On a July Friday night just after 11:30 p.m., I sat courtside at the Atlanta Open. It was the third match of the evening in a day-turned-night session following an afternoon rain delay. The lineup featured a trio of All-American marquee matchups: Frances Tiafoe vs. Brandon Nakashima, John Isner vs. Jenson Brooksby, and Rajeev Ram/Jack Sock vs. Steve Johnson/Tommy Paul.
For American tennis fans, this was one of the best lineups you’ll see at an ATP 250 event. After six-time champion and home crowd favorite John Isner bowed out to Jenson Brooksby 6-4 in the 3rd set, it would have been easy to assume the crowd’s energy was a bit deflated.
Instead, as they always do, Atlanta tennis fans showed up for doubles.
But they did far more than just show up.
Loud chants of “Sock! Ram!” and “Johnson! Paul!” echoed from one end of the stadium to the opposite end as rowdy fans kept the doubles energy going throughout the night (the cocktails might have helped, too).
This is the level of enthusiasm that doubles has the potential to create everywhere. At many events, it’s common to see the crowds slowly dwindle when a doubles match is scheduled after a singles match.
With its bold reputation as the No.1 doubles city in the world, the Atlanta Open proved it’s unlike many events.
“We always get a strong turnout for doubles every year because our community loves it and so many fans play doubles recreationally,” said Tournament Director Eddie Gonzalez. “Top singles players always want to play doubles here too so they can get another match in on their off day. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
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The 2022 doubles draw featured a stacked field with a combined 19 majors that included household names like Nick Kyrgios, World No. 2 Rajeev Ram, nine American players, and two of the three 2022 grand slam doubles champions. Nick Kyrgios/Thanasi Kokkinakis who won the Australian Open, and Matt Ebden/Max Purcell who recently won Wimbledon.
Ultimately, Kyrgios and Kokkinakis (“Special K”) won the doubles title over fellow Aussies John Peers/Jason Kubler 7-5, 7-6 in front of a packed stadium on Sunday night. With the 2022 Atlanta Open now in the rearview mirror, it made me wonder… what exactly is Atlanta’s secret doubles ingredient?
50 Years in the Making: The World’s Biggest Doubles League
Building a strong recreational doubles ecosystem doesn’t happen overnight. According to Eddie Gonzalez, it comes down to the large local fan base of tennis players.
“Atlanta is the No. 1 tennis city in the world because of recreational doubles and organizations like ALTA and USTA that make it possible for people to play tennis year-round,” added Gonzalez. “We are fortunate to have both organizations in our backyard.”
Along with the USTA, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA) has played an instrumental role in building Atlanta’s doubles community from the ground up for the last 50+ years. Since its inception in 1971, ALTA has grown from 50 members to more than 60,000 members with 13 different leagues for juniors, adults, seniors, and wheelchair players.
ALTA’s Mixed Doubles League features more than 1,900 teams participating each year. The organization’s largest league, the Sunday Women’s League, has over 2,000 teams playing, including 38,000 members who play in the fall and spring leagues.
“For someone new to the area, one of the most important things to know about the Atlanta tennis scene is that there is something for everyone,” said Lamar Scott, 2022 ALTA President. “ALTA offers competitive play for those at the highest level to include tennis pros, post college players and advanced players, to intermediate players, to beginners on a year-round basis. Everyone, regardless of skill level, can participate and join a team.”
ALTA has played an instrumental role in supporting the Atlanta Open over the years. In addition to serving as a sponsor, the organization also oversees a daily booth where members and other tennis enthusiasts can stop by to learn more about ALTA, join leagues, and enter giveaways.
The tournament also recognizes high-school scholarship winners through the ALTA Foundation and provides an opportunity for junior players to attend the tournament with their parents or coaches.
Unlike many adult tennis organizations, a unique differentiator for ALTA has been its focus on building the next generation. According to Scott, keeping junior players closely involved is paramount to the organization’s future success.
“We’ve listened to parents and coaches, and this year we embarked on a Junior Player Program which allows 16-and-17-year-old competitive Juniors to play at the top ALTA levels,” added Scott. “Our hope moving forward is that we can continue to feed the pipeline of these competitive junior players in ALTA league play. Additionally, we continue to look at building on some of our current programs, like the wheelchair league, by exploring ways to expose and incentivize young wheelchair athletes to our sport.”
An Uphill Battle for Doubles TV Exposure
Atlanta is one of a handful of cities to benefit from leading local organizations like ALTA while also having the opportunity to host a professional tournament. How can we attract tennis fans to doubles in cities that don’t have strong community engagement or a professional event in their backyard?
Getting more doubles TV coverage is one way to start. While I was fortunate to enjoy the Friday night doubles action in person, many tennis fans elsewhere expressed their disappointment on Twitter at Tennis Channel for not broadcasting any of the doubles matches.
“Everyone you talk to – people love watching doubles,” said ATP Doubles Player Nick Monroe. “They go to the outer courts and watch doubles because it’s so fast. We need to get it on TV more because fans want to watch it and engage with doubles players. That’s what people play as they get older and want to see when they’re at a tournament. Why not show it on TV more?”
In the post-Bryan Brothers doubles era, it will be interesting to see who (if any) teams can elevate the doubles game and become household names for casual tennis fans. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see cities like Atlanta put doubles on center stage and show off its great potential.
Will other cities step up to the plate and challenge Atlanta for their no. 1 doubles ranking? I’m sure Atlanta, and its large community of devoted doubles fans, would gladly welcome the challenge.