September 30, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England — Coco Gauff walked down the line to serve, eyes focused, shoulders back, ready to go. It was a perilous moment in his mixed doubles semi-final match here on Wednesday. Breaking point. A match everywhere, third set.

Gauff directed a tight serve to Matthew Ebden, her male opponent, and the point was on: a perfect demonstration of what makes Gauff great at 18 and what makes doubles an enduring favorite for Wimbledon fans.

His teammate, Jack Sock, quickly entered the mix, handling a tough volley. Then Gauff forehanded her female opponent, Samantha Stosur. From there, the beauty of tennis. Back to Back Lunar Lobs; spinners; to touch; Powerful; all the geometry of Court No. 3 has been explored and Gauff has more than his own.

The rally finally ended after 24 shots, as the crowd swayed, fainted and shouted at the cloudy sky and one of Sock’s spinning forehands finally persuaded a misfire.

As I watched from the bleachers, I felt like Gauff was underlining a message she had told me the night before.

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

“It’s a pleasure to play,” she added.

If your only exposure to tennis Grand Slam events is through television or even most media reports, you might think singles are all that matters. It breathes almost all oxygen. We know the big names, their shots, their inclinations on the court, their mannerisms off the court. We celebrate upstarts who always seem to be marching to new heights.

But with the advent of more powerful racquets 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 last outpost of variety.

Players like Gauff, famous for her singles play but already a doubles finalist in two Grand Slams, find in doubles relief from the triggering pressure that comes with playing alone. And fans, once hooked, never seem to get enough of watching four professionals pile into a court and produce set after set of never-before-seen angles and pickpocket-crafted winners. .

There is, however, a paradox. TV shows double much less often and prominently. The prize money is lower in doubles than in singles (and even less in mixed doubles than in men’s and women’s doubles). Granted, journalists rarely write about it. So begins a feedback loop: Without more exposure, this unique part of professional tennis remains a niche. As long as it’s a niche, it gets less attention.

Unless it’s a final or a clash with the biggest names – Venus or Serena Williams – the Grand Slam double remains relegated to the backyards.

Rajeev Ram has admitted that the game of doubles tends to operate “in the shadows” of professional tennis. Have you ever heard of him? Unless you are an ardent tennis fan, probably not. The 38-year-old American is the world’s second-largest men’s doubles player, but he can walk onto the Wimbledon court unnoticed. Alongside partner Joe Salisbury, he advanced to the men’s doubles semi-finals here on Wednesday with a five-set victory over Nicolas Mahut and Édouard Roger-Vasselin.

Ram uses his pterodactyl wingspan and Sampras-ian serves to dominate matches and win over crowds. Once they watch the doubles, Ram said, “the fans really get into it.”

Over the past few days I’ve been spending a lot of time on the backcourts doing just that. I’ve hung out with bystanders and heard their observations. Many told stories of walks around the court, not knowing what they would find, only to stumble upon a doubles star like Nikola Mektic, a Croatian doubles maestro who I saw face down with a tennis ball 80 miles away. per hour ripped to his gut to send back a cushioning that fell in the grass like a marshmallow.

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

Other viewers have told me that mixed doubles – an event usually played only in major tournaments – offers what remains a novelty in elite sports: men and women competing side by side on the same playground.

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

“I’m not used to laughing a lot on the pitch,” Gauff said. She paused for a moment, smiled, then continued. “I do doubles. I really think I relax and relax a bit more. So I will try to use it 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, reveling in a tennis wedge that allows her to hit new shots “from all kinds of different and unusual ways. ”

She hones her composure in singles and develops new shots and the flexibility to do them in doubles, taking a long view, believing the combination will complement her game to the point where she can finally lift a trophy during a Slam.

After reaching her first Grand Slam singles final at Roland Garros last month, Gauff was determined to continue playing singles and doubles at major tournaments (she also reached the women’s doubles final at Roland Garros, USA). alongside Jessica Pegula). There was a problem: she needed a new partner for Wimbledon. Gauff found a trendy one, starting her search on social media.

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

The request hardly went unnoticed by Gauff’s 250,000 subscribers. Dozens of people wanted to participate. Even Mikaela Shiffrin, the world champion skier, sent an emoji saying she was up for it. Gauff noticed one response in particular: “We would be a decent team,” said Sock, a four-time Grand Slam doubles winner.

Gauff ended up taking some time to think about Sock’s offer. What if she played badly and was embarrassed with a male player of such prowess? “I almost told him no,” she said. Eventually, “I was like, ‘get out of your head, play with Jack!'”

The first results proved that it was a wise decision. Gauff and Sock haven’t dropped a set in their first three matches. Then came Wednesday’s semi-final against veteran Australian pair Ebden and Stosur.

She played smart, giving no quarter, serving and returning well, and hitting volleys with firm confidence as the third set wore on, the pressure mounted. Two games each. Three games. Four.

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

Gauff left the pitch looking determined, comforted by a crowd that rose to loud applause, a thank you to both teams for a game of suspense and entertainment.