Thursday, July 7, 2011

Never underestimate the value of a familiar doubles pairing

I’ve been playing tennis for several years, and captaining ALTA teams for almost as many, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s the value of good doubles pairings. Once you find a couple that plays well with each other, try to keep them together for as many matches as possible during the season. It will give your team the best chance for success.

When I captained my first ALTA team some 10 years ago, I tried everything I could to improve our chances of winning a bag tag. I didn’t have one, but several members of my team had earned at least one during their tennis playing years. I hired a coach to help us to improve our games but that didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. Most of the team reverted back to the way they usually played in our Saturday matches vs. how they’d been taught during our coached practices. In fact, our team’s performance actually deteriorated from the previous season.

The next season, I tried to come up with a consistent lineup week in and week out, putting the same players together at the same position every week whenever possible, and we won our division. Of course, it could be that we’d dropped down a level per our previous season’s failures, but I choose to think that it was due to the pairings. In fact, my subsequent experience has shown me that it was the pairings that made the difference. Unfortunately, the team that I continued to captain for many seasons was challenged by availability problems. Some players moved away, others got injured, one even died, and I was never able to keep the same players together every week, or even for a majority of the time, during a given season. Hence our team usually languished in the unenviable position of 3rd to 5th place in our division, never winning enough to make the playoffs, or losing enough to be moved down a level, and we remained ‘stuck’ for years.

When playing with the same doubles partner consistently, one learns the other’s tendencies, how fast they are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what they’re going to do in a given situation. This value of this information is incalculable. Knowing that your partner is comfortable (or uncomfortable) at the net, or whether he/she can get to a ball that’s lobbed over your head when you’re at the net will enable you know whether or not you need to get to the net or stay back, or take an overhead even if you’re not sure whether you’ll be able to hit it aggressively enough. Does your partner have a good serve or not, or is their second serve so weak that you need to either move back or be prepared to be drilled? Do they like to serve and volley? While some of these latter issues can be alleviated with hand signals, perhaps your partner doesn’t have the capability to put their serve where they want to without double faulting. What about your partner’s backhand (or forehand)? Is it weak? Are there strategies you can employ to lessen exposing their weaker wing to your opponent to keep them from exploiting it to their advantage? What if your partner’s forehand is a significant weapon? Which side is best – ad or deuce – to use it in a match? If they can’t hit a down-the-line forehand well, but their crosscourt forehand is a killer, the answer could be obvious. In fact, the issue of what side to play is the simplest yet most important issue to resolve, and playing with a new partner every week where you say “I’ll try the ad side first, and if it doesn’t go well we’ll switch after the first (lost) set” isn’t a very good strategy for your team’s long term success.

If you’ve played with the same person for a dozen or more times in a year, you’re bound to have learned and even compensated for your doubles partner’s game in ways that you may not realize. Knowing and adjusting to another’s ability should happen automatically unless you really just aren’t paying attention out there on the court. Having that information ingrained in your doubles pairings will enable your team's success like nothing else.

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