July 21, 2023
How to be the Universal Partner
By Alice Tym
It is not about you; it is all about your partner.
The best thing Bart Brannon, my mixed partner, ever said to me is, “You seldom ever give me a bad shot.” A key feature in being a good partner is the attitude that it is all about him, not about you. A local player here cannot understand why no one wants to enter tournaments with him. He prides himself on his speed primarily because he can take all your shots! Being a Universal Partner requires skills, knowledge of the game, and a teamwork attitude.
First, let’s look at the attributes of the Partner from Hell. He talks all the time and tells you what to do. His serve is unpredictable. He sprays returns like buckshot. His volleys are hard but poorly placed, so they come back even faster. He plays singles in doubles events. He is in a world of his own. We have all played with him and some of us just need to look in the mirror.
In contrast, the Universal Partner can play with anyone and adapt. First and foremost, he sees himself as support staff. He is there for you, to complement your skills. He is focused on making his own game work for you. He is the setter in volleyball and the guy who passes off the basketball while at the same time is not afraid to take his shot when it is there. He can step up, but he doesn’t push you off the mark to do it. He drills and works on his own game. He practices with a purpose for every shot. He gives 100% in matches. He can poach and put the ball away.
When he serves, the Universal Partner can place the serve. He does not serve wide and hard to the opponent’s forehand, giving the opponent multiple choices of angles for you to scramble to cover. The Universal Partner keeps the serve deep to give his partner time to react. He signals his partner when he is going to give a short serve, or a wide-angle serve to the backhand. No surprises. He communicates. His serve is consistent. He does not have delusions of grandeur and does not serve like a maniac on important points. He stays within himself.
When the Universal Partner receives, he tells his partner where he will return the ball. No surprises. The partner at the net needs no surprises. A “heads-up” is always in order. A strong partner goes deep down the middle and sets you up to poach. He does not give the opponents angles—it will just make the partner look bad when he gets passed. Good partners keep the ball deep so that in the event of a lob, their partners will have time to cover the lob. If you are not practicing keeping the ball deep, you are not being a dedicated partner, pure and simple. Hard and short shots will drive your partner to partner-search and rightfully so. You are giving the opponents options and expecting your partner to be a mind reader.
Volleys—OMG, place the ball. Do not just whack the ball somewhere. There is a logical place that minimizes available options. It is geometry. Euclid would have been a 5.5 player. If you cannot angle the volley away, keep it deep down the middle. If it is a first volley, keep it deep so that you and your partner can set up at the non-volley zone (NVZ) line. The Universal Partner places the ball and controls the pace. Controlling the pace controls the game. Position yourself at the NVZ line to cover the logical shot. You are not assigned a spot like hopscotch and have to stick to it. You need to ask your partner where he wants you to stand in order to create a funnel to force your opponents to hit to your stronger player. Stand where your partner needs you. Reminder: it is all about him.
Overheads: The Universal Partner covers his own overheads. That takes practice. The key to overheads is placement. If you hit harder than you can recover, you leave yourself open and your partner scrambling. Keep your overheads deep if you can’t angle them off for winners. If you do not have a clear spot to hit, go deep down the middle and close in for the next shot. The Partner from Hell hits hard, harder than he has time to return to the NVZ line, and he leaves a hole for the opponents to score. Control the overhead. Pace is called for when an opening is there. Placement is called for when the opponents are in a stable position.
Every shot you hit should be made considering the consequences of that shot on your partner. If you are playing mixed doubles, he wants to look good. She wants you to win for her. If you are playing women’s doubles, she needs to have confidence shots. If you are playing men’s doubles, your partner needs some razzle-dazzle-paddle-bumping setups. Not you—your partner. You make it happen for him! Good pickleball doubles is all about trust—trust that it is truly a team effort. •
Alice Tym was ranked 13th in the world for tennis in the ‘60s. She’s been named USPTA Coach of the Year and is a USPTA Master Professional. As a 4.5 pickleball player, she won gold in Huntsman, NSGA Nationals, US Open, and USA Pickleball events around the country. Alice is an IPTPA member, SSIPA founding board member, Bainbridge Cup Originator and gold medalist in Spain, Italy, and Germany.