When it comes to worldwide reach and scope, few sports hold a candle to tennis. To celebrate all that makes tennis so rich and deep, Tennis Channel kicks off "TenniScope." Authored by Tennis Channel writer Joel Drucker, these short pieces describe many of the fabulous moments and places, people and products that have added sparkle and passion to our sport.
Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles
By Joel Drucker
Rare is the sport where men and women can compete together - not just as part of the same team, but literally on the same playing field.
Mixed doubles is such a rarity. It is a game of exquisite contrast, covering a wide range of skills and emotional twists and turns. "Coming up in tennis you encounter a lot of men who have a lot of issues competing with and against women," says Billie Jean King, who won eleven Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. "At least that was true when I was younger. I hope with so many women now in sports that it's changed. I think it has."
For recreational players, the pairing of a man and a woman can raise the emotional bar. You could fill an entire issue of the New Yorker with tales of suburban couples who find their relationship fraying under the pressures of weak service returns, poorly-struck overheads and the disparate skills of each respective partner. Psychologists have been known to explore mixed doubles partnerships as a way of providing couples therapy.
Even at the pro level, couples such as Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert found mixed doubles a litmus test of sorts. Evert swears that she and Connors lost the 1974 U.S. Open mixed doubles final because Jimbo was such an alleged gentleman that he refused to forcefully drive balls at his female opponent, Pam Teeguarden.
But Teeguarden remembers it differently, recalling that Connors quite often drilled the ball at her - which, by the way, is precisely the form of respect a keen opponent expects from another. Don't patronize me, comes the message from the woman. Let's compete. Though that final was scarcely meaningful, Evert and Connors postponed their wedding a month later.
But enough with armchair psychoanalysis. Mixed doubles is remarkably challenging and engaging. In many cases - but not all - the male must be ready to take charge. He is the one expected to drive the ball at the woman and put away anything possible. He must therefore extend himself more than usual and view the court a bit differently than in a men's doubles match.
The woman knows she must step up
Tracy and John Austin celebrate the 1980 Wimbledon mixed doubles title.
too. She knows she better hold up her end, be primed to return bigger serves and carry her share of the volleying responsibilities. If she's up to the task, good things can happen - in some cases, exceptionally pleasing results. Ask Tracy Austin, who fondly recalls winning the 1980 Wimbledon mixed doubles title with her brother John. Another notable moment in the history of mixed doubles came when childhood friends Mary Carillo and John McEnroe paired up to win the 1977 French Open. Carillo, of course, went on to become one of the sport's most prominent broadcasters. What became of her partner?
Evert-Connors, Austin-Austin, Carillo-McEnroe, your neighbor and her new beau - special relationships, yes, fine teams, but at heart also pickup teams joined by disparate forms of expedience. As in all sports, the best teams are those that go even further, that mesh their eclectic skills and create something exceptional.
No team in the history of mixed doubles did this better than Australian Owen Davidson and Billie Jean King. They had met in late 1964, when the 21-year-old King, at last eager to fully devote herself to becoming the world's best, spent an Australian summer working with Davidson's coach, Mervyn Rose.
As often happens, they paired up to play mixed together as a one-off experiment. . It turned to be a perfect combo. Each was an exemplary team player - positive, responsible, collaborative. Davidson's fine left-handed serve, crisp volleys and first-rate overhead meshed wonderfully with King's superb net play, pinpoint serves and returns. Most of all, each appreciated and respected one another as a person and competitor. All told, King and Davidson won eight Grand Slam titles together.
Probably their finest moment came in the 1971 Wimbledon finals. Up against Margaret Court and Marty Riessen -- another exceptionally-proficient duo - the match went into an overtime third set. As King recalled, "The birds were flying over the lip of Centre Court, it was getting dark, and I said, 'Owen, let's get this over with.'" And that they did - 15-13 in the third.
When it comes to sports, gender is meaningless to Australian men. In King, Davidson recognized a true athletic warrior. That magnimous principle is in large part the lure of mixed doubles. That magnanimous principle is in large part the lure of mixed doubles.
Joel Drucker has been part of Tennis Channel since the network first hit the airwaves in 2003, most notably as co-producer and writer of "Center Court," as well as working for Tennis Channel at many tournaments as an analyst and writer and since 2006 authoring this website's "Roving Player" column.
Drucker is one of the world's preeminent tennis historians, having authored dozens of articles on every generation of the game's leading players - from past stars Don Budge and Jack Kramer to contemporary greats Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer. Along with Tennis Channel colleagues Bud Collins and Steve Flink, Drucker is one of three American writers on the International Tennis Hall of Fame Enshrinee Committee - the group that each year builds the ballot for the worldwide panel of voters. Drucker's first book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, is considered by Sports Illustrated to be one of five "must-read" tennis books.
Read all the Tenniscope columns:
Happy Birthday, Ken Rosewall | Davis Cup: How it all started | Mixing It Up In Mixed Doubles | Aussies Set The Tennis Code | The Royal Reign of Margaret Court | Reflections on Michael Chang | Let's Take it Inside | Warm-Up Suits | Death of a Player | A Tale of Two Backhands | Court Management | Movie Review | Racquet Racket | Sampras: Book Review