We are rapidly entering the time of year when those of us who are north of the equator are facing winter. Depending on where you live, the prospects for playing tennis may be somewhat challenging. Many of my readers may head inside to play indoor tennis as the weather changes and areas are hit with snow.
Sometimes, indoor tennis can be very expensive. In addition, court time may be at a premium. Players literally may not be able to train or compete as fully as they would like.
I like to use the winter months as a time to refurbish and develop my skills at playing the "other" type of tennis... doubles.
There are plenty of good reasons to play doubles throughout the year! The strokes, strategies and team work required to play effective doubles helps players in all facets of the game. Doubles is a different game than singles, but no less fun to play. It is one form of our great game where men and women can compete together. There are tournaments that have mixed doubles draws. Certainly, club and team tennis brings players of both genders together for competition. Doubles is a game for everyone!
Still, doubles does not always attract as many players as it could or should. So, this month, I want to provide a primer on how to approach playing doubles. If you are seasoned doubles player, you may find this month's column a nice refresher course in this wonderful form of our game. If you are primarily a singles player, you may find this month's column useful in getting acclimated to the principles of good doubles' play. Either way, doubles is a great game and deserves your time and attention.
SINGLES VS. DOUBLES
Doubles experts frequently use more classic grips: the eastern forehand and the continental forehand are not uncommon among doubles specialists. Given these grips, it is not surprising that many doubles players use more closed stances. I suspect classic grips and stances are common in doubles because good doubles requires flatter groundstrokes that pass closer to the net. The high topspin groundstroke that typify modern singles play is often times a liability in doubles.
The demands on player mobility are different in doubles and singles. Unlike singles, where side to side mobility is most definitely needed, doubles demands the ability to move forward and backwards. Why? Well, the nature of doubles involves serving and volleying, and the ability to race back for lobs. In that each player "covers" only half a court, the lateral demands of doubles are minimal in comparison to those in singles.
Perhaps, you might imagine that a doubles player need not be fit to play well. I sincerely doubt this. What really is needed is the ability to explode quickly, and I assure you that these "explosions" will take their toll on the player who lacks stamina.
Two handed backhands are okay in doubles. However, every doubles player must be able to hit effectively the one handed, sliced backhand. The need to get to the net in doubles necessitates a good approach. Off the backhand wing, the slice is usually the best method to get into the net if you are on the receiving team and/or deep in the court.
Rallies are not the norm in most doubles. Rather, flurries of quick, reaction volleys are the "rallies" that are the signature of well played doubles. If you watch any good doubles team (e.g. the Bryan Brothers), there are times when both are at the net and engaged in rapid fire volley exchanges with their opponents. For me, this is one the most exciting aspects of doubles to watching doubles and exhilarating when playing doubles.
Doubles is clearly a game of control. Singles can be a game of shear power. However, the ability to hit with pace is not necessarily an attribute that is the deciding factor in the game of doubles.
The singles player who dominates with his or her groundstrokes is not as likely to be as effective in doubles competition. In fact, it has been my experience that the "basher" is really at a disadvantage when competing in doubles.
If you are a singles player who lacks finesse, variety and control in your singles game, playing doubles can greatly enhance the breadth of your stroke arsenal! Placement in doubles is of paramount importance. Playing doubles require that you can hit accurately and consistently.
Each reader must realize that some of the typical strokes used in singles must be toned down and/or modified when playing doubles. These changes actually can expand your abilities to play well when returning to your singles game.
THE BASIC PRINCIPLES OF DOUBLES
You can't win at doubles by staying back at the baseline! Sooner or later, the doubles player must get to the net. In doubles, the best place for each player to be located is at the net prepared to volley and/or hit an overhead smash.
You cannot expect to play winning doubles when one of the team members is constantly staying back at the baseline. I see this all too frequently among recreational players. The geometry of the doubles court does not favor baseline play!
Yes, there are times when both members of a team should be back at the baseline. But, this is the exception to the rule. Any doubles team that concedes the net to its opponents is definitely going to find winning a difficult task.
A golden rule of doubles is: "The team that controls the net... controls the match."
