August 16, 2022

LONDON — Just moments after the last scheduled game ended on No. 1 Court on Friday, an announcement has been made. There would still be a game that night.

Few people left their seats and a palpable buzz rippled through the stadium as fans waited for the players to enter the pitch. As the news circulated on the All England Club grounds, others made their way to the stadium to come and take a look.

In their debut together, Venus Williams and Jamie Murray would face Alicja Rosolska and Michael Venus in a mixed doubles match in the first round.

Williams said acting with Murray was something she had wanted to do “always”, but joked that it was “hard to get”. The 42-year-old had arrived at Wimbledon with no intention of playing at all, but changed her mind once she saw the grass. Her coach texted Murray at the last minute and he agreed to play with her – something the two seemed thrilled to have the chance to do.

The superstar pair of Williams, 11-time Wimbledon champions in singles and doubles, playing their first match since August, and Murray, home favorite and seven-time major winner in doubles and mixed, instantly became unmissable.

They more than lived up to the hype in a dramatic three-set victory that lasted late into the night and required the roof to be closed for lighting. When it was over, the crowd – which mostly stayed until the end – gave them a rousing ovation.

“It was a great experience, [getting to] play with Venus Williams,” Murray said afterwards. “When am I going to get the chance to do this?”

With so many household names absent before the second week at the All England Club, due to upheaval, COVID and the banning of Russian and Belarusian players, it was a much-needed dose of star power at the tournament.

It was also a reminder that mixed doubles – which also features a Coco Gauff and Jack Sock team – might just be the most entertaining tennis you’ve yet to watch at the All England Club.

Mixed doubles doesn’t really get much attention during Grand Slams, but every now and then there’s a star pairing too compelling to be ignored by the masses. Such was the case with the younger siblings of Williams and Murray – you know, Serena and Andy – who teamed up at the All England Club in 2019 and reached the third round.

While Williams-Murray teams are usually shown on show courts, mixed doubles matches are often relegated to outdoor courts and considered the last priority when scheduling matches for the day. They also toil in television obscurity, being rarely featured. Not to mention, the winning team will earn just under $150,000 to split – a 24% increase from 2021, but still a far cry from the $2.41 million awarded to singles champions, or even the $650,000. for doubles winners.

But few top players are in it for the money or the accolades. Instead, it’s an opportunity to play alongside and against players they would never have been able to share the pitch with otherwise. And it’s a chance to enjoy playing at an otherwise super serious Grand Slam.

“It was a lot of fun tonight,” Murray said after the first-round match. “We had a good time. … [It’s] incredible to be on the court with such a champion.”

Unlike doubles, which takes place at every tournament on the circuit, mixed doubles only takes place in major tournaments. Players don’t even need to register until the first singles round has already taken place. Playing with the same partner is unlikely – let alone training together – and the lack of consistent pairings and unfamiliarity often provide some of the best moments on and off the pitch.

Gauff took to Twitter to find their partner for the tournament, simply posting: “Who wants to play mixed at Wimby?”

Sock, who won the mixed doubles at the US Open in 2011 and Olympic gold in the event in 2016, was not shy about getting his shot. “We would be a good team” he wrote next to the eyes emoji.

Gauff hinted that the two made their partnership official on TikTok by telling fans that “his partner’s last name is the same as an item of clothing.” Back and forth on social media added intrigue to the draw even before it was revealed on Wednesday.

On Saturday, hours after Gauff and Sock lost the singles in heartbreaking fashion, the two opened the mixed doubles against Olivia Nicholls and Kyle Edmund. Despite their respective disappointments earlier in the day, neither Gauff nor Sock could hide their joy at playing together in a 6-4, 6-1 win. When Gauff hit an air slam for an easy point in the first set, Sock offered some commentary and Gauff couldn’t help but laugh.

“I was laughing, smiling on every point,” Gauff said afterwards. “With the intensity of the singles and even [women’s] double, it’s not really often [I can do that]. Yeah, for me, it was a little crazy to play with him. It was definitely a to-do list for me and I’m glad I got to do it.”

Gauff was already thinking about a possible semi-final showdown with Williams and Murray when she spoke to reporters on Saturday, but that won’t happen. Not this year anyway. Williams and Murray fell in a dramatic third-set tiebreaker for a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(16) loss to Jonny O’Mara and Alicia Barnett on Sunday.

But, playing on the adjacent court at the same time, Gauff and Sock moved closer to the semis – and beyond – with a 6-4, 7-6(3) victory over Nicolas Mahut and Zhang Shuai. They will then play the quarter-finals on Monday and face Alize Cornet, who ended Iga Swiatek’s 37-game winning streak on Saturday, and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.

Cornet is just one of the other great singles players remaining in the mixed doubles draw. Former great champions Sam Stosur (with Matthew Ebden) and Jelena Ostapenko (with Robert Farah) are also still in the running.

Gauff admitted she was disappointed to receive the first singles outing of her young All England Club career in the third round, but said the defeat made her all the more focused on mixed doubles.

“At the moment I hope to do well, as well as possible, in mixed,” said Gauff. “[And] don’t let Jack down on that part.”