I had an interesting interaction at a round robin today. I’ll give you the general scenario followed by my perspective and that of my RR partner. Then you get to sound off in the comment section!
Here’s the scenario: This RR has a fairly wide range of abilities. I’m a 3.5 player, but there are some players, particularly among the men, who are way better than I am. The woman who organizes the RR does her best to pair partners and opponents to make for competitive rounds. Everyone gets a new partner and new opponents every 25 minutes or so.
In the third round, I was partnered with a player we’ll call Sidney. I recognized Sidney and may have played with him in the past, but we’re basically strangers. He’s far better than I am, as was the man playing across the net. The female opponent was also better than I am, but the men were the strongest.
So I was the weakest player on the court. But that’s all right. I come to this RR to get the experience of facing more challenging opponents than those I normally see.
When it was Sidney’s turn to serve, he tried to get me to stand closer to the net. I was inside the service line, but not as close as he’d like. I replied, “No, I’m good where I am.” He brought it up a couple of other times, but I declined to move. At one point, I tried to laugh off his suggestions by patting his arm and saying, “Okay, you play your side of the court and I’ll play mine.”
Another time, I believe he didn’t like where I hit the ball but I’m actually not sure what he was commenting on at that point. I was beginning to get a little irritated.
When the round (which we won 4-2) was over and we were waiting for our new court and partner assignments, he said to me, “Do you remember geometry?” I told him to drop it, that being corrected by my RR partner only makes me play worse, which doesn’t help either of us. At that point, we went to our separate courts.
At the end of the RR, he and I continued our conversation. (Actually, he’s the one who insisted on continuing it. I would have happily let it go.) We never arrived at any resolution, with him repeatedly invoking geometry and not understanding why I was refusing to listen to him.
Here’s my perspective: The RR is a social event. You take the partner you get, the good along with the bad. You can adapt your own game to try to gel better with your partner. You can suggest certain tactics to win more points, like playing Australian or lobbing a return. But it’s not appropriate to give your partner instruction on how she could be a better player. I know the limitations of my game. I know what shots I can and can’t hit. And I know how fast my reflexes are and where I’m comfortable standing–and it’s not close to the net across from a hard-hitting man.
What I take away from Sidney’s comments to me is the sense that he’s frustrated playing with someone at my level. But that’s the level I am. And when I know that a partner is frustrated with me, I play even worse than my 3.5 abilities. No doubt I’m too sensitive. Like my tennis rating, that’s just who I am.
If we were long-term doubles partners, paired up for a season in a league with “real matches,” I’d be more receptive to advice. At least, I hope I would. But I’d want that advice raised in a practice, not in the middle of a match. And I definitely wouldn’t want that advice prefaced by “Do you remember geometry?” That felt condescending. After all, I play lots of doubles. I understand WHAT he’s saying and WHY. I’m just declining to do it. I don’t need a geometry lesson.
Here’s Sidney’s perspective: He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to improve as a player. He said I hit a nice ball, but I’d be a much better player if I were closer to the net. He was only trying to help me. (To his credit, he didn’t tell me that he’s a certified instructor. That fact only came out later.)
In Sidney’s mind, anytime you’re keeping score, it’s a “real match,” so a RR is a perfectly valid place to offer your partner advice. In professional doubles, partners talk to each other all the time. It’s what doubles is all about.
The idea that I would play worse after hearing his suggestions baffled him. For Sidney, if he’s saying something that’s true, it can only be helpful. The crux of our problem wasn’t his behavior. It was my refusal to listen and learn.
I know there’s somebody out there right now silently screaming, “OMG, he was mansplaining tennis!” I really don’t think it’s that. I feel confident that if I were a man, Sidney would have said the same thing.
In the course of our exchange, a couple of women joined the fray, backing up my position. Most people just watched the exchange with amusement (or possibly astonishment). One man was smiling and shaking his head, finally saying under his breath, “Just apologize to the women and move on.” I’m not sure he was endorsing my point of view, though. He may have just been exasperated at Sidney’s dogged refusal to let it go.
I eventually left with the welcome and true excuse of having to walk my dog. On my way out, I noticed Sidney arguing his case with the RR organizer. It amazes me how entrenched we each are in our camps.
I considered adding a poll to this post asking for you to vote on who’s right. I decided against it because I’m only summarizing Sidney’s point of view. I tried to be fair, but it’s possible I’m not doing him justice. (I also considered asking Sidney to write his own side, but who wants to read about the Pythagorean theorem?)
I would love some perspective, though. What do you think about giving improvement suggestions to a doubles partner? Does it matter if the partnership is short or long term? Is there a way to do it without ruffling feathers? Should weaker players acquiesce to stronger ones even if they’re not comfortable with the stronger player’s suggestions?
Bonus question to discuss with your family over dinner: I said above that if I were a man, Sidney would have said the same thing. But…if I were a man, would I have responded to his comments better?
So much to unpack in this little interaction…