WASHINGTON — After Mark Ein bought the Citi Open, he said he would make a point of highlighting doubles play.
And sure enough, on Wednesday, in one of the four matches scheduled on the main stadium, the former No. 1 singles player Andy Murray continued his comeback from hip surgery by playing doubles alongside his brother, Jamie, against Nicolas Mahut and Édouard Roger-Vasselin, a rare appearance on a big stage for a first-round doubles match.
But on the tournament’s smallest competition court, the only one that lacks television cameras and Hawkeye review technology, there were four top-20 doubles players — Mate Pavic, Bruno Soares, Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau. Later Wednesday, that court was to host matches that featured the recent French Open men’s doubles champions, Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, and Marcelo Melo and Lukasz Kubot, who are ranked inside the doubles top 5.
With few exceptions, a doubles match is still only as attractive to tournament schedulers as its singles star power.
On Monday, the recent Wimbledon champions Robert Farah and Juan-Sebastián Cabal were put on the main stadium, but largely because they faced Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios, an intriguing pair of singles players with distinctly disparate dispositions.
Cabal and Farah’s rise to No. 1 and their first Grand Slam title a few weeks ago attracted great attention in their native Colombia, but relatively little elsewhere. Farah blamed that on a lack of promotion.
“Murray helps, Kyrgios and Tsitsipas help, but even when they’re not playing, there’s a good level being played out there,” Farah said. “We just need you guys, the ATP, the social media, to promote those things. If they do that, they’re going to have a good product to sell.”
Eric Butorac, a retired doubles specialist who served as president of the ATP player council and now as director of player relations for the United States Open, said he was frequently told during his playing career that fans craved more doubles, thinking that the popular recreational format could translate to high ratings.
“Now I’m sitting on the other side at the U.S. Open, and the numbers don’t reflect that,” Butorac said. “Fans want to see the stars play. The cool thing about doubles is you see two stars interacting together, because in singles they don’t really interact that much. For Kyrgios and Tsitsipas, I went and watched their whole match last night, because I wanted to see how they would be together. That was the most intriguing part of the match.”
Despite a testy history between Tsitsipas and Kyrgios, they were remarkably affectionate during the match. Kyrgios, 24, acted like a supportive big brother, offering frequent encouragements, and Tsitsipas, 20, followed Kyrgios on Instagram soon after they got off court. They lost, 6-3, 3-6, 10-5, but talked about wanting to play together again soon.
“It’s the same at the U.S. Open when Federer practices,” Butorac said. “People want to watch the stars do anything, so how do we get them out there more?”
Thousands crowded in to watch Kyrgios and Tsitsipas play the Wimbledon champions, giving it the typical raucous atmosphere of a Kyrgios singles match. One fan brought a sign — “Nick’s Trick Shot Counter” — that she updated throughout the match.
Coco Gauff’s doubles matches were also well attended on outer courts. But matches involving top doubles specialists alone generally did not fill their smaller stands.
Ken Solomon, chief executive and chairman of Tennis Channel, said that singles was not inherently more attractive than doubles, particularly to viewers unfamiliar with tennis, but that doubles hadn’t been given room to grow over the sport’s history.
“You just need names, and the names have been generated through singles,” Solomon said. “That’s the way the system is pointed: at them first. The sport had to choose, with limited shelf space.”
John Isner has played doubles sporadically through his career, but opted against it this week.
“I love playing doubles, but it’s just too much,” he said. “I just want to go home. I don’t want to wait around and play doubles at 8 o’clock. At a certain point it just becomes a little too much on your body.”
The problem of obscurity atop the doubles ladder is more pronounced on the men’s tour than the women’s. More elite women’s singles players compete in doubles because their best-of-three-sets singles format is less prohibitive to adding a second event than the best-of-five format men play in singles at Grand Slams. More top singles players compete in doubles at men’s tour events, where singles are best-of-three sets. Doubles play can also help women supplement their income, which is lower than men’s over all.
Of the 12 men who have occupied the top spot in the ATP doubles rankings within the last 10 years, none ever had a top-30 singles ranking, and only four even cracked the Top 150. The women’s side features far more recognizable names. Of the 22 women ranked No. 1 doubles within the last 10 years, all achieved singles rankings within the Top 150, with 17 getting inside the Top 30, eight in the Top 10, and three — Martina Hingis, Venus and Serena Williams — also reaching the top spot in singles.
Strong singles players who have achieved success in men’s doubles often seem to resent the label of doubles specialist.
“I can personally say if I’m not relevant in the singles world and my only choice is to play doubles, I’d probably stop playing tennis,” Jack Sock said in January, when he was ranked No. 2 in doubles.
Ranked a career high of No. 8 at the beginning of last season, he is now No. 173 in singles and recently returned from a thumb injury. Doubles may be his best shot to compete on the main stages of the United States Open in late August.
Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who also reached a career-high of No. 2 in doubles, planned to focus on his top-50 singles career this summer. He was drawn back into the Wimbledon doubles competition, however, by the opportunity to pair with a singles star guaranteed to draw a huge crowd: Andy Murray.
“It’s something so special to be by his side,” Herbert said of Murray. “That’s why I changed my mind, because I want to live these kind of experiences.”