Jordan Thompson has continued his inspired return from the tennis doldrums to reach the last 16 of an ATP Masters 1000 event for the first time.
Of all the world’s major sports, tennis is in the unique position of having men and women compete as equals in the same major tournaments, for the same prize money and in front of the same crowds.
They share prime-time TV slots. Tennis, therefore, is one of the most gender-balanced sports; it’s of course not perfect, but it’s still much better than most other sports.
This is why it’s surprising that tennis institutions have not embraced this aspect of the sport more fully. The Hopman Cup is really the only tournament that offers crowds an opportunity to see the best men and women compete against each other in a form of tennis that is too often derided as a joke, mixed doubles.
The Switzerland – USA tie on New Years Day, featuring arguably the best male and female players of all time, Roger Federer and Serena Williams will hopefully prompt a change in attitude towards mixed doubles. This match might have had some lighter moments, but it was a live rubber and the focus of all the players on court was towards winning the game.
And it was a match that gave us actual memorable moments between the two best players; Williams giving Federer an unreturnable serve at one point, a rally where Federer and Williams went toe to toe from the baseline and many points where the volleying skill of both players was evident. The only unfortunate thing was Switzerland’s tendency to recognise the doubles skill of Williams, especially at the net, and therefore play much more through her partner, Francis Tiafoe.
This robbed us of many moments of the two greatest players facing each other. But it also emphasises that this was not simply an exhibition, it was a serious and important tennis match.
But with the Hopman Cup now in limbo, with the World Team Cup seemingly taking its place in January next year, this might be the last time that we see prime time mixed doubles as we have seen this year. But there is no reason why this has to be so. Now could even be the time to promote mixed doubles to a higher level of acceptance.
With the restructure of the Davis Cup still being controversial and not accepted by many of the higher ranked players on the tour, why not try something more radical and transform the Cup into a mixed competition? If mixed doubles was used as a tiebreaker in this, if the standard men’s and women’s singles and doubles rubbers had ended up in a draw, imagine the importance that will suddenly be placed on it.
Surely the inclusion of female players would give us a more accurate idea of who the best tennis nation is in any given year. And certainly it would be a much better and more positive reform than the farce that the competition promises to be later this year.
Even Roger Federer’s own Laver Cup could do with an injection of female players. In fact, there is absolutely no reason why women cannot compete in that tournament. And while the new World Team Cup is the brainchild of the men’s ATP, there is once again no reason why the WTF could not have been consulted and included in the tournament.
Mixed doubles should be one of the greatest selling points of the sport, as it is one of the few areas of world sport where men and women can actually compete against each other on the same court as equals. It is also enjoyable to watch, as the different styles of men’s and women’s tennis can be seen to complement each other.
But it seems that the authorities in charge of the sport have decided that they would rather keep the men’s and women’s tours almost wholly separate from each other. While this remains the case, mixed doubles will remain an afterthought. But with a little will and a little imagination by authorities, mixed doubles could become an important and crucial aspect of the sport in the future.