In doubles, you can’t win without a happy partner.
When I coached the men’s team at Pepperdine University, I had to consider removing the best doubles player on my team from our lineup. He was a talented young man (whom we’ll call Matt) with an enviable arsenal of doubles weapons: big serve, excellent volley and murderous return. I initially paired him with Bob (also a fictitious name), another fine talent who had won the national junior doubles championship the previous year. They clicked right away. Happy and energized, they had a great run, beating the top teams from UCLA and USC en route to becoming one of the country’s best college duos.
But by mid-season their momentum had evaporated. Losses accumulated and the enthusiasm seeped out of their partnership. Bob was performing particularly poorly, missing easy service returns and volleys and moving haltingly and uncertainly. He had stopped poaching on Matt’s serve, so the burden of holding rested too heavily on Matt’s shoulders.
Finally, Matt approached me and said, “I think I need a different partner. Bob’s just not doing the job and I can’t hold him up.” I couldn’t disagree, so I broke up the team. After a strong start, Matt’s new team’s results also turned sour, with his new partner performing no better than Bob at his worst. When Matt came to me again to complain and request a change, the truth dawned on me: Matt was ruining his partners.
Great athlete, multi-talented and smart, Matt appeared to have it all. But he was nervous and insecure. (It’s always surprising to discover that insecurity is as common in the gifted as it is in the incapable.) Matt was breaking partners down by emotionally abandoning them when they made mistakes. He would involuntarily wince at their errors, and his partners would feel it. His partners were afraid to make mistakes, semi-paralytic lest they elicit more of Matt’s subtle reproaches. As a last resort I paired him with the one person on our team who was mentally strong enough to function without Matt’s support, and they went on to become a respectable duo.
Matt’s problem is common. Rather than simply trying to win the match, he was concerned with whose fault it was if they lost. This is disastrous. If a member of a losing team says things like, “I never lost my serve,” or “My partner missed two easy overheads on game points,” it’s a sign of insecurity and weakness. Great doubles players are concerned with winning, not whose fault it is if they lose, and they know that bolstering their partner’s confidence helps them win.
In many respects, doubles is like marriage: The happier your partner is, the better it is for you. Be judicious with your criticism. Though an adjustment may be obvious to you, it’s better to hold your tongue rather than say anything your partner may resent, or to press your partner to make changes that are uncomfortable for him. In general, execution is more important than strategy, and imposing unwelcome advice will impair execution.
Your attitude, as reflected verbally and in body language, will have a powerful impact on your partner’s attitude. Stay upbeat and positive. If you’re not playing well, resist getting discouraged. If your partner isn’t playing well, try to take up the slack and bolster his or her confidence with unconditional support. As you would in singles with a stroke that’s missing, try to forget about errors quickly, make small adjustments and win with the rest of your game—and whatever your partner has to offer.
Author and coach Allen Fox, Ph.D., is a former Wimbledon quarterfinalist.
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of TENNIS.