Doubles tennis can be enjoyed by players of all levels and of all ages. While not quite as popular as singles tennis, doubles tennis can be a lot of fun. When playing doubles, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the rules and positions used during play.
Doubles tennis is played using the full 36 ft (11 m) width of the court and with two players on each side of the court. Players are assigned specific roles during each Game and must remain in that role until the Game is over. For example, the server must serve out the full Game. The service returner must receive serves until the Game is over. The other two positions, that is the partner of the server and the partner of the returner, are typically positioned up at the net to start a point.
However, they are allowed to play back at the baseline if they chose to do so. As long as they don’t interfere with the serve or service return, they are allowed to position themselves anywhere within the court.
Players alternate between serving, returning, and playing as the partner of the server or returner after each Game. This allows all players to play various positions multiple times during a match.
The Importance of Teamwork
Tennis tends to be a very individualized sport, but when it comes to doubles, good teamwork is vital. One of the great aspects of doubles tennis is that you get play with a partner to help you win points.
Because you will both be depending on each other during a match, it’s important for you and your partner to work well together. You want to make sure you select a partner that will complement your game.
You generally want to play with someone of about equal ability. However, if you have different characteristics, for example, you like playing at the net while your partner prefers the baseline, this isn’t necessarily bad.
Having someone cover you on some of the weaker aspects of your game can be a good thing. This, of course, assumes you can help cover aspects of your partner’s game as well.
The one thing you don’t want in doubles is a stronger-weaker player combination. The problem with this setup is that your opponents will catch on and will pick on the weaker player the entire match.
When establishing your strengths and weaknesses, think about who will play on each side. If you have a strong backhand and your opponent has a stronger forehand, for example, you could play on the Ad court side and your partner on the Deuce court side.
There is no right or wrong answer here. It may be a matter of trying out court sides until you find the optimal combination. You can also mix things up depending on the team you are playing, so long as it’s before a set begins.
In addition to the right and left court side, front and back positioning also plays a role in doubles tennis. After the serve and return, you are allowed to play both players up at the net or both back at the baseline, or you can play one up, one back.
During the serve, the designated server must serve and the designated service returner must receive the serve. It’s not possible to switch sides during this exchange.
However, once the serve and return are completed, players are allowed to move around as desired. This includes moving up to the net or back to the baseline or even switching sides. After the completion of the point, however, players must take their assigned positions.
Next, we’ll take a look at what these positions are. At the start of each point, players will be assigned to one of four positions. After each Game, these positions switch, allowing each player to play all positions during a match.
The server is responsible for initiating the point with a serve. During each Game, the player who is assigned as the server will serve out until the Game ends.
From a tactical standpoint, the server tries to serve deep into the service box, usually attacking the backhand since that is typically the weakest side of most players.
The server needs to stand over from the center mark just wide enough to be able to place the ball to the backhand side while at the same time avoiding their partner.
By standing further away from the center mark, it’s possible for the server to create a greater angle on the serve.
Partner of the Server
The partner of the server will usually begin a point positioned at the net. Usually just in front and in the center of the service line. If you lack quick volley reflexes, you can start just behind the service line.
The partner of the server plays an important role just after the return. If the ball is hit at you following the return, you need to be ready to volley. If the ball is lobbed over you, you need to be prepared.
An aggressive volleyer will often poach, meaning they will move to their opponent’s side to try to quickly finish off the point. When this happens, it’s important for the server to switch sides to cover the open side of the court.
The service returner is the player who is assigned to receive serves on either the Ad Court or the Deuce Court side during a Game. They are not allowed to switch sides with their partner once the Court side is selected, usually prior to the start of a Set.
From a tactical standpoint, the service returner typically tries to return the ball away from the server’s partner while they are positioned up at the net. Ideally, they want to place the ball at the feet of the server so they are forced to hit a half-volley.
This typically means hitting cross-court on the return rather than going down the line. The one exception to this might be when the partner of the server poaches, in order to take advantage of the open court.
Once the point is played, the service returner typically moves back up to the net and becomes the partner of the returner on the ensuing point. This alternating sequence continues for the duration of the Game, at which point the receiving team switches to become the service team.
