Once you've made the commitment to improve your doubles, and understand that in order to do so, you must get to the net, the question arises; when do you go in? The answer is very simple---as soon as you possibly can, beginning with your service game.
"Serving is more of an advantage in doubles than singles because it allows the serving team the first opportunity to advance both players into volley position. This gives them control of the net and a high probability of winning the point with volleys and overheads," says Allan Fox, former Davis Cup player and author of several books.
Thus, the goal of your team when serving is to serve and volley on both your first and second serves. Obviously, this assumes that you have an effective serve. You can't simply pop the serve into the court, charge the net with reckless abandon and hope your opponents wilt under the pressure of your mere presence. What then, is an effective serve? I believe that it is a serve where, in some way, you can get your opponent off-balance. Be it by varying the direction, spin, or occasionally, pace, you are able to keep the receiver guessing, which will result in a weaker return.
Harder Isn't Necessarily Better
If you think about it, a hard serve is not necessarily an advantage when you're serving and volleying. First, "trying to win points by banging winners with your serve is usually a poor percentage play because too many go awry," says Fox.
Plus, the faster your serve moves, the sooner it's going to come back, often before you have time to get into position to volley.
Unless you can consistently hit your serve in the court at over 100 mph, (and if you can, you're not a mortal tennis player) you're better off thinking spin and placement. That's why you see a large number of players hitting a 3/4 pace serve with lots of spin on their first serves. The spin serve moves slower through the air than a flat serve, which gives the server more time to get to the net.
Where should you place your serve? From a purely percentage basis, you should serve down the middle of the court. This placement makes it very difficult for the receiver to hit the return down the line, past your partner at the net plus, it reduces the angles that the receiver has at their disposal.
Of course, percentages are merely strategies to be employed when all things are equal. If you notice that your opponent's backhand is significantly weaker than his forehand, you would factor that into your serving strategy. You could go against the percentages and serve consistently to the player's weaker backhand or, you could serve down the middle more often, and wait for a big point to serve to their weaker side.
This is where serving strategy, and serving patterns come into play. When you're serving, think of yourself as a pitcher on the mound in the World Series. You can't just throw the ball over the plate (again, unless you can consistently throw 100 mph) and hope that the batter will swing and miss. You must mix up your pitches and set up certain pitches in order to maintain your advantage.
Serving in tennis is exactly the same thing. If you consistently hit the same serve, to the same spot, your opponent will begin to get grooved and will eventually have their rackets back before you even toss the ball.
I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a player serve to their opponent's forehand, usually their stronger shot, ten times in a row, charge the net and then not understand why they're having to dig the ball up off their shoe tops every time. "This serving and volleying doesn't work, I'm staying back," is the usual cry. In fact, it's not the serve and volley strategy that's not working, it's the serving strategy.
Learn to move your serve around and set up certain serves. For example, I love, on the forehand side, to hit a very wide serve, pulling my opponent off the court. As a result, my serving strategy revolves around this serve--my favorite--and I try to set it up.
The first few times I serve to the forehand side, I may serve down the middle. After a while the receiver begins to expect the serve to come down the center, so he'll move towards the middle a bit, or be waiting with his backhand grip, at which point I'll then hit my serve out wide, catching him completely off-guard. Or I may do the opposite; serve wide three or four times. When I feel that the receiver is beginning to look for it, or on a big point, I'll go for a bigger serve down the middle.
The whole idea behind a serving strategy is to keep the receiver off balance. This will keep them guessing and force a weaker return which you or your partner can move forward and volley offensively.
Get The First One In
Without question, the most important aspect of any serving strategy is that the server gets his or her first serve in. If you listen to a professional match on television you will almost always hear the commentators talking about first serve percentage. Why is this so important? Simply, because, in most cases, the server has the advantage on the first serve while the receiver has it on the second.
On the first serve, the receiver will always be a bit more off balance because they don't know what to expect in terms of placement, spin or speed. They'll have to react very quickly to the serve and hope to hit a reasonable return.
On the second serve however, the receiver knows that the delivery will be a bit weaker (almost everyone's is) with the server's number one priority being to simply get the ball in play. That's why you'll often see the receiver take a few steps forward after the server has missed his first serve. He or she is preparing to attack.
So, the server's mentality should revolve around getting their first serve in, moving up to the net to join their partner, thus gaining control of the point. The receiver's thoughts should focus on trying to block the first serve back low, towards the on-coming server's feet.
If they can get the return of serve down at the server's feet, this will force the server to volley "up," at which point the receiver, or his partner, can move forward and attack the high volley, hitting down the middle or at one of their opponent's feet.
If the first serve is missed, the advantage then shifts to the receiver who has one thought and one thought only, ATTACK!!! While waiting for the second serve, the receiver should move up a few steps and even cheat to one side or the other. For example, if the receiver's strongest shot is their forehand, they would move a couple of steps to their left (if they're right-handed). What this is saying to the server is simply "I'm going to hit a forehand return, my strongest shot." This puts additional pressure on the server who must either serve to the player' stronger side or risk a double fault by trying to serve away from it.
Should the server come in on their second serve? It depends. If the player's second serve resembles a slow moving balloon, obviously to come in would be tennis suicide, so they must stay back, and play on the defensive, because the receiver will certainly be coming in.
Ultimately thought, your goal should be to serve and volley on both serves, which means that you must develop a dependable serve, which allows you to move in without the threat of having your head taken off. This is key because service breaks in higher-level tennis are very rare due to the fact that the serving team has the first crack at controlling the net.
If you're not confident enough with your serve to come in, you are basically putting up for grabs two or three games a set that should be heavily weighted in your favor. If your partner is in the same boat, serve-wise, then you're really going to struggle. Moral: develop a consistent first and second serve where you can vary the direction, spin and pace. This will allow you to confidently serve and volley and control the majority of points during your service game.
I'll leave you with two goals to work toward: First, when serving, serve and volley on your first serve 100% of the time with the ultimate goal being to serve and come in on both your first and second serves.
Second, when receiving, if the server misses their first serve, attack the second and move into the net every time.
Finally, remember, the team that controls the net controls the point. Say this to yourself over and over again each time you step on to the court. The team that controls the net controls the point, the team that controls the net control the point, the team that controls the net controls the point, the team that controls the net controls the point........
Next month: The role of each player.