The Toss: Serving up pairings for Olympic mixed doubles
Mixed doubles is back as a medal event at the Olympics for the first time since the 1924 Paris Games. The return of mixed has Courtney and Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times' Straight Sets blog pondering dream (and more realistic) pairings for London -- and musing about which duos would have made magic at previous Olympics. After reading their wish lists in the latest version of The Toss, weigh in with your picks in the comments section.
Ben Rothenberg: Thank you for allowing me to serve first, Courtney, on this special mixed doubles edition of The Toss. Fitting, I guess, as we know men traditionally serve first in mixed dubs. But did you know that after losing the first set of the Australian Open final earlier this year, Leander Paes and Elena Vesnina elected to have Vesnina serve first in the second set because they felt having him at net and her at the baseline was their strongest formation? (Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Horia Tecau won the match 6-3, 5-7, 10-3.)
I tell you that not because it's really relevant to anything, but simply as a way to demonstrate my total nerd-dom when it comes to mixed doubles. As you well know, I love mixed doubles. Same-gender doubles doesn't usually do that much for me, but there's something awesome and uniquely "tennis" about mixed. It's men and women, together, with all the spark, etiquette and occasional discomfort that creates. Tennis is a dramatic sport as is, but something about mixed allows for a unique ensemble-type of drama that lets the individual personalities of all four players show. It's really pretty great, and I wish it was given the care from both tours and the Grand Slam tournaments that I think it deserves. That means equal prize money as "regular" doubles, ranking points (no reason Melanie Oudin's doubles ranking shouldn't have shot up when she won the U.S. Open mixed last year with Jack Sock) and occasional if not universal inclusion at the growing number of combined non-Slam events.
But mixed has gotten a nice break with its return as an Olympic event at the 2012 Games. It's a ridiculously small draw (only 16 teams, meaning that it will take just three wins to secure a medal), but it's a great start and a great victory for mixed doubles.
The December 2009 announcement that mixed doubles would be played in London led to immediate speculation and excitement over potential Olympic duos. Close friends Andy Roddick and Serena Williams were one of the first pairs to "confirm." Several other teams (Jelena Jankovic-Janko Tipsarevic, Ana Ivanovic-Nenad Zimonjic, Victoria Azarenka-Max Mirnyi) signaled their intentions of playing together well in advance of the Games.
In reality, when the draw comes out Tuesday, it might not have quite that much star power. Given the condensed schedule for singles, doubles and mixed doubles, it will be difficult for any player to play all three events. In other words, the potential all-star team of Williams-Roddick might give way to Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber, who are excellent doubles players but not necessarily captivating crossover stars on their own. However, if Serena or Venus Williams loses early in singles, that might change things, as it might for any top singles player who crashes out in the first round.
So who are the cool teams we can expect to see for this competition? Belarusians Azarenka and Mirnyi, who won the 2007 U.S. Open together, seem like a lock. Czechs Petra Kvitova and Radek Stepanek plan to play together, though that would be three events for him unless he loses very early in singles (not an unlikely happening, really). Argentines Gisela Dulko and Juan Martin del Potro intend to team up, which is fun if only because of the massive size difference there. Also add Germans Angelique Kerber and Philipp Petzschner to the "very likely" list.
Some other interesting pairings could happen, too. Bulgarians Tsvetana Pironkova and Grigor Dimitrov probably don't have the rankings for direct entry, but they went undefeated together in Hopman Cup this year and both excel on grass. Aussies Sam Stosur and Lleyton Hewitt are both very strong doubles players, and with Stosur likely to be out of singles early on grass, she might have plenty of energy to devote to mixed. Belgians Kim Clijsters and Olivier Rochus are also likely, but again their rankings might not let them in the ridiculously tiny 16-team field.
So, Courtney, who are your dream pairs for this first Olympic mixed dance in nearly a century?
Courtney Nguyen: The mere mention of Hewitt and Stosur joining forces gave me a chuckle. Can you imagine Hewitt's overt alpha-male mentality combined with Stosur's nervous shyness? A recipe for disaster, as it was when they teamed up for Hopman Cup in 2010.
That encapsulates everything that is entertaining about mixed doubles: the interpersonal dynamics, the giggling, the awkwardness and, of course, the tennis. It's intriguing to see a woman return a guy's serve and for a man to load up to return a woman's. And it's fun to watch the ladies take over a match when they can (it happens!).
