Mixed doubles makes a comeback in Olympic tennis
John Isner relishes the notion of serving for an Olympic gold medal against a woman, and it could happen at the London Games.
Mixed doubles is back in the Olympic mix for the first time since 1924, and many top players want to take advantage of the additional opportunity to medal. That includes the 6-foot-9 Isner, whose only previous mixed doubles experience came in Hopman Cup.
He remembers facing Justine Henin in the final. She's a seven-time Grand Slam champion; she's also 5-foot-6.
''I aced her about 15 times,'' Isner said with a smile. ''Obviously she has unbelievable returns, but she's also kind of small. I kept hitting the serve out wide.
''It's fun to serve as hard as I can against the women. If I ever get the chance to play for Olympic gold, I'm not going to take it easy.''
Big servers like Americans Isner, Andy Roddick and Serena Williams were already excited about the Olympics because it will be played on Wimbledon's speedy grass courts. And now players can have three chances to medal if they also compete in singles and doubles.
Olympic officials decided in 2009 to revive mixed doubles, a fixture at Grand Slam tournaments. The mixed event was part of several Olympics early in the 20th century, and the most recent gold medalists were Hazel Wightman and Titanic survivor Richard Williams of the United States at the 1924 Games in Paris. Tennis was then dropped from the Olympics but returned as a medal event in 1988 without mixed doubles.
The event this year will be limited to 16 teams, meaning only two victories are needed to reach the medal round.
''It's the easiest shot at a medal,'' said American Bob Bryan, who has teamed with his twin, Mike, to share the year-end No. 1 ranking in men's doubles seven of the past nine years. ''You win two matches, you're looking pretty good for a medal.''
''Everyone is going to be fighting to get in that draw,'' Mike Bryan said.
Well, not everyone. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are among those who plan to skip mixed doubles and focus on other events.
''I'm not playing mixed doubles because I already have singles and doubles,'' Djokovic said. ''I think it would be a little bit too much.''
Serena Williams wants to play all three events, however, and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic plans to play mixed doubles. Other possible contestants include Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Victoria Azarenka.
''I can do it,'' Serena said. ''You put me in all three, I'm coming out with one or two medals.''
It's unclear who her partner might be, with Isner, Roddick and the Bryan brothers eager candidates. She and Bob Bryan lost in the first round of mixed doubles at the French Open.
The United States will likely have two mixed doubles teams, but Williams is apparently playing hard to get regarding an Olympic partner.
''I can't get hold of her,'' Roddick said. ''If you see her, ask her for me.''
Arranging a pairing can be a bit like finding a prom date. Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia began courting former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic in 2009.
''He called me. I was like, `OK, hi,''' Ivanovic recalled. ''He said, `Do you want to play mixed in Olympics?' I'm like, `It's three years away.' He's like, `Yeah. Do you want to play?' I'm like, `OK.'''
The dynamics can also be awkward on the court, and across the net. While the Bryan brothers usually play together, both have won Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles, and they say the emotions of a match are much different with two women involved.
''You've got to have a good attitude,'' Bob said. ''Weird stuff can happen. You can lose your mind a little bit. You try to keep it light with your partner, not talk too much about tennis, talk about other stuff. You want to keep the girl loose and happy. That's the key.''
''They take it pretty seriously,'' Mike said. ''They can get a little tight, a little insecure, because every ball is coming at them. Sometimes it's just who's the better woman, because you're hitting every ball at her.''
''The best male mixed doubles players are the guys who attack the girl,'' Bob said. ''There are some really good doubles players who don't make good mixed doubles players because they're a little too nice.''
''You've got to be ruthless,'' Mike said.
''Don't try to kill the woman, but take aim,'' Bob said.
That sort of attitude isn't sexist, American doubles veteran Lisa Raymond said, but merely part of the game.
''It's all fair. I mean, it's a business,'' said Raymond, who has won four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. ''If it means having to go at the girl, the guy needs to do it. I wouldn't have any hard feelings. They're out there to win the title, just as I am.''
There's more to mixed doubles than merely overpowering an opponent. Poaching is more common than in other doubles matches, and players hit a lot of volleys and smashes. Court positioning is critical, and if both players on a team are compelled to retreat to the baseline when receiving serve, they're likely in trouble.
Andy Murray of Britain took a break from tennis at the 2008 Games in Beijing to catch some badminton, and he found similarities regarding mixed doubles strategy in the two sports.
''Absolutely fascinating,'' Murray said. ''I used to watch my mum playing badminton when I was a child, and used to watch her play loads of mixed doubles. Tactically the game changes a lot, and mixed doubles in tennis is exactly the same thing. It's a different way of playing doubles. There is a certain technique and style to it that I'm actually not very good at.''
Even so, a match often comes down to which woman stands her ground best when confronted with aggressive shots from her male opponent.
Max Mirnyi of Belarus, who has won Grand Slam titles with Azarenka and Serena Williams, said many top women are accustomed to serves and groundstrokes with a lot of pace because they practice with men. And with an Olympic medal at stake, Mirnyi said, the women will be braced for what's to come.
''When they make that commitment to step on the court in mixed doubles, I think they're ready for the ball to be hit to them,'' he said. ''If there's a high ball in a break-point situation, I'm going to hit the ball pretty hard at the girl. She's less like to reflex that ball back than Isner or one of the Bryans. That's part of my game plan, and the girls know it. For that reason, maybe some girls choose not to play mixed doubles. Those that step on the court, everybody's ready.''
After all, they're going for gold.
''It's four matches,'' Mirnyi said, ''to win the whole thing.''