Photo credit: Port Townsend Pickleball Club; Jay and his partner Patrick Smith have been playing doubles together for the last year, Photo sent in by Jay Devillier.
”Picking the Perfect Partner” sounds like it may be an article for an online dating website. While finding your perfect partner in life is certainly important; so is finding your ideal pickleball teammate! Do you ever watch the pros and wonder why they change partners so much? For example, one week Catherine Parenteau is playing with Jessie Irvine and the next week she is paired up with Lea Jansen. This happens constantly when watching the PPA (Professional Pickleball Association) and APP (Association of Pickleball Professionals) tournaments.
There must be several factors that impact partner switching at the pro level. With the pros, changing partners may not be a huge issue. Everyone is playing at a very high level and both members of the partnership can step into any situation and shine on the court. However, what about the common player? How can you find the perfect pickleball partner?
This may seem obvious, but you want to play with a partner who has the same (or very close) rating as you. Even in recreational play, you want to divide the players up into teams that are equally matched. In that scenario, it does not matter if you play males vs. females or mixed doubles, just try to break up the strongest players onto different teams. It makes for more fun and competitive play.
In tournaments, you want to be honest about your rating. We’ve all heard about players “sand-bagging”, or playing down to win a medal or prize. This isn’t fun for anyone. Sure, the team may earn that medal, but it is really enjoyable to win that by steam-rolling the opponent? (I know some of you just uttered, or maybe screamed, “YES!”) Try to change that mind set and play UP next time and see how you do! You may have more fun even if you don’t win.
As a personal example, I entered my first rated tournament as a 3.5 player. I was unclear as to my rating, but talked to some people who I played with often and settled that a 3.5 for mixed and womens would be a good starting point. We ended up getting the gold in both divisions and decided that next time, we should try 4.0. I am NOT saying that one gold medal in a bracket should make a team level up. However, we felt after playing those games that we performed well and wanted a little more of a challenge. So, we played 4.0 and ended up coming in 4th place. We did not medal, but we had an amazing day. The competition was fierce and we loved every second of it. I also know that a little more time and practice will get us on that medal stand!
Schedule and Location
You’re going to want to find a partner who has a similar schedule as you. If you can only practice pickleball at 6 am, you need to find another early bird to drill with. I’ve talked to players in tournaments that switch partners frequently. When asking them why, I often hear that their preferred partner could not play due to other obligations. Everyone (well, mostly everyone) has a life outside of pickleball. Be aware of your preferred partner’s availability and schedule. If you plan to spend the summer tournament hopping to play mostly every weekend, make sure your partner is able and willing to do that as well.
Even if you are a beginner and have little or no interest in tournament play, you need to find your pickleball group. Those will be the people that help you grow in the sport. You will play with them and drill will them. In most cases, you will become friends both on and off the court. If a certain time or group isn’t clicking with you, try meeting other players for open play. You start to learn the nuances of the time slots and groups. Some serious players get to the courts early, they play a few competitive games, with little socialization, and leave. Others get there a little later, play a game, talk for 20 minutes, and mix back in. That’s the beauty of pickleball- you get what you want from the sport. Just be considerate that not every player is there for the same reasons.
If you live in a city that is lucky enough to have multiple pickleball courts, then you will most likely gravitate towards playing near your home. If your partner lives nearby, that is perfect. However, if your partner doesn’t, then you have to be willing to travel. Some of the pros live in different parts of the country away from their partners; that has to be hard. Obviously they are dedicated to practicing and spend hours on the court with others, but not always with their tournament teammate. It must be easier when your partner lives in the same city- or even in the same home. Anna Leigh and Leigh Waters, as well Jorja and JW Johnson, never have to go far to practice with one another!
You have to have open communication with your partner- on and off the court. When watching pro matches, it always intrigues me to see the interactions between teammates. Some partnerships seem to just gel and have definite roles on the team. There isn’t a lot of talking between the teammates, but they work as a unit and know what the other one is doing. However, they are pros for a reason. They have put in the work and are able to perform in a way that the average player can’t.
Have you ever been playing doubles and the ball comes across the net and you think your partner has that ball, but your partner thinks you have that ball? What happens next? You both watch the ball hit in bounds and look at each other thinking, “*Why didn’t you get that*?” Communication can help in that scenario- call the ball! Use quick, easy commands like “you”, “me”, “in”, “out”. There are definitely guidelines in pickleball, like the forehand covers the middle. However, what if you are playing with a lefty and neither player has a forehand in the middle for that shot? Communication on the court can really assist in that situation.
I was able to reach out and get a response from two pro players that I really admire. These two gentlemen are the epitome of good sports, in my opinion, and always seem to be respectful of their partners in both mixed and mens doubles. So I asked them their thoughts on communication, specifically calling the ball.
Jocelyn (Jay) Devilliers, also fondly referred to as the “Flying Frenchman”, is ranked in the top 5 pickleball players in the world. He’s known for his tall stature- 6’ 3” to be exact. If you’ve watched Jay play, he can (and does) cover a ton of the court. So how do his teammates know when he is going to soar across the court and go in for the poach? How do they know when to go for the ball or when to stay out of Jay’s way? When asking Jay his advice on this topic, he said: “Communication is key in my opinion. You are there to win so I truly believe you should call it [the ball] and be disciplined as a team. It’s definitely not easy, that’s why it’s important to play a lot together so it becomes an habit.”
Zane Navratil is another dynamic player with extreme speed. He’s everywhere on the court. Outside of his speed, Zane is known for his big smile and his lethal serve. He’s an aggressive player, but always seems to be a supportive teammate. I asked Zane specifically about calling the ball- is that helpful in tournament play?: “Communication is good, but sometimes things happen too quickly for that. My insight is that I’d rather see both players go for the ball than neither.”
Pickleball is somewhat of a social sport in that there can be down time between games. You don’t want to be stuck waiting around with a partner that you don’t necessarily enjoy spending time with. If your partner is an amazing player, but a hot head on the court whereas you are cool, calm and collected; you MAY balance each other out perfectly. On the other hand, that combination could also make for a long day of pickleball.
In the partnership, you have to know and respect each others styles. In a tournament, maybe your partner wants to discuss strategy during the quick time outs, or maybe your partner wants to be left alone to hydrate and collect his/her thoughts. In recreational play, your partner may want to be told what he/she is doing wrong during the game and what tweaks can be made to improve. On the other hand, maybe your partner is just there that day to work off some stress and doesn’t want each shot analyzed. Be respectful of that, just as you would want the favor returned to you.
You also have to be able to rely on your partner to be somewhat of a cheerleader. Pickleball can be a very mental game, and a bad shot or two will often spiral into losing the match. This is where you or your partner may be able to pep up the team a bit. Offering some quick encouragement can go a long way. Maybe one teammate needs to step in more on the court and takes control of the points until the other player can get out of his/her head and back into the game.
Sometimes you get lucky and have a built in partner. In mixed, I play with my husband and in womens doubles, I play with one of my closest friends. I have noticed, however, that many spouses/significant others avoid playing together especially at the tournament level. It can be difficult on the relationship. You obviously have the chemistry, but sometimes competitive pickleball can ruin it when an argument happens. You have to weigh the pros and cons, which is more important: a happy relationship or a gold medal in pickleball? On second thought, maybe keep that answer to yourself!
If you’re in the market for a steady pickleball partner, reach out to other players. Find those people in your circle who have connections and are willing to play (pickleball) matchmaker. Ask them who would be a good fit. Try that person out and see how it goes. The good news is that if you can’t find the perfect pickleball partner in doubles….you can always go play singles!