A Backhanded Compliment

Lefties are lucky. In singles they have the advantage that most of their opponents are used to playing most of their own shots on the backhand, which means a southpaw gets to play on their forehand. Power, reach, strength are in our favor on the smaller court, where the crucial movement to the back corners to retrieve a ball – and the stroke that is produced – must be a near perfect blend of speed, balance and technique. But I have a nascent theory about doubles.

Invariably, and logically, if someone sinister has a dextrous partner, they will each play their forehand side. And when the players are very skilled, the ball moves around the court at hyperspeed. But is that the same as good doubles? More to the point, is “good doubles” now the same as “good doubles” will be? Consider how much the singles game has changed since the early 90s. Will the young players be content to play the way their coaches and heroes do? Not likely!

So, here I am lying on my back watching the clouds. And what do I see? That same doubles team on court, toe-to-toe in front of the short line. The ball’s ripping around the court just as before. But something is different. Something about where the ball is coming from. And then I see that these two players have switched sides. They are both playing their backhands. What difference does it make? Well, here’s what I see (admittedly, these are fluffy clouds I’m looking at, and it’s a warm summer day): they have a more open stance, which allows them to take the ball ahead of their body; the natural torque produced by their legs and torso provide excellent balance and stability; if they take the ball a bit later, their shot is just as well disguised as it would be on the forehand; and, most of all, the pace is slower. Better shot selection, more variety, great reverses.

And if they have to go back, that’s fine. In fact, when their partner covers, they get to crunch a forehand! Ditto for those nasty divide and conquer line drives up the center: two forehands to lash out and deal with those.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on this, of course. But here’s where the idea came from. Imran Khan at the Far Rockaway Gold Racket Tournament last December. Every shot was hit with a purpose, intending to cause as much trouble as possible for the other team. Pace when he wanted, sure, but it was his ability to select the right shot that impressed me.

And, more recently, a fun game at Cityview. One of the players, a good 5.0 in singles, had never been on a doubles court before. Instinctively, he chose to play on his forehand. And he was pretty solid over there. Not comfortable, but he stayed in the game. However, after about 45 minutes and a break, I suggested that he switch to his backhand. I guess after skipping around the back of the court, dodging the weird spins and whacking the tin on shoulder height volleys, he was ready to try something new. And what a difference. His court movement sorted itself out, his anticipation improved, his accuracy and consistency went up and he started hitting with very definite pace.

I watched this and thought, Hmmm. Is this a future I am seeing?

Who knows. But in August, out there in Southampton, I am going to ask a few questions and watch a whole bunch of doubles…

Where’s the Floor?

OK. Yes, like most players, I’m in holiday recovery mode, which means unexpected twinges in my shoulder, a hot message from my Achilles and all that.

Fine. It’s just for a week or so.

But levitation? That’s something else again.

We were playing doubles last night. Struggling to put our game together, or at least look like we’d done this before. Not much luck: our opponents won very handily. Then, in a fit of indifference, we switched sides.

I am lefthanded and don’t get to my backhand very much, but whatever. At this point we weren’t in it for the glory. Anyway, I was up at the short line when the ball went past. Knowing it would come of the back wall I started to turn around to get it. But I turned towards the T instead of towards the wall. Pivoting on my left foot – except my left foot wasn’t on the ground, so it just floated away and there I was hanging in midair. Briefly.

Then there it was. Reassuringly solid. Unfinished birch. Very hard wood it is, too.

Posted on the run!

Location:New York (where else?)