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Circle Game
November 2000 Article

Contact to Greg Moran

Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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Circle Game By Greg Moran


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Everyone on the Court has a Job

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Greg Moran

"Doubles is boring." " Doubles is slow." "I never get to hit the ball when I play doubles." "I don't get any exercise when I play doubles." Have you ever heard these comments? I'm sure you have.

These feelings are common among recreational players who are new to doubles and don't yet have a true understanding of the game. Doubles, when played properly, is an exciting game with all of it's shot making and strategy options. It is extremely fast and can be a great workout where everyone on the court hits more than enough shots, provided they understand their positions and accept their responsibilities.

This month, I'd like to take a look at each player's position on the doubles court and outline their respective goals and responsibilities:

THE SERVER: As I discussed last month, the team that controls the net in a doubles match controls the point. Thus, the serving team should have a decided advantage for the simple fact that they have the first opportunity to control the net. With this in mind, you, as the server, have a few responsibilities.

First and foremost is to get your first serve in. This is pretty much standard advice which any book or video will tell you, yet it remains largely ignored. Why? Because your average player simply cannot resist the urge to go for the big, point-winning serve. As a result, the server misses a large percentage of their first serves and is then forced to begin the point with his second, usually weaker, serve. This shifts the advantage to the receiver who knows that a weaker serve is coming and can move into "attack" mode.

Get that first serve in, even if you have to take a bit off of it. Get it in; ideally hit it down the middle, and then get to the net to take control of the point (see last month's column for a more in-depth look at the server's responsibilities).

By serving down the middle, you greatly limit the number of options the receiver has at his disposal. First, you are making them swing away from their body as opposed to the more natural across the body motion, and second you are taking away their angles.

If you hit someone an angled shot, you are giving them an angle to return it. Serving down the middle makes the receiver create their own angle, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. Plus, when you serve out wide you are in a sense "freezing" your partner who must then move to his right or left to cover his alley. This makes him or her unable, for the most part, to poach or put pressure on the receiver.

THE SERVER'S PARTNER: When your partner is serving, you are at least as responsible for the winning or losing of the service game as the person tossing the ball up in the air. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a player come off the court after a tough match complaining about how their partner "didn't win their serve once." Well, if those words have ever made their way through your lips I've got news for you. It's just as much your fault as your partner's, maybe more so.

Take a look at your average doubles game and what do you see? The server puts the ball in play, usually stays back, and then gets involved in a cross-court ground stroke rally with the receiver while the two players at the net basically stand still, watch and hope that the ball is hit to them (or perhaps, that it isn't).

This is NOT doubles, in fact it's basically a game of singles with two spectators on the court. By standing still and watching, the server's partner is basically useless and of absolutely no help to their partner whatsoever.

The last thing that the partner of the server can be is a "passive spectator," says Vic Braden. The server's partner must take an active role in winning the game by putting additional pressure on the receiver and this is done by first learning to anticipate whether the return of serve is going to be a lob or a drive.

To develop this anticipation, you must closely watch the racket face of the player returning serve. "If the racket is on the same level as the intended point of impact with the ball, it's normally going to be a drive and he (the server's partner) will break forward on the diagonal to try to cut off the shot near the net," says Braden. "If he sees his opponent's racket head drop below the oncoming ball with a beveled (open) face, then it's going to be a lob, and he turns and tries to get three quick steps back."

Once the server's partner gets a feel for whether the return is going to be a lob or drive, he or she then has only one thought on their mind, according to Braden; "The next ball that's hit is mine. I don't care where it is, I'm going to get it." "He should always be surprised that he can't actually reach the ball, never surprised that he makes the play," says Vic. "He wants to be thinking that he owns the fortress from net post to net post."

By being aggressive, the server's partner can often control the point without ever touching the ball. His or her number one job is to make the player receiving serve aware, no, make that AFRAID, of him or her. This fear will force the receiver into attempting low percentage returns, which will result in many, many errors.

Remember, a good serving team has three advantages working for them. First, a good serve which will keep the receiver off-balance, second an aggressive server, who follows delivery to the net, and finally, and active net player who is constantly moving, faking and poaching.

That's three "pressures" that the receiving team must deal with and that is exactly why, in high-level tennis, service breaks are a rare occurrence.

THE RECEIVER: When you are receiving serve you have two basic goals: first, to keep the ball away from the active net player, and second, to try to hit the ball down at the feet of the on-coming server. If you can get the ball down to the server's feet, this will force him to volley "up" at which point you, or your partner, can move in to aggressively volley the high return.

Try to adopt the following mentality when you are returning serve; REACT on the first serve, ATTACK on the second. This means simply that on the first (stronger) serve you must just try to react and return the ball away from the net player and down low to the on-coming server's feet.

If the server does not follow the serve into the net they are offering you an invitation to take control of the point. Accept the invitation with a smile, return the ball cross-court and get to the net.

If the first serve is missed, the advantage now shifts toward you and you should move into ATTACK mode. Move up a couple of steps, maybe a few steps to one side, favoring your favorite shot, and get ready to jump on the second (usually weaker) serve. Drive the return back cross-court and again, move up to the net.

Now, as I just mentioned, when receiving serve, you will probably have to deal with an aggressive net player, so you must come up with a way to keep that player under control. This can be done two ways. First, by hitting an occasional shot down the net player's alley. I always try to go down the net player's alley early in a match. Even if he or she volleys the ball away, it's worth the loss of an early point because I've planted the seed that lets the net player know that I might go there, and this will make the net player a bit more hesitant to poach. The other thing you can do to keep the net player under control is to lob over the net player's head. This will also keep the net player somewhat honest, and a bit less eager to poach.

THE RECEIVER'S PARTNER: This is probably the toughest position on the court because you are basically at the mercy of your partner's return of serve. If your partner does their job and hits the ball low to the on-coming server's feet, you can move forward, attack the server's high return and be a hero. If however, your partner doesn't do their job, and returns the serve back short and high to either the server or his partner, you then become a target whose sole goal is self-preservation.

So, your number one priority is to try to determine as early as possible what type of return of serve your partner has hit and contrary to popular opinion, this is NOT done by turning and watching your partner hit the ball.

Recreational players make a huge mistake when they feel that by turning and watching their partner hit, they will get a quick idea of where their ball has gone. By turning and watching their partner, they lose all sight of what the serving team is doing and this can be dangerous.

God forbid, you are watching your partner return serve and the server's partner decides to poach. By the time you get your head turned back around, the next thing you are going to see is everyone on the court looking down at you to see if you are all right after receiving a "fuzz sandwich" compliments of the poacher's volley.

When your partner is returning serve, keep your eyes on the opposing net player. By watching this player, you will get the earliest clue as to what type of return your partner has hit. If you see the ball hit low, past the net player, start moving forward to attack. If however, you see the opposing net player moving across the court with a big smile on their face, get your hands up fast and do the best you can to react to the hard volley which will be upon you momentarily.

Not looking back to watch your partner hit the ball will take some getting used to. We've all been told since we began playing to always keep our eyes on the ball but, the fact is there are certain instances when watching a particular player will give you a better clue as to what's coming than watching the ball. You'll be surprised by how this little bit of extra time gained by watching the server's partner, instead of your own, will allow you to prepare and hopefully, return a few more balls that in the past you've only been able to protect yourself from.

So, as you can see, there is a lot more to doubles than standing, watching and waiting. Doubles, if played correctly, should be an exciting fast paced game with lots of stops and starts and a great deal of fun. Learn your responsibilities and you'll be well on your way.

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Greg by using this form.


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