The Tennis Threesome

If you play doubles, you’ve almost certainly faced the situation of one player not showing up.

At first, you and your two tennis buddies assume the fourth player is on her way, so you start your warm-up. Midway through your warm-up, you each check your phone for messages. You spend the next ten to fifteen minutes trying to contact your fourth and then anyone else you can think of who can show up quickly. Finally, you spend five minutes cursing your absent friend and plotting your revenge. (Right about now, slashing her tires doesn’t seem like a wholly unreasonable response.)

By the time you’re done with all that, you’ve already eaten up a half-hour of court time. Now what? One player may decide to drop out, leaving the remaining two to play singles. Barring that, you’re left with Canadian doubles.

Is anything in tennis more reviled than Canadian doubles? Okay, maybe the moonball is, but Canadian doubles runs a close second. I’ve seen tennis threesomes pack their bags and go home rather than play Canadian. That’s a pretty strong aversion.

Interestingly, there’s not much online about Canadian doubles–I know because I just googled it this morning. I was planning to regale you with the history of this tennis oddity, along with surprising tidbits about cult followings and obscure Canadian doubles tournaments. Alas, that blog post is not to be.

Wikipedia offers only the slightest of articles on three-person tennis, and even those few sentences are suspect. The author claims that Canadian doubles was invented in the ’80s by an Australian named Sam Nainani. I knew the general rules of Canadian doubles as a kid in the ’70s, so unless the Wikipedia writer was referring to the 1880s, this information is incorrect.

In a nutshell, Canadian doubles is 2-on-1 tennis, played like this:

  • The singles player is the server.
  • The singles player can hit into the doubles alley. The doubles players can hit only into the singles court.
  • The singles player remains a single for an entire set.
  • At the end of a set, players rotate. Three sets are played.

The winner is the singles player who scores the most games. (The players on the doubles side of the court do have an advantage and will typically win the set. But if you win four games during your turn as a single, you beat someone who wins only two.)

I used to scorn Canadian doubles, but having had to play it three times in the last few weeks, I’m developing an appreciation. On the singles side, I enjoy the mental challenge of how to take on two opponents while defending a lot more territory. And on the doubles side of the court, I benefit from being able to hit safer volleys. I don’t feel the pressure of going for the lines–I can settle for quality, as I wrote about on Monday.

I also like getting a bit more exercise. Although I do run in doubles, it certainly isn’t the same workout as singles. Of course, some people don’t like Canadian doubles for this very reason. For those players, here are two possible variations on the game.

If you don’t have the stamina to play on the singles court for an entire set, rotate after every game or every two games. (However, a point in Canadian doubles usually doesn’t last as long as a point in singles. You may not get as fatigued on the singles side as you expect.)

Or, if you lack the mobility to cover the entire singles court, have the singles player cover half of the doubles court–from the center line to the doubles sideline. I’ve played this way before and found it to be excellent training from a doubles perspective. It forces the doubles pair to play with patience because putting the ball out of reach is much harder. Consistency becomes even more important.

After my recent experience with Canadian doubles, I’m wondering why I’ve hated it for so long. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know how to keep score. (I checked online for the scorekeeping and found a general consensus, with Wikipedia being a notable exception. I think Wikipedia is talking about a tennis clinic drill and not true Canadian doubles.)

It’s also possible I hated Canadian doubles because it’s always preceded by that half-hour of frustration and annoyance. Or maybe I’ve simply picked up a bad attitude about it from other tennis players. I certainly didn’t mind it when I was a kid.

Whatever the reason, I’m much happier to play it now. I’ll always prefer for the fourth player to show, but if she doesn’t, I can still have fun–and I definitely won’t slash her tires.

Do you hate Canadian doubles? Do you play a variation of the rules I described?

2 thoughts on “The Tennis Threesome

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  1. I did a 1-facing-2 session last Wednesday, but didn’t know it had a name or that the lines could be changed. We played the doubles boundaries on both sides. It would have really helped – and made a lot of sense – to use the singles lines for the single player. However, our goal that day was for all 3 of us to get a good workout, and we did switch who was playing solo. So it worked really well and was a lot of fun.

    If I showed up for a doubles practice and one person just didn’t show, I would be incredibly annoyed for several reasons:
    1. Give us a little notice! Then we have some prayer of filling your slot
    2. If it’s a last-minute thing, at least communicate so we don’t waste a half hour waiting for you (or if you forgot, then answer your phone!)
    3. If I was there to actually practice skills, I would want to play the real game.

    Do you have rules or penalties in your league for not showing up? It seems so selfish unless there’s a truly serious emergency. To have it happen several times seems unusual. The Thanksgiving effect?

    The advantage we had the other day is that we were really just there to run around before stuffing ourselves on a bunch of turkey and trimmings. Also, we went even though we knew we couldn’t get a fourth player, so there was no waiting around or making calls. We had a blast.

    1. Actually, when people don’t show, it’s just because they’ve forgotten. It’s an honest mistake. It’s a little annoying but it happens to all of us occasionally. Even me. 😂

      It sounds like you got a great workout. One person covering the entire doubles court—that’s a lot of running!

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