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10 Tips for Better Doubles Strategy
(Photo: I took this at the 2020 US Open – Austria’s Jurgen Melzer and Germany’s Philipp Petzschner in final set before winning their second Grand Slam doubles title)
Coaches often say that playing doubles strengthens your singles game and vice versa. Having played a lot of doubles over the past year, I couldn’t agree more. Among other things, doubles has quickened up my reflexes and skills at net. It’s also forced me to play smarter and improve my accuracy when placing the ball. And as a USTA competitor, it’s a must-learn skill for most, given that 3 out of 5 courts played for every team match are doubles (unless you’re playing Mixed Doubles, in which case all courts are doubles). I’ve also found doubles to be incredibly fun as you get better and when you find partners you have chemistry with.
My USTA teammates and I learned a ton about doubles strategy over the past few months from Roger Dowdswell, Tennis Director at Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club. Roger is a former world top-60 player who competed multiple times at Wimbledon, US Open, French Open and the Australian Open. He’s also a wise, classy guy who brings intense but calm energy to practice sessions. One of my teammates recently described Roger as “pretty much the coolest guy on Earth” and I agree. See this great Harper’s profile on Roger, “Courtliness on the Court, and Splendor on the Grass.”
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Here are the 10 top takeaways I got from our coaching sessions with Roger:
1) TOUCH AND PLACEMENT ARE FAR MORE IMPORTANT IN DOUBLES THAN KILLING THE BALL–ESPECIALLY WITH VOLLEYS AND OVERHEADS! Getting too “hungry” often just ends up becoming a wristy or swinging shot that ends up in the net or long.
2) GET YOUR FIRST SERVE IN! Roger and so many other pros I’ve worked with emphasize this over and over again for doubles. As soon as you miss your first serve, your opponents get into “attack” mindset (or should!) on your second serve. Take a little pace off to boost your 1st serve percentage. Or consider using a higher-percentage slice serve (versus flat) as your first serve: it may have less pace, but the ball will be trickier for your opponent to handle. The team with the highest 1st serve percentage in doubles has a big advantage. Doubles great Liezel Huber mentions this along with 4 other “Top 5 Doubles Tips” in this USPTA Tennis Resources video.
3) BE CLEAR ON YOUR SHOT CHOICE DURING RETURN OF SERVE. Most often, aim for sharp-angled cross-court returns (medium pace! placement more important than power!) to pull your opposing returner wide. Do this well, and you’ll buy time to move into net, open up the opposing court, and set up you and your partner for a winner.4) VARY THE SPEED AND HEIGHT OF YOUR RETURN OF SERVE– and decide how you’ll return before your opponent serves. Just like volleys and overheads, have a target and strategy in mind before you hit the ball. After seeing your opponent’s serve one game, you’ll probably have a good enough sense of what to expect.
- Option A: Medium-paced short-angled return (to pull opponent at baseline way out wide out)
- Option B: Hard drive
- Option C: Lob (short backswing, usually over opposing net player)
4) TO ATTACK THE OPPOSING NET PLAYER (AND ON APPROACH SHOTS) KEEP THE BALL LOW AND USE MEDIUM-PACE ANGLE SHOTS. If you hit a shot at/near the net player and it’s low, they’ll have to hit up, which means you’ll be able to move into net. And when you hit angle shots, this pulls the opposing teams out of position and buys you time to approach net. Recognize the short balls and opportunities and move into net whenever possible, where most points in doubles are won!
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5) ALWAYS HAVE A TARGET IN MIND BEFORE YOU HIT YOUR VOLLEY OR OVERHEAD. Choose a target that buys you some leeway if you’re tight or mishit (i.e., don’t aim for 2 inches from the baseline! Aim for wide boundaries of service line, or opposing net player’s feet, etc).
6) MOVE WITH YOUR PARTNER AND COVER THE MIDDLE! Move with your partner (L and R, up and back–think of “windshield wipers” moving as a unit) and follow the ball. If your partner (or opposing player) is pulled out wide, one of you should be touching the center line of the court with one foot to be covering the middle. There’s only one exception to moving like windshield wipers: if you hit the ball to the middle of the opposing court, you and your partner should move in slightly towards each other to cover the middle.
7) COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE– DURING AND BETWEEN EVERY POINT! Talk to each other during every point (You! Me! Go! Stay! etc). And communicate between every point, whether verbally or just physically: whether you talk strategy about the next point, tell your partner “way to go”, or simply give each other a high-five, you’re connecting– a key ingredient to sustained success in the match.
THE NET PLAYER SHOULD SIGNAL EVERY TIME BEFORE YOUR PARTNER SERVES (including before the 2d serve)
— Closed fist = “stay”
— Open hand = “poach/switch.”
— (From T-formation) Pinky pointed down = “I’ll move L after you serve”
— (From T-formation) Index finger pointed R = “I’ll move R after you serve”
9) COMMIT TO A POACH/SWITCH AFTER SIGNALING IT. Signaling a poach means you are telling your partner he MUST plan to immediately cover the other side of the court after serving. It does NOT mean you’re going to “try” a poach and stay if not successful. If you signal “stay” and a ball comes into your zip code for a poach, by all means go for it: your partner should be alert to this and move to cover the other side of the court. Important: Once you start signaling and executing poaches, expect the opposing team to start trying to aim more of their returns to your net guy. They will try to go down the line more often and punish you for poaching. As such, the net player should NEVER think “I signaled stay so I can relax now, because they’re probably going to hit their return cross-court…” Instead, the net player should start expecting– actually hoping– that the opposing team hits more shots directly to him. The chances of the net player hitting a winner are far greater than the baseliner.
10) DURING MATCH WARM-UPS, ASK THE OPPONENT YOU’RE WARMING UP WITH TO FEED YOU SOME OVERHEADS: This will both give you time to loosen up your shoulder AND will send a signal to the opposing team that you know what you’re doing
Next step on my doubles journey is to build in communications/ strategy with my doubles partners around placement of serve, which of course informs choice about whether to poach or not… I’ll keep you posted.
Tennis Doubles Strategy – Foundation for Tennis Doubles
Tennis doubles strategy is an important foundation for a winning tennis game. Doubles matches in tennis may not be as popular as the single matches but it has its own prestige as a game in the world of sports.
Tennis doubles is played in the same court surfaces (clay, grass and hard) as in single tennis matches. However, its court dimensions are bigger than the single tennis court. Below are some of the tennis doubles strategies.
Know the basics principles of doubles
Knowing the basics of doubles tennis strategy is vital to win a tennis match. As much as possible play more on the net but prevent your opponent to do so. Hit low balls forcing your opponents to hit high ball. Always aim for a spike in the net after a rally. A spike (like in volleyball or badminton) will definitely earn your team a point.
When you are in the baseline position, play with the player who is positioned farthest from the net but if you are in the net, target the player nearest to the net. Make use of your strengths and at the same time use every strategy to expose your opponents’ weaknesses.
Always hit the ball in the gap between your opponents. This can result to their confusions as who is to hit the ball. Be alert and be ready to any possibility and position yourselves accordingly based on your opponents’ position.
First serve matters most
A powerful and accurately placed first serve is always a very important tennis doubles strategy. The best way to win a game is to do well at the start. A powerful and accurately placed first serve in doubles is very crucial because it is the best way to set your net game. You will be able to prepare better to play the net game with a first serve than with a second serve. Missing your first serve can also frustrate your partner which might affect his or her play.
The right target is a tennis doubles strategy that can help a team win points. In a tennis doubles match, the best target is your opponent’s feet. Targeting your opponent’s feet will set him off guard and if ever he is able to return the ball, you have more chances to be in a better position and better preparation than your opponents.
Crosscourt return of serve
Don’t try to be flashy and attempt too many passing shots when you return the serve. Hitting a crosscourt return is a better doubles strategy. To be more effective in your cross-court passes, hit the ball low and of course cross-court and land the ball around the service line (dipping to the opposing team’s feet). Another thing to remember to avoid deep returns especially if the player who is not serving (server’s partner) is a mobile person. If you do so, there is a big chance that he will poach (means he will hit the ball that is supposed to be hit by his partner).
If your partner is serving, your role is defense. Your partner’s good serve will be useless if you cannot return the ball (after your opponents’ return serve) to your advantage.
