Monday, March 8, 2010

Poaching and coaching in doubles

I have doubles on the mind lately. I think it’s because I have been winning so much with my new partner. We barely know each other and yet have fallen into a natural groove that has been producing winning results. We are both strong singles players and have admitted to each other that we really can’t stand doubles. We both prefer the independence of singles over the dependency implied in good doubles play. And yet we are terrific at doubles. Go figure.

I take comfort from the fact that more than any other pairing, the Williams sisters have shown that two strong singles players can eventually figure how to form a winning doubles partnership. They don’t have to stop being strong singles players in order to find their way to a doubles groove. And so my new partner and I will probably always remain singles players who sometimes dabble in doubles. And that’s perfectly OK with us.

One of the reasons I prefer singles is because the outcome of the game is entirely up to me. If my serve goes off and I start double-faulting, it doesn’t affect anyone but me. If I go for a big return and end up dumping the ball in the net, only my reaction matters. If I’m having an off day and can’t get my muscles to cooperate, it affects only me.

With doubles there can be so much pressure not to disappoint your partner. If you try to poach and end up failing, there is the risk that your partner might get pissed off and start blaming you for the loss. And this weekend, watching Davis Cup, I got a glimpse at how odd or unexpected partnerships can work. Or not.

Take Bob Bryan and John Isner. Bob Bryan always plays doubles with his twin brother. They form a dominant partnership, relying on effective and almost intuitive strategizing to drive their opponents crazy. So when Mike Bryan foolishly decided to eat chicken curry the evening before a big Davis Cup match, he ended up sick to his stomach and unable to play. A new team of Isner and Bob Bryan was immediately formed.

It was fascinating to watch this new partnership unfold during the course of their Davis Cup match over the weekend. The Serbians had apparently decided that Isner was the weak link, a strange conclusion to make when the real problem was the newness of the partnership, not the ability of either of its members. And for a while it looked as if the pick-on-Isner strategy was going to bear fruit. But then Isner and Bryan started to grow in daring and confidence. Bob evolved into a more verbal and overtly communicative version of himself. Isner grew confidence in his tremendous abilities. And when it became clear that the Serbians were trying to target his partner, Bob immediately stepped up his net play. They won the match in four sizzling sets.

On the other side of the court was also a new doubles partnership. Nenad Zimonjic and Janko Tipsarevic had played together only once before. I don’t know if the several bizarre moments involving Tipsarevic were therefore due to the newness of this partnership, or to the pressure of the screaming home crowd. [I think neither because he continued to attract bizarre attention to himself even when he was just a supporter in the stands.] The lowest moment on court occurred when he started showing Zimonjic how to hit a volley, complete with loud verbal instructions and frantic demonstrations.

Is Tipsarevic just trying to humiliate his partner, I found myself wondering? Does he really believe that Zimonjic, currently ranked world # 1 in doubles (with the Canadian, Daniel Nestor), does not know how to hit a volley? Did this pipsqueak really think that he had something to teach his far more experienced partner? Or was Tipsarevic just trying to make sure that if and when they lost, no one would think it was his fault? Was he possibly worried that everyone would say that Serbia beat the US with no help from him?

And that is the crux of the problem with doubles, isn’t it? That’s why it’s paramount for partners to make a healthy psychological fit. It’s important for partners to work out strategy in advance, including how and when each will try to poach. It’s also perfectly OK for partners to make suggestions to each other about how to approach their opponents, but this must never look like outright, disrespectful coaching. Good doubles partners support and respect each other. Someone needs to tell Tipsarevic that.


Kim said...

You have hit the nail on the head - I think you have to do a lot of passive-aggressive coaching with some partners. You need to tell them what to do but you can't tell them in a bossy "I know how you're screwing this up" way.

happygeek said...

...And to think it all started with the curry chicken ... if it was true Trinny curry chicken, this might've had a different finish. :-)

tennischick said...

you know i'm not sure that anybody's curry chicken is a good idea the night before a match. curry is for celebrating after you win the tournament. pasta is the meal of choice the night before a big game. surely he knew that?

happygeek said...

well, he sure knows it for a fact now...heh...