How To Play Doubles

One of the great tennis doubles players Todd Woodbridge, tells me how it’s done. Layout missing, sadly.

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What’s the key?
It’s simple. Get yourself a good partner. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if your partner’s shit you can’t make it. 

How important are all those signals?
One of the interesting things is that doubles is about sharing – setting up your partner to look good. That was one of the reasons why the Woodies were really good. We set up the net man and the net man looked brilliant, but it was the returner that was doing the job. Just put in a nice return low down at the feet and the net man has a field day and looks like he’s a fly all over there. And it’s about the ability to understand tht you’re working in a team and if you set each other up you’ll both look good. And at the end of the day the win was more important than if Mark looked good or I looked good. Playing individual winners.

Choose the right partner.
When you choose a partner, choose somebody you gel well with, in the sense of… It’s no good, I played with John Fitzgerald a few times: both of us had the same sort of serve, a similar game and there’s nothing to cover the weaknesses. So there was gaping holes and great strengths, but you didn’t always get to your strengths. Whereas Mark and I had this blend of being able to – we played similar, but because he was a lefty you had somebody that could actually cover your weaknesses well. That was the good thing about Jonas Bjorkmann: he gelled in areas with me that he was weak where I was strong and vice versa. 

What’s an example of that?
If you’re not a great net player or something like that – you like to stay back a little bit more, you drive the ball well off the ground, then get someone who likes to play around the net. No point having someone who likes to hang back with you. If you’ve not got a great serve, pick somebody with a good serve – it takes a bit of pressure off that side of the game. I played a lot with Wayne Arthurs in Davis Cup; you knew Wayne was never going to lose serve, so I only had to get through my service games and we were always in with a chance. 

Don’t you both have to do everything? You can’t always be at the net.
Well, you do, but, say with Bjorkmann, he’s a very athletic player, aggressive mover and dynamic – and I wasn’t a dynamic mover. But he was a bit tentative playing around the net, and if I had to make tough volleys below the net I never missed them. He struggled in that particular area. I always say I chose him because he was the guy I hated playing against the most. 

Holding aces.
The key to winning with doubles is to have about four stock things up your sleeve. Like, Ray Ruffles always used to say to us Roy Emerson on the very first point of a doubles match would always intercept no matter what. Everybody knew, but he still did it because he would get moving and be aggressive. We would always in the first game or two be sure of the minimum of two returns up the line. You could tell that Roy Emerson said we’re going up your line and move. So we were already playing a style of game to set the topic of the day. 

How structured can you make it? Do you write it down before?
No, it’s just being positive. I believe strongly, having done it throughout my career, that it’s much easier to go out and be aggressive in those first few games. So you’re going up the line, you’re being quite aggressive, you’re hitting it into little tight margins and if you miss it you miss it. But it’s much easier to start like that than it is to try to pull that off at five-all. If you started aggressive and let the racquet flow and made a few good shots, when you get under pressure you can pull it off. But if you start being tentative and conservative, it’s very hard to then go the other way. That was a theory we based our play on. 

What happens if things aren’t going to plan?
Then you’ve got to change it. That was the thing the Woodies did better than anybody, I think – find a way to win. We’d take pace off, we’d both stand back, we’d lob, we’d do everything to try to find a way. A lot of modern tennis is to hit it hard and harder – there’s a lack of thought. Federer does so well because he throws in changes of pace and that sort of stuff all the time. And Henin was so good in the ladies’ game too because of that reason. You’ve got to have the ability to adapt.

How do you avoid the blame game?
I never had a problem with that. Maybe only occasionally with mixed, if the woman wouldn’t do what she was told! But I played a lot of mixed still, I won six slams. You either had a good result or a bad result in mixed. No, I never really had a problem with the blame game – if my partner played bad he played bad, there’s not much you can do about it. The only time I’d be disappointed in my partner is if they didn’t do the work properly, but I never played with a guy like that. If you play bad and you haven’t put in the hours and effort off-court, what do you expect?

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