Mar 25 2014

The Lesson of the Third Ball

Apparel | Birmingham | Doubles | Equipment | League Tennis | USTA       Clif Render      
Three Balls and a Can

A typical can of tennis balls has three balls in it which is quite convenient: One for first serve, one for second serve, and one to replace the one you just hit over the fence. Perfect! Well, perfect, that is, unless you haven't hit that third ball over the fence yet. During typical match play you have three balls and a choice. It's a choice that I have given many a new partner: "Are you a Two Baller or are you a Three Baller"?

A little while back, I wrote a post entitled "Six Key Questions to Ask Your New Doubles Partner" for P.J. Simmons' Road to 4.5 Tennis Blog. Well, this is another good question that you could certainly ask your new doubles partner but it is also a good question for you to ask yourself. So, when you serve, how many balls do you like to have in your possession? One, Two, or Three?

For ladies, this question takes on a slightly different form than it does for men. Men have pockets that can easily accommodate two extra balls. Ladies, however, have a different setup than men do. They typically have one ball in their hand, and a second one stashed away in some secret hidden pocket that defies all physical laws and appears to be some sort of fold in the fabric of space-time. On rare occasions, I have seen them fit a third ball into this hidden place as well but it always seems to make them a bit nervous to do so - almost as if they know that they are flirting with forces capable of destroying all life as we know it. No, for most women, the right place for the third ball isn't typically in that secret hidden place but is usually somewhere else. Is it in their partner's possession? Is it against the fence behind them or at the base of the net in front of them? Is it over on the bench or in that little ball holder on the side of the net post?

Well, regardless of your gender, your preferred location for that third ball could potentially be an issue. Personally, I prefer to hold the third ball. I started out playing singles, so I started off holding all three. It's become a bit of a control issue for me, I'm afraid. If I have that third ball in my pocket then I don't have to worry about it. If I need it, it's there. If I don't need it then at least I know where it is and don't have to worry about stepping on it. One less variable to consider. The problem, though, with this three ball strategy is that there are people who will use this preference against you if they notice it. For this reason, I have made a conscious attempt try to hide my desire to hold the third ball. Sometimes I will leave it with my partner and only ask for it if my play is a little off that day and I need to change something. At other times, when asked if I want the third ball, I will shrug and just say, "Sure, that's fine" like it really doesn't matter. One day recently, however, this preference came back to haunt me in a most unexpected way.

We were contenders in a city wide Tri-Level league and were playing against a very tough team. The dominant player on the other side of the net was an excellent athlete, a 6 foot something guy with a great serve and a wingspan that went on for days. We had played each other on only one other occasion and it was in singles. Even though I'm not much of a singles player anymore, I gave him a real scare that day. It would have been one of only a very few matches that he had lost. He seemed relieved when it was all over - almost grateful that I had played him so close but still allowed him to escape the experience unscathed. We talked a good bit during the changeovers about other players and how they play, about gamesmanship and the silly things that people will do to mess with the minds of others. We left the court that day as friends. This day, however, was to be quite different.

The match was close. My partner, who was always a little slow to warm up started playing well right out of the gate with only a short two game warmup period. Those two games, however, were enough. We lost the first set 6-4. In the second, however, we were warm and playing well. We held serve, and so did they. Early on in that set, my tall friend across the net (let's call him Chad) stuck the third ball in his pocket and didn't surrender it after the changeover. It was my serve and I knew that he had only given me two balls, but I didn't know where the third ball was. I had no intention of asking him for it, but I did want to know where it was. Did my partner have it? I asked him. Rather than simply replying that he did not, he asked Chad, "Hey, do you guys have the third ball?". Chad cheerfully surrendered the ball commenting that he had completely forgotten that he had it in his pocket, and my partner tossed it to me. Not wanting my secret inner desires made public, I tossed it back to my partner and said, "No, that's okay, you hang onto it. I just wanted to know where it was." Well, unfortunately for me, Chad was not so easily fooled. Every time after this that it was our turn to serve, Chad somehow inexplicably ended up with the third ball in his pocket and absolutely would not give it over to us until we specifically asked him if he had it. Every time he pretended he had no idea it was there. Geesh. Really?

