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Mortal Tennis
February 2006 Article

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Solving Common Doubles Dilemmas

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Greg Moran

When you and your doubles partner take the court, you have many decisions to make aside from who buys the pizza and beer after the match. In this column we're going to take the mystery out of some of the game's age old questions.

Who should play the deuce side and who should play the ad side?

Each player should be on the side where they are most comfortable returning serve. Nothing else matters, because if the serve is not returned effectively (away from the net player, down low if the server is coming in, deep if he or she isn't) the point is going to be over faster than an Andy Roddick serve.

Keep these two statistics in mind:

  1. At the intermediate and lower levels of the game, most serves are hit to the outsides of the service boxes.

  2. At the advanced level, approximately 80 % of serves are hit down the middle.

This means that for a 3.5-and-below-level team of two right-handed players, you would want the player with the stronger forehand returning serve from the deuce court and the player with the better backhand receiving from the ad court.

For teams 4.0 and above, they'll be facing serves coming mostly down the middle, so they would want the player who prefers backhands on the deuce side and the player with the better forehand receiving from the ad court.

Many "experts" say that the stronger player should play the ad side because that's where most of the "big" points (40-30 and 30-40) in a game occur. This makes sense except for the fact that if you can't win points from the deuce side, you may never get to the big points. So again, it boils down to having each player on the side where they are most comfortable receiving serve.

Once you make your decision, it's only cast in stone for one set. If you feel it's not working out, make a change.

Who serves first?

A basketball team puts its strongest lineup on the floor at the start of the game, and so should you. This means that the player who has the best chance of winning their service game should serve first. Usually this is the player with the better serve--a strong serve that will force a weak return. The server's net-playing partner can then pick off the return, or the server can move in and attack.

Not always, though. I once had a partner who had a great serve (much better than mine), but was so active and intimidating at the net that we decided it would be better if I served first. I simply spun the serve in and watched my partner drive our opponents crazy. With his poaching, faking and great foot speed, he was able to totally control the point.

By putting our best lineup (me serving, he at the net) into the game first, so to speak, we were able to set an intimidating tone right from the start of the match.

Take a look at both factors--who has the stronger serve and who is more active at the net--and go from there. Keep in mind that the person serving first will most probably get more opportunities to serve during the course of the set, so make sure your starting lineup is a good one.

Who covers the middle?

It's not as confusing as you think. When you and your partner are both at the net you should be moving from side to side, following the ball. With that in mind, if the ball goes to your opponents' deuce court, you and your partner should move to your left. In this situation, whichever member of your team is playing the forehand court will handle a down-the-middle return. Yes, even though it will probably be that player's backhand volley, they should cover the middle.

An exception to this would be if the return down the middle is a high, slow moving ball. In that case it's a perfect opportunity for the player covering the alley to poach. They should call "mine," explode toward the middle to cut off the return and drive the ball with their forehand (usually their stronger) volley. If your ball goes to your opponents' ad court, you and your partner will both shift to the right. The ad-court player then covers the middle.

Who covers the lobs?

"Yours" is the usual cry among recreational players when they see a lob go up. More often than not, they turn to look at their partners, who stare right back at them as the ball floats over their heads.

To play the net effectively, you and your partner must iron out who takes the high ones because the first thing a smart team will do is test you with a lob.

Let's say that Bill and Sam are at the net and the lob goes over Sam's head. Now what? There are two schools of thought regarding who should cover this lob. The first says that Bill should go for the ball because it's more comfortable for him to move across the court at an angle than it would be for Sam to move back for a ball that is right over him.

This is a perfectly workable strategy for lower-level players who have not yet developed their movement skills. The "duck and switch" allows them to cover the lob and get the ball back in play. The drawback to this move is that Bill has to run a longer distance than Sam to reach the lob. He'll also almost certainly have to let the ball bounce, and because he won't be able to hit an attacking overhead, give up control of the net. It also puts their team in the vulnerable one-up, one-back formation unless Sam moves back as well.

As your anticipation, movement and hitting skills improve begin to try to cover your own lobs for the simple reason that, in most cases, you'll have the shortest distance to the ball. Your first option is to hit an overhead, the most offensive shot in the game. If you can't get balanced to hit the overhead, still take the ball out of the air, but hit a volley. Simply punch the ball back deep and move back in. This allows your team to still maintain its control over the net.

If the lob is too deep for you to take out of the air: run back, let it bounce and hit a high defensive lob. As you're moving back, yell to your partner to come back with you. After your shot, your team can play the defensive, yet often effective, two back formation.

Remember when all is said and done, it doesn't matter which player should have gone for the lob------you both lose the point if no one gets it. So, the next time the lob goes up, instead of turning and looking at each other, both you and your partner should immediately react by taking three steps back. Usually within these three steps it will become apparent which player should cover the lob.

A final word about doubles

Anytime you put two players on the tennis court, or in the same room for that matter, the potential for confusion exists. Whether you've played with the same partner for a dozen years or it's the first time together be sure to talk.

Teams that have been together for a long time may know each other's moves and moods and are able to complement each other. But no one can read another person's mind, so talk with your partner constantly during a match.

For those who do not have a regular doubles partner (which is most of you, I suspect), a doubles match with a new partner is very much like a date. How the two of you interact will determine its success. Be polite and be yourself. Talk with your partner, keep him informed of what you are going to do, and enjoy the experience.

From a strategic standpoint, talk in between points and at the changeovers. Even if you are not running any set plays together, let your partner know what you are planning to do on each point. Discuss your opponents' strengths and weaknesses. Talk about what's working and what's not. Remember, your role as part of a team is to support your partner verbally and through body language.

If your partner misses a shot, offer positive support and encouragement, and always keep in mind that your partner didn't miss the shot on purpose. Remember, if they never missed they wouldn't be playing with you. They'd be on TV playing against the big guns.

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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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