The Ironic Beauty of Third Doubles

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Maria (Photo by Jim LaBate)

As the Friday afternoon sun sets on the Guilderland tennis courts, the bus carrying the Shenendehowa football team arrives for its 7:00 p.m., game with the Dutchmen. Prior to the kickoff, however, four female tennis players trade serves, groundstrokes, and volleys and try to finish their doubles match before the daylight disappears. Often, these four players, the third doubles teams for both schools, play in a different type of darkness, an obscurity that relegates them to the last court at the last moment. On this particular day, however, their doubles match will determine the final outcome of the overall match between Shenendehowa and Guilderland and may also influence the team seedings for the Sectional Tournament. That combination of obscurity and notoriety is the ironic beauty of third doubles.

Usually, when most people think of tennis, they think of individual singles — and of individual superstars like Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Doubles teams don’t get much recognition unless some of the individual stars — like sisters Venus and Serena Williams — team up to play together or unless a famous old-timer comes out of retirement to play the less strenuous and less demanding doubles game. Tennis at the high-school level, however, is really a team game and an extremely democratic game at that.

Typically, the high-school teams play six singles matches and three doubles matches for a total of nine points (smaller schools sometimes play five singles and two doubles). Naturally, the team that wins five of those nine matches wins the team match. Since no player is allowed to play both singles and doubles (again, smaller schools may have different rules), the top 12 players on each team compete, and all nine matches contribute equally to, as announcer Jim McKay used to say, “the thrill of victory” or “the agony of defeat.” Tennis is so unlike other team sports in that respect.

In most team sports, for instance, certain superstars account for a majority of the scoring. In football, it’s the running backs and receivers; in basketball, it’s often the center and the shooting guard; and in soccer, hockey, and lacrosse, it’s the forwards who spend most of their time in the offensive end. In team tennis, however, the number-one player’s match counts for one point, just like the other singles matches and the three doubles matches.

Baseball has a somewhat similar equal-opportunity approach because all nine hitters go to the plate. However, those at the top of the batting order typically get an extra at bat during the course of a game, and those at the bottom of the lineup are often replaced by pinch hitters in difficult situations. Tennis offers no such option; in fact, even if a tennis player is injured during a match, she cannot be replaced. She simply withdraws, and her point is awarded to the opposition.

The third doubles team is also at the bottom of the order, generally composed of the 11th and 12th best players on the team. At some schools with small rosters, those players may be freshmen or sophomores who are still learning the game. At bigger schools with deeper rosters, though, those spots may be filled by juniors and seniors who have finally earned their way into the starting lineup. The Shenendehowa-Guilderland match pits Guilderland seniors Tamar and Katy against Shenendehowa senior Maria and her junior partner, Stephanie. Those same four girls competed earlier in the season in Clifton Park, and Maria and Stephanie prevailed 6–4, 6–3, and their team defeated Guilderland 6–3. On this particular windy afternoon, though, this third doubles match is the focus of attention, attention that is somewhat unusual for these players at the bottom of the tennis ladder.

The third doubles match generally doesn’t attract many fans because most schools have at least nine courts, and all the matches can be played at one time. Under these circumstances, only the relatives and friends of the participants watch third doubles, and even those fans are sometimes distracted and drawn away to watch the more powerful groundstrokes and athleticism displayed in the singles matches, especially the top singles players on each team. If a school has less than nine courts, however, that’s when third doubles sometimes draws a crowd.

Since Guilderland High School has only eight courts, the third doubles teams have to wait for one of the first eight matches to finish before their match can commence. Thus, only after Shen’s number two singles player has won her match can the third-doubles players take the court. Ironically, they play right next to the number-one singles court.

During their first set, some of the other matches finish, and the team score goes back and forth: The Shen victory at second singles is followed by Guilderland victories in first and second doubles, Shen victories at third and fourth singles, and a Guilderland victory at fifth singles. Thus, the team match is tied at 3–3 when Maria and Stephanie win their first set 6–3, and Shenendehowa appears to have the advantage overall. Within minutes, though, Guilderland wins at first singles, Shen takes sixth singles, and the match is tied at 4–4. At that point, all the attention shifts to the previously ignored third-doubles match.

“Come on, Maria! Come on, Stephanie! You can do it!” shout the Shen players as they begin to gather nearby.

“Don’t give up, Tamar. Nice shot, Katy,” answer the Guilderland girls as they form a small crowd behind the fence near the baseline.

About halfway through the second set, it’s apparent to everyone that the momentum has shifted. Tamar and Katy have a 3–1 lead, and if a third set is necessary, the fading light and the oncoming chill will definitely become factors.

As the fifth game begins, everyone is watching: teammates, coaches, parents, friends, even the Shenendehowa bus driver. No one wants to go home, or to the rapidly approaching start of the Shenendehowa-Guilderland football game, until this match is decided. Naturally, the tennis at this level is not quite as strong, and the added pressure may produce even more double faults, mis-hits, and unforced errors. Alternatively, the attention of the crowd may spur these weaker players to attempt — and convert — shots they’ve never even considered before.

Guilderland’s Tamar is serving with authority, and Katy is terrorizing Shenendehowa with her net play. Undaunted, Maria and Stephanie persevere. Stephanie chases down groundstrokes in both corners and digs out passing shots to keep one rally alive. Then, Maria finishes the point — and the game — with a swinging backhand volley unlike any shot she’s ever executed before on a tennis court.

Each succeeding point is an adventure, and the tension builds gradually. Some points are classic doubles rallies with the baseliners trading crosscourt groundstrokes while those at the net try to sneak across for a volley. Other points are an unpredictable array of shots and movement as players on both teams scurry to keep the ball in play and the point alive. Inevitably, too, after the hotly contested and artistic rallies, the team that won the difficult point often gives it right back with a tentative groundstroke that hits the net or with a too eager volley that sails long.

By the end of game seven, the momentum has shifted again. Shen’s consistency appears to be wearing down the Dutchmen, and Maria and Schafer have crafted a 4–3 lead. Then, just when it looks like the Shen girls will put the match away, they quickly and easily lose the next game, and a third set seems imminent — yet it never occurs. Frustrated by their lost opportunity and encouraged by their fans, LaBate and Stephanie regain their poise and win the next two games to win their doubles match (6–3, 6–4), the team match (5–4), and the number three seed in the Sectionals. As they calmly walk off the court together, the somewhat stoic victors are hugged and mobbed by their more outgoing and more exuberant teammates.

“Way to go, Maria!”

“Nice job, Stephanie!”

By the following Monday, of course, this third doubles match will be forgotten, and the four participants will return to their tennis obscurity. After all, the teams must begin to prepare for Sectional play, and the top players must get ready for the Individual Sectional Tournament. For one glorious fall afternoon, however, Tamar and Katy and Maria and Stephanie came together for their final regular season match, and at that moment of autumnal color and fading light, all eyes were upon them. Surprisingly, their third doubles match provided exceptional beauty and thrilling drama for all who were fortunate enough to attend.

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