Mixed doubles is like the unwanted child to a wealthy parent. The parent doesn’t want to spend any more time than necessary on the child. A quick hug and off you go; hence, the super tiebreak and decision-making point on deuce in mixed doubles.
In the name of spicing up a not-too-popular variant of the game, the organizers get rid of the mandatory opening comedy act before the stars get in. On a blustery Thursday afternoon, the championship match took place in a near-empty Arthur Ashe stadium.
When the finalists were warming up, I expected this to be a cake walk for Leander Paes and Cara Black. It was like Muhammad Ali in his prime facing a featherweight challenger. Or at least, that is how I saw it.
On one hand, you had Leander Paes and Cara Black, two great doubles players of our time, with countless doubles titles under their belt (Black: 61, Paes: 40).
Leander Paes gave up an average singles career in 1998 to concentrate on becoming a great doubles player. Cara Black, at 5’6”, is the current top player in women’s doubles.
She has a service motion that is too good to be true—she tosses the ball well out in front and finishes her service motion landing a few feet inside the baseline. It allows her to take the return on top of the bounce or attack the net—yes, the forgotten serve-and-volley player.
One the other hand, you had Kentucky’s Carly Gullickson and Portland’s Tavis Parrott. They weren’t even supposed to be playing together!
Parrott was meant to play with Abigail Spears, but some World Team Tennis plotting resulted in the USTA offering Spears a wild card.
Gullickson was supposed to play with Rajeev Ram, but they figured out rather late that they weren't ranked highly enough to get in.
As is often the case with mixed doubles, you end up knowing your teammate just before you start playing your first game. Spears offered to hook up Parrott with her friend Gullickson.
Parrott texted Gullickson two days from the start of the Open. They filed a wild-card request and were granted one.
So what were they thinking coming into the finals against two highly decorated doubles giants?
It was Gullickson’s first appearance on Ashe. She says, “Ummm...just being out there on that court today and, you know, even during the trophy presentation, like, it was surreal a little bit.”
You can understand her being dazed by her achievement. After all she had managed to survive only two rounds with her doubles partner Alexa Glatch and she wasn’t even supposed to be playing mixed doubles, as her ranking wasn’t high enough before Parrott showed up!
Travis Parrott has been on the tour for seven years now with some doubles success. Seeded 13 with partner Filip Polasek in the men’s doubles at the Open, their challenge ended early.
"We had two match points and we lost," Parrott said. "I was devastated for three days. But I had two days to recover (before the mixed event began) and it just changed my mindset. I was happy to be out there again, having fun. And Carly and I said from the beginning, let's just have fun."
The match started. Black's game looked really out-of-sorts throughout the match. She had a poor time serving and held her service only once, deep into the second set.
The wild cards took advantage of a struggling Black and smartly avoided the demon at the net in the form of Paes.
Gullickson had a great match holding her serve all but once and having the better of the net exchange with Paes.
Having a very solid Gullickson at the net seemed to help Parrott immensely with his serving. It prevented him from having to cover-up for a weak partner at the net which is generally the case in mixed doubles.
He says, "For me, the psychology changed because Carly's so good at the net. I don't feel the pressure to have to come up with a big serve. In mixed doubles, in the past I'd end up double-faulting more because I had to get a lot more free points. With Carly, put a good serve in there and she'll clean it up. And it's just...I don't know."
That was clearly what was bothering Paes. He had a champion partner not up to scratch and he was unable to make-up for it at the net, even given all his well-known brilliance at the net.
Gullickson and Parrott were solid at the net and seemed to get the better of quick net exchanges with Paes and Black. Paes had a poor time returning serve and before long the wild cards from America had taken the set, 6-2, breaking Black twice in the set.
The stadium started filling-up in anticipation of an unlikely win for the Americans. However, I presume they really thought of catching Rafael Nadal having a hit before his quarterfinal with Fernando Gonzalez.
Word was out that he was practicing with the Indian and Boys No. 1 seed, Yuki Bhambri. So you can’t blame even some India fans for deserting Paes to see how their next big hope was shaping-up against Nadal (albeit in practice).
The second set started and it was more of the same from the Americans: Parrott served and Gullickson intercepted at the net for the winner. Gullickson was putting on a show at the net, demonstrating great hands. She angled drop volleys with enough underspin to defeat Paes’ quick-flash legs.
Paes managed to save a match point and break Gullickson after a great exchange at the net and Black followed it up with her first service hold of the match. Just when the crowd anticipated a turnaround Parrott did what he does best—serve big—and Gullickson did what she does best—intercept at the net for winners.
Gullickson was the best player on court and she deserved to finish the match with three winners at the net. And she let out a shriek of delight many decibels more than Sharapova’s grunt after she smacked the winning volley.
The Bryans couldn’t get past the semis. Roddick was knocked out by Isner. Oudin’s dream was shattered by another teenager. Two Americans who weren’t supposed to be a team only a week or so ago became the first to win at the Open.
It remains to be seen if, like the mixed doubles, these two will remain an unwanted child to a wealthy parent.
As for Paes and Black, they have the men’s doubles finals and women’s doubles semi-finals, respectively, to look forward to for redemption.