A Delicate Mating Game of Partners for Mixed Doubles
By BEN ROTHENBERG
The final minutes before the mixed doubles sign-in deadline for the 2013 Australian Open.
MELBOURNE, Australia– Shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday, time was running out to find a partner with whom to saunter into the male-female competition unique to the Grand Slam events.
It was the final minutes before the mixed doubles sign-in deadline for the 2013 Australian Open, and several players were standing by anxiously, watching the clock and looking around, hoping that a potential upgrade in partner would walk by.
Others kept their heads down and tapped their phones frantically; the goal was to find a willing player whose ranking, combined with their own, would be below the moving cut-off line. Players frequently check back at the clipboard to see which new pairs may have signed up, and to calculate how those new entries might make the cut-off stricter.
Mixed doubles offers less prize money than the other events — a player who wins the event pockets less ($67,750) than a player who makes the third round in singles ($71,000) — but the selective 32-pair field makes the mixed competition one of the most difficult to enter.
Entries are determined by adding together each partner’s pre-tournament singles or doubles ranking, whichever is better. The 25 pairs with the lowest combined rankings sums are directly accepted into the draw, and seven more pairs are given wild-card entries to make a total of 32 pairs. For this tournament, the cut-off would be made at 67, with Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan (doubles ranking of 21st) and her partner Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan (singles ranking of 46th) forming the last team to make the cutoff.
Local preference meant that all seven wild card pairs in 2013 included at least one Australian (though prominent foreign pairs have been awarded in years past). So if a player could find a highly ranked partner, his or her best bet is likely to find a native.
Jack Sock, an American ranked 149th in singles, opted against playing with his former partner, 84th-ranked American Melanie Oudin, with whom he had won the mixed doubles title at the 2011 United States Open. Instead, Sock latched on to 174th-ranked Ashleigh Barty of Australia, and the pair were given a wild card.
For Sock, like most players entering the tournament, the concern was not finding a partner who would necessarily be the best possible complement on court, but merely one who would get him into the tournament.
While Sock had a plan, others simply have to make cold calls. Next to the sign-in sheet are two additional clipboards with paper — blue for men, pink for women — where players seeking a partner can write their ranking and contact information.
‘‘You look at who’s jotted their names down, and their phone numbers,’’ said Jean-Julien Rojer of Curaçao, ranked 13th in doubles, recalling past tournaments when his entry was not as guaranteed as it is now because of his top 20 ranking. ‘‘You start contacting girls, and some of them you don’t even know, but hopefully they’ll play with you, and you get a shot.’’
One player can sign in for both, which can sometimes lead to errors in spelling of the partner’s name, or even his or her nationality. On the sign-in list this year, Belgian Kirsten Flipkens wrote her partner Colin Fleming’s nationality as ‘‘ENG’’ for England, a mistake which might not have pleased the Scotsman.
At this tournament the market seems tilted to favor the men; there is a full sheet and a half of women’s names, but less than half of a sheet of men.
This imbalance is frustrating for Vladimira Uhlirova, a Czech doubles specialist ranked 40th, who has been left to stand by the clipboard in the hopes that someone would come along who might be able to get her in.
‘‘Every Grand Slam, the same thing,’’ Uhlirova said of the scramble. ‘‘Maybe if it was like doubles is, two weeks or one week in advance, it would probably be better. Because this is just, like, total chaos, chasing guys.’’
Uhlirova’s women’s doubles partner, Natalie Grandin of South Africa, echoe Uhlirova’s sentiments as the two stood by the sheet, looking somewhat hopeless.
‘‘The guys always come last minute,’’ lamented Grandin, who is ranked 41st in doubles.
Neither Grandin nor Uhlirova would make the cut with the lower-ranked partners for which they eventually had to settle.
Also lingering near the clipboard was Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan, ranked 14th in doubles. He was in the unfamiliar position of applying with a much lower ranked player, Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden, a friend who is ranked 38th in singles.
‘‘Obviously it’s a little bit dodgy experience,’’ Qureshi said of the uncertain waiting. “This is my first time I’m playing, actually, with a lower-ranked player. She’s 38, I’m 14.’’
Arvidsson was on court for a women’s doubles match at the time of the deadline, and would not have been able to find any replacement partner were Qureshi forced to ditch her.
‘‘She’s a pretty cool girl,’’ Qureshi said of Arvidsson. ‘‘She said that if I don’t get in with her, she doesn’t mind me playing with somebody else.
‘‘When I started playing Grand Slams, actually, I was around 40, 50,’’ he said, recalling his own days of needing help from a superior-ranked player. ‘‘I was trying to find a higher player around 15, 20. And it’s not easy. You go up to all the players and ask them, and introduce yourself to them when they don’t know you that well. Luckily, for the past years a lot of girls and players know me, and I am top 15 in doubles, so it’s not that tough. But still you’ve got to make sure that you get in.’’
The scramble can prove serendipitous. At the deadline last year, Grandin had needed to dump Santiago González of Mexico for the higher-ranked Rojer. Feeling some remorse about having done so, Grandin went into the players’ lounge to find a replacement partner for González, and came up with the lower- ranked Klaudia Jans-Ignacik, who she walked out to the desk to meet Gonzalez. González and Jans-Ignacik eventually made the tournament as alternates. They entered together again at the French Open four months later, and after again making it into the draw as alternates they made the final, which stands as the career highlight for each.
‘‘I was just checking because it’s usually pretty crazy in the last half an hour,’’ said Bruno Soares of Brazil, who waited until the last moment but safely qualified with partner Anabel Medina Garrigues. ‘‘Today was the quietest one I’ve seen.’’ Soares recalled how he made a late switch at the 2012 United States Open from the Australian Jarmila Gajdosova to the higher-ranked Russian Ekaterina Makarova.
‘‘She had asked me two days before the sign-in, but I was still with Gajdosova,’’ he said of Makarova. ‘‘So I told her unfortunately I wasn’t going to be able to play. But then when I saw that I was out with Gajdosova, I started looking for her. She was practicing, so I went to talk to her, and came back running to sign last minute.’’
Soares and Makarova went on to win the tournament.