No matter what your level is, odds are you’ve been placed in a situation where you are paired with a player who is weaker than you. Taking doubles seriously my entire career, I have found myself in this position countless times. It is easy to get frustrated with this situation, but knowing how to manage your emotions is critical if you want to have a chance to win when playing with a weaker partner.
When playing doubles with a weaker partner, first you need to find a good mindset for yourself. Secondly, in order to get the most out of your partner, positivity is key no matter how poorly he or she is playing. Finally, it is important to develop strategies to highlight yourself on the court and highlight your partner’s strengths (if any.)
Focus On Yourself
When playing with a weak partner, it is easy to focus on how poorly they are playing rather than on what you are doing to help. It is key to remember to control the controllables. The biggest controllable when you are playing doubles is how you are performing as an individual. When you get too caught up with your partner’s performance, it takes your focus away from what you need to be doing to perform well.
As frustrating as it may be, the best thing that you can do to help a weak partner is to perform well yourself. Look at this as an opportunity rather than pressure. This is a chance to play with nothing to lose and no expectations, so if you treat this situation properly you should be able to perform above your average as an individual.
Again, the biggest mistake you can make is to feel like you have to do everything perfectly in order to win. Striving for absolute perfection never leads to perfection. Just go out there and play aggressive, loose, positive and remember to have fun.
It’s not rocket science. Everybody knows that it is easier to play well when you feel support from others. Being negative towards your partner can only lead to worse play from him or her.
Even if you don’t realize it, negative thoughts about a partner show through your communication and body language. In order to play well with a weak partner you must actually be positive, not just act positive. Get to the root of the problem, because it’s a lot harder to fake positivity than to actually be positive.
Being positive is something that is easier said than done, so follow these tips to make it happen.
When playing with a weak partner, a lot of the positive body language we normally use on the doubles court can go out the window. If you typically give your partner a fist bump or high five after every point (which you should), then there is no excuse not to do that with a weak partner as well. If you always get off the bench at the same time as your partner (which, again, you should), the same should happen with a lower level partner.
In addition, make sure to be aware of your negative body language and limit it as much as possible. Your partner WILL pick up on it. No racket hitting, ball launching, shoulder shrugging, head shaking, etc. should ever happen, or things can go downhill quickly. It is definitely not easy, but be aware of your reactions and body language so you can create a positive environment on the court.
You have full control over what comes out of your mouth. Make sure that everything you say has purpose. A lot of players forget that you can say positive things even after lost points. It is easy to compliment your partner after they hit a good shot, but remember that compliments after mistakes are possible too. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example:
You serve and your partner has a volley on top of the net and misses it. While internally you are frustrated that your partner didn’t capitalize on your good serve, you can still make a positive comment to your partner. Something like, “Don’t worry Allen, you will see that ball again and make it the next time. It’s good we are setting the points up well like that.”
This kind of comment can go a long way because now your partner feels confident in you as a team, and he will be ready for the next easy volley he gets. Lastly, saying nothing at all is in my opinion a form of negative communication. Even something as subtle as, “It’s okay Linda, right back” after a mistake can be massively encouraging for your weaker partner.
Creating strategy that highlights the doubles team’s strengths is a must for any team if they want to be successful. However, when a doubles team has two players at different levels, building that winning strategy is a bit different. Because each player has different strengths and weaknesses, this is not a “one size fits all” mold. However, I think that the following advice can help a lot of players that struggle playing with weaker partners.
Highlight the Better Player
It’s pretty simple, but can’t be overlooked. You should make sure that the plays you are calling set you up for success. That means choosing strategy that will make it hard for the opponents to hit it right at your partner’s weaknesses.
For example, if my partner is returning and has a good return, but we are losing points when he is stuck at the baseline, I will make sure that when he hits his good return I am either poaching on the first ball or at least looking to be aggressive. In this case it is better to be overly aggressive to hit a volley, my strength, rather than to be too passive. If I am not looking to poach, it creates an easy target for the opposing team, and we will lose a high percentage of the points anyways.
Highlight Weak Partner’s Strengths
It’s important to remember that even though your partner may not do things as well as you do, they still have strengths and weaknesses. To be successful as a team, you have to set your partner up to be successful as an individual. You must make sure that your partner’s strengths are coming through and being effectively used.
For example, if my partner has a great serve but not much else, I will make sure to be poaching at the net as much as possible off of his serves to limit him having to hit a groundstroke or volley on the next shot. If my partner does a good job on volleys that come slow, but his hands are not quick enough for the balls that come fast, I will be a bit more aggressive on my own second serve. This way, there is a good chance that he will get more floating volleys rather than the opponents being able to hit aggressive returns.
If you are unsure what your partner’s strengths are, just be open and communicate with him or her. Nobody knows his game like he does, and he will be more than happy to tell you what shots he has the most confidence in.
Aggressive style is key for a lopsided team because generally the longer the points go, the more of an opportunity you give your partner to make a mistake. Super simple, aggressive play calls work best because the more aggressive you are as a team, the less time your opponents have to expose your team’s weaknesses. Take your chances and remember that even if you are aggressive and lose the point, it still puts it in your opponents’ heads that you will be playing to win.
For my own game, I play pretty traditional doubles. Big serve, aggressive movement at net, and trying to put pressure on my opponents. However, if I am playing with someone who is more comfortable on the singles court, I know that I need to adapt my game to be successful. I have found that strategies like returning with both players on the baseline, not serving and volleying, and not playing out of the I-formation work much better with partners like this.
In order to maximize your partner’s potential, you need to make them feel comfortable. If they don’t want to serve and volley, work around that and poach more often. If they don’t feel comfortable at the net when you are returning, let them stay back and see if it works. Be creative and be a problem solver.
The best doubles players in the world are able to play lots of different styles. While you should stick to your strengths as much as possible, it is also important to be willing to be fluid. If you and your weaker partner are losing a match, be sure to evaluate the situation and be open to changing strategy.
As much as I’d love to play my professional doubles matches with Mr. Federer, we can’t always play with partners that are better than us. Playing with a partner that is not as skilled as you are can be a hard thing to manage, but with these simple tips you should be able to win more and lose less. If there is one thing to remember, it is to enjoy your time on the court regardless of your partner’s level. Being positive with your partner will not only make you easier to be around, but will lead to more success. So take your ego out of it, get on the court, and have fun competing with whoever you get the chance to play with.