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Hey Coach WE'RE Losing Here!!!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Back in July of 2007, I wrote an article entitled "Hey Coach! I’m Losing Here." I had tremendous response from readers regarding this particular column. And a lot of doubles players out there were quick to write to me and suggest that I do a similar column for the game of doubles.

Always looking to satisfy my readers, I am taking this opportunity to put forth my ideas on changing a losing game of doubles. I deliberately have delayed this month’s topic to the January edition of Turbo Tennis. Why? Well, if you live in the northern part of the United States, you are probably playing more doubles.

Indoor court time can be expensive and taxing on one’s budget. So, it makes sense that four players come together for doubles and share the court costs.

As a collegiate coach, I can assure you that doubles can make all the difference in the world when it comes to winning a contest with another college or university. If you are a high school player, it may be that you are limited to doubles with respect to your team’s competitions.

Doubles is a great game and is an essential part of tennis. Unfortunately, many of the pros on tour do not play this great form of the game unless they are doubles specialists. Truly, every tennis player should play doubles regularly. It can not only be fun in its own right, playing doubles can actually improve your singles game.

John McEnroe was one of the absolutely best in this wonderful game of ours. He would play both singles and doubles in virtually every Grand Slam event. It is no wonder that he had and still has some of the best volleys ever in the game of tennis.

Well, so much for the doubles "pitch." If you are reading this, you are either a doubles player or are open to incorporating this great form of tennis into your regular play and practice.

In coaching tennis, I had the great advantage of photographing the ATP Doubles Championships when they were played in Hartford, CT. I spent lots of time taking notes on what these "doubles experts" would and would not do. To this day when I photograph ATP or WTA events, I will always take time to shoot and watch doubles matches. People who suggest that doubles is not a great game to watch must be watching an entirely different game than I watch.

Watching doubles matches when aired on television during this year’s Australian Open can also be very informative and enjoyable viewing!

So, let’s begin with some of the basics of good doubles play. If you are finding that you are losing in a doubles match, I would not be surprised if you are deviating from these rudimentary guidelines.

  1. Doubles is first and foremost a game of control!!! I see so many players who try to bring the pace of their singles game to doubles. Frankly, this is probably not going to pay dividends, even for the very talented. Better to hit at three quarter pace with control. Tempering your strokes will greatly aid in managing control.
  2. Doubles is often times a game of severe angles. Although there are two players on each side of the net, there is more court. This additional court, however, is only provided with respect to the sidelines. The service box and baseline remain the same. So, the wise doubles player will immediately realize that angled shots, whether they are off the ground or as volleys, can be very effective. Shots that one normally wouldn’t attempt in singles may be viable when playing the wide, doubles court.
  3. Like singles, getting your first serve in is paramount. Getting the first serve in can actually prevent the receiver from moving forward as quickly to the net.
  4. The team that controls the net will invariably control the match. So, this is the first goal that every team should attempt to achieve. Unlike the baseline games that abound in singles, doubles loves the serve/volley and chip/charge.
  5. When returning serve, it is usually best to return low to the net and crosscourt. Too many inexperienced doubles players will attempt to tee off their return directly at the net person. Quite often, the net person does not have to make a decent volley to win the point. Simply angling his/her volley to the other net person, or hitting a stop volley straight ahead will frequently win the point.
  6. The golden rule of doubles strategy is deep to deep and short to short. By this, I mean that if you are the deeper player on your team, you are probably better off hitting to the deeper player on the opposing team. In addition, if you are the net person or the person on your team who is closest to the net, you are most likely going to benefit by hitting your reply directly to the opponent who is closest to the net.
  7. The best strategy when playing an imbalanced team is to hit as often as is possible to the weaker of the two opponents. This strategy is so effective that it baffles me that more doubles teams do not employ it. Of course, one has to perceive who, in fact, the weaker player is. In addition, it may be necessary to determine which wing on the weaker player is most vulnerable to making an error. If a doubles team simply hits about 70% of its shots to the weaker opponent’s weaker side, the odds of this team winning go up significantly!
  8. Every so often, it is wise to lob the return of serve over the net person’s head. The key is to make certain that the lob is high enough that the net person cannot hit an overhead smash. Throwing in the lobbed return every now and then will keep your opponent’s "honest." This return is especially useful when the server is able to close the net quickly. The lob return may not win you a point outright, but it can interrupt the flow and rhythm of the opposing team.
  9. When in doubt, hit down the center. In singles, we rarely want to place a shot in the center of the court. However in doubles, the opposite is true. Whether the opposing team has both players at the net, or both players back. Hitting down the center is the wise choice. In the former situation, the two opponents may have a moment of indecision regarding which should take the reply and hit the volley. In the latter situation, either player who takes the centered shot is limited with respect to what angle she/he may generate. Hitting between your opponents is a good strategy.
  10. Unlike singles, balls that are hit low to the net (with or without pace) are better than balls that are hit high and deep. Why? Well, volleys that are hit off low balls and/or half volleys are generally going to result in shots that are weak. These replies generally sit up and beg for a quick put away…via a volley or an overhead. Put aways that involve groundstrokes are rare in doubles. More often than not, it is best not to attempt this kind of put away when playing doubles.
  11. Serving wide in doubles can be very effective. Granted, the wide serve is useful in singles, and at times, can win the point outright. In doubles, serving wide pulls one of the opponents out wide. Frequently, his/her partner will not shift over to fill the "gap" that is produced by this wide movement. Quite often, the return off of a wide serve will be hit in such a manner that the person at the net can easily "poach" and put away the winner…either hitting the volley directly at the net opponent or by putting the volley between the two opponents.
  12. Net players should always be looking for a higher ball or a weak reply to put away with a volley. If you are the serving team, this frequently translates into "poaching" (moving to take a shot that normally would be taken by your partner). Still "poaching" can occur when one is the receiving team, as well.
  13. Good doubles teams communicate!!! If you are a serving team, it is essential that each player knows where the serve is going to be directed, and whether the net person is looking to poach. If you are using alternate formations, communication is even more critical. I do not advocate hand signals. First, it is easy to get the signals wrong due to confusion. Second, I have seen coaches who will stand behind the opposing team and "relay" signals with body language to their team. Yes, this is cheating, but it does happen!!! In my mind, it is always better to speak with your partner before each point…even if you are the receiving team. If nothing else, you can offer each other encouragement and support.
  14. Don’t change a winning game!!! However, always change a losing game!!! In collegiate competition where 8 game pro sets are the norm for doubles this is even more critical. Here again, communication can play a critical role. If you are behind by more than a break, two minds are better than one. Figuring out what is happening, why and what needs to change is often times best determined through dialog between partners…particularly during game changeovers.
  15. Speed up a winning game. Slow down a losing game. These become more important when playing an 8 game pro set to determine a doubles match. However, I would argue that this is sage advice when competing best of three sets, as well. Take your time between points and games when you are losing. Slow down the momentum of your opponents. Conversely, try to move a bit more quickly between points and games when you are winning. Of course, each team must work within the legal, time guidelines.

