPhie on serve in the second game, Chair umpire Nitin Kannamwar called a return out, putting him down at 0-30. This enraged MacPhie and Knowles who kept arguing with the umpire and the chief referee Jerry Armstrong had to step in. Knowles rather reluctantly was back in business with his partner. But MacPhie slammed a return to the net and in a fit slammed the ball out, forcing the umpire to slap a code violation on the pair. Knowles then exploded as he turned around and foul mouthed the chief referee, who hit back awarding a penalty point which cost Knowles and MacPhie the game. The pair was never the same again.

Leach and Ferreira were quick to cash in on that dramatic break and rolled to a 6-2 win with Knowles dropping serve again.

Leach hit his best form in the second set and the heat was squarely turned on Knowles and MacPhie.

Knowles and MacPhie later denied that the line call was the root cause of their defeat. "It was not just that alone, Leach and Ferreira came on pretty strong and it would have been difficult for us even without that (punitive action by the chief referee)".

A team that was expected to steamroll its way to the semi-finals was "the Indian Express" - Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. In fact, the Touchtel event was touted as an opening for the Indian pair to grab a World Doubles title. But the way Leander and Mahesh played in this tournament has left room for doubts whether they were really prepared?

The pair had a relatively easy draw as it was in a 'weaker' group. But the Indian pair let the fans down, with a lacklustre show. Unlike the other pairs like Johnson and Palmer, which was in town three days in advance for the championship, the Indians were decidedly late on the scene with Leander flying in on the day of the match and hitting the ball with his partner for less than a hour before the tie.

Despite their runaway win against the South Africans John Laffnie de Jager and Robbie Koenig (6-2, 6-3) on the first day, there were danger signals in the match against Knowles and MacPhie, and with Mahesh struggling with his serve, the duo came ominously close to defeat in that tie.

But what held it together was Leander's solid serve and Mahesh's delectable double fisted backhand returns. The Indians clawed back into the match despite loss of Leander's serve in the first game of the decider. The second seeds, with a vociferous backing from the crowd, pulled off a 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-3 win, which Leander Paes attributed "to the free flow of adrenaline, thanks to the crowd". Paes made no bones about it:" we play on that. But then you don't play or win matches on adrenaline alone".

The crucial third league encounter against Pala and Vizner proved that point.The Indian pair virtually broke down after a hard fought first set which was decided by a tie-break. In general, the Indians struggled with their returns and serves while the Czechs, played tenacious tennis, hitting the corners effectively and lobbing with perfection.

Pala was at his best. All the hustling tactics of the Indians simply misfired. The defeat stunned the Indian pair as much as the crowd even as the stands fell silent. The loss for all practical purposes meant that the Indian duo would be out of the reckoning unless of course Knowles and MacPhie dropped a set in their last match against de Jager and Koenig to help Leander and Mahesh with a better set quotient. Knowles and MacPhie were in no mood to oblige. So that was that.

"We never imagined we would not even be in the semi-finals. It was hard to sink in," said a dazed Mahesh Bhupathi while Leander admitted, "everything went wrong, but Pala and Vizner were the better pair and they have improved a great deal since we last met and beat them in the French Open."

Did Mahesh and Leander simply shut their thoughts to the possibility of a three way tie or was it a jot of over confidence?

"It is just that we went for a win without worrying about it" said Leander. But sometimes, you also need a calculator along with a tennis racquet. Leach was right when he said: "the beauty of the whole format of this event is that you are there right till the end."

The Indian exit apart, there was an exciting scramble for the semi-final berths as the last set of league ties got underway. The last four slots were decided by set quotient with not a single team, which was in the race finishing with an all win record.

In the Touchtel, three teams finished with a 2-1 match record, barring Haggard and Chris Vanhoudt.

Rick Leach and Ferreira topped the group with a five sets won and three sets lost score, while Johnson and Palmer pair (4-3) was the second qualifier ahead of the fellow American duo of Mike and Bob Bryan who too had a 4-3 record. But Bryans were out on a head to head count, as they had lost to Johnson and Palmer in the league.

The Bharti Group also saw a needle finish with Pala and Vizner after their win over Mahesh and Leander topping with a 5-2 set quotient. The Indian pair which had a set quotient of 4-3 was squeezed out by Knowles and MacPhie (5-3).

The Indian presence would have ensured a full house at the KSLTA on the final day. But the Bangalore passion for tennis was still high. Large numbers turned up for the final, waited for two long hours to cheer the finalists, a clear victory for the city's sporting culture.

Leach summed up the feelings of the players as he raised the trophy above his head with Ferreira "Thank you Bangalore for being with us". Last time Leach had stolen the hearts. This time he chose to steal the thunder!

The results:

Final: Rick Leach (U.S) & Ellis Ferreira (RSA) bt Petr Pala & Pavel Vizner (Cze) 6-7 (6-8), 7-6(7-2), 6-4, 6-4.

