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The "Single" Person's Guide to Doubles...or what I learned at the ATP World Doubles Championships

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Truthfully, I have never fancied myself a doubles player. Recreationally, I find myself playing doubles on occasion, and periodically, I'll secure a partner and compete in doubles on the tournament level. Having coached college tennis, I realize how important doubles can be in winning a "tie." Recently, I have made a renewed commitment to improving my serve and volley game in singles. Clearly, doubles can help accelerate this kind of development. So it probably comes as no surprise that I was most eager to attend the recent ATP World Doubles Championships.

I wanted to see doubles played by the best in the world and to learn from the experience. My hope was that my singles game might benefit and that I would discover a greater desire to compete in doubles. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.

Jewel Productions, which promoted and managed the event, did an outstanding job in delivering an exceptionally exciting and enjoyable 5 day tournament. The facility was great, the matches well presented, and most important, the competition was first class in every regard. Being granted media credentials enabled me to see and photograph this wonderful round-robin championship. What follows are my insights and realizations. Attached for your downloading pleasure are a variety of images that I hope capture some of the excitement and illustrate some of the points to follow.

Doubles Players Are Frequently Different Than Singles Players

Frankly, this statement is a bit severe, but I did notice that successful singles players and successful doubles players do, at times, differ. Doubles experts frequently use more classic grips: the eastern forehand or even the continental forehand. Although several of the competitors at the ATP did use two hand backhands, each of these were quite proficient with the one hand slice, a required stroke in doubles. Given these grips, it was not surprising that most of these doubles players used more closed stances. I suspect classic grips and stances are common in doubles because good doubles requires flatter groundstrokes that pass close to the net. The high topspin groundie that typifies modern singles is really 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, one imagines 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. Clearly, every player at the ATP showed a remarkable and unique ability to move!

Finally, I think that the mindset of doubles players is different when it comes to power. They realize that doubles is essentially a game of control...not power. The players at the ATP served big, and when the opportunity presented itself, they hit big. Yet, their first priority was on placement, control and spin. The "big basher" who may find success in singles would probably find his/her "fire power" a liability, if he/she could not precisely position the shot when playing doubles.

If you perceive yourself to be a classic-style player, you probably have the right stuff to win at doubles. I recommend that you find a suitable partner and begin competing in league or USTA tournaments ASAP. If you are more of the topspin, stay back, power oriented player, doubles can be for you, too! You just need to realize the differences presented in the doubles game, and prepare for them.

Some Keys To Better Doubles

Regardless of your style of play, there are some principles associated with doubles that must be understood and respected. Having viewed the best in the world at the ATP, I was reminded how important these principles are!

  1. In doubles, the ball passes over the net in one of two ways: very close to the net, or as a high lob. In singles, the ball usually lands deep. In doubles, the ball lands much shorter...hopefully at the feet of your opponents. Thus, groundstrokes, approaches, passes and even volleys, cross a few inches to maybe a foot over the net. Anything higher becomes a "sitter." Lobs, the other end of the height spectrum, are also very common. These are usually very high and defensive in nature. However, it is amazing to watch Todd Woodbridge hit a winning lob off the short ball or even the half volley! When playing doubles, reprogram your strokes with respect to ball height. Singles requires a higher and deeper ball.

  2. A basic tenet for doubles is: deep player hits to deep opponent...net player hits to net opponent. In doubles, the goal is to have both team members at the net. However, this is not always possible, especially when returning serve. If you are deep in your court, be certain to hit to the opponent farthest from the net. If both opponents are at the net, hit in between them with pace or better yet, lob then down the middle. If you are at the net, try to hit at the opponent closest to net. If both opponents are back, try to hit a short angled volley or even a drop volley. If all four players are at the net, anything goes. This is the most exciting part of doubles...watching the four exchange volleys. However, in these situations, you should occasionally hit away from either player with a sharp angled volley or if possible, bunt up a lob volley using slice. The cardinal errors occur when a deep player hits to an opponent at the net (this results in the opponent hitting a short angled volley to the open court or an unplayable volley at your partner), or when a net player hits to the deep opponent (usually, the result is a screaming shot that goes between you and your partner or a drop shot that neither you nor your partner can reach). The reasons behind the rule may seem complicated and confusing, but the rule itself is easily remembered: deep to deep...net to net.

