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A Primer on Doubles Tactics
by Tony Severino
Certified Instructor 4A
Professional Tennis Registry

Tony Serverino Photo
Tony Severino

"Doubles is a fast paced, complex game involving constant activity by all four players. Each position has a job to do during every exchange, which is vital to the outcome of the point. You are either attacking the ball or attacking position." So says Pat Blaskower in her excellent book, The Art of Doubles. Pat says further "there are essentially three kinds of doubles teams: those who make things happen; those who watch what happens; and those who wonder what the heck happened."

This primer on doubles aims to help beginning tennis players be of the first category, to be play makers. There should be no watchers or wonderers. You may have seen the Penn ball ad that says, "there's no such thing as a small point." So true! Always make your contribution toward winning each point.

In fact, much of this material is based on Pat's book, and Pete Collins' PTR instructor's guide, Successful Doubles. The teachings of numerous other professionals, tennis colleagues and personal experience have influenced it as well, but I certainly would be remiss not to cite my tennis colleague, Coach Al Laverson.

As noted above this tutorial is aimed at the beginner student who has had instruction in proper grips, stroke production, scoring and other technical aspects of tennis, and now wants to move deeper into the tactical aspects of playing doubles; to become a student of the game.

One caveat! The information here is somewhat terse. That's because this information is meant to be used in conjunction with on-court instruction and demonstration. Hence it is intended as a memory jogger, not as a stand-alone treatise.

Player Position Responsibilities

Server: (Be Responsible)

  • Get first serve in 65 -75% of time
  • Move to the net, shading to cover your alley on low, wide returns.
  • Have the racquet always ready. Best response is a low cross-court return.
  • If you serve down the center, you'll have 80% of your court covered.

Net Person: (Be Active)

  • Position yourself to cover the middle. (80% of balls are hit down the middle.)
  • Face receiver, toes pointing at him/her.
  • Be aggressive! Get closer to the net and poach!
  • Be lob aware. It will be coming over your head when it comes. If you can hit it in the air, it's yours.
  • On high returns, hit down at the Hot Seat position.
  • Play Mind Games with the receiver. Move around. Fake poaching. Crowd the net or alley to make him/her hit a shot you want.

Receiver: (Be Consistent)

  • Keep the ball in play. Failure to return is as bad as a double fault.
  • Decide on your return beforehand.
  • For power, step in at a 45-degree cutoff angle.
  • Follow your return to the net.
  • Low cross-court return is your best choice: lobs, alley shots help keep net person in check.
  • Returned shots down the middle are yours. If pulled out wide, you must try to get back to cover the middle. (Footwork.)

Hot Seat: (Be Dynamic)

  • Call the service line for your receiving partner.
  • Face opposing net person. (Toes pointed towards him/her.)
  • Don't watch your partner hit the ball. Split-step when you "hear" your partner hit the ball. Move in as opportunity allows. Attack to gain position.
  • Watch the net person's racquet. If his/her racquet moves, you don't. It's probably coming to you; if his/her racquet doesn't move, you do.
  • Best position depends on your opponent. Start at service line. If facing a lobber, split-step just inside service box; otherwise move further in to gain net position.
  • Flow with the ball. Move laterally along the service line. If ball hits wide, move out and split step. Position your court coverage based on where the ball hits in the opponents' court.

Player Priorities

Priority #1 (Balance and Time)

  • Be in Split-step position before your opponent hits the ball! This provides balance and is a springboard to the ready position.
  • When to Split-step! As your opponent is about to hit the ball.
  • Remember, it's Time not Distance when approaching the net. Your foot speed and the pace of the ball determine how far you get.

Priority #2 (Divide the Court in Thirds)

  • Position yourself in the middle of opponents return angle, based on where the ball hits, not the opponent's position.
  • Coverage changes with each exchange, i.e., on a wide angle shot, from where the ball hits, the court divides into thirds: yours, your partner's and the remaining, difficult angle.

Priority #3 (Up to the Net)

  • Attack the net after the first and second priorities are met.
  • The net is the most powerful position to be at. It provides sharp angle opportunities. Less skill is needed to volley successfully. Think of doubles as from the net back rather than from the baseline in.

Reading Clues

  • Immediately after you help your partner call the lines, watch your opponents, not your partner hitting the ball. (Hear your partner hit the ball!) Your opponent's racquet movement tells all.
  • Which one To Watch? First, the person closest to the net ("short" person). If his/her racquet moves you don't. Get ready: if his/her racquet doesn't move, you do! Next, the farthermost one away (deep person). If both are same distance, remember crosscourt opponent has better angles, hence, hit to opponent directly across from you.
  • "Quick Hands!" are the result of early detection of where the ball is going to go. Split-step and watch your opponent's racquet!
  • "Soft Hands!" are the result of delicate control of the pace and angle of your return, i.e., drop shots, approach shots, soft angled volleys. It used to be called "touch!"

