10 Tips for Better Doubles Strategy

by | Aug 4, 2012 | Doubles strategy, USTA Teams | 16 comments

(Photo: I took this at the 2011 US Open – Austria’s Jurgen Melzer and Germany’s Philipp Petzschner in final set before winning their second Grand Slam doubles title)

Coaches often say that playing doubles strengthens your singles game and vice versa. Having played a lot of doubles over the past year, I couldn’t agree more. Among other things, doubles has quickened up my reflexes and skills at net. It’s also forced me to play smarter and improve my accuracy when placing the ball. And as a USTA competitor, it’s a must-learn skill for most, given that 3 out of 5 courts played for every team match are doubles (unless you’re playing Mixed Doubles, in which case all courts are doubles).  I’ve also found doubles to be incredibly fun as you get better and when you find partners you have chemistry with.

Better Doubles Strategy tips learned from Roger DowdeswellMy USTA teammates and I learned a ton about doubles strategy over the past few months from Roger Dowdswell, Tennis Director at Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club. Roger is a former world top-60 player who competed multiple times at Wimbledon, US Open, French Open and the Australian Open. He’s also a wise, classy guy who brings intense but calm energy to practice sessions. One of my teammates recently described Roger as “pretty much the coolest guy on Earth” and I agree. See this great Harper’s profile on Roger, “Courtliness on the Court, and Splendor on the Grass.”

Here are the 10 top takeaways I got from our coaching sessions with Roger:

1) TOUCH AND PLACEMENT ARE FAR MORE IMPORTANT IN DOUBLES THAN KILLING THE BALL–ESPECIALLY WITH VOLLEYS AND OVERHEADS!  Getting too “hungry” often just ends up becoming a wristy or swinging shot that ends up in the net or long.

2) GET YOUR FIRST SERVE IN!  Roger and so many other pros I’ve worked with emphasize this over and over again for doubles. As soon as you miss your first serve, your opponents get into “attack” mindset (or should!) on your second serve. Take a little pace off to boost your 1st serve percentage. Or consider using a higher-percentage slice serve (versus flat) as your first serve: it may have less pace, but the ball will be trickier for your opponent to handle. The team with the highest 1st serve percentage in doubles has a big advantage. Doubles great Liezel Huber mentions this along with 4 other “Top 5 Doubles Tips” in this USPTA Tennis Resources video.

3) BE CLEAR ON YOUR SHOT CHOICE DURING RETURN OF SERVE. Most often, aim for sharp-angled cross-court returns (medium pace! placement more important than power!) to pull your opposing returner wide. Do this well, and you’ll buy time to move into net, open up the opposing court, and set up you and your partner for a winner.4) VARY THE SPEED AND HEIGHT OF YOUR RETURN OF SERVE– and decide how you’ll return before your opponent serves. Just like volleys and overheads, have a target and strategy in mind before you hit the ball. After seeing your opponent’s serve one game, you’ll probably have a good enough sense of what to expect.

  • Option A: Medium-paced short-angled return (to pull opponent at baseline way out wide out)
  • Option B: Hard drive
  • Option C: Lob (short backswing, usually over opposing net player)

4) TO ATTACK THE OPPOSING NET PLAYER (AND ON APPROACH SHOTS) KEEP THE BALL LOW AND USE MEDIUM-PACE ANGLE SHOTS. If you hit a shot at/near the net player and it’s low, they’ll have to hit up, which means you’ll be able to move into net. And when you hit angle shots, this pulls the opposing teams out of position and buys you time to approach net. Recognize the short balls and opportunities and move into net whenever possible, where most points in doubles are won!

5) ALWAYS HAVE A TARGET IN MIND BEFORE YOU HIT YOUR VOLLEY OR OVERHEAD. Choose a target that buys you some leeway if you’re tight or mishit (i.e., don’t aim for 2 inches from the baseline! Aim for wide boundaries of service line, or opposing net player’s feet, etc).

6) MOVE WITH YOUR PARTNER AND COVER THE MIDDLE! Move with your partner (L and R, up and back–think of “windshield wipers” moving as a unit) and follow the ball. If your partner (or opposing player) is pulled out wide, one of you should be touching the center line of the court with one foot to be covering the middle. There’s only one exception to moving like windshield wipers: if you hit the ball to the middle of the opposing court, you and your partner should move in slightly towards each other to cover the middle.

7) COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE– DURING AND BETWEEN EVERY POINT! Talk to each other during every point (You! Me! Go! Stay! etc). And communicate between every point, whether verbally or just physically: whether you talk strategy about the next point, tell your partner “way to go”, or simply give each other a high-five, you’re connecting– a key ingredient to sustained success in the match.

— Closed fist = “stay”
— Open hand = “poach/switch.”
— (From T-formation) Pinky pointed down = “I’ll move L after you serve”
— (From T-formation) Index finger pointed R = “I’ll move R after you serve”

9) COMMIT TO A POACH/SWITCH AFTER SIGNALING IT. Signaling a poach means you are telling your partner he MUST plan to immediately cover the other side of the court after serving. It does NOT mean you’re going to “try” a poach and stay if not successful. If you signal “stay” and a ball comes into your zip code for a poach, by all means go for it: your partner should be alert to this and move to cover the other side of the court. Important: Once you start signaling and executing poaches, expect the opposing team to start trying to aim more of their returns to your net guy. They will try to go down the line more often and punish you for poaching. As such, the net player should NEVER think “I signaled stay so I can relax now, because they’re probably going to hit their return cross-court…” Instead, the net player should start expecting– actually hoping– that the opposing team hits more shots directly to him. The chances of the net player hitting a winner are far greater than the baseliner.

10) DURING MATCH WARM-UPS, ASK THE OPPONENT YOU’RE WARMING UP WITH TO FEED YOU SOME OVERHEADS: This will both give you time to loosen up your shoulder AND will send a signal to the opposing team that you know what you’re doing 🙂

Next step on my doubles journey is to build in communications/ strategy with my doubles partners around placement of serve, which of course informs choice about whether to poach or not… I’ll keep you posted.

Feel Free to reach out to me directly at roadto45@gmail.com and be sure to follow me on social media!

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