Playing Ball: Mixing It Up

Saturday, July 26, 2014 /by

Mixed doubles, as any historian of the sport can tell you, was why lawn tennis was invented in the 1870s. New country retreats were being built across England at the time, and the eligible young ladies and gentlemen who retreated to them needed something to do together once they were there. Croquet didn’t offer enough exercise; cricket offered too much. A genteel round of mixed doubles, safely played in long white pants and equally long, sweat-hiding white dresses, hit the demure sweet spot of Victorian seduction.

Funny how much something can change when you lift it out of 19th century England and put it back down in Brooklyn in the humid summer of 2014. 

A few weeks ago, my club staged its annual mixed-doubles tournament. When I was there on a warm weekend afternoon, two of its matches were being contested on the courts next to mine. My singles match was a tough one, but by the time my opponent and I were finished, I felt like we were the ones who were being demure. The mixed, from the competition on the courts to the vocal crowd watching on the concrete verandah above, was where the viciousness was.

Gone from this scene, of course, were the long white pants and dresses of old; our club’s only clothing requirement is that men wear shirts, of any color, when there are women around. On this day, the tournament fashion consisted of backwards baseball hats, red bicycle shorts, yellow tank tops, sleeveless T-shirts, sunglasses, a big black knee brace on one of the men, and another on one of the women.

More notable than the sight of these mixed-doubles players were the sounds they made as they played. There was a borderline-tantrum intensity to the tennis, which went well with the stinging heat, as well the high-pitched, whooshing shriek that the summer’s first cicadas were making in the trees that hang over the courts. Tempers were short all over.

“Oh, that was inside the line, inside the line!” one of the men yelled at the team across the net, who had just called one of his shots wide. All heads at the club turned to watch as he stalked forward and jabbed his racquet in the direction where his shot landed. For a second, it looked as if he were going to cross over to the other side of the court. “Come on, I can see the mark from here!” he hollered. By then, all four players, as well as a few members of the audience, were barking at once.

The other team, naturally, was having none of it. The man who made the call walked quickly over to where he thought the ball landed, put the top of his racquet on a mark outside the line, and stared back across the net.

This is where it landed,” he said.

He sounded sure of himself, but his confidence didn’t do anything to stop the uproar. By this time, my opponent and I were ready to get back to our own match. When we crossed paths at the net, I said, laughing, “That’s where the real competition is.” And as over-the-top as the mixed may have looked, I respected it. Part of me thought: You’re not really playing tennis until you’re red in the face from arguing someone’s call. 

A few minutes later, I hit an angled volley that bounced through the next court, and slowly came to rest near the court where the players had been fighting. As it slowly rolled to a halt a few feet short of the sideline, one player, who didn’t see the ball, was in the process of hitting a perfect lob over the opposing net player. When his opponents saw my ball roll up, they stopped and yelled, “Let!” 

A second later, as I came up to get the ball, I said “sorry” to the player who had hit the perfect lob.

He smiled. “Can you believe they called a let on that?”

“It’s serious over here,” I said.

For the next half hour, my match was interrupted at regular intervals by various detonations. There were shrieks of pain. There were fist-pumps and loud screams of “Come on!” from both the men and the women. A racquet was smashed, seemingly into powder. One woman was drilled in the leg with an overhead by a man; she spent the next few games limping—in competitive mixed doubles, it's understood that the men can aim at the women, but that doesn't mean it looks especially friendly when they do. 

The format also has a knack for bringing out the underlying tension in any relationship. A mother and son team did their best to avoid an argument; they may have succeeded because he spent much of his time saying, “Sorry, mom” after his mistakes. Another couple, though, didn’t bother trying to hide their frustration at their partner’s screw-ups; instead of saying something reassuring, they shook their heads and pleaded, “Why do you always try that?” This wasn’t mixed doubles as demure seduction; it was mixed doubles as divorce proceeding. 

When my match was over, I took my place with the crowd on the verandah. There were hot dogs and hamburgers and beer. One match went to a deciding tiebreaker, and each point in the breaker was greeted with loud roars. These weren’t roars of appreciation, exactly. “How could he miss that shot? It was so easy,” was a common refrain. A woman asked me if things were this intense on Centre Court at Wimbledon.

The breaker ended with a whimper rather than a bang. At 6-5, a serve was served, and a return was hit into the net. That was it. There was the sound of letdown in the audience as the four players trooped forward and sheepishly shook hands. The fever of battle had broken, and everyone suddenly seemed to wonder what all the anger was about. 

Or had they? I turned and walked out of the club, into a crowded Brooklyn street. As I reached the corner,  I heard a screech of wheels. Heads turned as a red car came blazing down the street; it looked angry as it careened past. I wasn't sure, but I could have sworn I saw the man who missed the last shot behind the wheel. 

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