Woodforde: ‘It’s a Bookend to Our Career’

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The accolades keep rolling in. Sports Australia Hall of Fame. Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. Now 11-time Slam doubles champs Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge – aka the Woodies – are headed for the Internationa

l Tennis Hall of Fame.

Inside Tennis caught up with the Adelaide-born Woodforde at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. The 44-year-old lefthander spends much of his time at Mission Hills Country Club these days — that is, when he’s not doing TV commentary at the Slams, running an Aussie Open warm-up exo or helping coach the Palm Desert High School tennis team.

INSIDE TENNIS: Congratulations on the Hall of Fame announcement. That’s got to be a special feeling.

MARK WOODFORDE: I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face ever since.

IT: Where were you when you first heard the news, and what were your emotions?

MW: In the past, they’ve made an announcement at the Australian Open. They didn’t this year because there was a conflict. Todd and I were being inducted into the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame. I was over the moon with the Australian Hall of Fame because they unveil a bronze bust of you. Then to hear about the International Hall of Fame, it was “Wow!” It’s an amazing feeling. When [Hall of Fame chairman] Chris Clouser called me I was in Adelaide, which I thought was appropriate — that I was back in my hometown where I grew up. To have him call me and say “Welcome to the club” was great.

IT: You’ve been off the tour for a decade now, but it seems like yesterday that you guys were raking in the titles.

MW: It helped that Todd played another five years. What the Woodies did together, the run that we had, it endured when Todd continued playing with Bjorkman, with Bhupathi. When people stop and ask me when I retired and I say 2000, they say, “Weren’t you still playing in 2004?” I say, “No, that was my doubles partner.” But I kind of see that as a victory, the recognition. We did create some history. Like with Mike and Bob Bryan or any other teams winning major tournaments, the comparison is automatically with the Woodies.

IT: Speaking of Bhupathi, I see he’s paired up again with Leander Paes in Davis Cup. It’s great to see their names side by side again.

MW: They were a very dangerous team. What could have been — had they persevered together. But their personalities didn’t allow that.

IT: The chemistry isn’t always right. What worked well for you guys all those years?

MW: I can look back now and say that we did that — I don’t want to say with ease — but it’s amazing that we did 10 years. There were such similarities between Todd and I. We both had girlfriends at the same time who later became our wives. We traveled together. We had our coach [Ray Ruffels] and trainer [Mark Waters] who we traveled with. We kind of mirrored our results in singles. We both made the top 20 in singles. Singles was No. 1 on our list. Doubles came second. Mixed doubles came third. While we enjoyed the success on the doubles court, we were both getting results in singles. The worst part for us was when we had to play each other in singles. We both have a very healthy competitiveness. Those were difficult times. It made us irate. Whoever it was up at the other end of the court we wanted to beat.

IT: You had a pretty good scouting report on each other. You knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses inside out.

MW: That’s what you do when you’re playing other players — you try to get to their weakness. You try to pull it apart, to tear it to shreds, to make those weaknesses greater weaknesses. I wanted to win, but I didn’t want to prey on Todd’s weaknesses because in three hours’ time, we’re going to be playing a doubles match and he might be really pissed off. That’s what happened at times. Todd was fiery on the tennis court. There were times when if I was successful against him on the singles court that it hung around like a bad stench.

IT: Was there one match in particular when you can remember having a hard time shaking hands at the net.

MW: One of the first times we played against each other was at the [’92] U.S. Open. It was very early on in our doubles partnership. We played in the second round and I ended up winning the match [6-3, 6-2, 7-6(5)]. Toward the end, when he could see that he wasn’t going to be successful, he started yelling a little, balls were belted around. When we shook hands it was a very terse handshake. Not much was said. We had to play doubles later that day. He really retreated away from me and our coach. That’s what I love about him as well — he felt that he should beat me. That was the tenaciousness that he brought to the pair. Eventually, our coach went over to him and said, “Come on, it’s one match. It doesn’t plot the course for the rest of your career, does it? Look, you’ve lost to a mate of yours, your doubles partner. It should be easy to swallow.” Head to head, Todd beat me a lot more times than I beat him [5-2]. I didn’t want to lose. You don’t ever want to lose to someone younger than you.

