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© Copyright 1996, Jim Loy
When reading this, remember: All dogmatic statements are false!
Doubles is not a power game. On TV, some doubles partnerships hit hard. But traditional doubles is a game of finesse.
The server: In doubles, the server normally serves from about midway between the center and the doubles sideline. There are good reasons for serving from elsewhere; if you want to serve to the receiver's backhand, if you want to be deceptive, if your serve works well from a wide angle. Left-handed servers often serve wide to the ad court. Serve from various places, to add variety to your serve.
Get the first serve in. In doubles, returning serve is tougher than in singles, because of server's partner at the net. So, get that first serve in and let your partner finish off the return. A high first serve percentage is important. And, too many double-faults is a crime.
Server's partner: Server's partner normally stands about midway between the center line and the doubles sideline. If he is not good at volleying, then he should stand closer to the alley, and just guard the alley. But, any old volley can win a point. So, be brave, and volley. Don't stand too close to the net. If you get an easy volley, then you should step toward the net.
Hard returns: If they are returning bullets right at you, stand in there and volley. If you back up, the volleys get harder, and they will keep returning right at you. Hit one or two nice volleys (off the frame even), and they will start returning cross-court. They were testing you, and you passed the test. But, don't poach much, or they will starting returning right at you again.
Receiver: Most returns should be cross-court, back to the server. Occasionally return down the line, to keep server's partner honest. A lob return may be effective sometimes, especially if the serve was very good.
Lob return: If server's partner is eating you alive at the net, lob return. Your partner should stay back. Prefer cross-court lobs, as you have a bigger target in that direction, and few people can overhead while running in toward the net.
Receiver's partner: Receiver's partner should not play as close to the net as he would as server's partner. If his partner's returns are usually nice, then he may want to play at about the service line. Otherwise, somewhere nearer the baseline is safer. You can rush in if it was a nice return. Don't rush in as a matter of course, unless you like the taste of tennis balls.
Poaching: Since most returns are cross-court, server's partner can often step to the middle and cut off the return. If he moves too soon, then the returner will see it and return down the line. Sometimes a poach will involve just sticking your racket out. If you cross all the way over to the other side, the server should be ready to cover the side that you just left.
Poach or cross? I say that if server's partner steps over the center line, he has CROSSED. He should keep going and server should switch with him, unless server actually plays the cross-court return. If server's partner has not actually stepped over the center line, he should stay, and server shouldn't cover for him.
Fake poach: Fake poach by starting to poach (earlier than usual, so that the receiver sees you move), and then move back to cover the alley. Server's partner should almost always move around some, to keep the returner guessing, unless you really would rather die than volley.
Two up: Good doubles players never play one-up/one-back. They try to get both players up to the net. When this happens, then they control the point. When they get to the net, they normally go to the net together. When driven from the net, because of a lob over their heads or because the opponents are about to pound an overhead, they back up to the baseline together.
Serve & volley: The server can get to the net, right away. This is an easy way to win quick points. This is real doubles. The best defenses against this are low returns (not necessarily hard) to the server, or lob returns. If he can, receiver may want to take the serve sooner, by standing in closer to the service line.
Passing shot: When your opponents are at the net, the normal passing shot is between them. The best alternative is the lob.
Lob: The lob is a powerful weapon to get the opponents away from the net. It is not used enough in doubles. If your opponents are not going to overhead the lob, then both of you should go to the net. Because of this, your opponents should probably lob back.
Volley at their feet. Volleys should be aimed between your opponents, or to their feet, or at a sharp angle. Often the easiest and safest is to aim near their feet.
Targets: A player who is out of position (in no-man's land or too far back or too far forward) is a target. Hit toward that person. His shot will be difficult. Try not to be out of position, and if you are out of position expect to get the ball next.
Left-hander in the ad court: Left-handers usually play the ad court, when the team is returning serve. Then the team will not be fighting each other for the shots down the middle, and you have strong forehands on either side. If there's a left-hander on the team, then neither player will have to serve right into the sun.
Stronger player in the ad court: Except when a team has a left-hander, the stronger player normally plays in the ad court, when a team is returning serve. This is because he usually has the stronger backhand, and pressure points are usually served to that side, and the player on the left gets overheads down the middle. But, learn to play both sides.
