Tennis Doubles Tactics

In tennis doubles, communicating with your partner and developing tactics that lead to a winning partnership are key. Tennis doubles tactics begin with standard positioning at the start of a doubles point for the server, the receiver, and the partner of each.

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Standard Initial Positioning

The server's position in doubles is usually closer to the center on the deuce side so that she can more easily serve up the middle to the receiver's backhand, forcing the receiver to hit an often difficult, inside-out backhand to keep the ball away from the server's partner. On the ad side, the server usually takes a wider position so that she can either make the receiver hit a stretched backhand or use a slice to curve the ball up the middle to the forehand.

The receiver positions herself so that she's roughly on the other end of an imaginary line that runs from the server through the center of the service box.

The server's partner starts in the middle of the service box opposite the receiver. At this depth, she can move forward to an aggressive volleying position to intercept a vulnerable return, but she can also back up enough to hit an overhead on all but an excellent lob. At this width, she can, with one big crossover step, reach across the alley on her side, but she can also threaten the more likely return across the middle of the court.

The receiver's partner stands on or near the service line so that she can move forward to volley if her partner returns aggressively or move back to defend if her partner returns weakly. On the service line, she also has an excellent view of whether the serve is long.

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Moving Server's Partner Initial Positioning

One of the most difficult challenges in doubles can be staying alert. In singles, every time your opponent hits the ball, you know you'll be trying to hit it next, but in doubles, other people may hit the ball several times before suddenly you get a chance, and it's easy to get caught flat-footed.

One way to make yourself more alert as the server's partner is to start on the service line as your opponent begins to serve and then, as soon as the ball passes you, move forward and time a split-step to the receiver's swing.

This technique has important advantages in addition to waking you up: You're more likely to remember to keep moving forward for the put-away volley in the event of a weak return, the receiver is more likely to look at you when she should be focused on the ball, and you're much less likely to get hit by your partner's serve.

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Movement on Aggressive Return

If the receiver hits a return that's aggressive enough to be likely to force an attackable reply from the opponents, the receiver and her partner should both move forward to a volley starting position at the middle depth of the service box and to the left or right as necessary to cut off the angles the opponent is likely to hit.

In this case, the receiver has hit the ball (orange spot) fairly wide to her left, so she and her partner both shift to the left to cover the net. Under attack, the server's partner would be almost helpless in her volleying position, so she moves back as far as she can until the opponents are about to make their next shot. She also shifts somewhat in the same direction as her partner so that they don't leave too large a gap down the middle.

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Movement on Weak Return

If the receiver hits a weak return, her partner should move back as far as she can until the opponents are about to make their next shot. Being farther back gives her more time to react and reduces the opportunity for the opponents to hit past her, which they will almost certainly try to do.

The server's partner should try to pick off any weak returns she can, because she will get to them sooner than the server and thus give the receiver's partner little time to move back. The server should come forward too, either to volley the weak return if her partner doesn't, to attack a short return after it bounces, or to volley the opponents' next ball, if any.

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Both Back on Serve

If the receivers are having an easy time returning serves aggressively, the server's partner will get passed down the line and forced into errors much more often than she would benefit from being in volleying position. The team would do better with both players back.

For many players, the serve is the main weakness, and by starting at the baseline, they can use their strengths, ground strokes, to get themselves into the point. Seeing both opponents back, the receiver should follow her aggressive return to the net, where she and her partner have the clear offensive advantage.

Serving with your partner back is a last resort, but it can be a necessary one, and if you know your serve will force you into this tactic, develop a good lob so that you and your partner can force the receiving team back from the net, and you can move forward to attack.

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Both Back to Receive

If the receiver can't do enough with the return to keep the serving team from volleying the return past the receiver's partner, the receiver's partner should start the point at the baseline. Farther forward, she's just a target for the serving team to pass.

If the receiver hits an occasional strong return, she and her partner can move forward to take the net together, although they might not get as far forward as they would like before having to play the next ball. Seeing the receiving team both back, the server should try especially hard to join her partner at the net as early as possible, ideally coming forward right behind her serve.

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Server's Partner Opportunistic Poach

The receiver usually tries to return cross-court. When the server's partner sees that she can reach the return well enough to hit an aggressive volley, she should feel free to cut diagonally forward into her partner's half of the court to hit an opportunistic poach. She should be pretty sure, though, that her volley will be a winner or force a weak reply. Her partner, the server, won't know that she's going to poach, and if the opponents get an easy ball, they'll have half the court open for their reply.

Although some players are too eager to try opportunistic poaching and try for balls they shouldn't, most players don't poach enough. The hardest job in doubles is hitting the return of serve, and if you have a lively poacher to worry about, it gets a whole lot harder. A poacher will often win more points by causing the receiver to miss the return than she will by putting returns away.

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Server's Partner Lobbed: Crossing Over

If the receiver lobs the return over the server's partner and the server is still at the baseline, it's easier for the server to retrieve the lob. The server's partner should cover the half of the court the server just left while also getting back as far as possible until the opponents are about to hit the next ball.

Once they see that they've hit a good, deep lob, the receiving team should move forward to a volleying position and give the server the difficult challenge of passing or lobbing them.