Hopefully, you and your partner are NOT playing the one up and one back formation. Unfortunately, I see all too many teams that play doubles in this manner. In recreational doubles where both teams may adopt this undesirable formation, the "threat" that is presented may be minimal. In competitive doubles, this formation will invariably result in a loss. Good doubles teams realize that it is best to have both players at the net, or both players back.

Classic doubles formations work as seen in the diagrams below.


In the classic formation, the person serving or receiving serve makes every effort to move forward to the net by serving/volleying or chipping/charging.

If you are using this classic formation and are still finding yourselves losing, there are other formations to employ.

The "I" formation is one that is frequently adopted by pros when serving. The advantage to this formation is that the opponents do not know where each player will be moving. The crosscourt return of serve, which is the norm, may not be effective. In essence, the server and net player line up in the center of the court. For players who are used to serving in singles, this formation replicates the normal, singles, serving position. Once the serve is struck (the net person listens for the sound of the ball making contact with the strings), the server and net player move in opposite, predetermined directions.

The diagram below illustrate the "I" formation.

Another formation that can be employed when serving is the Australian Formation. This is a most unusual formation, but has the same advantage of confusing the opponents as is the case with the "I" formation. In the Australian formation, the server and net player position themselves on the same half of the court. Once the serve is hit (Again, the net person listens for the sound of the ball making contact with the strings), the net person may or may not move. If he/she does move the server moves to the spot vacated by the net player. If he/she does not move, the server moves to the vacant net area. It should be noted that the former situation (where the net player moves) is a bit easier to play, in that, the distance that the server needs to travel is less.

Here are diagrams that illustrate the Australian formation. NOTE: In both of these examples the net person is not really moving!


Whether you are serving or receiving, a team can play the "Two Back" formation. There is a major disadvantage to this formation which is that the team employing this formation may not be able to secure the net. Still, if your team is unable to break an opposing team’s serve, or if your team is not adept at volleying, the "Two Back" formation may be your best option.

Here are diagrams that illustrate the "Two Back" formation.


Any change of formation has one great advantage…it may confuse your opponents. Whenever I have coached teams that have lost or never had "momentum" in a match, I will always suggest a change of formation. Usually, I will suggest the change in the order in which I presented the above formations.

First, I will recommend the "I" formation. If this is unsuccessful, I would employ the Australian formation. As a last resort, I will ask the team to play the "Two Back" formation. Unfortunately in collegiate tennis where 8 game pro sets are the norm, a team may have time to try only one of these three. However in a best of 3 set match, there is sufficient time for trying out all three of these alternate formations.

I do want to offer a final note on doubles. If a doubles team is moving correctly, they will move in unison. Imagine that there is a rope that is tied around each player’s waist. The distance between the two teammates should be about 8 to 10 feet. If the team is moving correctly, this rope will never be too taut. The players will move as a unit that always attempts to keep the rope parallel to the net (the exceptions are when a team is hitting a serve or hitting a return of serve).

I have actually seen players at academies who have had "ropes" tied to their waists as they play doubles. There is a risk in this, when the two players are close together hitting the "centered" shot. The risk is that either player can trip over the rope that is no longer taut. In a controlled manner, however, this technique can truly help a doubles team to learn to move as a proper unit.

So, adhering to the basic tenets of good doubles, changing formations when warranted, and learning to move your team as a unit, can greatly improve your doubles play and chances of winning.

I am certain that if you incorporate all of these into your doubles games that you will soon become tennis overdogs!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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