WIMBLEDON, England — Coco Gauff followed the serving line, eyes focused, shoulders back, ready to go. It was a dangerous moment in their mixed doubles semifinal match here on Wednesday. Breaking point. One game all, third set.
Gauff aimed a serve with a tight spin at Matthew Ebden, his male opponent, and the point was clear: a perfect demonstration of what makes Gauff great at 18, and what makes doubles an enduring favorite for Wimbledon fans.
His teammate Jack Sock soon entered the mix, handling a difficult volley. Gauff then swung a forehand at her female opponent, Samantha Stosur. From there, the beauty of tennis. Consecutive lunar balloons; spinners; play; Energy; the entire geometry of court #3 was explored, and Gauff retained more than his own.
The rally was finally over after 24 shots, as the crowd swayed, swooned and screamed at the cloud-speckled sky and one of Sock’s spinning forehands finally missed.
As I watched from the stands, I felt that Gauff was underscoring a message he had told me the day before.
“I love doubles,” he said. She smiled and paused for a moment. “It’s a different kind of game, all the reflexes and the unorthodox shots, the sensitive shots, the half volleys.”
“It’s a pleasure to play,” he added.
If your only exposure to tennis’s Grand Slam events is through television or even most media reports, you might think that the only thing that matters is singles. It breathes almost all the oxygen. We know the big names, their shots, their on-court leans, their off-court weaknesses. We celebrate the upstarts who always seem to march to new heights.
But with the advent of more powerful rackets and strings, singles is now invariably a groundstroke war, even here at Wimbledon, once the province of serve and volley. Doubles remains the hidden gem of tennis, the ultimate outpost of variety.
Players like Gauff, famous for her singles game but already runner-up in doubles at two Grand Slams, find doubles a relief from the pressure of playing alone. And fans, once hooked, never seem to get enough of watching four pros get on a court and churn out series after series of winning, novel angles crafted with the deft touch of a pickpocket.
However, there is a paradox. TV shows are duplicated much less frequently and prominently. Prize money is lower for doubles than for singles (and even less for mixed doubles than for men’s and women’s doubles). I admit, reporters rarely write about it. Thus begins a feedback loop: without further exposure, this unique part of professional tennis remains niche. As long as it’s a niche, it gets less attention.
Unless it’s a final or a showdown with the biggest names, Venus or Serena Williams, Grand Slam doubles remains relegated to the back courts.
Rajeev Ram admitted that doubles play tends to operate “in the shadows” of professional tennis. Have you ever heard of him? Unless you are passionate about tennis, probably not. The 38-year-old American is the world’s second-ranked men’s doubles player, but he can walk the Wimbledon grounds unnoticed. Along with his partner, Joe Salisbury, he reached the men’s doubles semifinals here on Wednesday with a five-set win over Nicolas Mahut and Édouard Roger-Vasselin.
Ram uses his pterodactyl wingspan and Sampras-ian serve to dominate matches and win over the crowd. Once they see doubles, Ram said, “the fans really take to it.”
In the last couple of days, I’ve spent a lot of time in the backcourt doing just that. I went out with the spectators and listened to their observations. Many told stories of wandering the grounds, not sure what they would find, only to come across a doubles star like Nikola Mektic, a Croatian doubles master who I saw upside down with an 80 mph tennis ball torn into his stomach only to send back a drop shot that hit the turf like a marshmallow.
“It’s like a good dessert after the main course,” said one fan I spoke to about the doubles draw. “The main course is singles. I also like cake.
Other spectators excitedly told me that mixed doubles, an event normally only played at majors, offers what remains a novelty in elite sports: men and women competing side-by-side on the same playing field.
The Wimbledon spectators also seemed drawn to the joy Gauff mentioned. During singles matches, players are often tighter than a tripwire. Doubles offers a relief that even a spectator can notice.
“I’m not used to laughing a lot on the court,” Gauff said. He paused for a moment, smiled, and then continued. “I do it in doubles. I definitely think I loosen up and relax a little more. So I’m going to try to use that all the time.”
Gauff, who lost her third-round singles match to Amanda Anisimova, is one of the few famous players to give doubles her due, enjoying a corner of tennis that allows her to hit new shots “in all sorts of different ways.” and unusual. ”
He hones his poise in singles and develops new shots and the flexibility to hit them in doubles, taking the long view, believing the combination will complete his game to the point where he can finally lift a Slam trophy.
After reaching her first Grand Slam singles final at the French Open last month, Gauff was determined to continue playing in both singles and doubles at majors (she also reached the women’s doubles final at Roland Garros, playing alongside to Jessica Pegula). There was a problem: she needed a new partner for Wimbledon. Gauff found one in the latest fashion, beginning a search for her on social media.
“Who wants to play mixed at Wimby?” she posted on his Twitter account on June 15.
The question did not go unnoticed by Gauff’s 250,000 followers. Dozens wanted to enter. Even Mikaela Shiffrin, the World Cup champion skier, sent an emoticon saying that she was willing to do it. Gauff noted one response in particular: “We’d make a decent team,” posted Sock, a four-time Grand Slam doubles winner.
Gauff ended up taking time to reflect on Sock’s offer. What if she played poorly and was embarrassed by a male player of such skill? “I almost told her no,” he said. Finally, “I was like, ‘Get out of your head, play with Jack!'”
The first results showed that it was a wise decision. Gauff and Sock did not drop a set in their first three matches. Then came Wednesday’s semi-final against the veteran Australian pairing of Ebden and Stosur.
He played smart, giving no quarter, serving and returning well, and hitting volleys with firm confidence as the third set wore on, the pressure mounting. Two games each. three games. four
But with Gauff serving to go up, 6-5, it was Sock who hit an easy volley into the net. Then another. Stosur and Ebden took advantage, breaking serve and going ahead. They closed out the match quickly, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5.
Gauff walked off the court with a determined look, consoled by a crowd that rose to its feet to loud applause, a thank you to both teams for a suspenseful and entertaining match.