Nicholas Monroe: Doubling up on a professional tennis career

I was watching the recent Miami Open doubles final when it dawned on me that Nicholas Monroe, who was playing alongside Jack Sock, an American ranked No. 16 in the world, may be the only African-American doubles specialist on the ATP World Tour.

So I did some research. As far as I could discern, Monroe indeed is the only African-American tennis player carving out an ATP career in doubles.

Unless you follow tennis closely, you might be wondering who the heck is Nicholas Monroe! I wouldn’t be mad at you. It’s not like his name has been a fixture on the tennis circuit marquee.

Bob Davis, founder of the Black Tennis History Museum, said he knows Monroe and confirmed that the 35-year-old doubles specialist is in a class by himself as an African American on the ATP tour.

“He’s a fine player and…has found his niche in doubles,” Davis told me in an email.

I had watched Monroe play a couple of times. But I didn’t know he has been around as long as he has. Nor did I know, until I did some checking, that he is off to the best start of his doubles career, both in rankings and earnings.

As of April 17, Monroe had climbed to 37th in the world, his highest ranking to date. He is 14-9 In doubles competition this year, reaching the finals at Miami, a Masters 1000 tournament, in which he and Sock knocked off the accomplished Bob and Mike Bryan in the semi-finals.

The prize money from that tournament represented a big chunk of the $128,477 Monroe has earned so far this year. Overall, he has collected more than $808,000 since turning pro in 2004 after an outstanding tennis career at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he was an All-American.

Compared to the mega bucks earned by today’s top singles players, $800,000 may seem paltry over 13 years – it averages to a little more than $62,000 a year. But it’s probably enough to maintain rent on a modest apartment while traveling the world playing the sport you love.

Born in Oklahoma City in 1982, Monroe stands 5’10” and weighs 160 pounds. He’s almost puny by today’s standards. Consider, for example, top young American prospects Taylor Fritz, who is 6’4”, or Reilly Opelka at 6’11’, or Frances Tiafoe, who is 6’2″ with a powerfully built upper body.

Monroe’s slight stature may be a big part of why he has been unable to establish himself as an ATP-level singles player. While he has won 11 International Tennis Federation (ITF) singles titles, the lowest tier of professional competition, he has yet to win an ATP Tour singles match.

Monroe’s highest singles ranking was 253, reached in September, 2011. His last ranking was 1198 in 2015, indicating he has given up singles for the most part to concentrate on doubles.

But as a doubles player, Monroe has won three ATP Tour titles — one with Sock and two with German player Simon Stadler — and was runner-up in five other tour-level tournaments. He also has won 11 ATP Challenger championships.

Monroe could be an inspiration to many young players who may not have the big weapons to compete in singles but possess enough competitive spirit and talent to possibly excel in doubles.

For many recreational and club players, as well as those who United States Tennis Association league tennis, doubles is the game of choice. For me, it became a preference after age and arthritis compelled me to limit my singles play.

But I have come to appreciate the different set of skills and strategy that are required to be successful in doubles. Top doubles players tend to volley well and dominate at the net.

“Most would agree that winning doubles teams require ownership of the net,” said black tennis historian Davis, who has won three American Tennis Association national doubles championships and a USTA national mixed doubles title. “Ownership of the net means that doubles teams are better than average volleyers.”

Marcus Ngbea, a teaching pro who played four years of singles and doubles at Morgan State University, agrees.

“You have to be able to volley well in doubles – on any level,” Ngbea said. “Ninety-five percent of the points you win in doubles should be at the net.”

Both Ngbea and Davis say the strategies used by the more successful doubles players – employing different spins, chipping and charging on returns, serve and volley – would serve singles players well.

They also agree that while most of the fame and fortune in tennis go to singles players, there is enough left over for a top-100 doubles specialist to have a stable career.

As Ngbea put it, “You win enough, you’re going to make some money.”

Nick Monroe apparently has figured that out. At the rate he is going, 2017 could be his breakout year in prize money.

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