While both singles and doubles categorize tennis, both are very different from each other. Beyond the obvious, (one-on-one versus two-on-two), each discipline requires varied skill sets, and distinct mentalities. The fact is just because someone is a good singles player does not mean he will be a good doubles player—or partner.
That said, it’s important to remember that doubles play often comes down to strategy. Knowing how to strategize in a doubles match can help teams disguise weaknesses, accentuate strengths, and consistently put themselves in a great position to win. By understanding the following ten key strategic doubles tips, your team can be on its way to racking up more victories.
1. Play with More Energy – Raise Your Intensity
Doubles is fast. Most shots are fought at the net. With balls coming quick and hard, the points are generally short. So, your reflexes need to be sharp—and your energy high. Otherwise, you will react too slowly, resulting in poorly placed shots.
The Bryan brothers, arguably history’s greatest doubles team, personify energy. Even in between points they walk quickly, bounce on their feet, waiting for the next point to start—their body language bursting with an eagerness to play. When the point starts, that energy shifts to intensity, their steps fast, their timing solid, and their approaches fierce.
So, get out there and use all the energy you can. Don’t worry about getting tired. Points are short and you generally need to cover only half the court.
The passion and energy the Bryan’s play with is on full display here, as they do their legendary celebratory chest bump.
2. Serve Tee and Body
Serving the tee minimizes the angles at which your opponent can return the ball. Whether his return comes down the line or cross-court, chances are it will remain within your team’s reach.
Conversely, if your first serve veers too wide, you force your partner to shift in order to cover a potential return down the line. This opens a greater angle for a cross-court return, putting your team on immediate defense.
An equally effective serve is one sliced into the body. It jams your opponent, making it more difficult for him to direct the ball where he wants. Such returns will often come back to a spot where you or your partner has an aggressive play on the ball.
Remember, serves that go down the tee and into the body are also higher percentage serves because they travel over the lower parts of the net.
When a serve is hit wide, the server’s partner is forced to cover the potential down the line return, making the cross-court return much easier to hit. Even though the return in the picture above was hit near the server’s partner, the forced position shift did not allow him to poach and have an easy volley on top of the net.
3. Return Down the Line Early in a Match
Doubles returns are typically hit cross-court because they are high percentage shots, meant to avoid the server’s partner, who is on top of the net waiting to put away a gimme. Understanding this, your opponent will often creep toward the middle to increase his chances of picking off your cross-court return. This of course decreases your window of success.
By returning down the line early in a match, you force the server’s partner to stay put more often, to cover more of his side of the court—because he knows you are willing to hit the return down the line at any time.
Your team might lose a few points early on, but it will be worth it when the easier cross-court return is open late in the match.
Here you can see the server’s partner cheating over towards the middle, looking for the cross-court return, but also leaving his side of the court wide open. The returner hits down the line, in order to make sure his opponent stays put for the rest of the match.
4. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses as a Team
If one or both of you feel weak at the net, play more from the baseline. No rule states that one player from each team must be at the net every point.
Take this example. Perhaps you don’t have a massive serve, and as such, hard returns are causing your partner to miss volleys at the net. Well, move your partner to the baseline while you serve, and increase your chances of keeping more balls in play.
The same strategy applies to playing at the net. If one or both of you feel more comfortable at the net, then get there as much as possible. Serve and volley on both serves. Charge in after the return.
Do whatever it takes. The objective is to win no matter what your playing style is, and no matter your weaknesses.
Just in case a weak return is hit, the returner’s partner is stationed at the baseline, in order to give his team the highest chance of reflexing the next ball back in play.
5. Lob Return
When receiving a serve, if the server’s partner is close to the net, lob the return. The server’s partner knows someone is behind them, so he often won’t make the extra effort to hit the overhead. When the ball bounces, the server will hit a groundstroke. From there the point begins again on more neutral terms.
The lob return also takes pressure off the returner. Instead of having to hit such a perfect return—angled out of the reach from the server’s partner—he can softly block the ball up and back to “re-start” the point.
6. Return Down the Center
Return straight down the center if your return is weak or you are not returning well.
Many times, in order to avoid giving the server’s partner an easy volley on top of the net, players will try to hit too perfect a return or angle. Instead, hit straight down the center. This gives you the greatest margin for error and forces your opponents to make the next play (and perhaps a mistake.) The key is you are increasing your chances of putting (and keeping) the ball in play.
Remember this tip during important points. Just aim down the center and give your team a chance.
7. High Percentage of First Serves In
Putting a high percentage of first serves in is more important than how big you hit your serve. If you constantly have to hit a second serve, returners assume your velocity will drop because you want to avoid a double fault. As such, they often step inside the court, which can result in a more aggressive return, of course putting your team in a defensive position to start the point.
When a returner waits for the first serve, he generally stands slightly farther back, expecting a harder serve. So, accelerate like you normally would for an aggressive first serve, but add a little more spin, therefore increasing your margin for error. With this kind of solid first serve in play, and the returner’s defensive positioning, your team’s chances for success dramatically rise.
8. Take Advantage of High Volleys and Aim at the Player at the Net
The fact is high volleys are hit much harder than regular volleys since you strike at a downward angle, like a serve or an overhead.
So, hit a high volley at the net person. He has less time to react and reflex the ball back. If your opponent at the net returns the volley, he will often have to lift it. This will give your team another chance at a high put-away.
If you hit to the person at the baseline, then you allow him more time to react and extend the point.
9. Poach on Big Points
Poaching is when the server’s partner switches sides once a serve is hit. Generally, the server’s partner does this to get an easy volley on top of the net, or to get the returner thinking more about where they have to return.
On big points, returners are nervous. Often, they won’t risk a down the line shot that will give the server’s partner an easy volley at the net. As such, they often opt to hit the safer cross-court return.
Take advantage of this fear and poach. If your opponent goes down the line, then tip your hat to him. More often than not, though, poaching on big points will earn a volley on top of the net. That’s a great position to be in.
In the picture above, the server’s partner poaches, taking a chance that the returner is not willing to hit down the line with the score being 30-0. Taking this risk has left the net player with a gimme at the net.
10. Communication Is Key
There is no such thing as communicating too much with your doubles partner. Points happen quickly and decisions made split seconds too late can cost your team points.
If you plan on hitting a lob on the return, for example, let your partner know. He needs to be prepared that an overhead might be hit at him. If he is unaware of your intentions, he might be standing too close to the net, and at risk of getting hit in the face. But, if your partner knows your plan ahead of time, he can take a small step back and be ready.
Communicating on the court, as in life, can also help relieve stress. If you are nervous or lacking confidence about how to play the next point, communicating with your partner can help release these emotions. More often than not, your partner will give you a few words of encouragement, which can help you feel more relaxed.
So before each point starts make sure you and your partner are communicating. (Your opponents are trying to figure out what you will do. Your partner should not have to.)
Two sets all, down championship point, and the Bryan’s stay alive with an ace. To stay calm and confident, Pospisil and Sock give each other a few words of encouragement before the next point.
Not all the tips above are going to be necessary to win every doubles match. For example, you might be serving to someone who is a lefty on the deuce side and clearly does not have a good backhand return. In that case, you will ignore tip number two and serve out wide the majority of the time.
Just remember these tips, know when to apply them, and doubles will instantly become a lot easier for you and your team.