It is perhaps the most overlooked, yet many times the most important aspect of girls high school team tennis. The participants are not always a team's most talented players and do not always earn the accolades, but they often decide the outcome.
It is doubles, and coaches of the area's most successful programs have one thing in common--they concentrate on cultivating strong combinations.
"My philosophy is if we can't win at No. 3 doubles, we can't win the championship," said Sidwell Friends Coach Bill Budke, who has directed the Northwest Washington private school to five consecutive Independent School League AA titles and 56 straight victories. "You can have a great No. 1 and No. 2 player, but they can only take you so far. If you don't have strong doubles, it's difficult to win."
Doubles pairings depend on the conference. Maryland public schools and the ISL use a four singles-three doubles format, in which a team's top four players are required to play singles and bottom six must play doubles. Virginia public schools and the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference use a six singles-three doubles format, in which the top six players play singles and are also eligible to play doubles.
The first and most important step for coaches is finding two girls with on-court chemistry. Different coaches have different strategies when pairing players, but nearly everybody agrees doubles teams must get along. "If there's a personality conflict, chances are it won't make a good team," Churchill Coach Ron Milenko said.
Madeira Coach Kathy Stroop, whose top team of senior Meg Patterson and sophomore Carly Davenport went 15-0 and won the ISL A doubles championship last season, studies her players' demeanor.
"I'll put a wallflower with someone who's gregarious and attempt to form some sort of a bond," Stroop said.
Budke, whose top team of senior Alice Goodman and junior Olivia Ma won the ISL AA doubles championship last season, pays more attention to his players' skills.
"You can't have two people who play the forehand side well on the same team," Budke said. "You need to have someone who can play the backhand side. You also can't have two slow people on the same team. You can have one slow and one fast, but someone has to be a hustler."
Milenko, last season's boys and the 1997 girls All-Met coach of the year, has several strategies.
"I look for players who complement each other physically and emotionally," he said. "I'll match a consistent player with someone with put-away potential, and I put players who can handle pressure on the ad-side. Mentally, I'll put someone who is cool with a more emotional player. The cool girl can calm the emotional player down and the emotional one can pump the calm one up."
Centreville girls coach Ellen Parker had an easier time with her No. 1 doubles team. She paired senior All-Met Laura James with sister Kristen, a sophomore.
Laura and Kristen James, despite having never played doubles together until the beginning of last season, went 24-1 and captured the Virginia Group AAA doubles championship.
"As sisters, they have a great respect for each other personally and for each other's games," said Parker, last season's All-Met Coach of the Year. "They anticipate what the other's going to do and respond as a result."
Laura and Kristen both said they believe they are better singles players, and outside of Parker's practices, rarely work on their doubles game. But their familiarity with each other has been vital to their doubles success.
"We think similar," Laura James said. "I love playing with my sister. Our style in singles is similar, and that translates into doubles. We never have to worry about over-strategy and we work really well together on the court."
Once a doubles team is formed, the next step is to teach correct doubles strategy. One problem facing most coaches is almost none of their players enter high school with doubles experience. In fact, a girl must first prove herself at singles to make most teams.
"It's ironic," National Cathedral Coach Luanne Quiggle said. "I feel I can teach you how to play doubles if you know how to play singles."
The biggest adjustment girls must make is learning to attack the net. In doubles, the objective is to eventually have both players at the net to close out the point.
"Doubles is totally different," Madison Coach Ernie Tolton said. "It's a game of angles, touch . . . you must have strong volleys and be able to put an overhead away."
Doubles play also emphasizes more placement and less power on the serve. "It's more important to have a consistent first serve in doubles," Laura James said. "A big, hard serve isn't as effective as it is in singles to start the point."
But the most important thing is learning to move and play as a team.
"You must have trust and faith in your partner and understand when they have to hit the ball," Laura James said. "You need to have a partner you can rely on."