Truthfully, it is that simple. So, a doubles team needs to be able to serve/volley and learn to return serve with the chip/charge. I know that recreational players will find this a somewhat difficult approach to adopt, if they are used to playing one player up and one player back in doubles. Any skilled doubles team will destroy the team that adopts the one up and one back formation.
THE DEEP TO DEEP AND NET TO NET PRINCIPLE
In doubles, it is almost always better to hit deep to deep and net to net. This is a golden rule in doubles that many players do not understand.
When a doubles player is back near the baseline (even if she or he is intending on approaching the net), it is almost always best to hit one's shot to the opponent who is deepest on the other side of the net.
Similarly if a doubles player is at the net, a best location to place a volley is directly at an opponent who is at the net. When all four players are at the net, you see what I believe is the most exciting part of doubles: rapid volley exchanges.
On the pro level, there can be incredibly long and rapid exchanges of volleys among all four competitors. Reactions are everything when at the net in doubles.
Even if you are a doubles player who never approaches the net (perhaps a slave to the one up, one back formation), this deep-deep, net-net rule still applies. If you do stay back by the baseline when playing doubles, about 80% of all your shots should be directed at the opponent who is deepest on the other side of the net.
Regrettably, singles players in the modern game are not usually comfortable volleying. So, they frequently may be seen playing this flawed one up, one back formation.
Regardless of your formation, this rule applies. Just burn into your memory bank that every time you are deep in the doubles court, you want to hit deep into the opponents' court. Sometimes, you may have to hit a lob deep if both players are at the net. If you are at the net, look to hit directly at the net player. Thus, the rule is deep to deep and net to net.
TARGET THE MIDDLE
When in doubt, hit the ball up the middle. Let's be honest. In playing either singles or doubles, there are times when a player just doesn't know where it is best to place the ball.
In singles, the golden rule is to hit crosscourt more often than not. This is particularly true when you do not have any clear reason to hit down-the-line.
In doubles, the return of serve is almost always best hit crosscourt. It is the aforementioned deep to deep principle applied to return of serve. Hitting at the net person will frequently result in the opponent positioned at net being able to hit an angled or drop volley for a clear winner.
However at almost any other time in the game, the "centered" reply is a good, if not the best, option. Even when all four doubles players are at the net, hitting a volley in between your opponent (in the middle) is a potentially winning shot.
Hitting between your opponents can cause the opposing team to pause for a fraction of a second. Why? Each may not know whether the other is planning on taking your shot.
In addition, hitting between your opponents usually prevents them from hitting a reply at a severe angle. Often times, the "in betweener" will result in a weak reply that sits up and allows for a put away.
Hit deep to deep and net to net whenever you can. But, hit down the middle for a winner and/or when you are in doubt about where to place your shot.
PROPER TEAM MOVEMENT
Doubles partners need to move as "one." Viewers can always tell when doubles players are familiar with each other as partners. Invariably, they will move as a single unit.
When coaching tennis, I have actually tied a rope around the waist of two doubles partners. If this team is moving as one, the rope will always remain taut, but never result in either player being pulled off balance.
Good doubles teams move forward, backward and sideways as a "unit." If one moves to the right, the other moves to his or her right, in sync. The same is true with moving in or back.
A good doubles team always tries to arrive at positions where this "rope" would be parallel to the net. When serving, this is why one player rushes the net as the other is already in net position. One has to remember that the ideal position for a doubles team is to have both players at the net controlling play.
It is important that each doubles team member knows where her/his partner is on the court. When a team has played together for a while, the kind of synchronous movement described above will become second nature. The last thing a team wants is for one player to be moving left while the other is moving right. Similarly, a team doesn't want one player moving backward while the other is moving forward.
SEE THE WHOLE
In doubles, there is a greater need to "see" your opponents and their racquet faces.
Vision in the game of doubles is a very different reality than when playing singles. Generally, you have less time to actually "see" the ball. Why? Well in part, doubles players are more frequently at the net. This means that the ball will travel less distance than is the case when playing singles.
