WIMBLEDON, England — Coco Gauff toed the road to serve, eyes focused, shoulders back, able 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 purpose was on: an ideal display of what makes Gauff great at age 18, and what makes doubles an everlasting favorite for Wimbledon fans.
Her teammate, Jack Sock, soon entered the combo, 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 the geometry on Court No. 3 explored, and Gauff holding greater than her own.
The rally finally ended after 24 shots, as the group swayed and swooned and shouted to the cloud dappled sky and one in all 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 really like doubles,” she said. She smiled and paused for a moment. “It’s a distinct type of game, all of the reflexes, and unorthodox shots, the touchy-feely shots, the half volleys.”
“It’s a joy to play,” she added.
In case your only exposure to tennis’s Grand Slam events is thru television and even most media reports, you would possibly think singles is all that matters. It breathes in nearly all the oxygen. We all know the large names, their strokes, their on-court proclivities, their off-court foibles. We have fun the upstarts who at all times appear to march to latest heights.
But with the arrival 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 stays 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 appear to get enough of watching 4 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 girls’s doubles). I concede, reporters rarely write about it. So begins a feedback loop: Without more exposure, this unique a part of skilled tennis stays area of interest. As long as it’s area of interest, it gets less attention.
Unless it’s a final or a matchup featuring the most important of names — Venus or Serena Williams —Grand Slam doubles stays relegated to the back courts.
Rajeev Ram admitted that the doubles game tends to operate “within the shadows” of skilled 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 boys’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.”
Over the past few days, I spent plenty of time on the backcourts doing just that. I frolicked with spectators and heard their observations. Many told stories of strolling the grounds, unsure what they’d find, only to occur 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 type of like a great dessert after the important dish,” one fan I spoke to said of the doubles draw. “The important 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 stays a novelty: men and girls competing side-by-side on the identical field of play.
Wimbledon spectators also seemed drawn to the enjoyment that Gauff mentioned. During singles matches, players are frequently 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 chill out a bit more. So I’m going to try to make use of that every one the time.”
Gauff, who lost her third-round singles match to Amanda Anisimova, is one in all the few famous players who gives doubles its due, reveling in a corner of tennis that permits her to hit latest shots “in all types of different and weird ways.”
She hones her poise in singles and develops latest shots and the flexibleness to make them in doubles, taking the long view, believing the mix will round out her game to the purpose where she will finally lift a trophy at a Slam.
After reaching her first Grand Slam singles finals on the French Open last month, Gauff was determined to maintain playing each singles and doubles at majors (she also reached the ladies’s doubles finals at Roland Garros, playing alongside Jessica Pegula). There was an issue: She needed a latest partner for Wimbledon. Gauff found one the new-fashioned way, starting her search on social media.
“Who desires 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 specifically: “We’d be an honest team,” posted Sock, a four-time Grand Slam doubles winner.
Gauff ended up taking some time 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 used to be like, ‘get out of your head, play with Jack!’”
The early results proved it a sensible decision. Gauff and Sock didn’t drop a set of their first three matches. Then got here 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 because the third set marched on, pressure mounting. Two games apiece. Three games. 4.
But with Gauff serving to go up, 6-5, it was Sock who dumped a straightforward volley into the web. Then one other. 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 thanks to each teams for a match of suspense and entertainment.