DOUBLES TIPS by Nigel Buckman.
1. Basic Principles of good doubles
- Close in on the net and prevent your opponents doing it.
- Aim shots down and keep them low to force opponents to hit up from below net height.
- Think of doubles as being like volleyball, where you finish a rally with a spike at the net.
- Play to the opponent furthest from the net when you’re in a deep position.
- Target the opponent nearest to the net when you’re in a position to hit down on the ball from near the net.
- Target your opponents’ weaknesses.
- Play shots which force your opponents to play to your strengths.
- Aim between your opponents. It gives you a great margin for error and your opponents may hesitate while they work out who should play it.
- Anticipate, be mobile and adapt your position according to the positions of your opponents and your partner.
- Encourage your partner!
2. It’s good to talk!
Communication in doubles is not beneficial in itself – what’s required is GOOD communication! Good communication is the special ingredient that helps two individuals think, move, and act as one. Some of this could take place off the court. For example, you might want to sort out which side you’ll play, who will serve first, who will chase the lobs, who will handle the overheads and which of you will take the down-the-middle shots.
Some of the on-court communication is in the form of essential basic instructions (e.g. “Leave!” “Mine!” “Switch!”, etc). Some of it is in the form of tactical discussions, such as pre-planning an interception. Much of the rest of it comes down to establishing the “chemistry” of a good partnership. It takes time and it’s not possible to be too prescriptive about it. That’s because everyone’s different. Some people like to exchange high-fives, some people don’t. Some people welcome constructive criticism, others resent it. Some people respond to being gee’d up, others perform better when they’re calm. You and your partner need to get to know each other. You need to know what to do when your partner’s feeling down or nervous or angry or over-confident. It’ll take time before you even get to recognise these things!
In general, it’s a good idea to avoid negative talk. Avoid pressurising your partner by saying things like: “don’t double fault!”, “don’t miss this return!” or “we need your first serve here!”. Sometimes your partner will have a bad day. Just remember you have them too! You must resist the feeling that you’re being handicapped – your partner will sense this and feel alienated. Once that happens, you’re both on a slippery slope, heading for disaster. So stay supportive and helpful and positive. Boost your partner with appropriate praise and encouragement. Emphasise the team factor by using the “we” word a lot, e.g. “we’ll really focus on this one!”, “we’re going to turn this around!”, etc. When you’ve been playing together for a while, you should feel you can discuss some of these issues openly. It will help if you can both identify phrases that annoy you on court. It will certainly help if you and your partner know what to say (or what not to say!) when the other is making mistakes.
Don’t underestimate the importance of good communication in doubles. If you communicate well, you’re more likely to enjoy the experience. And if you enjoy it, you’re far more likely to perform well.
3. Serve in a way that helps your partner intercept
Serve consistently, getting a large percentage of first serves in. If you miss a lot of first serves, your partner’s effectiveness as a poacher could diminish. This is because picking off first-serve returns at the net is easier than picking off second-serve returns and also because your partner may get tired of all the “false starts”.
Serve mostly down the centre from the deuce court (especially to a right-hander). This cuts down the angles as well as forcing the receiver to play an awkward inside-out backhand return – your partner should be able to pick it off!
Serve plenty of serves at the body from the ad court. Make sure your partner knows where you’re aiming the serve!
3a. Stand in the correct position when your partner serves
If the receiver is regularly passing you down the line, talk to your partner and suggest a different placement!
React to where the serve pitches in the court, i.e.
- Guard the tramlines if it’s wide
- Move to the centre if the serve is down the middle
- Wide serves – move wide cover the tramline and the middle ball
- T serves move more centrally to cover centre return and tramline.
Know your angles! You can encourage the receiver to play the shot you want, i.e
- Position yourself wide to encourage a crosscourt return
- Move towards centre to tempt the pass
- Close in on the net to tempt the lob
- Be active, alert and aggressive (poach, fake poaches, etc).
Generally, make sure the receiver is worried about you. Take the captain’s role and suggest service placements.
4. Are you ready?
Most players are wrong footed or off balance when their opponents are hitting the ball. Always set or split just before your opponent hits the ball. Better to be in an awkward position and split rather than trying to get to where you want and being off balance and wrong footed! Always split before the hit!
5. Where should I aim in doubles when it’s not obvious?
If you can target your opponents’ feet, you should be able to pick off the next shot at the net (if it comes back!). Take advantage of opponents playing one-up-one-back by targeting the area behind the net person. Aim for the “soft centre”. During a barrage of shots, aiming between your opponents may cause neither (or both) to go for the ball! Aiming through the middle also gives you a big margin for error. It’s easier to hit a ball in the direction from which it came rather than change direction, so do this when you’re on the defensive.
6. What is my role as receiver’s partner?
Your first duty is defence. Keep an eye on the server’s partner who is the immediate threat to your team. Take your cue from the quality of your partner’s return. If it’s high and close to the server’s partner, you’re under threat – take cover! If it’s high and wide, your tramlines are under threat – cover them and the middle! If it’s crosscourt and low, move towards the centre and be prepared to poach. Although you can’t play a shot until the 4th shot of the rally, try to be dynamic and be ready for an appropriate contribution.
7. How can I react better when a net player intercepts (and stop getting hit)?
Here’s the scenario :- you and your partner are receiving; the serve is struck; you watch the ball land; the serve is good; you turn your head to watch your partner hit the return; you follow the ball and before you know it, the server’s partner has stepped across and volleyed the ball right at you! Where did you go wrong? Your mistake was turning your head to watch your partner hit the return.
