By Clif Render
Clif Render is an engineer, technologist, and tennis fan who has loved the game for far longer than he’s played it. Growing up in a small rural farming town, his only childhood connection to the sport was what little US Open coverage he picked up on the homemade TV antenna built into the tree outside his window. Fast forward to today and you have a technology professional in love with playing, captaining, and studying the science of tennis. In his free time, Clif blogs on tennis at his website HiFitennis.com and provides advice, support, and service to members of the tennis community. You can find Clif mishitting his backhand on any of a dozen tennis courts in the Birmingham, Alabama area or connect with him online.
When reading through Kim Selzman’s recent great post on doubles communication on the Road to 4.5 Tennis blog, I began to think about one aspect of on-court communication that doesn’t typically get a lot of attention – the introduction.
As an avid recreational tennis player and fan (my wife would call me a fanatic), I typically play in 2 to 3 USTA tennis leagues per season. With a (more than) full time job, three is really too many for me – especially if I’m captaining – but I do end up getting to play a LOT of tennis and that’s great! I do tend to see lots of player turnover, though. Players get bumped up, players get bumped down, players move, etc… Occasionally I end up playing with a group of players (or an entire team) that I’ve never played with before.
This season, for instance, I’m playing on a Combo Doubles team at a level that I’ve never played at before. Now, in case you’re not familiar with the Combo Doubles format, I’ll explain. Each match typically consists of three courts of players of different levels. A 7.5 Combo team, for instance, will be made up (mainly) of 4.0’s and 3.5s since the maximum combined playing level on each side of the court is 7.5. Combo doubles is my favorite format of play because I get to play against different and, often more experienced opponents. The downside, of course, is I typically have adjust very quickly to new partners and new styles of play. In these types of situations, as Kim points out, constant positive communication is your number one key to success.
In a new partner situation, your ability to communicate effectively is even more critical. That’s why I am especially deliberate about my introduction. This can often be the most critical point of interaction between you and your new partner. Those first few minutes of conversation will often set the tone for the rest of the match and your ability to communicate throughout – especially if they’re at a different skill level than you.
So, here’s my list of “Getting Acquainted” questions. These are the essential things that you need to ask before you play your first point.
1. So, have you been playing tennis long?
This question can be highly revealing. Are they competitive or just in it for fun? Are they new to the sport or experienced? If they’re new, they may not have answers to any of the rest of the questions and, that’s okay. You’re better off knowing that now than after losing the first set 6-0. If they have a lot of experienced, you might be able to leverage that during the match by asking if they’ve ever played against similar opponents or have any thoughts about how to handle that big first serve. Keep in mind that a good doubles partnership is all about give and take. Hopefully, you’ll be able to do a little of both.
2. What is your favorite shot to hit?
If they’re new to the game, then they will probably say something like “Anything that lands in,” or “Anything easy”. If they give you one of these answers then you may be in for a really short match. If they do have a favorite (or favorites), however, then you’ve got something good to work with. What you are looking for is where your new partner most wants to see the ball. Do they favor their Backhand or Forehand? Which is stronger: their net game or their groundstrokes? Do they have a killer down the line shot? Is their serve devastating? Can they lob like a fiend? Keep in mind that they may understate their abilities or have an off day so don’t count on these “favorite shots” too much. Just keep in mind that these are probably going to be the shots that they’re most comfortable hitting which means that these shots are the best way to get them in the groove as quickly as possible. Also, they may tip their hand as to their weaknesses by saying something like, “My forehand is waaaay better than my backhand.” Keep this in mind and be prepared to help them as much as possible if they find themselves in need.
3. Do you have a favorite side of the court? (Forehand or Backhand)
If they don’t have a preference then you can use their answer from question number 2 to help make the call here. If they’re right handed (you did look at how they were holding their racquet, didn’t you?), do they have a killer forehand or a weak backhand? If either of these is the case then the deuce side might be a better choice for them. If they are left handed or have a strong backhand then the advantage side may be best. If they don’t have a preference either way then use your preference as a guide.
4. How comfortable are you with your serve?
If they’re weak here, it’s probably not a good idea for them to serve first. Better to let them get as many points in play as possible before they have to worry about their serve. Do they have a really strong serve but take a while to warm up? This might also be a reason to wait on their serve. For me, I’m always interested in figuring out which one of us needs to serve into the sun or with the wind (if either of these are factors). A big flat serve with the wind can be a problem because the ball can carry it deep while serving into the wind can allow them to put a little more pop on the ball while still keeping it in the service box. For myself, I play a control-oriented service game so I can usually overcome serving into the sun or serving with the wind. You won’t see me serving aces, though, so if I have a big flat serving partner then I want them in the most comfortable position on the court – Sun at their back and wind in their face.
5. If things go wrong, do you prefer A. Quiet, B. Encouragement, or C. Something else
I’m a communicator on the court – always trying to encourage or compliment my partner. For some people, however, this may add to the pressure that they already feel building inside of them so the standard “Here you go,” or “You’ve got it now” may only makes things worse. If this is the case then you need to be aware of that fact before you get into a situation where it matters. It’s important to notice, though, that even though you gave them three possible answers, there really are only two: Encouragement or Something else. Quiet really won’t help them as much as they might think. It will actually make it worse. If they do say “Quiet” then that should be a sign to you that they really don’t know what they want but they’re sure that it’s not “Encouragement” and they’re scared to death of what the “Something Else” might be. What I typically do with an answer of “Quiet” or “Something Else” is to distract them from what’s going wrong and get them preoccupied with something else. If we’re at a changeover then I’ll usually ask them a question about something unrelated – a pet, their family or their job – look for something they’re passionate about and get them talking about that. If you’re not at a changeover then you might mention something game related that takes the pressure off. If they’re serving, for instance, and they can’t keep a ball in the court, you might say to them quietly, “Don’t worry about what kind of serve you’re hitting, just relax and hit whatever’s most comfortable to you. If it goes in then great, if not, no problem. Losing this game isn’t a big deal, we’ll get it back.” A lot of the time this will be enough to break them out of their funk. They may not come back and win the serve but at least the healing process has begun and they’ll probably be back to normal the next time they’re up to bat. If they’re not serving but they are struggling repeatedly then you might need to try changing things up a bit. Shifting to the two back formation or the Australian can help shield your partner or you, if you’re the one under attack.
6. “Fist Bump, Hand Slap, Good Job, or Chest Butt?”
This one usually get a confused look at first and needs a little more an explanation but it does clarify an important point. When something good happens, what do you like to do to celebrate? You be the judge of whether or not you include the last one with a mixed doubles partner. I always do just to get a laugh. The purpose of this question is threefold. First, it’s an easy, fun, no pressure last question. It ends things with a smile and looks forward to future celebrations – a great way to start a match. Second, it gives me a clue as to whether or not my partner could have an aversion to physical contact. For many people this is an issue and it’s really good to know this up front especially if you’re the gregarious sort. Third (and most important), no one wants to meet a fist bump with a hand slap or the other way vice versa. It’s really embarrassing. Believe me, I know.
So, here’s my list. What’s yours? If you don’t have one, you might want to consider making one. Just write it down on an index card, slip it in your tennis bag and it’s there if when you need it. Have fun!