When your opponent as on serve, aside from an ace your best enemy is the partner of the server. Your defense is very important here. You should be very attentive with his return because he could hit an easy winner if the serve is executed perfectly. Be aware of the types of return your partner does after the serve (but do not watch him!). This should give you an idea on the type of shot the server’s partner is going to apply. Like for example if your partner‘s return is high and wide, you should defend your tramlines (alleys) because it the best possibility that your opponent will target.
Your opponent is the focus not your partner
Focus your eyes on your opponent, and not your partner. One of the biggest mistakes a player can do in tennis double matches is to watch your partner as he returns the ball after the serve. If you do this, you will miss your opponent’s attack because your focus was on your partner but not on your opponent’s side. Focus your attention to the net player and observe his movement for a possible volley. You will be more prepared in case your opponent hits a volley.
The main objective is to target the most vulnerable player of the team or target the weakest spot of the court (weakest spot means the part of the court which can create problems to your opponent’s return like gaps between them). When you are away from the net (baseline), your target is the server’s half court. This is to avoid server’s partner who is near the net. This player can be dangerous if you hit near him.
Another important tennis doubles strategy to consider your team’s movement coordination. The movement of both players in a team should be well coordinated all the times. It is important not to leave a big gap between you and you partner. If your partner is forced to move far right, you should also move right to cover the gap. This will lead a space in your left side but it is safer this way to avoid a straightforward winner in the big gap space between you and your partner.
Defense and attack
In tennis doubles, you also have to be ready to take every opportunity to win points. Rather than watching your partner as he hits the ball, take your time to watch your opponents’ movements and be ready to hit another shot if you find even the smallest opportunity.
The I formation is a tennis double strategy to apply if the server in your team serve is weak or when the opponent’s serve return becomes deadly. In this situation, you have to think of an alternative strategy to counteract that deadly serve return.
I formation double tennis strategy can be attained with the server’s partner (partner of the player who is serving) squatting down low near the net at the center line of the court. The server does his serve just behind his partner. This I formation tennis doubles strategy will create confusion to the opposing team as to where the net player of the serving is going to position himself.
Counter attack to opponents’ lob game.
The lob is the best doubles tennis strategy to counteract a net play, so expect you opponents to play lob if you are playing in the net. Continuous lob shot can frustrate you and your partner so you better do something about it.
The Australian formation
The Australian formation is a tennis doubles strategy which is used to win a quick point but it can also be very risky, so it is not advisable to use frequently. However, if your team decides to make use of this tactic, the server should position himself near the center line. This is to cover more angles to give the returning team a harder time.
Good communication is a part of tennis doubles strategy that is indispensible. Forget about playing doubles if you and your partner cannot communicate each other during the game. Good communication is a vital part in playing tennis doubles matches because it enables each player to contribute to the team’s success. Through good communication, both players in a team can produce well coordinated movements, thoughts and actions.
Net play counter attack
Generally, the serving team engages in net play after a very good serve. Beforehand, when you return a serve (you are facing the server’s partner in the net), the best strategy is to target the server because he is the most vulnerable at this stage after hitting the serve. If your opponents were able to return your shots and they are now positioned in the net, you can still make them vulnerable. This time, you can hit a lob forcing them away from the net, or you can hit the ball right in between the two players.
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12 Doubles Strategies that will change your game
Attack the Middle of the Court
Brazil’s Marcelo Melo , left, returns the ball to Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq and Diego Schwartzman as teammate Bruno Soares covers from beside during the Davis Cup doubles tennis match in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Saturday, March 7, 2020.(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Hitting the ball through the middle of the court in doubles does quite a few things to hinder your opponent. It creates confusion as to which player will take the ball, it dramatically reduces the angle the opponent has to return the ball and it gives you the highest percentage chance to make the shot (The net strap is the lowest point on the net). It also creates holes for you to attack on the next ball. Once you bring both players to the middle you can then use the wings to put volleys away or create more pressure. Attacking down the middle whether you have two players back, two players at net or a traditional doubles set up will reward you greatly over the course of a match.