IT: God forbid.

MW: That was kind of a tradition in Australia. You were aware of the younger guys coming up. Todd being five years younger, I was fully aware of his stature and his ability. I wanted to hold my ground as being one of the best Australians. In the end we did great things together on the doubles court. While we’re very, very proud of our singles careers, obviously we overshadowed them with the doubles.

IT: Together you put up some big numbers – 61 doubles titles, 11 Grand Slams, five straight Wimbledon titles, two Olympic medals, a 14-2 record in Davis Cup play. What stands out as your greatest accomplishment?

MW: That we persevered. Aside from Mike and Bob, doubles pairs today play half a season, one season, maybe two. Then they split up. I’m kind of baffled as to why that goes on. Bob and Mike are carrying the doubles game today because they stick together through thick and thin, good times, bad times. They’re persevering. They’re going to break one of our records very soon, I’m sure. It is a grind. It began as a friendship – we were mates. We had a lot of goals we wanted to achieve. After a while, you rely upon each other and try not to take each other for granted. But you see it as a business relationship as well, because you’re putting up these wins that possibly enable you to be in the history books. That’s enticing. We persevered. We kept working at it, kept trying to lift our standards. We were never satisfied. We saw that we were targets for a lot of players out there. The last couple of years, to go back and win Wimbledon. We’d won five in a row before losing to Jacco Eltingh and Paul Haarhuis in the ’98 final, then to Haarhuis and Jared Palmer in the ’99 quarterfinals. Then, in 2000, we came back and won. That stands out. To win the French Open – that was the last jewel in the crown that we hadn’t won. That came in our last year together. We were aware that if you’re going to be thought of as one of the great teams, you have to win all the majors if you were going to be in the echelon with Newcombe/Roche, McEnroe/Fleming. To win the French Open in our last year – absolutely amazing.

IT: It’s hard for the ATP to sell the game when the teams are always changing. It’s almost a question of brand identity, isn’t it?

MW: Yes. I do sometimes fear that the constant changing of pairings makes it hard to promote, like they can easily do with the Bryans. Maybe some of the top singles players will see that could be a lot better player if they played a few more doubles matches.

IT: The Bryan Bros. really look up to you guys. What does it mean to have them chasing your numbers now?

MW: I’ve watched them for a long time, from the very first time we laid eyes on them at the U.S. Open. To see them walk out against one of the better teams, there was a bit of a giggle. They were so little. Their eyes were like a deer caught in the headlights. We thought, “These poor kids are going out to be slaughtered.” And they did get beaten convincingly. To see them now flourish is great. It’s almost like they’ve taken that mantle of being THE team out there, shouldering the doubles game. It’s absolutely amazing. They deserve full credit. You can only beat who’s out there, who’s on the other end, and they’re doing a good job of that. They’re going to no doubt break some of our records this year. Did we think it was going to happen so soon after us? Not really. But records are made to be broken. We’re glad that they have us in their sights and want to be compared to us. It’s flattering that they want to emulate us. They’re good guys and they play a great brand of tennis. They’re exciting to watch. If it weren’t for them, I’d really question where doubles was headed.

IT: A few years ago the doubles players were defending their livelihood as they faced shrinking prize money, shrinking draws and a new scoring system. How do you see the health of the game now?