Partner of the Returner
Typically, the partner of the returner will start out positioned up at the net, in the center of the service box which is adjacent to the box where the serve is being hit.
While less common, the partner of the returner is allowed to play back at the baseline during the serve. After that, they can either remain on the baseline or approach the net.
During the serve, the partner of the returner is responsible for calling serves out when they are long or wide. After this, they typically assume responsibilities up at the net.
Strategy in doubles differs from singles tennis. While there are some aspects of the game that are similar, one of the main differences is that doubles involves net play to a much greater extent.
In doubles, you want to get up to the net as soon as possible to gain the advantage. Teams that are able to play aggressively up front (at the net) typically have an upper hand.
Another aspect of the game that differs from singles is the extensive shot placement to the center of the court rather than to the corners. This is because hitting down the center can cause confusion among players.
Controlling the Net
The team that is able to control the net is usually the team that comes out on top in doubles tennis. Net play in doubles is not optional like in singles tennis, it’s a necessity if you want to have any chance of winning.
For this reason, it’s important to get up to the net as quickly as possible. After serving, the server should approach the net immediately. After returning serve, the service returner should move up to the net.
At this point, the game becomes a match of quick reflexes. You want to aim your volleys either in between two players or angled low to the side.
The aim when playing up at the net is to win the point as quickly as possible. Of course, skilled teams will be able to volley back and forth extensively and exchange lobs from time to time, but the goal should be to put the shot away as quickly as you can.
Protecting the Middle
The middle in doubles tennis is where two partners collide. This is why you should both hit shots in between players and at the same time protect the middle of your side of the court.
Good communication between players becomes important here. If players call who has it, there is a better chance that the point will not result in both players smashing their rackets together.
If it all possible, try to determine ahead of time who hits the middle shots. The player on the forehand shot, for example, can be the go-to person in this situation.
Sometimes this is unavoidable, as your reflexes get the best of you. The last thing you want to do is let a ball get past you. If you do smash rackets, try to maintain form as best you can during the volley.
Anticipation in doubles tennis is important as net play requires very quick reflexes. Poaching, for example, is an art form that requires good anticipation.
At the same time, the service returner can anticipate when a player is about to poach and hit their shot down the line. Anticipating a lob shot can be the difference between getting back in time or not.
You can pick up cues from your opponent’s racket face positioning. If they are going to lob or hit cross-court, slice, etc. racket positioning can provide some cues.
Another thing to look out for is facial expressions. You should be able to see from the grimace on a player’s face that they are about to rip the ball towards you.
Top-notch players have the ability to disguise their shots, so you can’t simply rely on this when playing advanced players, but in most situations, you can use these cues to anticipate.
Moving Together as a Team
Once the ball is served and returned, players should strive to move together in unison. Move in the direction of the ball. Imagine that there is a 12ft rope attached to your partner and move together towards the ball.
Doing so will make it very difficult to pass you either down the middle or to the side. As long as you maintain separation between you and your partner, you will maintain the line so to speak.
If on the other hand, one player moves but the other stays stationary, you’ve now created a large gap between the two of you that the other team can easily exploit. This is why you always want to move simultaneously towards the ball.
Reacting to the Ball
Reacting to the ball means getting to it before it comes to you. Especially when up at the net this becomes critical. The closer you play to the net, the more successful you will be at putting away your volleys. So don’t wait for the ball.
When you sense a lob coming, react immediately and begin to back up. If you can get to the service line before the ball crosses the net, it will be very difficult to lob you. Try to react as quickly as possible to the shot.
One of the advantages of doubles is that you have a partner who can potentially cover the lob if you don’t make it back in time. However, this should not be a reason to delay your move. Assume you will need to cover and communicate with your partner.
During lobs as well as other shots, your focus should be on the opposing team, not your partner. Never watch your partner. You’ll be able to gauge where the shot is going by observing the opposition.
Poaching is an aggressive move by the net player to their partner’s side. If a player poaches immediately following serve, they are hoping to cut off the return and hit a volley winner to end the point.
A secondary objective for poaching is to distract the service returner. The poacher hopes that their movement will be enough to throw off the service returner. This will result in an errant shot into the net or an easy put-away.
