Wimbledon 2019: The Serena Williams–Andy Murray Mixed-Doubles Match Shows the Future That Tennis Should Be Embracing
The unwritten brand promise of professional tennis is that, for its largest events, it alone among sports brings together men and women at the same venue, at the same time, to play the same game. Does it do enough, as a business, to reinforce this value proposition? It does not. In too many of its C-suites, the executives who head up its tournaments or direct the telecasts of its matches cling to the belief—or, anyway, they often enough act as if they do—that the women’s side of things is not quite up to the men’s game. They look upon the Age of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic—the finest era, arguably, that men’s tennis has ever known—and, reifying it, decide things and plan things with the mentality that it was always so and will forever be so. They fail to see, or so it can seem, the clusters of men sitting together courtside watching women play; or the groups of women watching a men’s match; or the thousands of men and women commingled, as you will seldom glimpse in such numbers at any other global sporting event, happily watching men or women, so long as the tennis is outstanding and competitive.
There were fourteen thousand or so men and women filling nearly every seat on Centre Court at Wimbledon early Saturday evening, and they stood and roared, whistled and popped champagne bottles—yes, at Wimbledon, you can bring bottles, or your beer or Pimm’s (in a proper glass), to your seats—when the players walked on court to begin a mixed-doubles match. One of the pairs was Andy Murray and Serena Williams, which explains why almost no one left her or his seat when the previous match, between Roger Federer and Lucas Pouille, concluded. Which explains, too, why the match was on Centre Court and not one of the small, bleacher-lined outer courts where mixed doubles is normally found at Grand Slam tournaments, the only tournaments on the tour where mixed doubles gets played. (Mixed doubles are a feature of Olympic tennis.) Mixed doubles, with its close-range clashes among and between men and women, may heighten and reinforce what makes tennis unique, but for the most part it’s treated as an afterthought. Even with Williams and Murray partnering, ESPN signed off after Federer’s victory over Pouille, choosing to offer the mixed-doubles match only on its streaming service, ESPN+.
Too bad. It was the day’s most entertaining tennis, brightening the gloaming with quick-twitch scrambling and keen, strategic shotmaking. The Murray–Williams team won easily enough in the end, 6–4, 6–1, largely on the strength of their serving, beating the doubles specialists Andreas Mies, of Germany, and Alexa Guarachi, an American-born Chilean, neither of whom were used to the big-stage attention or the firepower. (Williams had at least one serve of a hundred and twenty-two miles per hour, a speed that neither of her opponents could match.) It was great to see Murray back on court again, blistering that coiled two-handed backhand of his, and moving, at least in the half court that was his responsibility to defend, as if he had not undergone hip-resurfacing surgery in January, for an injury that is likely to end his time as a top singles player. His body language, so often hunch-shouldered and downcast during his years playing singles, was that of a man with gratitude to convey, even though he’d played and lost a men’s doubles match that afternoon.
Williams looked sanguine, too, and sharp. (She’d won her third-round singles match hours earlier.) She used to partner with her sister, Venus, for doubles at majors, but now the two, in their late thirties, are careful to preserve their energies for singles. When she was positioned at the net, with Murray serving or returning, her volleys were crisp and well placed, her bang-bang reflex volleys surprisingly nimble: she still has fine hands. However, her ability to approach the net from the baseline and, on the move, get low for volleys was never a strength and remained a challenge. In the middle of one point, she slipped while coming in to pick up a short ball and tumbled toward the net and onto the grass. She made a move to get up, then appeared to duck and roll, laughing as shots whizzed above her. “I just remember I slipped—then I was going to get back up,” she said afterward, seated next to Murray in the interview room. “I saw a ball coming towards me, so I just kind of went back down. Then I couldn’t get back up after that.”
“Did you see the video?” Murray interjected, deadpan.
“Yeah. It was hilarious,” Williams said. Then, to the reporters: “I decided to just stay down and let Andy do all the running.”
Murray and Williams like and respect each other. Williams, along with others on the women’s tour, appreciates Murray’s outspoken support for the women’s game and women’s issues; she also relates to the anger that can combust during his singles matches, though Murray’s rage tended to be self-directed. Murray, in turn, admires Williams’s competitive drive: unflagging, like his own. They are playing together not on a lark but to win it.
Would that tennis configured itself to make mixed doubles more inviting to its stars. How about offering them the opportunity to play mixed doubles during the qualifying week, before their singles matches at majors begin? Or imagine an event that combined the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup in a mixed World Cup of Tennis, with not only mixed doubles but mixed teams? Instead, beginning next January, the Association of Tennis Professionals, which oversees men’s tennis, will launch the A.T.P. Cup, a ten-day men’s national-team competition, to be held in Australia, that essentially duplicates what the newly redesigned Davis Cup final will provide six weeks before, in Madrid. One of the cities hosting the A.T.P. Cup matches will be Perth, where the event will displace and—it would appear, possibly doom—the Hopman Cup, an exhibition tournament that for years brought together eight national mixed teams to play men’s singles, women’s singles, and mixed doubles. This past January, at the Hopman, Roger Federer and Serena Williams met across the net from each other in mixed doubles. Remember that? You better. It, or anything much like it, is unlikely to happen again.
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