The stands on Rod Laver Arena were sparsely populated enough for the mixed doubles quarterfinal between Australians Lisette Cabrera and John-Patrick Smith and Brazilians Luisa Stefani and Rafael Matos that I was able to waltz down to a prime seat without worrying about its owner showing up. It’s no surprise, really — odds are you don’t know any of those names. I sure didn’t when I sat down to watch.
And I’ll admit that I was initially disappointed the first match for the Rod Laver Arena day session was mixed doubles rather than singles. The tennis powers that be likely would have had the same feeling in my position — some formats are prioritized over others, and it certainly isn’t mixed doubles at the top of the pile.
The numbers can back me up. Prize money for the mixed doubles winners at the Australian Open ($157,750), once split between the partners, is less than what an adult singles player earns from losing in the first round. Losing in the first round of the mixed tournament nets a team a whopping $6,600, which, once divided between partners, might not even be enough to cover the cost of airfare and time in Melbourne. It’s extremely unequal, but singles players objectively do get much more attention. Just look at freelance journalist Ben Rothenberg’s recent tweet about doubles:
You read that right — singles players taking part in doubles garner more attention than doubles players taking part in doubles. This is the case for any number of reasons, one being that tennis is marketed as an individual sport, “gloveless boxing” (though it’s not nearly as violent, to the point that I don’t think it deserves the comparison to pugilism) as some call it. Having teams of two face off kind of kills the mano a mano aspect.
Doubles is really a different sport. You’ve got the balls and rackets, yes, but the dynamics of the points don’t resemble that of singles at all. The court dimensions are even modified, with the alleys getting involved. Players’ reflexes are tested more. At least one player is almost always at net, which can result in dizzying exchanges of quick volleys and soft lobs. There is less running and more use of angles. Few of the characteristics that make singles tennis what it is feature in doubles.
That’s not to say doubles isn’t worth watching. On the contrary, some prefer it to singles — the manic exchanges that take place when all four players are at net are played at a speed singles can only produce in its dreams. Even granting that there are only two players on court in singles, they find their way to net less and less frequently these days. The power baseline era, brought on by incredible string technology, makes some of the extreme angles players used to only be able to find at net possible from the back of the court. In doubles, though, net approaches are necessary to find the angles to punch the ball past a pair of opponents. The strategic elements are fascinating; partners huddle up quickly to talk tactics and then flash hand signals to each other before every point.
Whether doubles’ relative lack of popularity is due to the nature of the format failing to appeal to as big an audience as singles does or tennis just not marketing doubles properly, there’s no doubt which format garners more attention. And even among doubles tennis, mixed is the black sheep. The “Doubles Tennis” subsection under Wikipedia’s “Types of Tennis Match” heading begins, “Doubles is played by two teams of two players each, most often all-male or all-female.” The only tournaments in which you can even play mixed doubles are the majors, and more recently United Cup. (The revived Hopman Cup should also feature the format.) While women’s and men’s doubles have rankings, mixed doubles does not, seedings at the Australian Open being decided by players’ ranking in single-gender doubles. Matos and Stefani had only played together once prior to the Australian Open, and that was mere weeks earlier at the United Cup.
It’s a shame that mixed doubles is such a low layer in the lasagna of what is prioritized in this sport, because watching Stefani and Matos play their quarterfinal was quite something. Stefani had brilliant touch on the lob, successfully lifting the ball over both her opponents at times. She once lobbed the ball over the net player on a return of serve, something I’ve never seen in singles. (“Really good lobs in the last few games,” Matos said of Stefani during their on-court interview.) Matos has a somewhat loopy, unpenetrative forehand, rather like Yoshihito Nishioka’s, but managed to find enough angles with it that the shot became a strength rather than a liability. They played some stunning points in tandem — the first rally in the highlight video below sees Matos rescue a point with a tweener, then he and Stefani each return an overhead smash from Smith, until finally the Australian misses.
Stefani and Matos both have impressive doubles pedigrees; Stefani, who suffered a bad injury in the semifinals of the 2021 U.S. Open doubles, won the second Adelaide tournament with Taylor Townsend. She’s ranked 25th in the women’s doubles rankings, with a career-high of 9, and has won six doubles titles. But look at her total career earnings — $565,287 — and it’s easy to see that doubles, single-gender or mixed, is not where the money is made. The highlight video linked above has about 12,000 views and a handful comments so far, maybe 1/5 of what you might see on an early-round singles match. When Stefani and Matos won their quarterfinal, the official Australian Open account sent out a celebratory tweet including “Forza” — which is Italian, not Portuguese.