Approach off second serves
Make your opponents uncomfortable by taking their second serves early and attacking the net. Either with slice or topspin and especially with weak servers. You want them to feel the pressure immediately after the serve. It doesn’t mean you have to cream a winner but attacking to a large target and coming in rushes your opponent to come up with a pass or lob. This is a great tactic when the game score is in your favour as a returner (15-40,0-40, 30-30,30-40, Ad out). This is when the server is feeling the most pressure and you are likely to draw an error or easy volley. This tactic is all about making the server uncomfortable. This is a must have in your toolbox.
Don’t let the lob bounce
Every player is familiar with moon ball doubles play. This type of tennis can be very frustrating, especially if you don’t have a plan for how to deal with the lob. The first thing you should experiment with when facing a serial lobber is adjusting your net position. Net players should ideally position themselves in the middle of the service box to put maximum pressure on groundstrokes going crosscourt however if you find yourself in an uphill battle against a lobber switch up your positioning. Slide back to the service line to make the lob more difficult. Also start taking balls out of the air that you would typically let bounce. Either as a volley, overhead or drive volley (swinging volley). These volleys/overheads from deeper in the court (usually behind the service line) are more challenging but with practice become real weapons against the lobber. Taking balls out of the air rushes the lobber and makes them more uncomfortable. Just remember to close the net for weaker lobs/groundstrokes.
Attack the net players feet
Net players who receive high volleys often miss them because they attack small targets. If there is a net player on the other side of the court then you have a target. At their feet! This is fair play and the highest winning percentage for any one shot in doubles. The net player will very rarely be able to dig out a good aggressive volley from their shoelaces so use this target area whenever you can. *The closer to the net you are, the easier it is to attack the opponents feet. So close down the net on easy volleys!
Lob the return
Many tactics in tennis are designed primarily to make the opponents uncomfortable and this is no exception. Lobbing off the return creates instant chaos on the other side of the net. In many cases it forces a change of position for your opponents and gives your net player a chance to pick off a weak reply. If you have opponents who bear down tight on the net or who’s serves are drawing weak returns for put aways, throw up the lob return to mix things up. As a general rule with the lob, try to keep it over the non-dominant shoulder of the net player (Right handers:Left shoulder. Left Handers:Right shoulder). That way if you don’t execute it great you won’t be sending your partner to hospital from the overhead reply.
Serve the “T”
For many doubles players their is a clear distinction over which return is stronger and which return is weaker. If you find that your opponent simply can’t hit their backhand return, then pepper that return. If your opponents are pretty solid both sides, serve up the “T” to reduce the angle of return and set up the next target. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page when it comes to serving location. Anytime you hit the ball down the middle of the court, chances are it will come back down the middle, so if your partner knows where you are locating the serve they can anticipate the return and often put the volley away on the next ball. Also using the body jam serve will keep the returner uncomfortable. Serving up the “T” in doubles is the primary tactic on first serve so practice it a lot.
This is a big one. When you are the net player in a traditional one up one back formation on both sides, you have two options during a crosscourt baseline rally. One is to POACH, the other one is to FAKE. Too many players at the club level either Poach or stay perfectly still. Poaching is great in doubles but if you condition your opponent to expect a poach anytime they see movement at the net, eventually they are going to catch on and start sending balls down your alley. Throwing in a good fake regularly will confuse your opponent and lead to many easy volleys coming down your alley. The move here is to creep forward and use ONE big side step toward the center line (when the ball bounces on the opponents side of the net) and a big pushback to cover your alley. This tactic is great when you are the stronger player at the net and you just can’t seem to get involved in the cross court exchanges. Fake it till you make it (the volley that is).
2 Back on return
The two back on return strategy has become very popular in todays game where serves are bigger and net players are more athletic. If you are having trouble keeping your returns away from the opponents net player, don’t be too proud to bring both back for the first ball. This takes away the volley target (your partners feet) and forces your opponents to come up with angle volley winners rather than hitting through the net player with power. Not to mention it visually changes the whole court. This is a great formation to use with the lob return strategy. That way if the lob is short you can defend the overhead with both back. If the lob is good, at least one of you can stealth to the net and look for a volley.
