When I read Joe Marshall’s insights about doubles tennis, I realize how little I know and think about this team game. Here is yet another example of why Joe wins so consistently when he plays. Of course it helps enormously that he is good enough to execute what his brain thinks of doing. Much of the time, I am just trying to get the damn ball back over the net and in the court. But maybe someday…

If anyone saw the movie “Moneyball,” with Brad Pitt, you heard the name of Bill James, a man who was working as a security guard in the 1970′s, when he started writing very clever analyses of baseball statistics. He was part of a grass roots movement of stat-head baseball fans, known as SABRmetricians (SABR stands for Society of American Baseball Research), who began to realize that all kinds of “set-in-stone” notions about baseball productivity and statistical analysis were just plain wrong. Bill was probably the most engaging writer of the group, and got published, so his ideas began to spread. George Will spoke of them in his baseball book, MEN AT WORK in the early 90′s.

It took almost 30 years before Bill was hired by a club (the Red Sox), to help decide who were the most productive players available in winter trades, and how the team could be best configured to maximize success on the field. He was instrumental in helping the Sox kill the Curse of the Bambino, and win its first World Championship since 1918 in the middle of the first decade of this century.

Bill wrote early on that in all areas of life, sloppy thinking can get ingrained, and truisms which are not true can proliferate. I think there are some of these things going on in tennis, and I will mention one today that may interest the tennis fan, or the fan of clear thinking.

The first came up in our match yesterday……IN doubles, if all else is equal, on which court should the stronger player play defense, the AD or the DEUCE?

Conventional wisdom has it that the stronger player should play the AD court because this is where all the “Important points” are played (the game points and the break points they mean, I guess). I strongly disagree. The more consistent, stronger player, especially the one with the more consistent return of serve, should play the deuce court.

The underlying assumption of the conventional wisdom is wrong….the game points are not any more important than any other point that leads to the game point. Brad Gilbert pointed this out in his marvelous tennis treatise WINNING UGLY. He spoke of the “Hidden Ad Points” that occur when you reach a score that could give you the game point on the next point…..30-0, 30-15, 30-30, or Deuce.

These are the points to play high percentage tennis with extra focus, lifting your game to its best percentage level.

Once you HAVE the game point the pressure is on the opponent, and your game is already lifted to its highest level. The opponent is more likely to make a mistake with his back to the wall, down game point, than he is when he has the lead or is at deuce. He is less likely to take a risk (such as an aggressive poach) at that point as well.

Think about doubles. The first point is so important in any game. Why give the opponents a look at your weaker partner’s return to start the game? Why not give them your best return to get an early lead, and put the pressure on them?

Think about the score 15-40. You have the lead on defense. You have played four points so far, and you have game point. Who do you want to return serve? The stronger player, of course. But if he is in the AD court, he can’t help. If he is in the deuce court, he has returned 3 of the 5 serves, and you win the game. As long as the stronger player wins the point from the deuce court, the weaker player is always returning with the comfort of knowing that he has the lead, and even if he misses, his team is still tied. You don’t want to keep putting the pressure on the weaker player to earn the lead point himself.

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense…..the weaker player will be able to poach easier off the return (assuming he is right-handed), the stronger player will hit more balls, it is more difficult for the opponent’s net man to poach against the return from the ad side (again, assuming he is a righty), giving the weaker player fewer distractions on return of serve.

There are arguments against it…..it is easier to hit an overhead from the AD side, balls down the middle are usually taken on the AD man’s forehand……but forehands and overheads down the middle are fairly safe shots, which are the shots you want the weaker player to hit, so he gets his confidence going. And there are exceptions…..certain players get used to one side or the other and feel uncomfortable on the other side. Lefties usually have an advantage from the AD side. The wind or sun could be a factor….but all things being equal, the stronger player should play the deuce side.

P.S. Another tennis truism, which I find to be TRUE is the one that says, “Always change a losing game, never change a winning game.” In doubles, this usually means changing sides after you lose a set…in other words, the ad player should switch to the deuce, and the deuce to the ad. Unless the set was close, or you were making a lot of silly errors, and you see a clear way to make keeping the same sides work, then change….even if it means allowing the weaker partner to play the ad court.

The reason that this strategy works so well, is that unconsciously, your opponents have gotten into patterns. The are confident hitting certain shots in certain situations. They have seen your game and neutralized it.
But when you change sides, the patterns are all new. Poaches come in places they hadn’t before, safe shots become liabilities, put-aways, keep coming back. The opponents will usually try to hit the ball harder and force the old patterns to work again. Your team can gain confidence from playing successfully in the new patterns….and now you have the anticipation advantage.

So, notice if your opponents change sides, and observe the new pattens that develop.