Women, men mix it up in doubles
LONDON -- Martina Navratilova still wonders what could have been if she and John McEnroe had teamed up.
"He never asked me," Navratilova said, as if still bewildered and perhaps ticked.
"It was crazy," fellow Tennis Channel analyst and friend Mary Carillo told her. "He would ask me [if you would], and I would say, 'Of course, ask her.' "
"I would have played with him," said Navratilova. "We were just doing an interview together and I said, 'My gosh, why didn't we play together? We would have never lost a match.' "
And the idea of one of the greatest female athletes of all time standing on the same playing field with one of the greatest men's champions is not such a crazy concept. Particularly if the two are doing commentary together or being honored for their achievements or even practicing.
But Navratilova was talking about mixed doubles, one of the few professional sporting events in which men and women compete with and against one another on a level field, women standing square in the crosshairs of 130 mph serves and across the net from vicious forehands off easy sitters.
Some women won't do it. Others relish it. And still others, like Navratilova, who won 10 of her 59 Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles, and Lisa Raymond, who has five of her 11 Grand Slam titles in mixed, have elevated it to a point where men all but lined up to play with them.
"The fact that we are on the same playing field as the men and we're out there and the same holds for both of us, for men and women, from the first ball to the last ball. ...," Raymond said. "It's pretty incredible and it's a great concept."
But make no mistake. No matter who the woman is across the net, the men are going after them.
"It's brutal," said Lindsay Davenport, "but it's great. You only do it at the Slams so you never have a chance to actually get good at it. And you know as the female, it's coming to you. Like 80 percent of the shots. When you're hitting the shot, you know, 'OK, where's the ball?' "
"All bets are off out there," said Raymond, "and you know it. You know going out there as the woman, these guys have a short forehand and it's coming right at you and you better be ready and they're going to serve. I was out there today playing a match and [Filip] Polasek was over 125 mph to me. They're not holding back."
Justin Gimelstob, who won the 1998 Australian Open and French Open mixed doubles titles with partner Venus Williams, the only Grand Slam titles of his career, said there was never any awkwardness for him competing with women.
"There's no doubt that mixed doubles is a unique dynamic," he said. "But ultimately it's also sport, competition and business, so the reality is you have to do what you have to do to win within sportsmanship and the rules. It's all fair game."
For Navratilova, this is nothing new.
"I practiced with guys, it makes you a better tennis player," Navratilova said. "That's what cracked me up. When we would practice against men [for doubles], my partner would say, 'But we never have to see those serves.' And I'd say, 'Exactly, you never have to see those serves so it makes everything easier.' I liked practicing against guys and I love playing mixed doubles against them.
"They're quick, the ball is coming off different spins, bigger spins. They move more so you have to hit a better volley to get a winner, all of it. It's a great challenge and the guys liked to challenge me and quite often I would hold my own and I think they respected that."
Because mixed doubles is primarily played at the four Grand Slam tournaments, the choosing of partners can be an interesting, sometimes awkward dance.
"It's like dating, who's going to ask who to the prom kind of thing," Raymond said.
Navratilova, only the fourth female player to complete a career Grand Slam in mixed, had seven different partners while winning her 10 Grand Slam titles, 10 if you count her six runner-up finishes.
Raymond, who has teamed with Navratilova in doubles, and won the Olympic bronze medal last summer in mixed with Mike Bryan -- half of the best doubles tandem in the world -- had three different partners for her five mixed Grand Slam titles.
Raymond and her current partner, Bruno Soares, are in this Wimbledon mixed doubles final after their 6-4, 6-4 victory Friday over John Peers and Ashleigh Barty. They will meet Daniel Nestor and Kristina Mladenovic in the final on Sunday.
Gimelstob was introduced to mixed when Venus picked him, more of a Sadie Hawkins situation than prom.
