What Makes the Best Doubles Team?
The one question that seems to always come up when racquetball players participate in doubles events and competitions is ‘What’s makes the best doubles team’? Some feel that having two really good players undoubtedly makes a good team, while others suggest that players who make consistent shots together makes for the best team. And still other players suggest that the best team is simply the one where both players play well together. And all of these are certainly correct. But for a doubles team that consists of two good players, who are consistent in their shot-making, and play well together requires more than just pairing up two players with exceptional playing skills and an eagerness to compete. More is necessary to make a successful doubles team.
In tennis, one of racquetball’s sister sports, years ago a doubles team was formed consisting of John McEnroe and Peter Fleming. At a time when tennis singles play dominated television stations world-wide the doubles team of McEnroe and Fleming drew more crowds and took up more air time than any other doubles team in history. For those old enough to remember, they were phenomenal having played over twenty-eight world class events and winning them all! At Wimbledon they even set records for winning championships, playing both the shortest and longest doubles matches in history, and caused sports reporters to learn how to write about tennis doubles play instead of just singles. The amazing duo single-handedly raised the popularity and interest in tennis doubles to a new height like never before. And the likelihood of John McEnroe, a brash young American teenager pairing up with Peter Fleming, a refined, quiet, soft spoken European player years older made for additional reporting interest.
While McEnroe and Fleming were winning every tennis tournament they competed in, an amazing racquetball doubles team consisting of Brian Hawkes and Bill Sell emerged. They began their historic doubles play together during perhaps racquetball’s most popular years (’80 and ‘90’s). And like tennis’ McEnroe and Fleming they beat everyone, and beat them easily. But again, like McEnroe and Fleming, they were two individuals who were quite different from one another. Brian started playing outdoor racquetball when he was nine and won his first of twenty (yes, 20!) Outdoor National Open Championships at fourteen before playing and winning three Indoor Racquetball Pro Stops. Brian is an extrovert, is into fitness and health, and has been a teacher his entire life. On the other hand, Bill learned his racquetball playing the locals at a sports and health resort where his Dad bought him a condominium. Bill is an introvert, always avoided outdoor play, and being the son of rich parents never worked and wanted for nothing his entire life. They were two very dissimilar people with completely different backgrounds who ended up playing doubles together. When they first stepped on to the court in Santa Ana, California to compete for the first time in the California State Doubles Championship, most thought the unusual team would never work out. But somehow they got along well together both on the court and off. They won the California State Championship and went on to win an unprecedented five National, International, and World Doubles Championships. They complimented each other so well on the court that after watching the team in action even Marty Hogan and his partner passed on a challenge to play them for fear of losing.
As a side note, Hawkes and Sell were playing so much racquetball at the time that Bill lost a great deal of weight, was thin as a rail, and looked like he needed to eat all the time! And Brian felt he was starving all day every day having burned off tons of energy on the court. The two basically ate everything and anything they could during events. Even local newspapers made friendly fun of the two. “Be it racquet or fork, Brian Hawkes is usually armed and dangerous. On the racquetball court, he is ranked 16th in the nation. Behind the dinner table, he is going for the gold. The Hawkes Diet is already legend around the U.S. Olympic Festival:
- Eight-thousand calories a day
- Six to eight meals a day
- Grocery bills totaling up to $750 a month
Hawkes not only plays doubles, he eats doubles. ‘It’s amazing,’ says longtime friend and doubles partner Bill Sell.”1 Speaking of Bill, aside from all the food he and his partner consumed, after playing with Brian Hawkes for years he was sought out to play doubles with other players and tacked on another five titles to his name—U.S. National Doubles with Joel Bonnett (1), U.S. National Doubles with Adam Karp (2), and with Adam Karp again at the IRF World Championships (2). Between Brian’s 20 Outdoor National Championships, his Pro Stop wins, the many doubles championships they won together, and those Bill went on to win with other players, it’s easy to lose track of just how many tournaments they won! But there were a bunch.
Another more recent exceptional doubles team consisted of Rocky Carson and Jack Huzak. Much like Hawkes and Sell they simply beat every team they faced. Both Carson and Huzak are amazing singles players. They have each won many singles competitions. But as individuals, like McEnroe and Fleming and Hawkes and Sell they could not be more different if they tried. Rocky learned racquetball mostly from playing outdoors in sunny Southern California playing at Newport Beach less than a mile from the beach. Jack learned playing exclusively indoors competing in junior events and then graduating to the Open and Pro ranks. Jack’s an introvert, while Rocky is an extrovert. Rocky’s indoor game is an all-court game that leaves audiences marveling, while Jack’s game is one of endless, tireless retrieval and shot-making that exhausts out most opponents before they even get started. There have been several interviews with both of these men and about the only thing they seem to have in common is racquetball. But they played doubles extremely well.
