Sunday, 16 October 2011


Doubles is regarded by some as a form of tennis for those second-rate players who couldn’t quite make it in singles.  While that is perhaps an overly harsh analysis, there is no doubt that a clear gulf exists between singles and doubles in terms of worldwide appeal and importance.

However, Davis Cup is when doubles gets its rare chance to be on an equal footing with singles.  The sole doubles match in these ties can often prove to be such a crucial rubber, and it counts for one point in the best-of-five format, just as the other four singles rubbers each do.

That is why the development of Colin Fleming and Ross Hutchins as a partnership on tour is so important to British tennis as the Davis Cup team moves back up the ladder.

Look at some of the key roles which other regular partnerships have played for their countries - the USA’s Bryan brothers are probably the best example having won 19 of the 21 Davis Cup matches they have played together.

Poland’s Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski have also proved to be a handy pairing, as Great Britain experienced when Hutchins and Andy Murray were defeated by the Poles in a crucial Euro/Africa Zone Group One relegation play-off in September 2009, which Britain went on to lose, succumbing them to the lowly depths of Group Two, the third tier of the competition.

Now that Britain are back in Group One, the hope is that Fleming & Hutchins will prove to be a reliable partnership in the doubles rubbers when they come up against tougher opposition as part of the quest to get back to the World Group.  It also takes a bit of pressure off the British No.1, Murray, who will not be required to play on all three days.

At Braehead last month, Fleming & Hutchins made their second appearance together in Davis Cup - their first since becoming a full-time partnership at the start of this year - and it was they who actually clinched promotion for Britain with victory over their Hungarian opponents.

Following two grand slam quarter-final appearances at Wimbledon and the US Open, it was another notable moment for the pair in what has, at times, also been a year of frustration.  Hutchins, aged 26 from London, has missed a number of tournaments at different points in the year due to wrist problems, which has forced Fleming to play with other partners to maintain his ranking.

“It has been very frustrating,” said Hutchins.  “I have had a couple of wrist problems in the past, but nothing like this which has kept me out for seven months on and off, four or five times, starting and stopping again.

“Colin has hid it very well from me, but I am sure he has been wanting to pull his hair out about why I can’t get my wrist strong.  It’s just frustrating that we haven’t been able to play more than six tournaments fit together this year.  But now I am on top of it, we can get a good run together and hopefully build a partnership which is long and successful.”

With Hutchins over his wrist problems, the pair are now in Russia for a fortnight of ATP 250 tournaments, beginning with the Kremlin Cup in Moscow this week and followed by the St Petersburg Open, where Colin won his second and last ATP title with former partner Ken Skupski two years ago.

Although the season is coming towards its end, it is a crucial time for the pair as they have a number of ranking points to defend before the year is out.  Fleming currently sits at a career high ranking of 41 and Hutchins is at 47, which allows them to get in most ATP 250 events, but the pair are hoping for much bigger things next year.

“We want to get into Indian Wells and Miami [both Masters 1000 events], so we have to be around 30 by March, and then we want to be seeded for the French Open”, said Hutchins.  “So that is a good aim for us and we are also strongly aiming to be in the London World Tour Finals by the end of next year.

“You have to be successful as a partnership as those rankings and criteria are done as a team, so Colin and I want to be in the top eight in the world as a team and we want to be competing in London for the prize of the No.1 team at the end of the year.”

It’s a big aim for the pair, especially when you consider that Hutchins, according to Wikipedia, works in the Registry Pub in Portsmouth when he is not on tour.  That particular bit of information is actually the work of a Wikipedia prankster, but there is no denying that there is indeed a substantial difference in the prize money which singles and doubles players can earn.
For example, Croatian Antonio Veic, the current singles world No.160, has earned $138,377 this year.  Compare that to Fleming’s 2011 earnings of $120,964.

Many players on tour will tell you that money is not the primary concern, but when travel costs have to be met, it must be an important consideration.  The cheque of £31,250 which Fleming & Hutchins received for reaching the Wimbledon quarter-finals will have been a nice bonus, but how easy is it for doubles players to sustain a living on tour?

“Ross and I are certainly able to make a living out of what we do” said Fleming, the 27-year-old from Linlithgow.  “As you play in better tournaments, you also get more things for free as well.  It’s one of these things; when you need the things for free, you can’t get them and then when you almost have some money to pay for them, you start getting them for free.

“We are just enjoying it at the moment.  Obviously singles players earn more money, but we are able to do OK with what we are doing just now.”

Fleming and Hutchins were both speaking at last month’s launch of the new LTA Mini Tennis scheme, in association with Highland Spring, which was something that brought back memories for Fleming of playing with a sponge ball as he got to grips with tennis in his younger years.

In fact, he doesn’t have to go too far back to relive his sponge ball memories as he, Andy and Jamie Murray and a host of other friends all used to reunite, when they were home in Scotland at Christmas, for a fun indoor competition at their old training base.

“I think it was called the World Short Tennis Championships, even though it was only guys from Central Scotland”, said Fleming.  “We played it at Stirling University on Christmas Eve and we played with the sponge ball like we all used to when we were young.

“It’s a tough physical test because no one can hit a winner with the sponge ball, so you just go on forever.  But Andy even won it twice as he is so competitive and he just wouldn’t let anyone beat him at it.  It was good fun.”

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