As in the history of the men’s game, there have also been many outstanding women’s doubles pairings. From Lenglen and Ryan in the 1920’s to the Williams sisters, women’s doubles has thrown up many examples of great talent.
In the current era, one of the factors that has distinguished the men from the women has been the latter’s propensity to be able to combine a top-level career simultaneously in both singles and doubles – the Williams sisters being a key case in point. This was not always the case with the men, but since the advent of the Open era and with the pressures of professional sport (including those pressures from five-set encounters), doubles for most top male singles players has been a no-go area. For the top women, however, participation in doubles has often enhanced their games and careers.
Women’s doubles took a long time to become fully accepted at the higher reaches of the game. Despite the Wimbledon Championships being in existence since 1877, the first year in which Ladies’ Doubles formed part of the event was in 1913 and then only for two years as World War 1 intervened. The Americans had been a little more ‘progressive’ having staged Ladies’ Doubles at their national championships since 1889. Wimbledon resumed the event after the War, while the Australians only introduced the event in 1922 and the French in 1925, in line with general societal trends towards greater gender equality.
In that post-WW1 era, the doubles game was dominated on this side of the Atlantic by the outstanding pairing of Suzanne Lenglen of France and Elizabeth Ryan of the United States. Between 1919 and 1925, the pair won the Wimbledon Doubles in every year except 1924. Ryan was even more prolific by going on to win the event with other partners in 1927, 1928, 1930 and 1934.
In the 1930’s, the stellar doubles pairing were the Americans, Alice Marble and Sarah Palfrey, the latter also winning Grand Slams with other partners in that era. Helen Wills-Moody, the top singles player of her era, also distinguished herself by winning Grand Slams also in doubles.
The 1940’s were dominated by the Americans Louise Brough and Margaret Osborne du Pont who won ten successive US Championships between 1941- and 1950 (the US game not being affected in the same way by WW2 as was Europe). The pair had a further rebound by also winning Grand Slam doubles at Wimbledon and the US Championships during the mid to late 1950’s, displaying an impressive longevity in doing so and in an era also marked by the impressive records of Americans, Shirley Fry, Doris Hart and Darlene Hard.
The 1960’s was the era of the graceful Maria Bueno in combination with Darlene Hard and later in the decade, Margaret Court (in partnership with a number of others) and the feisty American duo of Billie-Jean King and Rosie Casals. King and less so Court, continued their successes into the 1970’s, a period which was making way for a younger generation which included Evert, Goolagong and Navratilova.
It was in the 1980’s, however, that one of this rising generation formed a doubles partnership with another lady that was to sweep all before it. This was the partnership of Navratilova and Pam Shriver who became the dominant partnership in the 1980’s. Navratilova holds the record for the most Grand Slam doubles titles (31) , while her long-time partner Shriver is in second place with 21 titles – not to mention their many overall career titles together and separately. Shriver shares second position under this metric with Brough and du Pont, the stars of the 40’s and 50’s, while Margaret Court comes in in third place with 19 titles. As a team together, the Navaratilova/Shriver combination with 20 titles is the most successful of all time. They also achieved a feat no other women’s pair has ever done in winning a one-year doubles Grand Slam (in 1984). Shriver also won an Olympics title in that year.
In the post Navratilova/Shriver era, two other partnerships stand out: the Williams sisters and Fernandez/Zvereva who won 14 and 13 Grand Slam titles together respectively. These were two interesting combinations in so far as one was an out-and-out doubles partnership with less impressive singles records, while the latter pairing stood astride the women’s singles game for over a decade. Even as recently as 2012, the Williams sisters appeared in a Wimbledon doubles final, a testament to their zeal and longevity.
A number of talented pairings are out there now, Errani and Vinci one among several, but none yet to assert the kind of dominance of the Williams in recent times.
Looking at the record books, there is little doubt that the laurels for ‘best pairing of all time’ must go to Navratilova and Shriver. Close behind them are Brough/Du Pont and Lenglen/Ryan, separated so far away in time. For bringing a refreshing robustness and professionalism to the women’s game, credit must also go to the King/Casals partnership of the 60/70’s, a time when women’s tennis was in major transition.
Will women’s doubles start to lose its appeal for the top women in the game as it did in the men’s game? Currently, the top ladies are moving more towards more one-dimensional careers where doubles is less of a feature. This would be a disappointing trend as the involvement of the top women has injected into the doubles game a positive element over the years.