  3. When serving in doubles, the most effective first serve is usually wide. This serve will draw the receiver out of court and can often result in a weak reply (which you can charge and put away). It can widen the gap between the receiver and her/his partner (allowing you to stroke or volley between them for the winner). I think that the best second serve is directed at the receiver. Eventually, you and your partner will discover the best places to put the serve, given your opponents. However, the above are good starting points and the basis of classic doubles. If your partner intends on "poaching" (part of good, aggressive doubles), try serving down the T. Often times, the reply will cross near the center of the net which is where your partner will be waiting! By the way, I often see club players (and baseline singles players) who do not serve and volley in doubles. Trust me...this is a fatal mistake. If you are uncomfortable with serving and volleying, use doubles as a means toward learning. This can only help your singles game...especially on fast and/or low bouncing surfaces.

  4. In my opinion, the return of serve in doubles is of paramount importance. To win at the pro level, you need an aggressive return (probably true at every level!). By aggressive, I mean the return must cross low to the net, be placed deliberately (at the feet of the charging server) and/or be loaded with pace or with severe slice. If you want to win doubles at the tournament level, you must work on an aggressive return!

  5. Communication between doubles partners is an absolute requirement. Good doubles teams are just that... teams! They know what each can and will do, they support each other, and they plan together. Doubles is a game of two extremes: careful planning before the point begins... and quick, reactions once the ball is in play. There is very little "rallying" in doubles. Before each point begins, the team (whether serving or receiving) must be clear and in-sync regarding strategy. That's one reason the Woodies are so good. They always communicate to each other what they want to happen, how they will try to make it happen, and the encouragement that actually makes it happen. Often, teams will use hand signals to communicate the important information regarding serve games. The first signal given by the net person will tell her/his serving partner where to serve the ball (wide, center or down the T). The server will audibly agree or disagree with this serve "command." The second signal. again given by the net person, will inform the serving partner whether he or she intends on poaching. Again, an audible response comes from the server. I recommend speaking to each other before the point to settle these questions, rather than using hand signals (given by the net person behind his/her back). However, if you arrive at the net and desire a change from the agreed plan...and before second serves... hand signals can be most helpful.

  6. In conjunction with communicating with your partner is coordinating team movement. Whenever you play doubles, you want to have your partner positioned to your side (not in front or behind). This is, in part, why we serve and volley in doubles (to get the server on the same horizontal plane as her/his partner). When one player moves right...the other should also move right. If one moves back, the other player should also move back, etc.,etc.,etc. Imagine that both of you had a rope tied around your waists. If one was forced to move wide, the rope connecting you would pull the other along in the same direction and distance. This team movement is necessary to maintain proper court coverage in doubles.

  7. When hitting almost any stroke in doubles, remember, angles are the name of the game. Rarely in doubles is it advised to hit straight ahead! The only exception is when you are hitting between the two opponents or when lobbing. Use these two weapons when you are in trouble or in doubt about where you should place your shot. The rest of the time, go for the angles!

How To Change A Losing Doubles Game

If your team is losing in a doubles match (down two breaks in the first set, or down a set and a break), you have got to change something in order to have a chance at winning. In considering what to change, I recommend the following:

  1. Change formation. Try the Australian or "I" formation if your team is serving. Try having both players stay back on return of first serve (when returning second serve continue with the one up, one back formation).

  2. Hit more balls in between the opponents...hit down the middle!

  3. Take pace off your shots and try for more slice. (This is how the Woodies beat O'Brien and Lareau in the ATP finals)

  4. Change your serving pattern by changing the pace, placement and/or spin of your serves.

  5. Lob more...even off return of serve (in this latter case, make sure the lob return lands deep)

Well, these are the notes I made during the ATP World Doubles Championships. Hopefully, this column and some of the accompanying photos will improve your doubles game and enhance your enjoyment of doubles. However, even if your first love is singles, there are plenty of reasons to play doubles:

  • Your serve and volley will improve...
  • you can learn to hit the angle shots with authority...
  • your overall control of all shots will develop significantly...
  • and doubles can actually break you out of a singles losing "slump."

Sounds enticing...No? Play doubles regularly and in a very short time you could find yourself becoming a tennis overdog!!!

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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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