Angle volleys: If both (or just one) of your opponents are playing back, an angle volley may be smart.
All four at the net: In the pros, you often see all four players at the net. Aim between them or at their feet (hit down if you can). A surprise lob can work wonders.
Signals: Some teams give signals. Usually the server's partner signals if he wants to cross. A fist (behind the back) usually means that he's staying, and an open hand means that he's crossing. Sometimes a team will give signals to show where he wants the server to aim his first serve. Teams who don't signal can get together and talk.
Call it: There should sometimes be verbal communication between the players. Call "Mine" or "I got it" or "Yours" or "Take it" or "Bounce it" or "No" or "Switch." Try not to call for a ball just after the ball bounces, as that may be heard as a line call. If your partner calls for the ball, you MUST let him have it (unless you emphatically call for it after he does), no matter how easy it is for you and no matter how tough it is for him. A volley (including an overhead) belongs to the person at the net, unless he is called off of it. You can get into the habit of calling for the ball by calling for the overheads that are obviously yours. Call "yours" when the lob is obviously going to your partner. Then he won't worry if he hears you nearby. Get into the habit of calling the ball.
Switch: If one player has to cross to the other side, his partner should switch sides, too.
One-up/one-back: Playing one-up/one-back is inferior to two-up. But it is not hopeless. It is OK when the opponents do not seize the net, or when they lob a lot. If you would rather die than play at the net, then it is about time you learned. It takes a very good ground stroke to win a point in doubles. Any old volley can win. Get in there, and volley.
Move with the ball. If an opponent is hitting the ball from one of the sidelines, then both of you should move toward that side. Essentially, one player moves to cover the line, and his partner moves to cover for him.
Australian Formation: When the receiver of serve consistently hits a strong cross-court return, then the Australian Formation may work well. Server's partner starts about at the center line, crouching so the serve doesn't hit him. Server serves from near the center, where a singles server normally serves. Then either the server or his partner will rush over to cover down the line. This can cause the receiving team great indecision. A down-the-line return or a lob return are the most common returns against this formation. I do a half-Australian, by standing near the center line. I do this to draw a down-the-line return, which I move to cover.
Cringe. Don't let the ball hit you. If you're stuck at the net and are about to eat an overhead, don't let the ball hit you (your racket, maybe), as your partner may still keep the ball in play.
Don't aim for the sidelines. If you're losing, aiming for the lines will make you lose faster. Try to play solid doubles.
Calling the lines: If you can't tell if a ball is "in" or "out," then it is IN, always. That is the LAW. Assume the ball is in, if you can't tell, and keep playing. When your team is serving, you cannot call your serves "in" or "out." You can express an opinion about it, however. You can call your own shots "out."
Ball on the court: If someone else's ball rolls onto your court, then the point should be replayed (first serve again). Return their ball (not onto their court in the middle of their point). You don't want them walking onto your court. If you fail to pick up your own ball, from your own court, then you can still play. But you will lose the point if the ball that you are playing strikes the ball that sits on your side of the net. And please be aware of where your three balls are, so when my ball rolls onto your court, it doesn't sit there for a whole set.
Don't hit your opponent. Although it is often smart to hit the ball toward your opponent, don't intentionally hit him; especially in a friendly game.
Warm-up: Before a tournament match, the players on the east side warm up each other; and the players on the west side warm up each other. Then you take practice serves cross court, and switch sides with your partner for more practice serves.
Tie-break: At 6-6 in a set, you can either keep playing games until one team is ahead by two games, or you can play a tie-breaker (also called a "12-point tie-breaker"). The person next to serve serves ONE point into the deuce-court (This tie-breaker is that person's service game, and in the next set the other team serves first). Each person then serves two points at a time, first the AD-COURT and then the DEUCE-COURT, in the same service rotation that you have used throughout the set. The first team to seven points, if they are ahead by two, wins the set 7-6. If no team is ahead by two points, then you just keep playing the tie-breaker until one team is ahead by two points. EVERY six points, you change ends. So, you change ends in the middle of one player's serve. Each change of ends is not a "change-over." You are not really allowed to stop and drink water.
New set: Each set you can change sides (left & right), and you can change the serve order for your team.
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