Once you’ve helped call the serve, your attention must turn to the net player – look for any threatening movement. This way you get an early warning which will help you either to take evasive action or even to pick out the direction of the shot and block it back. Although it seems right to watch the ball, you can’t afford to watch your partner if the ball goes behind you. Keep your eyes forwards and “read” what kind of shot your partner has hit by assessing the movements of your opponents. No looking back now!
8. Where should I hit my returns to?
In keeping with the “deep to deep; short to short” principle, you should aim your returns to the server’s half of the court (because you’re in a deep position and must avoid the threat posed by the nearest opponent, i.e. the server’s partner). In order of priority:
- Get the ball back into play
- Direction – avoid the player
- Make the server play a low volley (or half-volley)
Always aim – form follows function! Technique will do what it needs to do when you aim! A good spot to aim for is the area where the service line intersects with the singles sideline.
You should occasionally hit a return down the line or over the net player to:
- Discourage the net player from intercepting
- Catch the net player napping if he has a poor volley or just looks like he’s dozed off!
- Avoid being too predictable!
9. Where should I move when my partner is dragged out of court?
Mountain climbers are usually roped together for safety. In the days of Mallory and Irvine in the 1920’s, the rope was actually more a bond between mountaineers than a safeguard against falling. In doubles, you should maintain a bond with your partner in all sorts of ways. But in particular, you should imagine you’re joined at the hip with a length of rope like a couple of mountaineers.
If your partner’s forced wide, you should move towards him, maintaining the distance between you. That way, you avoid large holes appearing between you. Sure, you’ll leave some space to your side, but it’s better to get your opponents aiming over the higher part of the net and nearer the sidelines than it is to invite them to fire a relatively safe winner right between you. Move as a team and plug the centre gap. It will force your opponents to take more risks. You could say it will give them a mountain to climb!
10. Why shouldn’t I look back at my partner when they are hitting the ball?
Looking back at your partner can cost you a lot of points and can be dangerous for you!. There’s an Aesop fable about a fox and a wild boar. The fox asked the wild boar why he was sharpening his tusks against a tree trunk when there was no need. The wild boar replied that if he only sharpened his weapons when the need arose, it would be too late. Like the wild boar in the fable, you’ve got to be ready for both danger and opportunity.
Your partner’s shot is his concern. You should be concerned with whether or not the opposing net player will intercept it. If you’re watching this player, you’ll spot the first signs of danger or opportunity. It takes time to turn your head from watching your partner to watching what your opponent is going to do and you’ll miss the early signals. You could even get hit! So watch the closest opponent. What he does or doesn’t do will tell you who is going to hit the next shot and whether you should back off or get aggressive. Be prepared like the wild boar and your tennis could become the stuff of fable!
11. Can I distract my opponent by moving when my partner is serving or receiving?
If your intention is to distract your opponents, you can’t do it! However, if your intention is to gain a tactical advantage by popping up in an unexpected position, you are quite entitled to make whatever moves you like! Rule 21 states “If a player commits any act which hinders his opponent in making a stroke, then, if this is deliberate, he shall lose the point or if involuntary, the point shall be replayed.” It’s a bit of a moot point really and it depends on your interpretation of “deliberate hindrance”.
A sensible view is : ”With respect to a player moving when a ball is in play or about to be in play, in general he is entitled to feint with his body as he wishes. He may change position on the court at any time including while the server is tossing the ball to serve. Movements or sounds that are made solely to distract an opponent, such as waving the arms or racket, stamping the feet, or talking are prohibited.” The best advice is to move as much as you like to gain advantage, but tone it down a bit if your opponents object. There’s no point getting into an argument over it – unless you enjoy debating semantics.
12. What are the do’s and don’ts of poaching/intercepting?
When you first start playing doubles, there’s a kind of unspoken rule that you’ve got to protect your alley when you’re at the net. Well, that’s perfectly true, especially when your partner serves wide. But it’s also important to poach occasionally. If you don’t, you put no pressure on the receiver, which puts more pressure on your partner coming in behind his serve. That’s a scenario that will eventually lead to you conceding a service break.
There are two kinds of poaching in doubles. One is an opportunist gambit, whereby the net player spots a weak shot and risks crossing in front of his partner to take advantage of it, and the other is where both players execute a pre-planned switch of sides (usually to intercept a service return). If you and your partner opt for a pre-planned switch, it’s usually a good idea for the server to aim down the middle, because this reduces the angles available to the receiver and makes it less likely that the net player will have to protect his alley. The net player should always be looking for an opportunity to take out a weak crosscourt shot during a rally, especially when an opponent is forced back behind the baseline. Like the pre-planned switch, an opportunist poach should result in a switch of sides. The poacher should commit to it 100%, targeting the area occupied by the receiver’s partner, and his partner should cover for him.
An important aspect to successful poaching is cutting off the ball on an angle, closing in on the net as well as moving across. This diagonal movement ensures the ball has less time to get away from you and also allows you to get some weight transfer into your volley. Timing is crucial. If you make your move too soon, your opponent will see it and hit down the line. Try to time your poach so that you move when your opponent starts his forward swing. At that point he is committed to the shot and is unlikely to be able to change direction.
When your partner’s serving, protect your alley by all means, but don’t make life too easy for the receiver – be a gamekeeper, but turn poacher occasionally!