"We were both young up-and-coming Americans, and I got a call from one of her representatives asking if I wanted to play mixed doubles at the Australian Open and my answer was a resounding yes," he said. "It's no different than finding a doubles partner. You talk, you see people around the locker room whose style might match up better with yours, who you get along with, whose personalities seem to mesh on court.
"I didn't know Venus at all. She wasn't the Venus she would become. When we went to the finals of the Australian Open, she told me this was the first tournament [in mixed] she ever won. But early on I could tell Venus was destined to be a great champion just by her skill level, her athleticism but even more so her enjoyment and the way she relished the great moments."
Some women, players said, have tried mixed only to decide they did not want to risk injury or fatigue, and others have not tried at all.
"You could hit a serve coming at 135 late, you're not used to it, and hurt your wrist," said Lindsay Davenport, three-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1. "All of a sudden my coaches were like, you can't do it. If you're out of singles, that's great, go ahead and enter, but it got to be a little bit of an injury concern.
"I stopped playing in the mid-'90s, played a couple times in the 2000s but felt it was too much stress."
Raymond, who regularly completes mixed doubles matches late at night, understands.
"If you have to come back and play singles the next day, obviously singles is going to be your priority," she said. "You could catch a late serve, these guys serving at you 125 mph, and you could possibly get hurt. So I probably wouldn't advise a top singles player to play mixed doubles.
"If I was a top singles player, I probably would not be playing mixed doubles, 100 percent."
Navratilova was a rarity and gained even more acclaim for her ability and desire to play all three events, which accounted for a combined 59 Grand Slam titles, second only to Margaret Court's 62.
"I just like playing tennis," she said. "I played singles, doubles and mixed at Lipton because I really enjoyed it. I wasn't playing because I could add to the tally of my Grand Slam titles. That happened later in my career when I realized, 'Oh, I could've broken that record' but I didn't go after it. For me it was just playing the matches and then it allowed me to tie the record here at Wimbledon when I won my 20th, but I didn't play for the titles. Maybe at the very end I did, but it didn't matter what my numbers were. I wanted to play mixed doubles, period."
Though there is usually more banter in mixed matches than doubles -- a between-the-legs shot for a winner in a Wimbledon quarterfinal this week by Nenad Zimonjic was rewarded with a deep bow by his partner, Katarina Srebotnik -- it is all business.
"The guys take it seriously, and when you have a Grand Slam title on the line, look out," Raymond said.
And even the men can admit they can learn from their partners.
"Of course, 100 percent," said Gimelstob. "It has nothing to do with gender, it just has to do with excellence. I learned a lot from Venus. Her competitiveness, her focus, how aggressively she plays in big moments. I learned a lot from her."
And practically for Gimelstob, it was an opportunity, he said, for someone "who wasn't a great singles players" to have a great result in mixed doubles.
"I would just say it's a different dynamic," he said. "It might not have the point-to-point intensity of a Grand Slam singles final deep in the match, but at the end of the day you're a Grand Slam champion, you're playing for prestige, you're playing for a lot of money, and most of those playing Grand Slam mixed doubles, those are big moments in their careers.
"So everything is relative, and at the end of the day, someone [this weekend] will become a Wimbledon champion either for the first time or once again by virtue of mixed doubles."
Raymond agreed, though that approach didn't come right away.
"I think when I was younger and first started playing mixed, it was such an anomaly for me and I think I did it more for practice, for the experience and just to get out there," she said. "This is when I was still playing singles, and playing singles, doubles and mixed, it was more about just getting more matches, getting used to a surface or just practicing my net game, volleys, whatnot.
"And then as the years went on and I got older, I realized there's a Grand Slam to be won. The stakes are high. You have a good time out there, but it's a Grand Slam and for me, last year, it was an Olympic medal, which is the one thing I would have never achieved in my career if not for mixed doubles."
No caveats involved.
"At the end of your career," she said, "when you look back and say how many Grand Slams you have won, you don't say I've won three of this or three of that. You say, 'I've won six or seven Grand Slams.' "