It isn’t often—or ever, actually—that the Big 3 are upstaged by a mixed-doubles match. But that’s what happened at Wimbledon on Wednesday. While Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were in action on the two main show courts, the buzz and the fun and the noise came from the hinterlands of No. 2, where the best-attended mixed match at any major in recent memory was taking place.
This wasn’t just any mixed match of course; it featured two of the sport’s other A-list celebrities, Serena Williams and Andy Murray—SerAndy or Murena, depending on your taste in patronymics. While the American and the Brit lost in three sets to the top seeds, Bruno Soares and Nicole Melichar, they provided a rare showcase for this unfortunately-ignored format, and showed that it can be just as entertaining, if not more so, than any singles match.
During their three-match run, Serena rifled men’s first serves back for winners; dug two-handed volleys out of her hip and reflexed them into the open court; and happily shrieked with virtually every swing. Murray, freed from his usual camping ground behind the baseline, gave us a taste of his volleying skills and the instinct for creative shot-making that he typically keeps safely under wraps during his singles matches.
Together, Murray and Serena slapped hands after every point, exchanged laughs on changeovers, and traded kisses when their matches were over. Each saved the other from getting too negative, the way they can in singles: there were no racquet smashes from Serena, and no dark mutterings or sarcastic thumbs up from Murray. Instead, they supported each other, stayed positive for each other, and made each other smile when they could. Watching them relate made them more relatable.
“We had so much fun,” Serena said. “We aren’t ready for it to be over.”
Is tennis ready for mixed doubles to be over, so soon after it took over the headlines, and entertained so many fans? The feeling is similar to the one that many U.S. sports fans have had since the end of the women’s World Cup. “OK, that was fun. Now what?”
There’s clearly an audience for doubles and mixed doubles, and it may even be one that wouldn’t normally be drawn to singles, which is so much more serious and unsocial. What it would take to raise mixed’s profile for longer than a week?
On Wednesday, Serena was asked if there was room for mixed doubles, which is currently only played at the Grand Slams, at the tours’ other combined events. (Watch their full press conference above.)
“It’s hard to say,” she said. “There’s so many amazing matches already. It’s not like it’s a two-week event. We usually start those tournaments like on a Wednesday, sometimes Tuesday. Those extra days really matter and really count.”
“It sounds good, it sounds really exciting. But the big question is will it work. Will one of the tournaments take a chance on it? It’s all about trying. Who knows if it will work or not.”
If anything, tennis, and in particular the ATP, has been moving in the opposite direction in recent years. This January, Serena and Roger Federer made headlines when they faced off in a mixed-doubles match at the dual-gender Hopman Cup. What happened next? The popular season-opening exhibition was folded in favor of the men’s-only ATP Cup. The sport’s other team events—Laver Cup, Davis Cup and Fed Cup—are also all single-gender.
Serena is right, mixed doubles is a difficult fit in a sport where the men and women play and travel, and make most of their money, on separate tours. It’s also a difficult fit at the Slams, where the men play best-of-five-set matches in singles. If anything, the first focus should be on getting the game’s stars to play doubles on their own tours more often.
Theoretically, there are places where mixed doubles could expand. The ITF could combine Davis Cup and Fed Cup at some point; it could also use one of the calendar weeks that it abandoned when it made them into single-week competitions to stage a dual-gender event. Laver Cup could make an effort to include the top women. But none of those developments seem likely in the near term, and in the current pro-tennis climate.
More realistic, perhaps, would be a new doubles/mixed-doubles invitational, put on by, say, Larry Ellison or another big-money backer, featuring the top men’s and women’s players and staged somewhere like Madison Square Garden or Indian Wells. An event like that could also be a way to showcase some of the talented doubles specialists who currently labor in the stars’ shadows; on Wednesday fans came to No. 2 Court to see SerAndy, but it was Soares who stole the show with his doubles expertise.
At a moment when there’s so much talk about equality and equal pay in soccer, Serena and Murray went a step further at Wimbledon, and reminded sports fans that men and women can compete with and against each other on the same field of play. Only in tennis can this happen; the sport should lead the way by doing what it can to make it happen as often as possible.