Wanting to follow the Stefani-Matos run to its completion, I watched the first set of their semi against Marc Polmans and Olivia Gadecki (who was mentored by Ash Barty and skipped the 2022 Australian Open due to neglecting to get vaccinated) from the hilltop near Melbourne Park. It was clear early that Polmans and Gadecki were a sterner test; Polmans was acing Stefani repeatedly and was a force at the net. I thought the 20-year-old Gadecki was the fourth-best player on the court, but at the end of the set she tightened her execution on her returns and volleys, and she and Polmans took the first set 6-4.
The hilltop, which was heavily populated during the previous Djokovic-Rublev match, was nearly empty once Djokovic finished waxing his poor opponent. Exhausted from the day and conscious of a desire not to stay out another hour just to see Stefani and Matos lose, I left after the first set of the semifinal. When Polmans and Gadecki were up 5-4, a bird flitted across my field of vision, its dark outline in stark contrast with the white clouds. Its wings flapped rhythmically but more quickly than I thought a bird’s would — each wingbeat didn’t seem to do much. It wasn’t until I focused on the silhouette that I realized it was a bat.
Waking up the next morning, I saw that Stefani and Matos had come back to win — not only had they won the second set and then the super-tiebreak (which is played in place of a third set), they had saved a match point. Polmans even got a hard return to Stefani at the net, a pattern that had worked well for him throughout the first set. But Stefani was expecting this one, punched a volley down the middle that Gadecki had to stretch for, then hammered away the weak reply. Two points later, Stefani, who was returning serve, noticed Polmans cheat a little to his left at net, then unloaded a backhand return winner into the open space for game-set-match.
Their opponents in the final, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, carried considerably more star power than the vanquished semifinalists. Mirza spent time as the #1-ranked women’s doubles player, as well as the top-ranked Indian WTA player. Her doubles partners in the past include the legendary Martina Hingis, with whom she won three majors in a row from Wimbledon in 2015 to the 2016 Australian Open. In 2017, she partnered briefly with Peng Shuai. She has beaten Victoria Azarenka — who is a two-time Australian Open champion and made the semifinals again this year — in singles. Having turned pro way back in 2003, Mirza’s career is a huge inspiration for Indian tennis and fans around the world. Her social media platforms are way larger than those of basically every tennis player besides Serena Williams and the Big Three. And having announced her impending retirement — though she will play a couple more tournaments, this Australian Open was her last major — her run to the final with Bopanna had the potential to be a dream farewell. I was on Twitter during the final, and I had never seen the timeline so active during a mixed doubles match.
And Mirza more than pulled her weight. Though she missed a couple overheads in the first-set tiebreak, she rallied from the baseline beautifully, even exchanging forehands with Matos without backing down. But the Brazilian team proved slightly stronger in the end. In the first set, Mirza and Bopanna had a chance to serve for the first set at 5-3, but were broken after a slick drop volley winner from Stefani. Then, on a deciding point with Matos and Stefani up 2-1, they played the rally of the match: Mirza and Matos drilled forehands at each other from the back of the court while Bopanna and Stefani waited at net, coiled to strike if given the opportunity. Finally, after Matos and Mirza had exchanged forehands down the right sideline and from the deuce court, Matos blasted one at full tilt inside-in at Bopanna, who couldn’t handle the pace. The ball flew long, giving the Brazilians what would be a decisive lead.
There’s no grand conclusion here. Others have eulogized Mirza’s epic career better than I could. Stefani and Matos will surely play together again, likely successfully, but they won’t get a chance until Roland-Garros. They deserve a lot of credit for this title — as Courtney Nguyen pointed out during their post-final press conference, Stefani has now won five titles in her last eight events.
But while show courts around the world might have alleys, that’s about as much attention as pro tennis gives to mixed doubles. And that’s a shame, because what I saw of mixed doubles this tournament seemed lighter and more fun for the players than the other formats (maybe because of the lower stakes, admittedly). Players regularly — and warmly — hugged not just their partner but their opponents after matches. There was dedication but no animalistic roars, frustration but no tantrums. The format certainly seems worth tending to a little more.
On championship point, Stefani read a crosscourt forehand from Mirza and crashed a volley right at Bopanna, who didn’t have time to react. The ball struck him in the midsection. Stefani held her hands up in acknowledgment before jumping into Matos’ arms to celebrate the title.