Don’t cover the line
This is perhaps the most common positioning mistake in all of doubles. Too many players at the club level are so petrified of being beaten down the line that they pretty much pitch a tent and camp in the alley for the whole match, leaving their partner to cover the rest of the court. At net you can’t cover the whole court, no one can, but you want to cover the parts of the court that are the easiest for your opponent to hit (crosscourt). Over the net in the middle of the court is the highest percentage place you can hit the ball in doubles, down the line is not! Don’t believe me? Here are some facts
- Changing direction to go down the line from a crosscourt ball is the #1 error from the baseline in tennis. There are more errors going down the line from a crosscourt ball than any other pattern in the game, in both singles and DOUBLES.
- The net is higher and the court is shorten when you hit down the line making the ball harder to attack.
- Backhands winners down the line are harder to hit than forehand winners down the line. Bait your opponent into taking a risk by leaving them a little window to hit on their weaker side. Remember the Rule of 3. After 3 winners down the line, either your partner is feeding your opponent meatballs or you have to start adjusting and shrink their target a little more.
Softer is Harder
For some people this is a very tough adjustment to make at the net. It goes against all instincts to hit the ball soft right? Well depending on your target, hitting the ball hard may be working against you. Heres the scenario. Both teams are in a traditional one up one back formation with you at the net. The baseline player in front of you floats a groundstroke over the net strap and you move in for the kill. You kill the volley but because you chose the wrong target the ball goes right back to the baseliner who turns it into and lob and the point resets to neutral. How frustrating. Your #1 target on any volley or overhead is the opposing net players feet, your #2 target is to go soft to the baseliners side, ideally with angle that makes the baseliner run forward and wide. This shot takes some practice but it is an absolute staple for volleying in doubles. When you poach or you are at the net and the ball is high, attack the net players feet but when the ball is low, use a soft short volley to the baseliners side. This target works well against lobbers as it forces them out of their comfort zone on the baseline to run forward and pick up the low ball (the toughest place to lob).
- High Volleys: ATTACK THE NET PLAYER
- Low Volleys: SOFT AND SHORT TO THE BASELINER
Change your opponents visual targets
Believe it or not your doubles team is the 2nd most important team on the court. Most players are so concerned with hitting their favourite shots to their favourite spots that they never consider what their opponents favourite shots and spots are. This is huge in tennis at all levels, in all formats. Good doubles players are constantly changing their formations and positions on the court to keep their opponents uncomfortable and make them hit their least favourite shots to their least favourite spots. How can you do this?
- Your opponent keeps beating you with great serve wide to the deuce side. Move over a couple of shoulder widths to take away their favourite serve. Make them beat you with their second favourite serve.
- On Second serves expose your weapon. Many players play the second serve straight up and end up hitting their weaker groundstroke. Move over towards your weaker side and dare your opponent to ace your strength. This also provokes your opponent to hit at that tiny sliver of court at your weaker wing. Chancer are you get to hit your weapon, or they double fault trying to hit a tiny target or go for the low percentage ace. Great tactic to use in big points!
- The giveth and taketh: When your partner is serving and you are at the net, stand way in close to the middle, then as your opponent makes the return, move back towards the line to take away the gap. Pro players use this one all the time. They are constantly playing with their opponents visual targets and making them gamble. You can also use this the other way, hanging out close to the alley and then moving toward the middle.
- Use Australian formation to make your opponents return down the line (increasing their risk of error). The Aussie formation is when both the server and the net player position themselves on the same side of the court, very close to the center line. This creates a lot of confusion with the returner and takes away their highest percentage return (crosscourt). Great formation to use, especially when serving to the opponents backhand.
Don’t play offense on defense
Tennis is a game of errors. In fact around 60% of the game of doubles ends in an error. Don’t play offense when you are defending. This means you need to use defensive lobs and balls low over the net strap when playing defense. Whenever you are reaching, falling, off balance, rushed, jammed, lunging low, reaching high, you are on DEFENSE. Don’t be a hero, the odds are not in your favor. Use a defensive lob or roller. These shots are designed to neutralize the point, not to win it so resist the urge to kill that wide forehand and play it smart. Practice your deep defensive lobs and low ground strokes so you have confidence in them during your matches.
See you on the courts!
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