IT'S ALL GIVE AND TAKE
Mixed doubles, if it is played intelligently and accepted as a pleasant social interlude, can be great fun. It is an ideal way for husband and wife to team up and do something together during these summer months. Nancy and I have had a great deal of pleasure playing mixed doubles, so on these and the following three pages I shall tell you some of the useful things we have learned.
Like marriage, mixed doubles is a give-and-take proposition. The smart team, as in the smart marriage, lets the man appear to be the boss. To be sure, the lady must carry her fair share of the burden—and even more on those not infrequent occasions when she is actually a better player than her partner. But one of the delightful facets of mixed doubles is that it can be played to the hilt without destroying the fundamental relationship between male and female. He can exercise his masculinity to the fullest. She can be athletic and still feminine.
The basic precepts of mixed doubles that Nancy and I demonstrate here are just as applicable at Wimbledon as they are in a friendly match on the neighborhood court. First of all, the team should operate as a unit, remaining side by side in the backcourt or at net whenever possible, for it is only thus that you will both be at your best. When one or the other member of the team tries to dominate the court in doubles it not only detracts from the fun, it creates confusion, and the team is that much less effective.
Doubles is a game where the attacking team always has the advantage. Nancy and I constantly strive to attain and hold the net position, for it is there that a vast majority of the points are won. The advice that follows is predicated on the cardinal rules of doubles: work together, keep the pressure on your opponents and strive to reach the net where you will win your points.
The importance of a good first serve
It is an axiom of doubles—mixed or otherwise—that the server must win his serve or invite defeat. In this first drawing, Nancy and I show how you can use the serve to gain an initial advantage in court tactics. I am serving from a position midway between the center of the base line and the doubles side line, thus leaving me with the shortest route to my proper position at net. Nancy, being a good volleyer, stands halfway between the net and service line and about 10 feet in from the far side line. For those who volley poorly it is advisable to play much closer to the net, and the less agile should play much closer to the side line to protect the alley. But even poor volleyers should play the net when partner is serving, for this formation offers a psychological salient that more than offsets any shortcomings on the part of the net player.
As shown in the diagram on the far right, the receiver should stand on the base line, and the partner who is not receiving should be in the middle of the service court ready to take the net away from the serving team if his partner's service return is strong enough.
I consider it most important to get my first serve in and find that a three-quarter-speed serve not only gives me greater control but allows me more time to reach the net (position 1)—three priceless steps farther than I would get from a hard, flat cannon-ball that can be returned to me while I am still in no man's land between base line and service line (position 2). To protect your partner at net always serve deep (into the shaded areas of the diagram) and preferably to the receiver's backhand (circles on diagram), where the odds favor a weaker return. These fundamentals apply equally to the right and left courts.
The defensive lob when in trouble
If your opponents are serving well—or you are serving weakly—you will quickly find yourself on the defensive in the backcourt, as is the case with Nancy and me in the drawing below. It is here that you will find the lob, particularly the defensive lob, most useful in extricating you from trouble. In this case, our opponents have played a shot deep and wide to my backhand, leaving us extremely vulnerable. They are waiting eagerly at net in good position to end the point. A very high defensive lob (see diagram) is my proper shot, and it should be played as deep as possible. This will give Nancy and me time to regain our best defensive formation before the return comes back.
The offensive lob to regain the net
Here you will see that our opponents have control of the net and are crowding it closely in hopes of ending the rally with a sharp volley off one of our returns. Nancy and I, although in the backcourt, are in good position and hence able to assume the attack whenever a useful opportunity presents itself. This is an excellent strategic moment for the offensive lob that will drive our opponents back and permit Nancy and me to grab the net position. The offensive lob, as distinguished from the defensive, is played low—low but very deep. Sure disaster lies in running to the net after a low lob that is too short. The opponents will just slam it at your feet while you are in no man's land (shaded area in diagram at right), and there is nothing you can do about that. Whenever possible, it is best to place the offensive lob on the backhand side of either of your opponents. Few tennis players have the ability to hit a forceful overhead from the backhand. I often purposely lob low to the backhand of a player at net, forcing him back slightly into his own vulnerable no man's land; since we can then almost surely bank on a weak return, Nancy and I follow the shot to net knowing we will catch our opponents in a bad position.
When in doubt: play the middle
Although the net is the position from which you will win the most points, it is by no means impregnable, as our opponents have demonstrated against Nancy and me in the drawing on the left. Our net position is proper, and a passing shot to the outside of us, where the net is six inches higher, would be extremely risky (see shaded areas in drawing at right). Eschewing the lob, they have chosen to play the safe percentage shot down the middle, keeping it low. There is no need to hit this shot hard; use only as much speed as you can control. Since the shot has been played low it will be impossible for me to volley it offensively for a winner, so all I can hope to do is return it deep enough to keep the opponents back and not lose the net for our side. Since I can cover the middle with my forehand, the down-the-middle shot is definitely my responsibility, but it would be Nancy's if our positions had been reversed and she were in the left-hand court.
Protecting a weak backhand
I am a great believer in the axiom: if losing, change tactics. In the drawing below, where Nancy is serving from the left-hand court, I have moved over to the same side to protect her backhand. Our opponent in the left-hand court had been making beautiful cross-court returns of Nancy's serve, and she was having trouble with the low backhand volleys and half volleys she had to make in following her serve to net. Nancy now will run up to the net position on her stronger, forehand side.
The poacher can be both good and bad
The poach is a vital play in doubles, but not unless done with the full cooperation and consent of your partner. When I'm going to poach, I alert Nancy either by placing my racket behind my back or saying, "You're playing like a dream, darling." This is her cue to cover me from behind in case the maneuver backfires. The worst menace on the court is the "bully" poacher who dashes back and forth at net leaving his partner bewildered. But there is a cure for him: hit it right at his middle (arrow line), down the alley he has just vacated, or over his head (dotted line). He'll get the message, and there will be more fun for all.
THE GOLDEN RULES
1. Always ask your partner, "Would you like to serve first?" The courtesy is more important than the reply.
2. If it is your team's turn to receive, stand firmly in the left court and ask her: "Which court do you prefer to play?"
3. When your partner wrongly calls an opponent's shot out, don't correct her. Your opponents won't remember the favor, and she won't forgive you.
4. Don't try to win all your points from the lady across the net. It's more rewarding to show up the other man.
5. When the ball goes over the fence, fetch it on the trot. Women don't like men who are lazy.
6. Never serve your hardest to the opposing lady unless she is patently a better player than you are. Use a spin serve; it looks soft but is just as effective and nasty.
7. If a crucial point is needed and the opposing lady is inept, take advantage of her glaring weakness but then protest you meant to hit it elsewhere.
8. If your side wins, the drinks are on you.
9. Always play your best; women are allergic to losing.
1. Let your partner serve first. It will make him feel that victory depends on him.
2. Play the right court when receiving (for the same reasons as above).
3. Don't apologize when you miss. You didn't mean to.
4. Wear the most becoming outfit you can find in your wardrobe, but don't try to be too spectacular looking. The too-intriguing costume can be as disconcerting to your partner as your opponent. The undeviating color for tennis is white.
5. Don't make your partner fetch all the loose balls around the court. He may abhor the helpless type.
6. Compliment your partner generously but uneffusively when he makes a good shot. His ego is the key to his performance.
7. Don't gossip with the other players or the bystanders. In other words: sh-sh!
8. Play the net uncomplainingly if your partner asks you to. He may have a reason.
9. Always play your best; men prefer to win.