Want to see tennis with a smile on its face? Catch some mixed doubles

WIMBLEDON -- After hitting her first serve into the net during the first set of a competitive second-round match on Centre Court, Victoria Azarenka's eyes got wide. She looked frustrated, and ready to start yelling at herself, as she is known to do.

However, on this day, there would be no such outburst. Instead her mixed doubles partner Jamie Murray came over and gave her a high five and an encouraging word. She smiled. Her next serve attempt whizzed over the net, and they ultimately won the point. More high fives and smiles ensued. The two seemed to bring out the best in one another -- trailing 1-5 in the third set, the pair put on a dazzling comeback and won seven straight games to clinch the victory over Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Robert Farah.

Just another match in the sometimes joyful, often relaxed and always unpredictable world of mixed doubles.

"It's so great for me to have someone talking constantly to me throughout the match," said Azarenka. "Jamie is really positive, no matter what. We were down in the third set, but he still tried to pump me up and keep my energy up. Even though we were down, he calmed me down. He just told me to keep playing my best. Positivity always makes it easier in a tough time."

Mixed doubles play usually receives little fanfare, and matches are typically relegated to smaller courts and rarely given airtime on television. Azarenka and Murray only landed on Centre Court because they were previously unscheduled for any court and the rest of the action on Wimbledon's grandest stage finished early. However, those who stayed in the stands got treated to one of the most fun matches of the tournament thus far, and were let in on one of the best-kept secrets of Grand Slams.

"Mixed doubles is definitely one of the most entertaining things you'll see on a tennis court," said Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who was playing with Mike Bryan until they had to withdraw ahead of the second round. "It's a different dynamic. You're gonna see some power. You're gonna see some finesse. You really have it all in mixed doubles.

"You get the guys throwing their heat on their serves, and they aren't taking it easy on the girls across the net either. They're bringing their best serves, and then you'll see the great volleys and the touch and the strategy. I really think, for a fan, it would be one of the most interesting matches that they watch."

Murray is the defending champion, having won last year with the now-retired Martina Hingis, and had planned on focusing solely on doubles, with Bruno Soares of Brazil, during the 2018 campaign. However, when an opportunity arose to play with Azarenka, a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, he had to take it.

"She's a great player," he said shortly after their pairing was announced. "She's had so much success on a tennis court. It's a great opportunity for me to play with someone as good as that."

They aren't the only big names in the mixed doubles draw this year. Sloane Stephens and Jack Sock, Heather Watson and Henri Kontinen, as well as Mattek-Sands and Bryan, all signed up. For many players, it's a much-appreciated change from the routine and intensity found in a singles, or even doubles, match.

As mixed doubles is only played at the Grand Slams, doesn't count towards rankings, and the prize for winning is relatively small -- £110,000 ($145,000) for the winning pair at Wimbledon, compared to £2.25 million ($3m) for the singles champions -- there is significantly less pressure and expectation. In fact, players don't even have to register to play until after singles play has already begun. As a result, some of the bigger-name players who suffered an early singles exit end up deciding to play mixed doubles at the last minute. They have little, if any, time to practice together.

"We played together at the US Open last year, and then haven't been on court together since," said Watson when talking about her preparation with Kontinen. "I think I saw him for like 10 seconds before our [second-round match, having received a bye in the first round]. I just really enjoy being on the court with Henri. I think we get on super well, and it's always fun to play with him.

"I think we're just both pretty relaxed people, and we don't get too stressed about anything so it just works. I talk a lot and he's really good at listening."

The lack of familiarity with one another's game can create some entertaining moments. During Stephens and Sock's first-round win over Sam Stosur and Dominic Inglot, Stephens impressively returned a serve from Inglot for the point, and Sock dropped his racket and put his hand over his mouth in appreciation. Stephens laughed in turn. The crowd loved it, and cheered loudly. Even when things don't go to plan, players tend to laugh it off, or find other ways to openly support one another.

"I think because you don't get to practice with someone on the regular, it's not someone you play week to week with, it really is about keeping it light and enjoying it," said Mattek-Sands. "I think sometimes when there's maybe some miscommunication or someone doesn't cover the middle, things like that, if you don't talk about it or laugh it off, and it gets a little too serious, then it's just not going to be a good partnership.

"I think that's one of the things I've been able to do with all my partners is really keep it light and keep it fun. We still have our strategy and we're still competitive, but we can let little miscues like that slide off our shoulders."

While Mattek-Sands is known for her jovial personality and frequent smile during all of her matches, for players like Azarenka and Stephens, mixed doubles brings out a completely different, more relaxed, personality on court. The fans seem to respond to that as well -- and the mixed doubles crowds, while usually small, are often some of the rowdiest at a Slam.

During a first-round match featuring Ashleigh Barty and Thanasi Kokkinakis, a boisterous group of Australians came out to support their fellow Aussies, complete with "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi" chants and the waving of a flag. Barty, also known for her serious on-court demeanor, could hardly hold back her laughter and joy despite it being a close match. They lost, but it still looked to be one of the more fun outings for the 22-year-old.

The mixed doubles semifinals take place on Friday on Centre Court, with the final being played on Sunday, directly after the men's singles final. In the meantime, matches will be played whenever they get scheduled (dependent often on players' other commitments in singles and doubles) and on whatever court is available. It may not be as glamorous of a fortnight at Wimbledon as it is for other events, but it might be the most enjoyable.

Watson and Kontinen won the 2016 title at the All England Club, and it still holds a special place in her heart. "We have such great memories," she said. "Winning that mixed doubles title was one of the best days of my life."