Doubles play pivotal role in wins, losses for Rutgers
Because of the seemingly universal focus on singles in the professional world of tennis, it may be surprising to realize how important doubles play is to winning matches at the collegiate level.
Ben Bucca, the head coach of the Rutgers tennis team, is convinced that capturing the team doubles point is crucial to success in singles and winning matches. Failing to capitalize in doubles puts the team at an immediate disadvantage before the onset of the six singles matches.
“It really impacts your energy and your spirit as you enter into singles,” Bucca said.
The statistics confirm his position.
In each of their six wins this season, the Scarlet Knights (6-10, 0-7) have successfully captured the doubles point.
On the opposite end, during both non-conference and Big Ten play, every time Rutgers has failed to secure the doubles point, they have gone on to lose the match.
Although the final scores may not paint an accurate picture of Rutgers' performance in conference play, the competition in doubles play has been fierce.
It seems that, in term of quality of doubles competition, the Knights are consistently matching up well against their opponents.
As the season progresses, in a pattern that may seem paradoxical, the same players who threaten or defeat their opponents in doubles action may not exhibit the same level of competition against those same opponents in their singles matches.
This points to the potential that lies in powerful duos.
Determining the doubles teams that can compete with nationally ranked tennis powerhouses is an important task.
It begins before the season when Bucca and assistant coach Hilary Ritchie start to pair different players depending on a variety of factors, some of which go beyond on-court compatibility.
“Certainly you want to pair players that emotionally can play well together and that support one another so they become better tennis players by playing with someone, so that’s very, very important,” Bucca said.
Bucca also explained that while he has not had any problems with conflicting player personalities in the past, it would be unwise not to consider obvious differences between players.
“I’ve historically always had teams that had pretty strong comradery,” Bucca said, “So we haven’t had any issues of having conflict outside the court impact what goes on, on the court, but definitely styles of play are different and how some players are more outgoing, some players are quieter, so you need to factor all of that in when pairing a doubles team.”
Beyond intangibles, Bucca tends to pair those with stronger groundstrokes or a more powerful serve with those who perform well at the net.
He also pays close attention to where the players’ strengths lie in terms of their backhand or forehand strokes.
“There are a number of different factors and then it’s just between my assistant coach and I watching everyone play and hearing what the players have to say about who they like playing with. But ultimately it’s just a gut call on the coaches’ part,” Bucca said.
What has become evident recently, however, is that the duos are not set in stone, especially in a season of adjustment, as Rutgers gets acquainted with the Big Ten.
After spring break, Bucca decided to split up the No. 1 duo, composed of juniors Gina Li and Mariam Zein, who advanced to the semifinals of the doubles draw at the ITA Northeast Regional Championship last year.
Zein is now playing with freshman Chloe Lee in the No. 1 spot and Li and senior captain Lindsay Balsamo follow them in the second spot.
“I felt as though, in what sometimes happens because the season is so long, the pairings kind of go flat,” Bucca said, “So by changing it up, it reinvigorates everyone. And in this particular case, I am very pleased with the change. It’s worked out well.”
Against No. 69 Minnesota, Bucca’s decision proved to be a step toward Big Ten success.
Although the Knights ultimately fell, 5-2, it was perhaps the best demonstration of Rutgers' power against a ranked opponent thus far.
They pushed the Gophers to the brink, with each doubles no margin of victory more than two games.
The real breakthrough came the next time the new duos were tested.
Facing a Wisconsin team that was coming off an upset of No. 53 Maryland, Zein and Lee decisively defeated the Badgers in the No. 1 spot, 8-4. However, the importance of doubles play became evident again after the point came down to the wire in the No. 2 spot.
Balsamo and Li could not deliver the fatal blow and Wisconsin took it. Bucca acknowledged the great difficulty his team subsequently faced in singles play, attempting to recover from the heartbreaking doubles disappointment.
However, throughout the season, Bucca has continuously emphasized the pride his team takes in their doubles play and strong point patterns.
“I just think that we are well-trained and I think strategically, we are as well-trained as any other school in the country,” Bucca said. “So I think our strategies really give us a competitive advantage because we know how to play well.”
He points to what he calls the Knights’ “strong culture of winning” in doubles.
The team can also attribute its comparative readiness to compete with Big Ten opponents in doubles, as opposed to singles, to a deliberate focus on the job of the duos in practice.
"I have to believe that we spend as much time, if not more time, than any other team in the country on doubles. Hilary and I like to teach it and the players like to develop their skills in doubles,” Bucca said.
The team consistently works on approaching drills and service return drills. It also practices serving from close to the hash mark in preparation for singles play, but not without putting significant emphasis on the importance of accuracy from out wide, a basic but indispensible skill in doubles action.
At the level of Division I athletics, especially in the Big Ten, Bucca acknowledges that success in doubles is impossible without constantly working on volleys, lobs and overheads.
He points to the improvement and success of Zein as evidence to that fact.
“Mariam (Zein) has really elevated her doubles play and she has really become an excellent doubles player," he said. "... And it stems really from her having an excellent volley and her having excellent timing as to approaching in doubles."
Although next year will bring the loss of Balsamo and a brand new set of duos, the Knights expect to present their opponents with an impressive and even more dominant doubles showing.
As the records demonstrate, even though there are more points to be earned in singles play, capturing the doubles point is invaluably important to the morale of the team.
Bucca and his squad will continue to build and pride themselves on their doubles play.
“We spend a decent amount of time on it and it shows in how we play,” he said, “We’ve come so close to winning the doubles point … but I can tell from watching them play that strategically we’re very strong and ultimately, that is going to benefit us.”
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