As for my dream pairings for this year's Olympics, it's looking like they'll all remain a dream. Outside of the solid Azarenka-Mirnyi team you mentioned -- if they don't medal, I will eat my Nike shorts -- I just don't anticipate too many blockbuster pairings. I would love the possible ace-fest of Serena-Roddick. And how about childhood buddies Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic? They've played together twice at Hopman Cup and it's been so flirtatious and fun. My pet pairing would have been Kvitova and Tomas Berdych -- big-hitting and big-serving, and a situation where the woman actually has the better hands at the net. Alas, Ivanovic is playing with Zimonjic, and Kvitova is playing with Stepanek. Downgrade.
But enough about the teams we might have next week, Ben. What about the teams we could have had? How much mixed doubles awesomeness have me missed out on in the past?
Rothenberg: We've missed out on quite a lot, Courtney, because of the relatively low profile of mixed doubles historically. Top men, in particular, have been reluctant to participate, not only because they sometimes feel uncomfortable playing at full blast against a female opponent (something Dimitrov admitted to this year at Hopman Cup), but also because the best-of-five format at Slams makes a second event hugely inadvisable. Roddick and Serena finally got around to entering a major together at the 2012 Australian Open, but he reaggravated a hamstring injury in his second-round singles loss and had to withdraw from mixed before they played a match.
Aside from those two active players, there have been so many partnerships that could have been fun in previous Olympics had mixed been available. One of the first pairs to come to mind is Steffi Graf and Boris Becker. The two Germans were at the top of their games over pretty much identical time periods, and they would have been a lot of fun to watch together in Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992) or Atlanta (1996).
(A side note: Did you know that Graf played mixed with John McEnroe at Wimbledon 1999, well after his retirement? The two made the semifinals before she withdrew to focus on singles, a decision that seriously annoyed the old guy given that he had come out of retirement for her.)
Then there's Americans Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert, one of the most high-profile (if short-lived) couples in tennis history. The promise of possible romance hovers over mixed in a decidedly junior-high way, so why not have a few lovebird Olympians as well? The two played mixed together at the 1974 U.S. Open, and again at an exhibition in 1984.
Had the Olympics been around in 2008, it's hard to think of a more fun pair than Dinara Safina and her brother, Marat Safin. They were both playing great tennis in the summer of 2008 (she had just made her first Grand Slam final, he had reached the semifinals of Wimbledon). They played Hopman Cup together in 2009, and the Olympics would have been a cool way for the world to see their interesting brother-sister dynamic.
I should give a nod to Roger Federer and Martina Hingis of Switzerland, two of the most elegant players of my lifetime. They actually won the 2001 Hopman Cup together. The speculation about Hingis possibly returning for the 2012 Olympics was legitimate, though she ultimately declined.
And since these Olympics are in London, why not fire up the Tardis? Rafael Nadal and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario would have been a bull and a bumblebee together, running around with incredible speed and having a proclivity for adjusting their butts between points (though Arantxa was just using her ball-holder thing). Or maybe the icy seriousness of Ivan Lendl with (pre-defection) Martina Navratilova? Or perhaps the flamboyant Gael Monfils and charismatic Suzanne Lenglen? The possibilities are endless.
Nguyen: Graf-Becker is probably my all-time favorite "what-if" mixed pairing (though the idea of Lendl/Navratilova has me cackling in fear), in part to see Steffi's patented implacable coolness next to Boris' diving antics. The prospect of having Boom Boom patrol the net as Graf unleashed that forehand at the baseline makes my inner tennis nerd drool.
While we're at it, how about Lindsay Davenport and Pete Sampras? Davenport was a great doubles player, and paired up with Sampras' serve and hands, those two would have been formidable.
I'm with you, Ben. I hope the mixed doubles draw is expanded for Rio 2016, giving more players an opportunity to experience the fun. I also hope exhibition events like Hopman Cup and the potential addition of mixed to joint tournaments like Indian Wells (how much do you need me to beg, Mr. Ellison?) will help raise the popularity among fans. After all, as Simon Barnes of The Times of London noted recently, tennis was created as a social sport that allowed young men and women to fraternize without a chaperone. Let's get back to our roots! Which mixed pairings, past and present, intrigue you? Let us know in the comments.