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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.

"[Popescue taught us] lots of stuff," Robinson says. "What angles are the best to hit. Why you should serve down the middle on both sides [to avoid the hard-to-handle sharply angled return]. A couple of hand signals that tell your partner whether you're going to poach [dart along the net to intercept a service return] on his serve. And Mike's 'no-brainer': volleying 'short to short' and 'long to long.' " (Translation: if you have a high ball at net, smack it at the opponent nearest you; if it's a tougher, low shot, hit the ball more cautiously toward the man farther away.)

Looking toward a second tournament, Feldman and Robinson have returned to Popescue for another lesson. Robinson is optimistic about the results.

Anticipating similar benefits are two dozen mostly doubles-minded members of the Bellevue Club, who have accompanied their head pro, Brian Nash, to Gardiner's. Nash and the resident pros wound up disagreeing on some aspects of movement and positioning, including which player should "close" (crowd) the net in anticipation of the opponents' shot. But the rest of the pros' advice Nash embraced wholeheartedly, now and then saying to his club members, "Hey, I've been telling you that same thing for 10 years, but you haven't done it!" He's confident the camp will make a big difference in their play. "What the Gardiner's guys did was terrific--all the stuff about moving with the ball, which is so basic to good doubles, and the need to work with your partner and keep reading from the same blueprint," Nash says. The boys from Bellevue have already booked a return stay in 1998.

Even in the tennis world, John Gardiner is far from a clubhouse name. On the competitive side of the sport, his single claim to fame is a close association with former 1940s Wimbledon and U.S. champion Jack Kramer when Kramer ran barnstorming tours in the dark ages of professional tennis. But Gardiner recognized decades ago that the sport could be sold to a wide swath of America's affluent citizens if two things were put in place: a sensible method of instruction and a venue where they would be properly pampered.

Although the "Gardiner method" of instruction remains as useful now as when it was originally crafted, the man and his name have become far more celebrated for the resorts he has created. The original Gardiner ranch, established in Carmel, California, in the 1950s, is understandably revered by its devotees. Carmel is the granddaddy of upscale tennis resorts, and among the cognoscenti, it remains the benchmark: expensive and toney yet tasteful and low-key.

Building on his success in Carmel, in 1969 Gardiner opened a second tennis ranch in Scottsdale, a town which he accurately predicted would one day become a wealthy suburb in one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas. (The property is actually in Paradise Valley but uses the address of better-known Scottsdale.) He took up residence there, glad-handing the customers in his garrulous, Irish-American fashion and making sure the hired help, including teaching pros, treated the customers warmly and respectfully at all times. Gardiner, who is now in his eighties, sold the Scottsdale facility in 1993 and moved to the one in Carmel.

Repeat customers say the new management has made a number of improvements. The first is in the dining room. The food, although copious and well prepared, used to lean heavily in the direction of unimaginative American fare. Now, hungry diners can request such dishes as butternut squash ravioli, charbroiled salmon steak and safron fennel broth. In addition, the service has become more refined. Lunch, however, remains what it should be after a hard, hot morning on the court: straightforward salads, pastas and sandwiches, served under a big umbrella on a terrace with sweeping views. (One of the views is of aptly named Camelback Mountain, which rises 1,200 feet and draws a steady procession of determined climbers.)

The resort features casita housing, a series of well-appointed, condo-style units tucked amid an abundance of beautifully landscaped desert foliage. Their names--Casa Hi Lob, Tie Breaker Lane--can be cloying, but the multitude of amenities compensate for them. (Guests can quench their thirst on an all-you-can-drink "fountain" of fresh orange juice, which is poured during rest breaks in the clinics.)

Luxury aside, tennis at Gardiner's has long carried important distinctions from the run-of-the-court tennis camp. First, the ratio of pros to pupils is 1 to 4, compared with the usual 1 to 6, 1 to 8, or worse. This guarantees a lot of personal attention. Second, since the program focuses on middle-aged recreational players of average ability, two-a-day sessions are banished. After 15 minutes of stretching, instruction runs from 9 to noon, with the afternoon left open for less physical, or plain slothful, pursuits; those who cannot relax can arrange a match or a private lesson or, like a mad dog or an Englishman, climb Camelback in the heat of the day. Last, Gardiner's pros not only instruct their charges but also play with them. In the doubles drills, the pros don't just "feed" balls to their charges; they routinely step into the foursomes for a series of points, even games. And each clinic participant can wind up his morning's clinic with a half hour "beat the pro" session.

Part of every day's instruction incorporates ball machines--in this case, one of the oldest and probably still the best one can find. (These machines can do everything with a ball but put it in your pocket.) The practice permits the pro to observe your stroke up close, rather than from across the net.

Through drills and the use of ball machines, Gardiner's pros help players develop sound doubles strategies. But the resort is by no means the only one to offer doubles instruction. Dennis Van der Meer's Shipyard Racquet Club at Shipyard Plantation on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, has doubles instruction every Saturday and features week-long doubles clinics throughout the year for players over the age of 50. Topnotch at Stowe Resort and Spa in Stowe, Vermont, can tailor a custom-made doubles program for parties of two or more. Other adult camps such as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in La Jolla, California, Harry Hopman Tennis at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Florida, and the John Newcombe Tennis Ranch in New Braunfels, Texas, incorporate doubles instruction into their singles tennis clinics. But Gardiner's is the most doubles-dedicated.

