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Tennis for Two

For the Aging Tennis Enthusiast, Doubles Offers Additional Years of Exciting Competition
Roger M. Williams
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

It is almost noon on a cement tennis court in Scottsdale, Arizona, and my biggest concern is, did my partner signal that he'd poach on my first serve or my second? I care about the answer because my partner and one of my opponents are teaching pros at Gardiner's Resort on Camelback, where doubles is considered an art form, and they are grading the equivalent of my final exam.

Yet, I'm finding it hard to concentrate on such niceties. The temperature is 97 degrees and climbing (a dry heat, as they say, but furnaces are dry, too). As tennis instruction goes, Gardiner's is not known for the boot camp approach; sky-box luxury comes more to mind. But when Gardiner's pros get somebody who's willing, even able, to absorb the finer points of doubles, they don't hesitate to apply their own joking, exhorting version of the lash, in this case, near-sunstroke.

Why doubles lessons? What happened to forehands and footwork and ball toss and all the other stations of the cross that constitute standard tennis instruction?

Doubles is the game of choice for millions of tennis players because it's easier on the body and offers expanded social benefits. Yet it is seldom taught in a thoughtful, systematic way. The typical club pro dwells on technique--strokes and more strokes--while chanting the singles mantras about the virtues of infinite patience and "keeping the ball deep." If any tactics are included, they also relate to singles. Doubles seldom rates a mention.

That's a pity, because at anything above the level of outright hacker, doubles differs greatly from singles in both the strokes and tactics needed to win. Patient backcourt play counts for less than aggressive net play. The serve and volley, overhead smash and lob take precedence over forehands and backhands. And clearing the net by three feet buys nothing but trouble, as in a hard smash into your midsection. (Keeping the ball low in doubles is as important as keeping it deep is in singles.)

Brian Nash, a teaching pro at the Bellevue Club near Seattle, summarizes the difference between the games. "Two guys can play two others in singles and lose; they can go right back out on the court against the same two in doubles and win."

All pros know that, of course. But at Gardiner's, they teach the basics of doubles and a lot more. How much more depends on the player's ability level and how far into the subject he wants to go. For starters, the unique and very helpful guide that Gardiner's distributes to its guests carries 15 pages on doubles strategy (compared with five on singles). The Gardiner's pupil can make doubles one part of his morning's instruction or all of it. "If our guests have definite ideas about what they want to work on, we design the clinics to focus on that. We'll even tailor the instruction to a specific doubles team or a group of doubles players," says tennis director Gard Gardiner (no relation to the founder).

The Scottsdale team of Jerry Feldman and Bill Robinson exemplify the first category of those doubles-minded clients; a group of students made up of members of the Bellevue Club, the second. Feldman and Robinson are what tennis calls "three-point-fives to four-point-ohs": intermediate-level players who have reliable strokes and understand the nuances of the game. They are retired businessmen who have started playing in area tournaments."In the first [tournament] we got our brains blown out by a couple of guys who looked like they were each 112! Very embarrassing," Robinson says. "So over the next month, we took a couple of doubles lessons with Mike Popescue," one of the Southwest's top senior players and a Gardiner pro.

After a bit of work on key doubles strokes, Popescue turned to the lesson's main elements: positioning/movement and tactics. "Some of it was new to us," Robinson says. "The rest we had half-realized, and we learned how to apply it to older legs and older opponents. Mike showed us that where each of us goes depends on where our shot goes on the other side of the net." Gardiner's calls that simply "moving with the ball." The purpose is to prepare for the other guys' most likely, highest-percentage returns. (With a wide-angled shot, for example, the player on that side crowds his alley, while his partner moves very close to the center line.)

Even more basically, Feldman and Robinson learned to advance and retreat together--what's known in tennis shorthand as "two up, two back." Not being in sync that way leaves a huge, diagonal gap that invites an easy put-away shot.

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