Semi-finals: Rick Leach & Ellis Ferreira bt Mark Knowles (Bah) & Brian MacPhie (U.S) 6-2, 6-4; Petr Pala & Pavel Vizner bt Don Johnson & Jared Palmer (U.S) 6-4, 6-1.

League: Touchtel Group:

Seed No. 1 Don Johnson & Jared Palmer (U.S) bt Mike Bryan & Bob Bryan 7-6 (7-4), 6-3; bt Haggard & Vanhoudt 6-7(6-8), 7-6(7-3), 6-3; lost to Leach & Ferreira 4-6, 6-7(3-7).

S-3 Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan (U.S) bt Ferreira & Leach 6-4, 5-7, 6-4; lost to Johnson & Palmer 6-7 (4-7), 3-6; bt Haggard & Vanhoudt 6-3, 6-2.

S-6 Rick Leach & Ellis Ferreira (U.S) lost to Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan 4-6, 7-5, 4-6; bt Haggard & Vanhoudt 6-7(3-7), 6-1, 6-3; bt Don Johnson & Jared Palmer (U.S) 6-4, 7-6 (7-3).

S-8 Chris Haggard (RSA) & Tom Vanhoudt (Bel) lost to Johnson & Palmer 7-6 (8-6), 6-7(3-7), 3-6; lost to Leach & Ferreira 6-7(3-7), 1-6, 3-6; lost to Bob Bryan & Mike Bryan 3-6, 2-6.

Bharti Group:

S-2 Mahesh Bhupathi & Leander Paes (Ind) bt Laffnie de Jager & Robbie Koenig 6-2, 6-3; bt Mark Knowles & Brian MacPhie 7-6 (7-4), 5-7, 6-3; lost to Petr Pala & Pavel Vizner 6-7 (6-8), 5-7.

S-4 Petr Pala & Pavel Vizner (Cze) lost to Knowles & MacPhie 1-6, 7-5, 3-6;bt de Jager & Koenig 6-3, 6-2; bt Bhupathi & Paes 7-6 (8-6), 7-5.

S-5 Mark Knowles (Bah) & Brian MacPhie (U.S) bt Pala & Vizner 6-1, 3-6, 7-5; lost to Bhupathi & Paes 6-7 (4-7), 7-5, 3-6; bt de Jager & Koenig 6-3, 7-6(7-3);

S-7 John Laffnie de Jager & Robbie Koenig (RSA) lost to Bhupathi & Paes 2-6, 3-6; lost to Pala & Vizner 3-6, 2-6; lost to Knowles & MacPhie 3-6, 6-7 (3-7).

CHANGE is inevitable. Or is it ? With an eye on better media coverage (read TV), the ATP has plumped for a new scoring system in the doubles, hoping for bouquets. But it is getting brickbats!

The ATP began a five week trial as on January 28, 2002 with a match tie-break scoring system, replacing the third set in case of a 1-1 match score, during doubles matches in select tournaments.

The scoring pattern requires that team tied at one set apiece play a match tie-breaker to determine the winners of the match.In a match tie-breaker, the first team to reach 10 points by a margin of two is the winner.The format has previously been used in senior events and mixed doubles events at the U.S. and Australian Open.

The experiment, according to ATP, is an initiative recommended by Doubles Development Committee, a group formed in 2001 that includes ATP players, tournament directors, representatives from the Grand Slams,the International Tennis Federation and the media. The trial period will run through five weeks covering 12 tournaments. It started with Milan Indoor at Milan, and ends with Delray Beach event , scheduled from March 4 to 10.

The move has met with mixed reactions from players."No problem playing that. I have done it twice, including the U.S. Open mixed doubles final with Lisa Raymond, though I ended up losing", said Leander Paes while U.S. Davis Cup pair of Don Johnson and Jared Palmer said, "We don't like it. After we slog it out for two sets, it is like a sudden death. Guys who are front runners can close it, but on the flip side, it can help the under dogs".

Bryans too felt the same way. "It is funny to play just points, after two sets. It may not end with a better team winning". The South African doubles specialist, John Laffnie de Jager dismissed it as a gimmick. "You don't go around marketing the game like that".

The ATP seems to have taken the criticism in its stride. The ATP Executive Vice-President , Brad Drewett said: "Anything novel, will meet with some opposition or the other. The players too were consulted on this issue, why jump to conclusions, before we give it a fair trial? Let us remember, when the tie-breaker was introduced, lot of people said, it won't work. But it is here to stay. So let us try it out first." The Australian, Drewett goes even further. "When Kerry Packer introduced Day-Night cricket with coloured uniforms, purists dubbed it as pyjama cricket. But around the world this version is the most popular." Drewett feels it could be the same with the new doubles scoring system.