Some more good advice from Joe Marshall that came in a few days ago.

Today Ira and I played four sets with two friends of his, Matthew and Ann. I had played with Matt before in doubles and felt I was the better player, beating his team in each set, even when we changed partners. I asked him to play a couple of singles sets, and he cleaned my clock (on Har Tru). He is very quick, and has a terrific forehand, which he can hit with accuracy, consistency, and pace, standing still or on the run. He likes to run around his backhand, so it can seem that there are no safe shots against him…..His backhand is a push shot, but a consistent one with some spin.

As I was warming up with Ann, I noticed that she too was quick, but she had some trouble adjusting to my spin shots, as a lot of people with western grips do. As the match began, she showed herself to be a person who liked to be aggressive at the net, but she missed a lot of put away volleys, hitting them hard into the net. I think part of the problem was that we were employing a two-back strategy part of the time, which can often make people over-hit at the net, when they (sometimes unconsciously) realize that the volley is not as easy to put away with that position as it is with the one up, one back position.

Ira and I won two sets 6-2, 6-2. We decided to switch partners. If you had watched the match so far, you would have thought that Ann was the weakest of the four players. Her serve was not that strong, she was making a lot of mistakes, and was unsure how to use her quickness.

When Ann and I began our first set together, I wondered what I could do to help her play better…..the obvious answer of course, is to play well myself, which I did….nothing fancy, just my usual mix of spins, lobs and blocks….but at least I was consistent, and they all said that I served well. I said to her, “If you don’t mind me suggesting, you seem to be a very good net rusher, but you might do better, if you just try to be more consistent at the net, and not hit every volley so hard…..the threat of the hard one is just as important as the hard one itself….set up to hit the volley hard, but if you have any doubt, just make sure you clear the net with it, and get it in.”

In the first game, we went to at least 6 or 7 deuces. For a while, we had all the ads, but they kept fighting them off (including one sitter volley I over-massaged into the net). Then we fought off a break point….then they got another…..I went to Ann and conferred…..”Fake a poach, and they will hit it right at you…have your racquet up. ” Sure enough, we got lucky, and it worked just as we planned. We held and went on to hold.

The other strategy we employed was playing two back on offense. This put a lot less pressure on Ann’s serve. She had help covering any great returns, and our opponents would have a hard time putting the ball away with two of us back.

The amazing thing was how well Ann played. She began to clock her ground strokes, forehand and back hand, finish off her volleys beautifully, and approach off short balls with aplomb. Several times she whacked groundies right at Ira, curling the ball over the top of the net, and handcuffing the man I call “The Wall” when his net game is on.

Maybe it’s ego-centric of me to say I helped Ann play better. Maybe she would have played just as well if I didn’t say anything (maybe she would have played even better). I will agree that I am full of myself much of the time…..and can give you many email addresses of people who will agree. But I think after playing doubles a lot for a while, that helping your partner find a way to maximize what they do well, and minimize their mistakes, is a key to doubles success. And asking them to help you when you are having trouble, can get you to figure it out when things are going wrong. Some people don’t like it at all when you suggest things, and it can be over done (Ira will attest to the fact that I over do it a lot). A good doubles team is always trying to find a strategy that works, and sticking with it until it goes sour.

After the match we had a lively discussion on what was happening for the two sets Ann and I played together (which we won, 6-1, 6-2). Ira and Matt knew they should change strategies, but couldn’t figure out just which one would work. It turned out that they had been playing one up, one back all the time. And never tried coming in behind the return of serve or moving into the two-back position. Ira, whose greatest strength is his net game (he has those ping-pong hands, and no fear), let a couple of good lobs I hit scare him into backing off the net too much, and he wound up getting stuck in no-man’s land a lot. Matt, on the other hand, had been hitting some good returns of serve, but was not following any of them in, allowing me to just float them back with no pace, or hit short slices to bring him in.

I hope we play again. It will be interesting to see how things turn out after we all try to make adjustments.

Here is Matt’s comment to Joe’s assessment:

Hi Joe,

Pretty accurate evaluation of the game. Good job. I could have been more aggressive and tried a few different tactics. Since I play mixed doubles all the time and enjoy the slow pace and more volleys to keep the game going, I didn’t want to go for the killer shots. When I play doubles mixed or otherwise, I try to set up for my partner and I love watching them put the ball away. It’s more fun for recreational tennis. Of course, it is beneficial to listen to comments and learn from it. As I said, you were very right on what you said. Keep it up…Matthew