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Switching From Doubles to Singles

Q. “As a strong 4.5, over-40 women’s doubles player, I have been playing only doubles since college. Everyone tells me that I play such a strong serve-and-volley game that I should try playing singles because many teams need singles players, and I might do very well. On the other hand, having never been a singles player, I become extremely tentative on the court and even fear falling apart. I don't have the confidence or the mind-set for singles, like I do for doubles, and I really enjoy the doubles comraderie. So, the question is... Can you teach an old dog new tricks (get a good doubles player to play great singles), and is it worth it?”

From Dick B., Vellore, Morrisville, VT:

You need to try singles. Not only will you see that you can do well, but no matter how good you are in doubles, singles will also help you play better doubles. If other players who see you play often think you could play singles, you need to give it a try. What's there to lose? You can always play doubles!!

From Jade L., Phoenix, AZ.:

I decided to improve my game and exercise more by joining a local singles league. As a doubles player with NO singles experience, my goal was to go out and have fun, get exercise and possibly improve my doubles game with no worries about “losing it for the team.” It turns out I am an OK singles player because of the serve-and-volley of doubles and my aggressive net play. I did well in the local league. I have now told my USTA teams that, while I am still new at this singles thing, I will fill in as needed, to get more experience -- and hope that eventually I will be a strong all-around player in singles, doubles and mixed doubles.

My point is, jump in and try it. You might like it, you might be good at it, and it might improve other aspects of your game for doubles. Any time you can be on the tennis court playing tennis, it's worth it!

From Nancy J., Jeffersonville, IN:

Hi. I, too, am a doubles players and felt intimidated to play singles, but I am giving it a try through a USTA program called flex league. I have played two matches and lost both, but the scores have been close -- 7-6, 7-6, and 6-3, 3-6, 1-0.

Mainly it is very hot and humid, and I am waiting for the weather to cool down, but I think I have what it takes to become a good singles player. One of my teammates says strategy is key, and placing your serve is also key. Give it a try. Try playing someone at your club or on your team before hard USTA matches.

To me, singles levels out players because if they are great at doubles, now the court is much smaller, and they are level with you. Take a chance.

From Diane S.:

Absolutely, you should play singles! :) I am a 4.5, over-40 player, as well, and I know, as a captain, we always need singles players!!

Singles is very different from doubles, but with the Internet and several tennis magazines to choose from, you can find all sorts of good advice for singles. Besides, singles really does keep you in great shape and is excellent for your doubles game. You have to serve and receive twice as much, plus you get to get in a rhythm on your groundstrokes.

Playing a serve-and-volley player is extremely intimidating. You should do very well. If you need any brushing up on your singles, your local USPTA pro can help you out with some strategy, as well.

From Joyce S., Naples, FL:

When you have a winning game, keep it. As you age, your body needs more recovery time. Changing your "dance" at this time can be fun but also set you up for more injuries.

Playing singles for fun, but not competitive, can improve your doubles game. Not all singles players can play competitive doubles and vice versa.

If you really enjoy doubles, you are a stronger player staying a doubles player. You can be counted on consistently. If you don't feel confident playing singles, your mental game won't be as strong, and you will not be consistent.

Trust your "gut" feeling about singles; it is the best gauge for you.

From Wilburn A.:

1. It can be done if you want to do it. You should try it, only if you are really interested in playing singles.

2. If you are physically conditioned, it's a more demanding task playing singles.

3. Most important is your mental approach. If you want to do it badly enough, you will prevail.

From Chip R., Derby, KS:

My advice would be to keep playing doubles, Alison. I used to be a serve-and-volley singles player, also. That was when I was younger and faster, and the racquet and string technology wasn't what it is today.

Now that I'm in my 40s, I'm a serve-and-volley doubles player. As you are aware, a serve-and-volley player in doubles is usually a much stronger doubles player than a baseliner.

Baseliners today with the racquet and string technology can stay back and blast passing shots by a singles serve-and-volleyer. In singles, there is so much more ground to cover; in doubles, you only have half as much court to cover, and if you are like most of us in their 40s, you've probably lost a step.

Singles is so much more intense. There is just you against the other player. You are out there by yourself, and there is no teammate to support you.

I also like the camaraderie of doubles. It's just a lot more fun having a teammate. I only play doubles now. My serve-and-volley game is perfectly suited to doubles. I would suggest keep playing doubles; it is more fun and your strengths are perfect for doubles.

From Lindy Lou, Bensalem, PA:

My Dear Alison,

Of course you can teach an old dog new tricks, but the question is WHY? This is what we must evaluate and look at both sides.

First of all, as you probably realize, most singles players on the tour today are not serve-and-volleyers. Consider Andy Roddick, who consistently serves in the 120s, 130s and 140s, and he does not serve and volley. This is because the return games of players have gotten so good due to improvements in equipment technology.

The main players who do serve and volley are Ivo Karlovic (6' 10"), Max Mirnyi (6' 5") and John Isner (6' 9 1/2"). Tommy Haas said if someone is 6' 9," they should not be allowed to play tennis. (I think he said that after being beaten by one of those giants). There are no serve-and-volleyers on the women's side. But that's the pros. Different story at club level.

