Haters of a certain age will recognize this scene from the 1967 Disney animated classic, "The Jungle Book."They may also be saying to themselves, "Hey! That's exactly the conversation I had with my doubles partner last weekend!"
"Whatcha wanna do, mate [to get past that buzzard who keeps poaching our shots]?"
"I dunno, mate. WhatCHOO wanna do?"
In singles, I'm the only one who can sort out what is going right or wrong in a match. On some days, this is like cutting my own hair, with the same disasterous results.
Doubles is supposed to be different. Doubles is supposed to offer the tennis equivalent of someone to run the razor up the back of my neck. I've got a Worthy Comrade to bounce strategic ideas off of, get encouragement from, laugh off missed shots with.
But this can only happen if my partner wants to talk.
I played a match a few weeks ago with a Worthy Comrade who was as tight-lipped as a KGB agent. Our Worthy Opponents included my husband Mark, who frequently employs a return lob on my serve over my partner's head and high to my backhand. A money shot. Ka-ching! 0-15.
"Whatchoo wanna do against these guys?" I ventured. "How do you want to protect against Mark's lob?"
"Let's just see what happens," was the response. Oh, blimey!
What happened was a break of serve. We were quickly down in the first set, 1-3. I didn't know what to do, or, at this point, to say. My Comrade was not the strategizing type, nor did they really want any rah-rah talk from me when we faced critical points.
All the coaching I've ever received in doubles has emphasized the importance of communicating with your partner. Pat Blaskower, in The Art of Doubles: Winning Tennis Strategies and Drills, writes this:
All good doubles teams communicate frequently between points (sometimes after every point if it is a very critical game). They share ideas; give positive and specific suggestions for point-playing; encourage one another to stay confident; and even sometimes confess to anxiety or "choking."
She also includes a great example of "vulture talk:"
Don't walk on the court and allow your opponents to witness a conversation such as this one:
"What side do you play?"
"Oh, I don't care. Do you?"
"No, not really. Shall I play forehand?"
"OK. Shall we serve? We won the spin."
"Oh, I'm not real confident of my serve. You want to serve?"
After a discussion like this one, be assured that your opponents are, at best, supremely confident and, at worst, sure that you two are a couple of lunatics who quite possibly have no idea what you're doing.
Blaskower doesn't mince words. The introduction to her book -- the introduction, mind you, where the author sets the tone and invites the reader to join her on the deeper journey -- reads like a drill sergeant's withering critique of a new recruit. Welcome to doubles, shit-for-brains. You double fault on my watch, you drop and gimme 50 pushups. She must have been quite a coach.
She divides the doubles world into 3 types of players: those who make things happen, those who watch what happens and "those who wonder what the hell happened":
These are the players whom you have heard say, "I can't think and play at the same time. I just hit the ball." Freely translated, this means, "You can fill you head with fancy strategy all you want, but if I hit the ball hard enough at you, you'll probably miss, so why do I need all those expensive strategy lessons?"
As a member of the Watch and Wonder camp, and too afraid to continue reading Blaskower's book (get it for $1.40 used on Amazon!), I turned to former doubles Top Ten doubles tour player and teacher Anne Hobbs for advice.
"You must meet your partner where they are," she told me. "The best way to get him or her to communicate is to get on their level first. Help them feel comfortable, with no demands."
This is especially true, she said, when my Worthy Comrade is serving. I often start a doubles match by sidling up to my partner and asking her or him what they plan to do with their serve, so I can anticipate the return.
"May I suggest that is not the right question," Hobbs said gently. (Blaskower would have had me doing wind sprints.) "It puts too much pressure on the server. Leave it them to tell you what they are going to do with the ball."
Meet your partner where they are."
I'm surprised I didn't realize this on my own. When faced with the same question, I've often responded, with just a touch of steeliness, "I plan on just getting my serve over the net and in the box." (Now leave me alone and get back over to your side of the court.)
So, don't put pressure on your partner when he or she is serving by asking them -- or telling them -- what they should do. And don't try to get a talker to talk. It will shut them down even more. I got it.
"But what if we've lost the first set?" I asked Hobbs. We've got to talk then! It's like a marriage going south. Time to start the therapy sessions. "How do I talk to my partner about what we're doing wrong or what we could do better?"
Again, Hobbs suggested I wasn't asking the right question. My Worthy Comrade, she pointed out, was what she calls an "impulse player" rather than a "conscious player." The impulse player prefers to react, rather than bring any awareness to what they are doing. Trying to get them to do so by asking them to think about themselves or us as a team won't work.
"Focus on your opponents," suggested Hobbs. "Turn it around. Ask your partner, 'What do you think we can do to frustrate them?' In psychologist's language, keep [the conversation] away from their ego!"
Pat Blaskower recommends suggesting a combination of shots that allows both players to share responsibility for the outcome of the next point.
Good doubles teams know this and experiment with solutions to problems. When things get rough, they never retreat into sulky silence leaving their partners alone, exposed to the enemy and fearful to utter even simple words of encouragement.
Don't be a lunatic, or a vulture with a bad blonde mullet. Quit living in the 60's, for one thing. And absolutely talk to your partner. Hobbs' and Blaskower's suggestions make me all the more committed to do so, even with my KGB Agent of a partner. But rather than hopping up and down on my branch of the baseline, trying to force a conversation, I will pratice communicating in a way that puts my partner at ease and keeps the channel open. Only then do we have a chance of figuring out what we wanna do and not ending the match as roadkill.