Mixed doubles tennis has its time at the Olympics



TOKYO (AP) — Novak Djokovic let out a scream as if he had just won one of his 20 Grand Slam titles.

Speaking of the slightly less prestigious mixed doubles competition at the Tokyo Olympics, Serbian partner Nina Stojanovic burst out laughing at Djokovic’s overreaction after serving up a first-round victory over the Brazilian pair of Luisa Stefani and Marcelo Melo.

The contrast of personalities proved to be a winning formula in Djokovic’s first competitive mixed doubles tournament in 15 years.

The Serbs won their first two matches in straight sets before losing to Russian pair Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev in the semi-finals. Then they had to pull out of the bronze medal game when Djokovic injured his left shoulder during a pair of difficult defeats in singles.

“I’m learning that she’s very easy going on the pitch,” Djokovic said. “We balance each other out.”

Stojanovic, who reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open and the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in women’s doubles this year, called sharing the court with Djokovic “inspiring”.

“I just try to be in the same range as him on the pitch – at least with the energy,” Stojanovic said.

With Olympic medals on the line, there were some serious stars in the 16-team mixed doubles tournament at Ariake Tennis Park.

Most notably, the top-ranked players in men’s and women’s singles entered: Djokovic and Ash Barty.

Barty and his Australian partner John Peers, who are good family friends, won the bronze medal through an upset due to Djokovic’s injury.

In an all-Russian final on Sunday, Vesnina and Karatsev will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Andrey Rublev.

Barty and Peers beat top Greek duo Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari of Greece in the quarter-finals.

Tstitsipas (#4) and Rublev (#7) are also both ranked in the top 10 in singles.

While mixed events are now becoming the norm at the Olympics with competitions bringing together both sexes in swimming, athletics, archery, judo, shooting, table tennis and triathlon being introduced at these Games, mixed doubles tennis has a history at the Games that dates back to the beginning of the previous century.

Charlotte Cooper and Reginald Doherty of Great Britain won the first mixed doubles gold medal at the 1900 Games in Paris, with Cooper also winning in the singles to become the first woman to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics – in any sport.

French great Suzanne Lenglen won alongside Max Decugis at the Antwerp Games in 1920.

Mixed was also played at the 1912 and 1924 Olympics before returning in 2012.

“I wish he was promoted more. It says a lot about some of the equality issues we face in the world today,” said Rajeev Ram, the American who won the silver with Venus Williams in 2016. “The other thing is that I think a lot of recreational players play it a lot, so people who potentially watch tennis can relate to it.

Nowadays, mixed doubles is played competitively almost exclusively at the four Grand Slam tournaments.

In 2016, there was an all-American Olympic final that Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jack Sock won against Williams and Ram.

This time, Mattek-Sands teamed up with Ram, a childhood friend from Wisconsin. They lost in the first round.

There was a time when the main tactic in mixed was to go after the woman. Not anymore, or at least not when the woman is a doubles specialist – like Mattek-Sands, who in addition to Olympic gold won nine Grand Slam titles between women’s doubles and mixed.

“If they want to come after me, I’m super excited because I want someone to come after me at the net,” Mattek-Sands said. “I love it.”

A bigger issue might be how men sometimes struggle to render women’s serves, which arrive at a different pace and from a different angle than they’re used to.

“The girls have really good sliders and it’s a different ball than we often see,” said Ram, who won the mixed title at this year’s Australian Open with Barbora Krejcikova. “There are two parts: one is the different ball and the other is the fact that the guy is at the net, which causes problems. So if you can handle this game, you’re generally doing pretty well.

For some teams, however, the tactic is an afterthought.

“There was no strategy; there was just positivity on the pitch,” Stojanovic said. “We clicked from the start and it was just amazing to share the pitch with Novak.”


Associated Press reporter Syd Fryer contributed to this report.


Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf


More from AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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