Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Team USA Olympics doubles race

Now that we're about 3/4 of the way through the Race to Rio, I thought I'd try to tackle the chances for various Americans to make the team via doubles. Wish me luck here, because it's complicated.

The USA Olympic Tennis Team will be made up of anywhere between 8 and 12 players. Four men and four women will play singles. Each country can also have up to two men's and two women's doubles teams, along with up to two mixed doubles teams. The doubles teams could include some of the singles players and/or other players. The mixed doubles players can only be drawn from players already on the team in singles or doubles.

The ITF formula for the 32-draw men's and women's doubles tournaments is on page 4 of this memo. Up to 10 teams will get automatic entry based on the Top 10 ATP and WTA doubles players as of the rankings cut-off date of June 6. Those players can pair with *any* countrymate in the rankings.

Beyond that, "A further 14 teams will gain Direct Acceptance based on their combined world rankings (using the players’ singles or doubles rankings, whichever is better)." And then they'll go with teams made of players already in the singles draws.

So where does this leave Team USA? Things are a bit unclear.

I've compiled the Top 30 ATP and WTA players as of the April 4 rankings, along with the points they have to defend through the French Open. ATP doubles rankings use best 17 results, while WTA uses only the best 11 results for doubles. My numbers are approximate, because there are vagaries concerning mandatory tournaments -- I tried to incorporate them but can't guarantee I did so perfectly. Please let me know if you see any errors!

Men's Doubles

The Bryan Brothers are defending Olympic gold medalists and were the #1 players for almost the entire time between then and the end of last year. However, with a rough start to 2016 they've dropped to #7 and #8, and are outside the Top 10 in the Race to Rio. However, even if they fall to, say, #20 & #21, as far as I can tell, there aren't 14 teams that can be made up of two players from the same country with combined rankings better than 41. So if I'm not mistaken, they're safe ... unless someone like Rajeev Ram or Eric Butorac makes a huge jump past them. But with Ram 1200 points behind, that's a very tall order.

The question then becomes, which 2 out of the 4 singles players will make up the second US men's doubles team? Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey have the best results lately as a team, but the best combined ranking would likely go to Jack Sock and John Isner (who are 0-2 as a team). I'm not certain what the criteria the captain will use. (Also it should be noted that the singles players are still undetermined -- Kudla, Fritz, Ram and Young are all fewer than 400 points behind Querrey for a spot.)

Women's Doubles

One would think the Williams Sisters will be one of the teams. They are the two-time defending gold medal winning team, after all. But if by chance they don't feel up to it, it's pretty certain Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys would be up for giving it a shot.

The other team will likely feature Bethanie Mattek-Sands. BMS started the month with only 2235 points, which would have put her around #25 in the Race to Rio. But titles in Indian Wells and Miami meant that she vaulted up to #6 in the Race, nearly 1000 points ahead of 11th-place Carla Suarez Navarro. Things are looking good for her to get automatic entry.

Being in the Top 10 would allow BMS to have any other American as a partner, as long as the coach consents to it. One would think she'd go with CoCo Vandeweghe, given their success in Indian Wells, their great chemistry, and Vandeweghe's Olympic heritage. But there's also a small chance CoCo could make the team on her own merit: she's only 500 spots behind Elena Vesnina for the 10th spot in the race. Abigail Spears and Raquel Atawo are also only 500 points behind -- something to keep an eye on.

Mixed Doubles

I honestly have no idea how this will play out. On the one hand, you have to think the Bryans would want these spots, like in 2012 (Mike won the bronze with Lisa Raymond). Mike would do well to pair with Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- after all, they won the 2015 French Open together. Then again, Mattek-Sands and Querrey teamed up at the 2015 US Open last year and made the final. Then again again, Mattek-Sands and Bob Bryan just played the 2016 Australian Open, reaching the quarters. Then again again again, Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock might be the best chance at a gold medal, especially if Sock doesn't play men's doubles.

And don't forget CoCo, who in only her second-ever Mixed Doubles event reached the Australian Open final ... teaming with Horia Tecau to take out BMS/Bob Bryan in the quarters! Keys is also a tempting pick, given her fun personality and deadly weapons.

And as hard as it is to imagine the Williams Sisters wanting to play, who knows? It's quite likely their last Olympics, after all. Maybe one of them could complete the gold medal set! And if not, who will pick the non-BMS mixed team, and how? Will Bob Bryan even want to play both events, given that he hasn't made a final in the discipline since 2010? And again, if Sock manages to vault past the brothers and into the Top 10 of the rankings, he'd have first dibs to play.

The team captains will have some tough choices ahead, that's for certain.

What mixed doubles teams would you most like to see at the Olympics? Vote for 2 in the poll below!

What 2 pairs are your Olympic Dream Teams?


  1. Is it possible that the Williams sisters wouldn't qualify for the doubles tournament because their doubles rankings are too low? Or is that effectively impossible because of (1) the 6-woman limit on the entire team, and 4 singles players will certainly be brought (meaning room for only two "doubles-only" players); and (2) the NOC can always refuse to nominate a particular doubles team, even if that doubles team would otherwise automatically qualify for the doubles draw? (Side note: What leverage the NOC enjoys there! If the NOC wants BMS to pair up with CoCo but BMS would rather pair with, say, Spears or Atawo, then BMS either agrees with the NOC or risks not being nominated.)

    Continuing on that point, assuming BMS maintains form and is an automatic qualifier, doesn't her inclusion as the 5th player on the roster (behind Serena, Venus, Madison, and Sloane) effectively bar Spears/Atawo from the Olympics? In other words, in order for Spears/Atawo to make it as a team, they have to leapfrog BMS and not just CoCo, right? Seems that BMS would have to be in absolute freefall for that to occur....

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for the questions!

      My understanding of the rules is that after the Top 10 get in, they use combined singles and doubles rankings (whichever is better) for the next 14 teams -- meaning the Williams Sisters will be shoo-ins. Also yes, the NOC would have veto power over whomever BMS wanted to play with, so this is really speculative at this point, but I'd think CoCo would have the inside track.

      Ultimately it will be up to the USTA. Assuming BMS gets in automatically, will they consult with her or just go with the #2-ranked American in doubles. And what if Atawo and Spears have the same number of points -- would they give it to Spears because she'd have a higher ranking due to fewer tournaments played? That would be crazy.

      And yes, I think the only way we see Spears/Atawo make it as a team would be if they leapfrogged BMS. Keep in mind, if Bethanie doesn't get direct entry, there's nothing holding the USTA back from naming Williams/Williams and Keys/Stephens as the teams.

      Much excitement, doubles-wise, in the next 2 months!

  2. From what it looks like, many of the top US men like Isner and Sock won't be heading to the Olympics by their choice, so I know the team will be chosen soon but certainly not what you might have expected back in April!