I am not suggesting that doubles players do not need to clearly "see" the ball. Certainly, singles and doubles players need to really see the ball well. Since there usually less "travel" time for each ball in doubles, one needs to be more attentive and respond a bit more quickly. To do this, doubles players will invariably need to see the ball come off their opponent's racquet faces more deliberately and carefully than when playing singles.
While at the net (as a member of either the serving or receiving team), a player needs to be able to quickly see the serve bounce. In addition, there are two opponents to watch. Each doubles player needs to "know" where both opponents are on the court. There is really only one way that this can be achieved... by using one's peripheral vision.
Each doubles player will need to become acclimated to "seeing the ball" while "knowing" where each opponent is located on the court. In singles, there is a greater security associated with where the opponent is at on the court at any given time.
When playing doubles, each player needs to "get his or her eyes on" in ways that are a bit different from what is required in singles play. This kind of holistic vision is one of the requisites that makes doubles a bit different game. I do believe, however, that this kind of vision can improve one's singles game as well.
DON'T FORGET TO LOB
Don't be afraid to use the lob in doubles! In doubles, the lob is actually a shot that should be used much more frequently than in singles.
In singles, we normally lob for defensive reasons... or because we realize that an opponent has closed the net too much. In this latter scenario, the offensive lob (hit with topspin) is a great option.
In doubles, using a lob for a return of serve can actually win you a point outright, and may keep your opponents "honest" when closing the net. When both opponents are at the net, a deep topspin lob that is hit to the center of the opponent's court can pay big dividends. In this latter case, the opponents will need to scramble back as a team. If they are able to hit a reply off of your lob, they will be back near their baseline. If you have closed the net, your team is now in the "driver's seat."
Of course whenever one is moving backwards in the game of tennis (singles or doubles), a high, deep, defensive lob (hit with backspin) may be the best option. Here again, hitting such a lob to the center of your opponents' court is usually the best placement.
Doubles is a game of forward and backward movement. Thus, the lob is much more common in this form of our game.
Communicate with your partner. If a doubles team is slow, methodical and communicative with each other as they compete; they are rarely out of a match. This is why it is so important that doubles partners maintain positive communication!
When serving, the doubles team should decide in advance where the serve is to be placed, and whether the net person will attempt to "poach." Some teams will use hand signals for this. However, a brief discussion and agreement on these before getting into positions to begin the point may be the best methodology.
Positive communication and "forgiveness" are essential in effective doubles play. In reality, each player is going to make errors, regardless of skill or experience. Having a partner that is supportive and does not become critical is absolutely necessary if a team is going to prevail.
There is nothing uglier than watching a doubles team bicker between themselves! I have seen this ruin many team's chances of winning
The worst case scenario in doubles is when one partner tries to play every ball. Usually, this begins with some communication like; "Just stay out of my way and let me get to everything." Really, this is suggesting that one partner is not only useless, but is indeed, a liability. So, why is this team playing doubles?
When one player will takes it upon himself or herself to play the entire court, his or her partner will really have only one function... serving when it is his or her turn. Ultimately, a single player cannot cover the entire space of the doubles court.
Doubles teams need to agree upon strategies and tactics.
A basic strategy in doubles can be: "Hit to the weaker player." If one player is truly weak, this strategy may work. However in most situations, hitting to a "weaker" player only improves his or her play performance. Having a positive and supportive partner will facilitate this improvement on the part of the "weaker" player.
One way to turn around a losing doubles match is to adopt different court formations. Using the "I" formation or the "Australian" formation can change the look of a team, unsettle the opponents' momentum, and force different responses from your opponents. Here again, clear and positive communication is absolutely necessary, if these formations are to yield positive results.
Some years back, I wrote a column that explores the various formations that can be used in playing doubles and the rationale behind each. If the reader wishes, she/he can access this column online here: Variation in Your Doubles Formation.
Doubles is truly a wonderful game! It is different from singles, but just as much fun to play. Practicing your doubles this winter can save you money, provide you with a whole new love for our great game, and actually improve your strokes. Who knows? You may actually become the next great serve and volley player on the singles circuit?
But one thing is certain. If you play lots of doubles this winter, you will ultimately become a