So what do these three teams all have in common? What made them all such amazing doubles players? Professional racquetball history seems to indicate that there are three elements that go into making a successful competitive doubles team—Player Attributes, Team Factors, and Play Strategies. When we look at successful racquetball doubles teams that win time and time again we get a sense that they are teams that have mastered more than just playing doubles well. They must have done more in order to have mastered the art of how to win no matter who they played. Looking closer we can see that these championship teams possessed the elements needed—Player Attributes, Team Factors, and Play Strategies—needed in their game that enabled them to win over and over again. The three doubles teams I selected (McEnroe-Fleming, Hawkes-Sell, and Carson-Huzak) typify these types of doubles teams.
So what makes up each of the three elements of doubles play, and what is it about them that allow doubles teams to be successful? Player attributes are what make up the part of the doubles team that is not seen by spectators and is more intangible, but nonetheless very important. They include but are not limited to the following:
- Trust – The ability for each doubles team player to possess the confidence in his partner during play allowing him to take certain shots he knows he can execute well
- Attitude – The maintaining of a positive attitude and a will to win at all times
- Determination – Staying determined regardless of when the chips are down and the team is behind—staying stead-fast and determined throughout the entire match right up until the last point is played Respect – For your partner and the opposing team during all playing situations
- Flexibility - To have the understanding and ability to change directions and strategies during play whenever the situation calls for it
- Belief – To believe in yourself and your partner that you are playing your best and can win all the time as long as you believe you can
Aside from these important attributes there are decisions that need to be made addressing other doubles team factors. These ‘factors’ are the physical entities that make up the doubles play actions that take place on the racquetball court during the match. Specifically, they are the essential issues that decide who plays where on the court, what playing strategies will be employed, how communications will be accomplished and maintained, when adjustments in play will take place, and much more. Where the players’ attributes are more mental, the team factors are more physical.
The first factor to consider is what forehand-backhand player combination will make for the strongest team? If you have already selected your partner, depending upon whether he is left-handed or right-handed can have a great deal to do with making the decision where he should play; i.e. the left side of the court, or the right side of the court. Many feel that because
players’ forehands are typically better than their backhands that a team with a left-handed player playing the left and a right-handed player playing the right makes for the strongest team. (McEnroe was a lefty and always played the left side of the court). Others feel that finding a right-handed player whose backhand is better than his forehand to play the left side with a right-handed player playing the right side makes for a strong team as well. And yet others feel that having two players both playing their backhands makes for a good doubles team. It’s certainly a subject for on-going debate. And opinions definitely vary. Certainly the question of who plays which side is an important one. And of equal importance is which player—forehand or backhand—handles playing the left side or the right side of the court the best. Both issues are usually standard subjects for deliberation. Regardless, a decision will have to be made who will play where before match-play begins.
But there is another aspect, another team factor, of doubles play that goes beyond which forehand or backhand player will play which side of the court—Experience. Take, for example, the team that has been playing together for years vs. a team that is playing in a tournament for the first time. Which do you think has the better chance of winning? Many would say the team that has been playing together for a long time. And they would be right. Players who have been competing together for a long time are intimately aware of their partner’s abilities, where he will be on the court, what shots he is going to hit, and what shots to let go for him to hit. Oftentimes when a team that has played together for a long time competes against a better, more skilled team they will win leaving the other higher skill level team wondering what they did wrong. There’s a lot to say about teams that have played together for a long time. In this regard experience definitely gives teams an edge.
Another doubles team factor is how long a player has played doubles. If he is predominantly a singles player, doubles may seem limiting to him. He may feel confined. In terms of court position, he may not know where to go on the court to anticipate shots, or what shots to hit, or even who—he, or his partner—is supposed to hit a shot. There may be confusion, and in all likelihood will be. If, on the other hand, a player is predominantly a doubles player he will know what shots to hit even if his partner doesn’t. He will know when to hit a particular shot, and which ones to let his partner hit. He will also know where to be on the court to anticipate shots. In short, he will bring to the doubles game both experience and know-how.
Once a doubles team has been established and team factors have been addressed, there is the question of play strategies and how to play the doubles game; i.e. both doubles team participants playing their sides of the court, one player playing forward and the other back, a combination of both of these, etc. Typically players will play the side of the court they are on; i.e. left side or right side. And this would be determined by the team before play begins. The same would hold true if the doubles players opted to play one forward and one back. Sometimes doubles teams will try to confuse their opposing team by playing a combination of these play styles. They will develop signals when they will remain side-side, and when they will play up-back styles of play. This can change from rally to rally. But whatever style of play is selected to incorporate both players must be aware of it. There must be a clear understanding about this before play begins else the best laid plans to win will fall by the wayside very quickly.