Strategic Considerations

  • Every player has a job on every exchange. Attack the ball or attack position.
  • Mirror where the ball hits. On balls hit wide cover the alley on the ball side and your partner plays the middle. Don't get beat down the middle!
  • Help your partner with line calls, then focus on closest opponent's racquet.
  • "No Man's Land." Practice from there, because often you'll be playing from there. You'll need a good half-volley. Good Rule: Be there for one exchange, then vacate.
  • Have a lob coverage strategy worked out with your partner. For instance, anything inside the service line on your side is yours.
  • Middle volley coverage. Usually person closest to the net.
  • Maintain a comfort zone (distance from) with regard to your opponent.
  • When poaching: if return is high, hit down short-to-short; if low, don't change angle of return; hit low to the deep person.
  • When you step on or across the centerline, keep going! It's the only way your partners know for sure where they should go.
  • Communicate! Words like "Yours!" "Mine!" "Switch!" (to exchange court coverage), "Stay!" (to remain how you are), "Bounce it!" (if you think the ball is going out.) are essential to a good doubles team.
  • Never hit deep-to-short! Well almost never. An alley shot is an excellent investment to keep the net person at home or slower in poaching.
  • Hit short-to-short; deep-to-deep always; short-to-deep is always a safe shot.
  • It is safer to return the ball in the direction from which it came. Usually the player who tries to change the angle of the return loses the point. (Why: the angle of reflection equals angle of incidence. We tend to overcompensate, unless we swing harder when changing direction.) Consider this: if you stand at the center mark of the court and point to the farthest corner, then sweep your arm to the other farthest corner. The arc is only 20 degrees. Remember that when you try to change direction of your return. (Of course that angle widens as you move in towards the net.)
  • Rally crosscourt and volley straight ahead or down the line.
  • The closer you are to the net, the more angles you have to work with.
  • Signals! Better to talk over tactics, but if you do use them, spread fingers could mean you are poaching: a fist to mean you are holding your position. Signal often so opponents don't associate your actions with planned moves. Acknowledgment by your partner is a problem.
  • If you can get the ball back three times your chances of winning the point increase dramatically. But don't just feed the ball back. Do something with it. In recreational tennis, most points are lost, not won, so give your opponent every chance to gain you some points. In the words of the great Fred Perry, "just get the ball back. Sometimes good things happen."
  • "Singles" is played from the baseline in. "Doubles" is played from the net back. Singles is a game of left, right, left and in. Doubles is a game over and under.

Playing the "Lob Queens"

Playing against "Lob Queens" (male or female) can be frustrating. What to do about it? Would it make sense to say the difference is "making them lob!" versus "letting them lob!"? Essentially, it comes down to just that. When you make them lob, they have neither the time nor the space to hit the shot on their terms.

The first thing you need is Patience. You have to let them lob in the beginning until you can create an opportunity to make them play your game; make them lob! Watch the racquet swing path and the angle of the racquet face as they strike the ball. It tells you "Lob!" Now you're ready! Be calm.

The second thing you need is a fairly decent overhead. You don't have to smash it into the next county. Hit the overhead with a smooth leisurely overhead motion. Resolve to call "Mine!" early in order to commit yourself fully to making the shot. Remove the indecision. Try to volley every ball. Play cool!

Third, hit to their backhands. That is usually their weaker shot.

Fourth, move them around! Use short balls and angles shots. Make them run to the ball. They don't like to run and they don't like to be up at the net. They like being at the baseline so use your drop shot. Volley balls to hit the court, not an opponent's racquet.

Fifth, remember they lob because they are good at it. They have the trophies to prove it. Lobbers love a slow, waist-high ball relatively close to them. Don't give them any. Hit low and deep, wide and short. Don't "let them lob"; make them play on your terms: "Make them lob!"

Sixth, have a good lob strategy. If your team lobs to a lobbing team, the non-hitter should advance to the net; the hitter should take position just back of the service line, hence can cover any lob over the net person's head and also is in position to handle angled shots and even drop shots on their side.

Let's Look At Some Numbers

Statistics pop up in various forms and places. It's not important where they came from. They are offered as at least a good working premise to improve your tactical approach to the game.

  • Over 75% of the points played end before each player or team has hit three balls.
  • About 80% of the points played end in an error. Therefore, try to direct your first three shots to targets that you can hit. Give your opponent a chance to lose the point with an error, rather than trying for too big a shot yourself.
  • The winner in the average pro match wins 53% of the points, and the loser 47%. Raising your game just a few percentage points, even at the recreational level, could mean winning instead of losing.
  • Forty percent of the shots hit in a match are either a serve or a return.
  • Players win 25% more points off their first serve than second.
  • Failure to return serve is the same as a double fault. Get the service return back, even if you have to float it down the middle. Remember Fred Perry's words: "sometimes good things happen."
  • 73% of shots coming toward you are not within your strike zone. It means you have to move your feet. See the 10-step drill below.
  • Sad to say, 73% of tennis beginners leave the game. Only 27% stay with it. Obviously some changes are needed to make it more interesting for them to stay.

The 10-Step Drill

Take ten quick steps in between groundstrokes. Although it may seem excessive, at the best pro levels the players often do take 10-12 steps between shots. At the collegiate or strong junior level it is usually 8-10 steps. At the recreational level it quickly goes down to about three or four.

Where are you on the 1-10 scale? The number of steps taken between shots is often a good indicator of a player's level of play.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

No doubt you heard the story of the musician walking along a street in New York with an instrument case under his arm. A car pulls along side and the occupant asks, "Young man, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" The musician looks up and replies: "Practice, man! Practice!"

This is true in tennis as well. You cannot improve your strokes by just playing. Playing does not provide enough repetitions of any given stroke nor the opportunity to analyze it for yourself. The only way to accomplish that is to practice.

In American Sign Language, it is said you must see a sign 300 times before you learn it. The same could be said for any tennis stroke. Bob Jordan, coach and father of pros Kathy and Barbara, notes in his book that practice works to improve your game while competing demonstrates your ability level to play it. Practice, man! Practice!

Three Rules of Tennis

Steve Metcalf, in the best tennis story I've ever read, "A Game to Remember," recalls his first tennis coach's three rules of tennis: (1) hit a shot you know you can make; (2) make your opponent hit a shot he/she can't make; and (3), the most important of all, tennis is meant to be enjoyed. Have fun! Make each tennis outing "a game to remember!"

References:

Successful Doubles by Pete Collins
The Art of Doubles by Pat Blaskower
Tennis for Winners by Robert H. Jordan
A Game to Remember by Steve Metcalf
Teaching Tennis by Dennis Van Der Meer


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