Although there is singles in pickleball, we almost always play doubles, and with various partners. But when tournaments come around, we probably should be more selective in who we pair up with.
It is not like you can read the Coastal Point for a sale next week at the dollar store for extraordinary doubles partners. Before a person can select a doubles partner, they need to have a healthy understanding of their own game — both strengths and weaknesses.
If the thought process goes something like, “I’m great — now I need someone almost as great,” you might as well stop reading at the end of this sentence. If, on the other hand, you blame your losses on your partners, you probably will never find a great partner.
One of the side benefits of playing with an assortment of people every week in recreational pickleball is that you can begin to truly witness your own weaknesses.
Once you have a real assessment of your own skills, then select a partner who complements your game, and in turn, you complement their game; because, like it or not, we are not the team of Baron and Baroness — we are one team. We need to move forward, backward, and side to side as one entity, presenting our strengths and minimizing weaknesses.
Frequently, in competition, only several points make the difference between winning and losing. A right-handed and a left-handed player generally make a better combination, and invariably their opponents forget and several times in a match will hit to their strength for those few points that make the difference. A right and left combination also lends itself to the possibility of “stacking,” where they can keep each player on the same side during the match.
Height is another factor. A tall player with a short partner presents a unique problem, because they draw more lobs than ordinary, and both literally get jerked around the court, depleting their fitness reservoir. But with subtle adjustments, they can overcome that drawback. Two short partners also invite the lob, but they most likely will adjust their entire offensive strategy to compensate.
I can take any four pickleball players who are fairly equal in skill level, and from them likely find one doubles combination that is much better than the other two combinations.
There is more than selecting partners with complimentary skills. Some players are “flighty,” and I look for a partner that stabilizes them. Some players simply can’t play competition; others thrive on it. One player might be a great technique player, but age has stolen their strength, so you match them with defensive strength.
Another intangible is whether both players can play their roles in a doubles match. Knowing the role you are expected to play is incredibly important. This is not a game of “This is my side of the court, and that is your side of the court.” Remember — you are one team! Typically, one player sets up the other, who has the killer shots, but the point is awarded to both of them.
I was particularly close with one tennis doubles team who won three Grand Slam doubles titles, and the morning after winning Wimbledon, I mentioned that I had never once saw them signal one another. One player told me months went by where they never communicated on the court. They had played with one another so often that they just automatically knew who would take the ball in any situation.
There is a great deal of common ground among all the racket sports, so I asked Maurice Hechscher, a 2017 inductee into the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame, what he considered to be the most important factors when selecting a partner.
Not only does the Hall of Fame state that Maurice is considered one of the greatest doubles players in U.S. Squash history, he also coached the Agnes Irwin J.V. girls’ team for 15 years, ending with a .866 batting average. They were ranked in his last year as coach as the second best girls’ J.V. team in the county, and 18th of all girls J.V. and varsity teams nationally.
Maurice said he feels that it is most important that partners balance each other’s strengths, get along well, can strategize and critique well, are open to suggestion, willing to practice together, and each is equally mentally tough. Please note that he put his emphasis on partner compatibility. If they can’t talk freely and comfortability about strategy and in a critique afterwards, they likely won’t form a good team.
In college, my coach at the University of Maryland gave me the additional duty of suggesting doubles teams for upcoming matches against ACC teams. I believe it greatly helped prepare me for my later job at Wilson of selecting which world-class players we would eventually contract.
I looked at not only skills, fitness, power, but who might wilt like a flower and who would stand strong. We didn’t want to waste a top talent by teaming them with a player who fell apart under pressure.
Typically, I look at the most likely opponents before selecting team combinations. One combination might be fine for an easy overpowering match, and another if it is going to be a three-hour street fight. So selecting partners with complementary technical skills is important, but you need to think about them as a team playing under pressure for a specific upcoming match.
As an old racket sports competitor, my fondest memories are of those high-performance nail-biting matches. It’s a beautiful thing, and I hope I can get you to a point where you can experience it.
Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.
By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point