MW: I’m still reluctant to sit back and give it a thumbs up. There are some parts to it that have improved. There are some parts you can’t help but question. I give a lot of kudos to Mike and Bob – they really are carrying the doubles game. They’re drawing attention because they’re trailblazing away with victories and getting into the history books themselves. That’s bringing publicity to the doubles game, which is terrific. But I’m for the top singles players playing doubles week in, week out. They need to be encouraged to play a little more. The changes with the scoring have had a positive influence because that has encouraged some of the top singles players to play some of the Masters Series events, because they see that it’s only going to last an hour or an hour and 15 minutes. I just wish they wouldn’t look at it as how long they’re going to spend on the court. “Is it going to drain me for the singles?” They should be looking at it from the angle that they’re improving their game overall, which will help their singles results. It might give them the pride to possibly say that they are a Grand Slam winner. There are a lot of great singles players out there who will never win a Grand Slam singles title. If they actually players some more doubles, they might become a Grand Slam winner in doubles. It might also help them become a Grand Slam winner in singles.

IT: It’s like McEnroe always said – he never liked to practice all that much, but doubles helped him get in that practice time and become a better singles player at the same time.

MW: Tennis is tennis. I don’t get this “You’re a singles specialist. You’re a doubles specialist.” To me, that is so alien. I wish we’d get back to where the singles players have to play doubles. If you’re in the top 20, it’s part of your contract to play at least one doubles at the Slams, maybe five Masters Series, and that helps your ranking. It helps you get a bit of a bonus in your ranking. And make some of these doubles players play X amount of singles matches, whether they drop down to Challengers or in qualifying for some of the events. I don’t get the separation – that singles is the be-all/end-all and the doubles game is the ugly stepsister.

IT: But is it realistic to think that in this era of mounting injuries, when the top singles players are complaining about the length of the schedule, that they’ll play more doubles?

MW: They’re stepping out more than they used to because they see the value of getting in the extra matches. I think someone like Djokovic, by playing a little more, that will help him become a better singles player. I don’t see how you can get a severe injury from playing doubles. I mean, come on. These guys are prime athletes.

IT: It’s analogous to baseball in the U.S. In the old days, pitchers tossed complete games on a regular basis, going nine innings every time out. Nowadays you’re lucky to get a guy who can go six innings. The money is so big and they don’t want to risk injury.

MW: It’s a funny old system. It goes around in circles. Is there a complete solution? Not yet. Yes, the season is a little long. I can’t argue with that. But in past generations, they played best-of-five singles, they played best-of-five doubles, and a lot of the great players who our game is based upon also played mixed doubles at the Grand Slams. Yes, there wasn’t a lot of cash around. They had to play it to keep themselves going. But they still played. They survived. Rod Laver won two Grand Slams and played doubles at every one of those events. It was as important for him to continue on and potentially win a doubles Grand Slam as it was to win the singles. I always go back to someone like Michael Chang. He got to No. 2 in the world in singles. His goal, his whole career was to reach No. 1 in singles. He didn’t get there. Do people remember No. 2 players? Questionable. Had he maybe played more doubles matches and, yes, maybe taken a few losses on the chin, he would have learned how to volley better, he would have learned how to attack, some finesse. I’d bet my house that he would have reached No. 1 had he played some more doubles. Someone like Del Potro, with his big game. He plays some doubles, but hopefully he stays on with it. Hopefully, Roger [Federer] gets out there and plays more. That might help him survive as being the best singles player.

IT: The way the game is going now – 6-foot-10 Karlovic, 6-foot-9 Isner, 6-foot-6 Del Potro, Cilic and Querrey – you have to wonder if little Michael Chang would have been competitive in this era of big-man power tennis.

MW: I hope that a game like his would survive today because we don’t want to get too one-dimensional. That’s the beauty of our sport – the variables, the different styles, the different surfaces. We need that to create interest. If we go to too many hard-court tournaments throughout the year and they all play the same way, then you’re just banging your head against the wall.

IT: Thanks for taking some time to chat with us, Mark, and congratulations again on your induction into the International Hall of Fame. We look forward to seeing you in Newport, Rhode Island in July.

MW: It’s a huge honor. I’m so excited, but I’m a little embarrassed by it, too. To be in that group, that echelon of great tennis champions, it signifies the bookend. I don’t want to say it’s the end of the story, but it’s a bookend to our career. Crawling, learning how to play, it has paid off.