It was gamesmanship, plain and simple, and it actually made me made me a little angry. I thought that he and I were beyond petty gamesmanship. When we played singles, the close calls were all made fairly and gamesmanship in any form was non-existent. We had laughed about how people tried to mess with other people. But now, for some reason, things had changed. Maybe he felt pressured to impress his partner. Maybe he realized that we were dangerous opponents and he was trying to do whatever he could to get an edge. Regardless of the reason, I was mad. I didn't need the third ball. I had proactively worked through my need for it long ago, but I did want it to be made ridiculously clear that what he was doing was on purpose and unnecessary. It was NOT going to bother me. For this reason, every time it happened, I made sure to say loudly where everyone could hear it, "Chad, we're going to need that third ball." I thought I would turn his little power play against him and make him look silly in front of the other players. Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. He kept up his ruse maddeningly well, and his partner never let on like he noticed. Of course, my partner didn't let on like he noticed either. That really didn't help my feelings very much.

By the end of the second set, I had become increasingly irritated. He would pocket the ball, and I would point it out. He would pocket the ball, and I would point it out. The more he did it and the more obvious I made it, the more irritated I became. Soon, I would get irritated just thinking about the fact that, in a few points, we were going to have to go through the whole dance all over again. Well I had survived my own inner turmoil relatively well, and we had made it to 6-6. We were now in a tiebreaker, but that would turn out to be a very bad thing. You see; the thing about a tiebreaker is there are lots of changes of serve, and they come much more often than they do during regular set play. My good buddy Chad, much to my chagrin, did not alter his tactics at all. The tiebreak finally ended at 12-10. We had lost the court, our court was the difference in the match and that match was the difference between first and second place in the league. They made it to state and sectionals, and we did not. Did my irritation factor into the loss? Absolutely. In a match that close, everything is a factor. It was an incredibly painful lesson.

But what exactly was the lesson? Well, I'm glad that you asked. There are actually two lessons here, and they're both extremely important. The first part of the lesson was obvious to me even before the match. When asked the question, "two balls or three," if you do, in fact, have an answer, and it is the same every time then be aware that this is a weakness that can - and will - be exploited by the super-competitive. I encourage you to begin making a conscious effort to start playing in a different way right now. If you like three balls, begin playing with two. If you like two balls, play with three or at least start putting the third in a different place - either by the fence or on the bench. Start training yourself to do what you're least comfortable with. Begin to break any habit which you may be too closely tied to - anything that isn't completely in your control and keep in mind that this extends beyond just how many balls to hold. Do you have a particular bench that you like to sit on? Do you have a particular drinking ritual (a. la. Rafael Nadal) that could be disrupted by your opponent kicking over your water bottles? Think about the things that you like to do that could be undone by an especially observant and competitive person and learn to be okay not doing not doing those things. Don't wait to start making this change. Do it right now, before it's too late.

Now for lesson two. This is the part that I had missed. When someone stumbles onto your weakness or the weakness that you have that is hidden or the weakness that you used to have that you thought you had overcome, do not respond to their agitation. I repeat, DO NOT respond in ANY way. No matter how silly and obvious you may think the tactic is, No matter how irritated you may be at your opposition's actions, just let it go. Let it go or laugh at it. Look at the link above to see how Rafael Nadal responded in Monte Carlo when Marinko Matosevik kicked over his ritually arranged water bottles. Of course, it's important to notice that Rafa was up a set with a score of 5-2 in the second. It certainly helps when you're in the driver's seat but what if you're not? What if you're tied or you're down or in a tiebreak? Would Rafa still have been able to smile and laugh his way through this type of transgression? Would you?

So, this is your wake up call! Look closely at yourself and your game. Are there habits or rituals there that an opponent (or an aggressive crowd) can take advantage of? If so, deal with them immediately and efficiently ignoring or laughing off any transgressions that may arise in the meantime. Please learn from my mistakes and the next time you're down my way, let me know and we'll stop by and see Chad. I know where he plays, and I know exactly where in the stands we need to sit wearing funny clown hair to really drive him crazy.

Add comment

  • Comment
  • Preview