Other play strategies to consider are similar to but not the same as singles play. This is because the dynamics of the game changes drastically when the court has four players on it at the same time compared to singles when there are only two. For example, if an opposing team has a very strong player most experienced teams will pick up on this and isolate the other player. By isolate it is to say that most if not all the balls will be hit to the weaker player on the opposing team isolating him and causing him to play more and hit more balls than his partner. This is frustrating for the stronger player who oftentimes is left to only watch as his partner struggles. But it is an effective tactic, because the weaker player will in all likelihood make errors or miss-hit the ball allowing the other team to win several points. Strategies like this one and others can make for short games.
Another play strategy is the consideration of the opposing team’s speed. With four players on the court it’s safe to say not all four will move or run the same way or at the same speed. If an opposing team, for example, is relatively slow moving where both players are not fast runners, the strategy of hitting different shots should be incorporated into the game that directly affect this; i.e. passing shots should be used to bring the players to the back court followed by low kill shots to the front play wall causing the players to run forward to retrieve the ball. Drop shots—or touch shots—should also be used, as slower players have a hard time retrieving them. And even if they do they tend to leave the ball up making it ripe for an easy put-away. Contrastingly, if the opposing team is fast and both players move well around the court, hitting soft ceiling balls and making opponents hit from the back court can be an effective strategy. Touch shots will not be effective, however, because they will run them down. If, on the other hand, one player on the opposing team is fast and the other is slow, isolating the slower one and making him hit while ‘on the run’ can be effective. The bottom line is play adjustments will need to be made and different play strategies incorporated for each opposing doubles team, because no two doubles teams play the same way. If they did, doubles play would not be the ever changing game filled with play strategies, changes, adjustments, and dynamics that it is today.
Another play strategy is that as the doubles match develops if it is noticed that one player is prone to missing certain kinds of shots teams should capitalize on this and allow the player several opportunities to try to hit the same shot over and over. In a similar fashion, if one player is prone to executing one particular shot very well every attempt should be made to prevent giving him the opportunity to hit this type of shot. Again, not all players—not all teams—will play the same way from game to game. Players’ abilities change slightly as the match evolves. Doubles teams need to pick up on what these performance changes are, what these weaknesses are, and incorporate a play strategy in order to capitalize on them.
So what makes the best mixed doubles team? Certainly all of the aforementioned applies. Up to this point we have discussed doubles teams where both players on the team are either a man or woman. In mixed doubles (a man and a woman playing on the same doubles team together) the ladies are, more times than not, hitting far more balls—executing many more volleys—than are the men. This is because the majority of men can hit the ball harder than the ladies and oftentimes take full advantage of it by slamming as many high-speed missiles at them as humanly possible. With this in mind selecting a woman player to play mixed doubles can be a befuddling task. On the one hand, the male team member does not want his female team member to get hurt. On the other hand, he wants a female player that can handle being hit an enormous number of rockets at her and still keep the ball in play, or better yet, be aggressive and hit good shots. The play strategy here varies; however, one rule of thumb for the female player is ‘if you can’t hit it let it go.’ Most guys can run down hard hit balls to their partners. Oftentimes, because the focus is to rip the ball as hard they can to the female player on the other team, the ball if let go will come off the back wall and provide an easy volley for the male team member.
Also in mixed doubles play men tend to take over leaving the woman to run, dodge, and jump out of the way of the ball. In short, men become ‘Ball Hogs’ hitting every shot and not allowing their partner to hit anything. Unfortunately, this can be an effective strategy, but it doesn’t say much for ‘D o u b l e s P l a y’.
So what makes the best mixed doubles team? The debate will go on forever. And it should, because the dynamics in doubles play can be very complex. The following list of Player Attributes, Team Factors, and Play Strategies summarizes what may be needed for a team to be successful competing in doubles play competition:
- Trust – Have confidence in your partner during play allowing him to take certain shots he knows he can execute well
- Attitude – Maintain a positive attitude and a will to win at all times
- Determination – Stay determined regardless of when the chips are down
- Respect – Respect your partner and the opposing team during all playing situations
- Flexibility – Change directions and strategies during play whenever needed
- Belief – Believe in yourself and your partner that you are playing your best and can win
- Agree on what the best player combination is for your team
- Decide which player plays which side and stick with it
- Remember that playing together for a long time makes for solid experience
- See if you and your partner play together for a long time
- Both doubles team participants play their sides of the court
- One player plays forward and the other back
- Players play a combination of both of ‘Side-Side’ and ‘Up-Back’
- Adjusting to when an opposing team has a very strong player
- Weaker player isolation
- Opposing team speed and what high percentage shots to hit
- One player on the opposing team is prone to missing certain kinds of shots
- One player on the opposing team is prone to making certain kinds of shots
- Mostly in Mixed Doubles, but true for all doubles players a good rule of thumb is ‘If you can’t hit it let it go.
Now get yourself a partner and go out and have yourself some fun!!!
U.S. Open Doubles Champion
U.S. National Doubles Champion
U.S. National Masters Doubles Champion
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