With mixed doubles to be played at this summer’s Games in London – the first time in 88 years that men and women have competed together on a tennis court at the Olympics – there is a new focus on this form of the game.
The last time that mixed doubles was played at the Olympics, the male half of the winning pair was a Titanic survivor, an American called Richard Norris Williams who had been pulled from a lifeboat (doctors wanted to amputate his frozen legs, but he refused).
That was at the 1924 Games in Paris, when Williams partnered Hazel Wightman. That 88-year break will come to an end this summer. The International Olympic Committee’s decision to reintroduce mixed doubles to the programme for this summer’s Games at Wimbledon has meant that some in tennis are re-evaluating what they think of this form of the game. Some put it down as a fun and flirty diversion; others contend that the mixed doubles is their greatest chance of winning a gold medal on the grass of the All England Club. It was only because he had the Olympics in mind that Andy Roddick and Serena Williams entered the mixed doubles competition at the Australian Open, though they withdrew because of the leg injury which had led to Roddick’s retirement from his second-round singles match against Lleyton Hewitt. “Serena and I have been friends for a long time and frankly she’s my best chance of a gold medal,” Roddick told The New York Times the other day, before the Australian Open began.
Even before the announcement about the Olympics (which came in 2009), modern tennis man was much more receptive towards mixed than previous generations. Fred Perry once described mixed doubles as “a form of men’s singles with a woman on either side of the net”, while Bill Tilden called it, “a completely unbalanced and in many ways uninteresting game”. And Rod Laver advised that “an otherwise happily married couple may turn a mixed doubles game into a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Those are not attitudes that you are likely to hear from the men’s field at the 2012 Australian Open, whether privately or publicly. Why can’t mixed doubles be both fun and serious, tennis played in a less intense atmosphere, but still with the possibility of slam and Olympic titles. Ana Ivanovic, a former world number one, has said that, while “higher-ranked singles players may not take it as seriously, they can play better tennis, as they are more relaxed”. Jamie Murray, who once told GQ magazine that “it’s more inspiring for the guy if he’s playing with a good-looking partner”, flirted his way to victory with Jelena Jankovic in the mixed doubles tournament at the 2007 Wimbledon Championships. Yes, he did not become the singles champion, as his younger brother might some year, but a Wimbledon title is still a Wimbledon title. (Murray and his Chinese partner, Shuai Peng, lost in the opening round in Melbourne – see above for him muttering to her with his mouth obscured by tennis balls).
Roger Federer, the most successful man in the history of tennis, has also had mixed doubles on his mind. The other day, Martina Hingis confirmed that she turned him down with his offer of playing together at Wimbledon: “We talked at the end of last season. I haven’t played for four years. He has to concentrate on singles and men’s doubles and I think it’s better that way.” There have been suggestions that Federer could play with Romina Oprandi, who has Swiss and Italian passports, and is apparently considering playing for Switzerland again.
The pairings in the Australian Open draw who look as though they are preparing for the Olympics are Japan’s Kimiko Date-Krumm and Kei Nishikori and India’s Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupati. Like Roddick, Mirza considers that the only way of getting on the podium in London is through success on the mixed doubles court. “Funnily enough, a medal is a medal at the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if you get it in singles, doubles or mixed. We’re a big country, and obviously the Olympics is important to us,” Mirza said, and she has a choice of partners, as three Indian men – Bhupati, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna – are ranked in the top 11 for doubles. “I’m in a great position to choose from three people. Obviously, the best people will be put forward.”
The etiquette can be so difficult for a man on the mixed doubles court, as he must make up his own mind whether it is right to drill the ball at his female opponent. Debrett’s cannot help you with that one. Boris Becker always felt very uncomfortable: “I couldn’t hit the woman when she was at net. The woman would always hit the ball hard at me, though. My partner would say, ‘Go on, Boris, hit it, hit the ball at the woman’, but I just couldn’t do it. Was I too much of a gentleman? I don’t know. I was usually the worst player on the court.” Jamie Murray said that he once struck the woman on the other side of the net (through not intentionally): “Once, at a tournament in America, I hit a drive-volley and accidentally hit my opponent full on in the chest. She was down for a bit.”