For the past four years, I have had the great pleasure of attending and photographing the ATP World Doubles Championships. The level of doubles play exhibited during this tournament is quite amazing. I never walk away from this tournament without some new insight into this wonderful game
1999s Championships were no exception.
This past November, the finals featured Sebastien Lareau/Alex OBrien vs. Mahesh Bhupathi/Leander Paes. Believe me, both of these teams can play great doubles. It should be noted that the Woodies (Mark Woodforde/Todd Woodbridge) were eliminated in the semi-finals
as you can see, the field was quite good! Apart from these three teams, five other teams competed in this unique round robin format.
While photographing the matches (See Ron's 1999 ATP World Doubles Championships photo archive), it became abundantly clear to me that team members were constantly communicating with each other.
Now, I know that I am by no means the first person to suggest that good doubles depends upon effective communication. However, while attending this doubles championship, I began to realize on how many levels these teams communicated. So, this month, I want to share with you the "how and why" of doubles communication.
Communicating When Your Team is Serving
To me, doubles is similar to American football. There are different formations, players in motion and various plays. The player serving is like the quarterback
starting the play in motion. The net player is like a running back or wide receiver
frequently, finishing off the play. Doubles, when played well, is much more a game of strategy, timing and finesse than it is a game of power.
Thus, good doubles depends upon each member of a team being in sync with the other. This is particularly important when serving. Why?
First, if a team never loses its serve, it cannot lose the match. So, a team that is serving cannot afford to be out of sync
which might result in a lost point or game.
Second, doubles is definitely a game of control. When a team is serving, they set the tone for the entire point. This is truer in doubles than in singles because, in doubles, most of the court is well covered. Thus, the serving team by its formations, serve placements, net poaching and court movement must force an opposing team into an error or ineffective positioning. As in all forms of tennis, most teams win by making fewer errors
not by making more winners. The receiving team must react to what the serving team does. In singles, return winners are much more likely than in doubles
even when the return is placed at the feet of the net-rushing, doubles server.
If you watch effective teams, they always "huddle" before each point
especially, when they are serving. When serving, a team must have made several decisions before the ball is served.
Now, if you and your partner make all these decisions before each time your team serves, wouldnt you feel as though you were in greater control? Of course, you would because in fact you are in greater control.
When I coach the mens tennis team at Albertus Magnus College, I insist that the teams answer each of these questions before each point. Usually, I have the net person make the decisions for the server. However, the server can reject a particular proposal, if he believes it is too difficult or ill founded.
Most professional teams talk in between each point. They usually have played their opponents before. Thus, they have probably decided a general game plan and backup plan before the match. During the match, arriving at the answers to the above questions is usually a fairly quick process.
For scholastic players and club players, a little more discussion time maybe needed
especially, if they are facing opponents for the first time. In my opinion, the net player has the best perspective on what is happening and what should be done to correct any problems. By making it clear that I want the net player to propose the strategy, I reduce the amount of time needed to arrive at the key decisions. In college competition, a USTA referee will not hesitate to warn and penalize a team for delay. In addition, having the net person make the decisions means that the server is free to concentrate on one thing
properly executing the serve!
Many college and high school teams will use hand signals to arrive at the key decisions. To me, this is not preferable to actually speaking to each other. However, it is better than not communicating at all. The person at the net gives these signals to the server by using hand signals (these are seen by the server but not by the opposing team because the net players body blocks the opponents view). The server responds with a yes or a no to each signal. If the server declines a signal, the net person gives another, and perhaps another, until the server gives her/him an affirmative response.
With hand signals, there are really only three decisions that can be made:
- Where should the server put the serve? (forehand, backhand, at the receiver)
- What kind of serve? (flat, slice, kick)
- Will the net person poach?
I have seen many variations on the signals used for these three decisions. I like the following:
- a thumb sticking out from a closed fist means: serve to the forehand (right-handed player)
- a little finger sticking out from a closed fist means: serve to the backhand (right handed player)
- a completely closed fist means: serve at the opponents body
- 1 finger sticking out from a closed fist means: hit a flat serve.
- 2 fingers mean: hit a slice serve
- 3 fingers mean: hit a kick serve
- a closed fist means: the net person will not poach
- an open hand means that the net person will poach
Remember: each of these signals is separated from the next by the servers affirmative response
Communicating When Your Team is Receiving
Although being "in sync" is usually seen as being critical when receiving, many teams do not plan or communicate when they are receiving. To me this is a major mistake.
When receiving, the team must make the following decisions:
at the servers feet, at the net person, down the line, or lobbed over the net persons head.
Where will the net person attempt to put her/his volleys?
at the server, at the net person or in between the two opponents.
- What kind of return will the receiver make?
If a receiving team makes these decisions before each point, their chances of having effective court positioning, once the ball is in play, greatly increase.
For example, if the returner intends on using the lobbed return, the receiving teams net person should move to that side of the court on which the lob lands. The player who hit the lobbed return would automatically move to cover the opposite side of the court. Now, the receiving team is in the best position to handle any reply.
Preplanning is essential in doubles
whether serving or receiving!!!
Communicating between Games
During game changeovers, teams should take the time to discuss in detail overall strategy and any specific changes that need to be made. A great thing about doubles is that each team has two minds working. In doubles, two heads are always better than one. With two players, there are two perspectives
and two possible sources for solutions.
Good doubles teams never waste this valuable time. They know that between them, they can usually discover what is working and what needs to be done.
Communicating for Morale
One of the things that makes singles play so daunting is that each player is out there on his/her own! In doubles, each player can help the other when it comes to morale.
It is almost impossible not to get a bit negative at some time during a match
such as when we are making mistakes
employing ineffective strategies
or when we are simply getting crushed by our opponents. Maintaining a positive attitude is a must in tennis. You have to be able to weather the tough times to win.
All of us could benefit from the suggestions put forth by my colleague, John Murray, in his column, Mental Equipment. However, in doubles, we can each be our partners sports psychologist and source of strength.
Good doubles players encourage their partners!!! This kind of positive camaraderie that doubles can promote is, in my opinion, one of the great things about the game. Thats why it is imperative that each player monitor her/his partners mood and work hard to keep it positive. To me, its like having the crowd behind you. Your partner encourages you and, sooner or later, your confidence and mood elevate. I can think of no more important factor in the game of doubles than positive encouragement between partners! In my coaching career, I have seen many inferior teams win when they are constantly expressing positiveness.
So, the next time you play doubles, pay particular attention to communicating with your partner. I am certain that if you do, you will both become tennis overdogs!