Your success would depend on how good your serve is and, ultimately, what your percentage is of holding serve. At the club level, of course, you have to watch out for the lob, and there are some players who can lob off of any shot. How good are you at running backwards? If you are holding serve 70 to 80 percent of the time, that might be a goal to reach. I don't care how many times you get passed, if you end up winning the game, that is all that matters.

Hey, the good news is that you are in a win-win situation. All you have to do is TRY playing your game in singles, and see how it goes. Costs you nothing. You have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. You can test out your game. I would recommend playing lots of practice sets, matches or even tiebreakers. It would be good for you to play against 4.0 men if not enough women are available. You might like the challenge.

The main thing is that tennis should not be causing you excessive anxiety and stress. It's supposed to be fun, right? Remember what they say -- always change a losing game and never change a winning game. If it doesn't work out for you in singles, you can always return to your "winning" game in doubles and live happily ever after.

From Kenny S., Deerfield, IL:

Yes, you can learn to play singles, and it will take your game to a much higher level. You already have a good service return, good net game and good serve. To make the jump to singles, you will need to improve your baseline play and get used to the different angles of the singles game and being alone out there.

Go for it. Ask a friend to meet up and play some 11-point drop and hit games or a set of singles. Watch the pros on TV and people around you, and get your mind in tune to the singles game. Singles is a much better work out but isn't as social as doubles.

I am very interested in the changes being made on the pro tour to make top singles players play doubles. So you might get tight, you might miss a lot of balls, and it might take a lot of time to get to the level you are at as a doubles player, as a singles player.

Is it worth it? I would say yes. You can serve and volley in singles, but I would not recommend doing it on every point. Developing a better backcourt game and the intense moving involved in singles will help your doubles game.

It sounds like you have all the pieces to get started, so be loose and have fun. Enjoy losing. Just realize you are learning how to win.

From Peter W., Sandy, OR:

Hi Alison,

This is Peter from Sandy, Ore…. among the tall trees, high mystic waterfalls and soothing deep woods hot springs, on the slopes of Mt. Hood, 40 minutes from Portland.

I'm a 4.0, and at 60 years old (6' 3," 198 pounds), I play serve and volley every point, dubs or singles. I also crash the net behind every return, if I don't frame it and flip up a duck. We all expect the Davis Cup final to be here, since there is zero pro tennis in the NW. If you're free, come visit. We'll play and watch Andy win it all.

About your question… I'd say it depends on how your body feels. After losing 4 and 4 to a 4.5 at singles, I am as tired and sore as I am after 40 or 50 games of dubs. If I skip a day to recover in between matches, I'm not too uncomfortable, but if I don't, I wish I did.

In a singles match, it is nice to not have to worry about a partner blowing volleys and causing your serve to be broken, yet in dubs it can also be a help to have your partner play "I" formation and pick off returns. I do continue to play singles (usually not in team matches) for the extra workout, but in dubs I hit very few non-return groundstrokes, so it is quite different for me.

To sum up, I'll say if you have any arm or knee problems, I'd stick to dubs; you'll play more years with less pain. (Personally, I've never seen an MD or had any injury, knock on wood, and I don't wear any braces like all the younger players on my teams. I attribute my good luck to the fact I've been vegetarian for 40 years and vegan for the last 10.) Although on the other hand, if you have no injury issues, then play all the singles you wish.

From Venus J., New York:

I am a 4.0 (some consider a strong 4.0, depends on the day if you ask me), over-40 player, who also enjoys doubles; however, I have balanced doubles playing with singles. I started out as a singles player due to good mobility and strong groundstrokes but was encouraged to play doubles to develop a net game. I'm not a good volleyer!!!

Doubles has helped my singles game by providing me with confidence to attack the net. While I do take it for granted that in doubles you have another person to help you in tight spots, I realize my singles experience has benefited my doubles game by improving my shot selection and my error of margin when going for broke.

So if this old dog can learn doubles, I'm quite sure you can start the program of new learning, as well.

From Nancy C., Rowland Heights, CA:

I am a prime example of an old dog learning new tricks. At 57, I have a new coach who has changed all my strokes. My forehand was flat or backspin; it is now topspin. My serve is different, and my backhand is different. I don't subscribe to the old adage that you can't change your game. It is a mindset. If you want it, you can do it. It's not easy, but it can be done.

As for playing singles, it is a different game, and it is all up to you. If you move well on the court, which I assume you do, then you shouldn't have a problem playing singles. I actually like singles better because I win or lose on my shots. In doubles, if I'm playing badly, I feel guilty that I let my partner down. If I'm playing really well and my partner isn't, then I'm frustrated.

The only way to find out if you like singles is to do it. Find someone who likes playing singles and play some sets. Singles is a lot more work than doubles, but I think you will like it once you've played for awhile. Good luck.

From John D., Tenerife, Spain (Head Pro Los Gigantes Tennis Centre):

Go for it!

Yes, yes, yes. Out here in Spain, all our ladies’ matches are based on SINGLES, and in the event of a drawn match, a doubles is played.

Do it -- singles is so good for you. You have to serve every other game, return every other game and not stand around waiting for a ball to come at you as in some doubles.

Whether you use your serve-and-volley skills is a different matter, but you can certainly return and volley.

The best is you feel great after a good singles match. If you lose, you only have yourself to blame, and cannot blame a partner.

Have fun.

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