In pro tennis, there are legendary stories of great doubles players who never made it to the top international ranks in singles. The best living example is the South African team of balding Bob Hewitt and white-capped Fred McMillan, who were until recently the best in the world, though neither of them is a great singles champion. Another example is Peter Fleming, ranked only twenty-fifth in the world in singles but now ranked first in doubles. One reason is that his partner is John McEnroe, the hottest young singles player in the game.
McEnroe is the exceptional player who has mastered both aspects of the game. He harks back to the Australian era when players such as Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Fred Stolle were champions in both singles and doubles. In the megabuck era, players concentrate on the game that earns them the most money. This is why you'll rarely see Jimmy Connors playing doubles.
The opposite problem afflicts the rest of us. We are all trying to be good singles players to the utter neglect of our doubles game. Ironically, doubles can be more fun than singles. Played properly, doubles is a far more complex, finely tuned, carefully controlled game than singles. For people with less than a 100-mile-an-hour serve or a 10-second 100-yard dash, doubles offers more excitement and competition. Doubles is to singles what chess is to checkers. Singles is the young man's game; doubles the thinking man's game.
The hitch is that most doubles teams don't understand that they must function as teams - not as two singles players on the same side of the net. Do you and your partner sometimes let balls pass untouched down the middle? Does your partner stand in the doubles alley when you serve - just because you hit him in the back three times? Are you afraid to poach in mixed doubles because your partner, the brunette, might sue for divorce?
The key to doubles, like marriage, is communication. The good news is that it lasts only a couple of hours and no diamonds are required. Find out what your partner's style of play is. Try to move up and back as a team, as if you were connected by a 15-foot rope. Don't leave huge gaps in the court uncovered. Usually the player who served (or received service) is already in motion and thus in a better position to cut off drives down the middle. But let the player with the stronger overhead smash take the lobs down the middle.
Q - My partner refuses to rush the net behind his serve and we always lose his service game. What should I do?
A - In doubles, the team that dominates the net is the team that wins. Your partner probably has no confidence in his volley - or thinks his serve is too weak. Let him know that you don't care how many errors he makes just so he movies into the proper position at the net after his serve.
Q - Where should I place the second serve in doubles?
A - Down the middle or to your opponent's backhand (assuming this is his weaker side). Never serve wide to your opponent's strength on second serve - this will only open up the court and put you on the defensive.
Q - I've noticed some players lobbing the return of serve. Is this a good idea?
A - Sometimes. If the net man is crowding the net and does not backpedal quickly, you can put one over his head while his partner is rushing the net behind serve. If they both move back, your team can then take the net.
Q - My partner is not tall enough to handle some lobs, when playing net. Should he move back to the baseline?
A - No. He is probably playing too close to the net. He should be back six to eight feet, perhaps a little more if your opponents lob frequently. If the woman is often lobbed, in mixed doubles, she should try standing three feet inside the service line and closer to the center. This will relieve the man from scrambling around and having to chase lobs over her head. Meanwhile, check all firearms and sharp objects at the gate before you start.