Although Gardiner's pros claim that even a 2.0 player (barely above rank beginner) can absorb the fundamentals of doubles, he can't play it in any meaningful sense. Even Gardiner's doesn't know everything about how to beat your buddies in doubles, or at least it doesn't teach everything. Just remember that tennis is a game of levels, and a player at level C will seldom, if ever, beat one at level B. But don't think about that at this point. Think instead of being armed like a gladiator with clever shots, smart footwork and a winning attitude. These are the most important elements to help you beat your nemeses on the court.

Gardiner's Resort on Camelback can be reached at (602) 948-2100. For more doubles tips, turn to page 259.

Roger Williams is a contributing editor for Tennis magazine for 15 years and the author of The U.S. Open: Game, Set, Unmatched.

THE BASICS
"Move with the ball" and obey Gardiner's other rules. When your team is at net, hit low to your opponents so they have to hit high into your put-away zone; except for clear openings, keep the ball down the middle of the court to minimize errors and create uncertainty; on a ball down your middle, let the player nearer the net take it if he can; when a weak shot wafts over the net, close in on it quickly so you can hit down at short range.

When your team is serving, let the stronger server go first; use the "Australian" formation--net man standing on server's side of the court--if an opponent is killing you with crosscourt returns; if you're comfortable poaching a lot, work out simple, behind-the-back hand signals so the server's not left guessing.

If you're out of position, or in doubt, lob, and don't be reluctant to keep lobbing. Few club-level players can put away overheads consistently.

Communicate regularly--and, of course, sotto voce--during the match. For instance, keep track of the opponents' good and bad returns so you can advise each other about where to serve on big points.

To determine which of you should play the forehand ("deuce") or backhand ("ad") side, you should weigh the advantages of having the stronger player receive serve on break points and having the better overhead smasher cover the middle of the court, where most lobs go. But if one partner is left-handed and your forehands are your best shots, put the lefty in the ad court; that will allow you both to step around weak serves to hit forehand returns crosscourt--almost everyone's strongest shot.

While you're mastering all that, toss in this bit of Gardiner's esoterica: in moving with the ball, the net man farthest from the ball retreats a bit as he shifts sideways, to position himself at the service tee. The purpose, says Gard Gardiner, is to give the player farther back more time to react to the most likely return, a drive down the middle or moderately crosscourt, and to make him better able to run down the second most likely one, a lob over his partner's head. Don't use this maneuver against advanced players. They will respond with a sharply hit crosscourt ground stroke for an easy winner.

Now the role-specific points:

SERVER
Get a high percentage of first serves in. The receiver can't be sure where you'll hit it, with what spin, etc., but he knows your second one will be easier to deal with. If you're comfortable coming to net behind your serve, do so. If not, come in on the first short ball you get. Both moves will put you and your partner on the offensive and, just as important, will eliminate the big diagonal gap created when one player is up and the other back.

Serve wide (into the alley) only sparingly because it creates good angles for the returner. A sound alternative is to serve directly at ("jam") the opponent, forcing him to fend off the ball. And note the most frequent angle of your opponents' returns, and adjust your serving position on the baseline to counteract it.

SERVER'S PARTNER
Don't feel you must start each point at the net. If you're uncomfortable or maladroit there, play all the way back near the baseline. Although that means forfeiting the attacking position, you'll be far better off hitting a good drive or lob than a bad volley.

Assuming you can volley decently, don't hug the alley, leaving your partner to lunge around seven-eighths of the court. You're responsible for half of it, so stand halfway between the singles sideline and the center service line.

If a lob over your head is too deep for you to handle, switch sides of the court with your partner while he's chasing down the ball.

Poaching (darting along the net to intercept a service return) is an excellent tactic but must be timed well. By leaving too early, you give the returner an easy opportunity to hit behind you for a winner. Don't overdo the poach. Your opponents will start to anticipate the move, and it will tell your partner, "We can't win unless I hog all the shots."

RETURNER
In pro-tour doubles nowadays, returners blast the ball. But at the club level, blasts usually mean errors. Instead, hit a soft "chip" that lands at the net charger's feet.

On break points, don't go for a winner. Get the return into play, keeping the pressure on your opponents to avoid making a game-deciding error.

Lob over the net man's head--a lot. No less an authority than the late Bobby Riggs, a great tactician, called it the best shot in club-level doubles.

RETURNER'S PARTNER
If you can volley and can rely on good returns from your partner, position yourself at or just in front of the service line; you'll get opportunities to put the ball away on weak volleys by the server. If neither of those conditions exists, start the point in the backcourt.

When playing the "up" position, stand at an angle facing the opposing net man: If your partner returns to him, he's likely to hit it hard right at you. Also when playing "up," be prepared to scramble back when your partner lobs. As already noted, the one-up, one-back formation is highly vulnerable to opponents who can hit accurately.

A final tip from court psychologists: if you're choosing a partner, make it somebody you like. You'll be less likely to seethe when he blows easy shots. If you do get stuck with a schmuck, think of him as your best friend. Criticizing rather than encouraging him can only make things worse.--RMW

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