Sports

Doubles Tennis Is Wimbledon’s Best Kept (and Most Fun) Secret

WIMBLEDON, England — Coco Gauff toed the line to serve, eyes focused, shoulders back, ready to go. It was a moment of peril in her semifinal mixed doubles match here on Wednesday. Break point. One game all, third set.

Gauff aimed a tight-spinning serve toward Matthew Ebden, her male opponent, and the point was on: a perfect display of what makes Gauff great at age 18, and what makes doubles an enduring favorite for Wimbledon fans.

Her teammate, Jack Sock, soon entered the mix, handling a difficult volley. Then Gauff poleaxed a forehand at her female opponent, Samantha Stosur. From there, tennis beauty. Back-to-back moonshot lobs; spinners; touch; power; all of the geometry on Court No. 3 explored, and Gauff holding more than her own.

The rally finally ended after 24 shots, as the crowd swayed and swooned and shouted to the cloud dappled sky and one of Sock’s spinning forehands finally coaxed a miss.

As I watched from the stands, it felt like Gauff was underlining a message she told me the day before.

“I love doubles,” she said. She smiled and paused for a moment. “It’s a different kind of game, all the reflexes, and unorthodox shots, the touchy-feely shots, the half volleys.”

“It’s a joy to play,” she added.

If your only exposure to tennis’s Grand Slam events is through television or even most media reports, you might think singles is all that matters. It breathes in nearly all of the oxygen. We know the big names, their strokes, their on-court proclivities, their off-court foibles. 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 war of pounding groundstrokes, even here at Wimbledon, once the province of the serve and volley. Doubles remains tennis’s hidden gem, the last outpost of variety.

Players like Gauff, famed for her singles play but already a doubles runner-up in two Grand Slams, find doubles a relief from tripwire pressure that comes with playing alone. And fans, once they get hooked, never seem to get enough of watching four professionals jam onto a court and produce set after set of novel angles and winners crafted with a pickpocket’s deft touch.

There’s a paradox, though. Television shows doubles much less often and prominently. The prize money is lower for doubles than for singles (and even less for mixed doubles than for men’s and women’s doubles). I concede, reporters rarely write about it. So begins a feedback loop: Without more exposure, this unique part of professional tennis remains niche. So long as it is niche, it gets less attention.

Unless it’s a final or a matchup featuring the biggest of names — Venus or Serena Williams —Grand Slam doubles remains relegated to the back courts.

Rajeev Ram admitted that the doubles game tends to operate “in the shadows” of professional tennis. Ever heard of him? Unless you’re an ardent fan of tennis, probably not. The 38-year-old American is the world’s No. 2-ranked men’s doubles player, but can walk the grounds of Wimbledon without being noticed. Alongside his partner, Joe Salisbury, he made it to 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 crowds. Once they watch doubles, Ram said, “the fans really take to it.”

Rajeev Ram, right, said that the doubles game tends to operate “in the shadows” of professional tennis.Credit…Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Over the past few days, I spent a lot of time on the backcourts doing just that. I hung out with spectators and heard their observations. Many told stories of strolling the grounds, unsure what they’d find, only to happen upon a doubles star like Nikola Mektic, a Croatian doubles maestro whom I saw face down an 80 miles per hour tennis ball ripped at his gut only to send back a drop shot that fell to the grass like a marshmallow.

“It’s sort of like a good dessert after the main dish,” one fan I spoke to said of the doubles draw. “The main dish is singles. I also like cake.”

Other spectators raved to me that mixed doubles — an event typically only played at majors — offers what in elite sports remains a novelty: men and women competing side-by-side on the same field of play.

Wimbledon spectators also seemed drawn to the joy that Gauff mentioned. During singles matches, players are usually tighter than tripwire. Doubles offers a relief that even a spectator can pick up on.

“I’m not used to laughing much on the court,” Gauff said. She paused for a moment, smiled, then continued. “I do in doubles. I definitely think I loosen up and relax a bit 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 who gives doubles its due, reveling in a corner of tennis that allows her to hit new shots “in all sorts of different and unusual ways.”

She hones her poise in singles and develops new shots and the flexibility to make them in doubles, taking the long view, believing the combination will round out her game to the point where she can finally lift a trophy at a Slam.

After reaching her first Grand Slam singles finals at the French Open last month, Gauff was determined to keep playing both singles and doubles at majors (she also reached the women’s doubles finals at Roland Garros, playing alongside Jessica Pegula). There was a problem: She needed a new partner for Wimbledon. Gauff found one the new-fashioned way, starting her search on social media.

“Who wants to play mixed at Wimby?” she posted to her Twitter account on June 15.

The ask hardly went unnoticed by Gauff’s 250,000 followers. Dozens wanted in. Even Mikaela Shiffrin, the World Cup champion skier, sent an emoji saying she was up for it. Gauff noticed one reply in particular: “We’d be a decent team,” posted Sock, a four-time Grand Slam doubles winner.

Gauff ended up taking a while to mull Sock’s offer. What if she played poorly and embarrassed herself with a male player of such prowess? “I almost said no to him,” she said. Finally, “I was like, ‘get out of your head, play with Jack!’”

The early results proved it a wise decision. Gauff and Sock did not drop a set in their first three matches. Then came Wednesday’s semifinal against the veteran Australian pairing of Ebden and Stosur.

She played with savvy, giving no quarter, serving and returning well, and hitting volleys with firm confidence as the third set marched on, pressure mounting. Two games apiece. Three games. Four.

But with Gauff serving to go up, 6-5, it was Sock who dumped an easy volley into the net. Then another. Stosur and Ebden took advantage, breaking serve, edging ahead. They closed out the match quickly, 6-3, 5-7, 7-5.

Gauff left the court with a determined look, comforted by a crowd that stood to loudly applaud, a thank you to both teams for a match of suspense and entertainment.

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