When a player poaches, it’s often necessary for their partner to switch sides. This is particularly true if shots are hit back to the spot where they were originally located. Communication between partners is important in these situations.
How to Play Against Teams that Control the Net
As mentioned previously, getting to the net first is key in doubles. Hopefully, your team is the one controlling the net. But if it’s the other team dominating the net, what tactics can you use to at least slow them down?
There are a few things you can do. When serving, try to serve to their backhand or weaker side and mix in a few serves into the body to jam the returner. This will likely result in a weaker return and slow down their forward progress.
When returning serve, hit the ball deep in the server’s court to keep them back, assuming they are not approaching the net on serve. If they rush the net after serving, return the ball inside the service line so it lands at their feet.
Another effective strategy is to lob the serve on the return. This will force the returner to stay back and give you the opportunity to advance to the net first. If possible, lob to the backhand or weaker side.
When both opponents are up at the net, hit the ball low and down the middle. Alternatively, lob them to force them to play back. If you are getting badly beat at the net, you can make life more difficult for the opposing team by forcing them to stay back.
How to Deal With One Up One Back Teams
While getting to and controlling the net is the name of the game in doubles, some teams prefer to play with one player up at the net and one player back. This setup is more common at the recreational or club level than at the professional level.
Against teams that play this formation, try to hit your shots more cross-court. This will help spread out the baseliner and take away the net player. You can hit service returns cross-court to start out the point in this fashion.
Chances are the player on the baseline prefers to be there and the one at the net is more comfortable with the volley. Switch them around by forcing the net player back and the baseliner up to the net.
You can lob the net player on the return to keep them backed up on the baseline. Alternatively, hit low and short volleys to force the baseliner up to the net. Hit volley shots towards the net player or down the middle. Same with overheads.
How to Deal With Lobbing Teams
When playing against teams that like to lob, communication is vital. Call out the lob as soon as you know it’s coming and call out whether you are taking the lob “mine” or whether you need your partner to cover “yours”.
If possible, try to take lobs out of the air. This will give your opponent less time to react. Hit the overhead diagonally to either finish the point or to open up the court.
When positioning at the net, consider moving a bit further back than you would normally to shorten the distance you need to cover on the lob. An alternative to this is to have one player play a bit further back and one closer to the net.
This way you each have a responsibility to either cover the volley or the lob. If you really want to make life miserable for them, play both players back at the baseline. This will render the lob ineffective.
If you do decide to play both players up at the net, hit your volleys short or at an extreme angle to force the other team up. On the return, place the ball at the server’s feet so that they can’t lob you.
How to Play Against Poaching Teams
Anticipate the poach move by either observing the intentions of the net player or cueing off the toss or positioning of the server. Hit your returns right at the net person or down the line. If possible, establish this early on.
This will make them think twice about poaching. The sooner in the match that you can establish this tactic, the better. Your goal is to make them back off and respect the return as soon as possible.
This is another instance where the lob can be effective. By lobbing the return, you take away the ability for the net player to poach. If you can, work to position both players on the baseline. The lob is a great tool to accomplish this.
Timing is also essential against poaching teams. If you can hit your return or groundstroke on the rise, you limit the reaction time of the net player. Another tactic you can use is to slice the ball at a sharp angle away from the poacher.
Doubles tennis is something every player should try out at some point. Even if your preference is singles, there is a great deal to be learned playing doubles. You can become a better singles player by learning from the doubles game.
For example, you are likely to get much more net play during doubles matches than when playing singles. This can really help boost your net play. The same is true of lobbing and, on the other end, of hitting overhead shots.
In addition, playing doubles can be a bit of an escape from singles. Because you are playing with a partner, there tends to be less pressure on yourself. Singles can be very intense and isolating during pressure situations.
Some might argue that the double game helps to mask player weaknesses. This is especially true in teams that complement each other well. There is definitely some truth to this. However, that’s part of what makes doubles special.
Whether doubles is your game of choice, or whether you decide to play from time to time for fun or to take a break from the pressure situations of singles tennis, doubles can be a great alternative to singles. In a game that is very individually focused, playing as a team can be extremely rewarding.
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