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Doubles

Q. What are the basic rules for mixed doubles? I'm coaching tennis this year and have never dealt with mixed doubles. Any information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

A. The most basic rule in mixed doubles is that each team needs to have one male and one female player.

By the way, this is a tremendous advantage our sport has over virtually every other. It is great that boys and girls, or men and women, can compete together on the court at the same time.

Q. When my partner & I play doubles we stay one at net and one back. We have a very hard time when the other team plays both at net. Should we then both play at the baseline to defend?

A. In the old days, most coaches strongly advocated attacking the net at every opportunity. When in doubt, they’d suggest, move forward. Playing from the baseline alongside your partner is also an acceptable strategy, and no longer strictly a defensive one.

Without knowing your game style(s) and capabilities, it is hard to suggest the optimum way to play. In fact, this may be dependent upon your opponents’ abilities as well. If you are going to play one up- one back, then the net player needs to move boldly on occasion. Dart across and intercept a crosscourt shot with a stinging volley. Even when this proves unsuccessful, it will plant seeds of doubt for your opponents and force them to be more precise with their shot selection. If you simply stay on “your side” and your partner on “her side” of the court, then you will be easy pickings for an experienced team.

If you are able to watch some WTA Tour doubles, you will notice that LOTS of teams employ the one up- one back style of play that you prefer. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In conclusion, a few points: Keep your groundstrokes low, make sure the net person is active and alert, and adhere to other doubles principles (make your returns, first serves in, when in doubt hit down the middle, etc.). Good luck!

Q. I am 31 years old and play at a 3.5 level, mainly doubles. In one mixed doubles match I was playing in, my partner and I were getting worked pretty good in the first set. I started to get really frustrated with the way the match was going, so I told my partner I was just going to start ripping it at the net person (out of frustration), and nothing else seemed to be working!! Well, sure enough, I uncorked a couple at the lady at the net, and she could not handle these rippers, but I told her sorry, that it’s not personal. Should I feel bad about scaring the bejeezus out of this poor woman, even though we ended up winning the match because of my deadly forehands? She ended up staying back at the baseline!

A. Remember in “The Godfather,” when they explained that a particular act was not personal, rather it was just business? Well, Michael Corleone realized that it WAS personal and that it is always personal. The same realization should apply toward your choosing to bully a frightened woman. I am glad that you won and that this lady’s mixed doubles partner did not attempt to beat the bejeezus out of you after the match.

To be clear, the shots you played and the tactic you employed were perfectly legal. It is just inappropriate. If you were trying to win the US Open mixed doubles title, then anything goes. In a social, intermediate-level mixed doubles match, there ought to be a different standard of ethics, though.

Q. I enjoy playing singles more than playing doubles, but there are more opportunities for playing doubles recreationally in this area. I play both mixed and women’s doubles quite frequently but have not been able to feel as comfortable as I do in singles. How do I learn to adjust my singles mentality to a doubles court where I feel crowded and distracted by all of the players?

A. That is a common challenge for players of all standards and levels of experience. So much of doubles is related to being a “good teammate.” Work on communicating positively with your partner. Tactically, you should stick to three basic tenets (first serve in; make your returns; when in doubt, hit down the middle). If this does not help you to improve, then choose to use doubles as a way to simply improve your singles. That way, even if you do not win, you can still benefit by competing- and have fun along the way.

Q. Playing doubles, I like to fake a poach from time to time. An opposing player said that it was illegal or at least bad sportsmanship. I said as long as you are not purposely squeaking your shoes to distract them, feigning is legal and a good tactic. Correct me if I'm wrong.

A. No need to correct you, because you are right. Constantly moving around the net is a NECESSARY tactic for successful doubles. If you stand still then you are less effective. It sounds like your opponent was bothered by your aggressiveness. Be courteous and respectful, and then kick his butt.

Q. I have played on my school's tennis team and now that I am in college I have a brand new doubles partner. Both of us have played for many years but have not played with each other until this year. Do you have any tips for building a good doubles team?

A. 1. Be a good partner. This means that you should be encouraging and understanding. Support your teammate with energizing comments and make sure that your body language is positive.

2. Play tactically sound doubles:

a. Make your return of serves.

b. Get a high percentage of your first serves in, and be accurate with them.

c. When is doubt, play balls low and down the middle.

d. When you have a high, easy ball- especially when you are at the net, be decisive with your shot.

e. When you are in a defensive position, play defense.

3. Play together frequently, so that you develop some familiarity and chemistry.

Q. In the third set of a women's doubles match, can you change which partner will serve first, or do you have to continue with the same serving order?

A. At the beginning of any set, a doubles team can alter their serving order. In indoor tennis, where the conditions are less of a factor, this makes perfect sense. The ideal is to have the stronger server serving more games.

Teams can also choose to alter the receiving formation at the beginning of every set. If one partner is struggling from the deuce court, a change of sides might inspire improved performance.

Q. I play tennis at the 3.0 level on a city league. My partner and I won our first set 6-2 and lost the second set in a tiebreaker and lost the third set 6-1. After the first set, our opponents both played back, where we still played one up and one back. They stayed in that position the rest of the match. Why would you play that position and should we have both played back too? What benefit is there to playing both players back? I know you can win more points when you have a player at the net, so why would you ever want to go back and play from the baseline in a doubles match?

A. Well, they won didn’t they? Perhaps their groundstrokes were collectively better than your team’s volleys. If so, then this was a prudent tactic. It used to be a given that to win in doubles, teams needed to successfully attack the net. That is not entirely the case anymore. There have been success stories- even on the pro tours (such as Massu and Gonzalez winning the men’s gold medal at the Olympics; or Suarez and Ruano-Pascaul winning virtually everything on the women’s side) where players stay in the backcourt for most points.

I believe that if you and your teammate are strong net players, then attacking the net is the right strategy. If players are staying back against you there are a few tactics that you can employ.

1. Hit your shots deep and down the middle and then hit an angle volley as soon as you get an easy ball to handle.

2. Hit almost all of your shots to the weaker player at the baseline.

3. “Double up” your shots to one player at the baseline. Make her hit a forehand and then a backhand in rapid succession.

4. When they are returning with both players back, have the net player on your team crowd the net a bit. If your net player can reach the return of serve, then just dump a drop volley. (If this does not win points outright, it will at least force your opponents forward and out of their comfort zone).

Good luck in handling this alternative tactic next time around.

Q. Hi. My question regards playing at the net. My partner has a slow second serve that brings our opponent far inside the baseline, and I get a lot of body shots that I have no time to return. What can I do to avoid these easy points for them and give us a better chance for second serves?

A. First of all, tell your partner to get his first serve in. Even if this means compromising some pace for more consistency. As you have discovered, opponents tend to be more aggressive when returning second serves.

If a ball is hit directly at your body, and you are not able to move your feet to get into position, use a backhand volley to defend yourself. By pulling your elbow out and away from the body, you can block any ball that is hit at you.

My last suggestion might seem odd to you. When you recognize that your opponent is about to really nail the ball and you are at net, move forward and get closer to net. This is the opposite of what our instincts would tell us, but it makes sense. It takes a little bravery, but you will find out that this usually works better than retreating. Consider that:

1. In this situation, you clearly do not need to worry about a lob.

2. The net will protect half of your body.

3. You will cut down on most of the angles by moving forward.

4. And, virtually any ball that you touch will go over if you are close enough to the net.

Good luck!

Q. Could you explain baseline doubles strategy?

A. I am guessing that you are referring to having both players back during points in doubles. This used to be a fairly rare strategy, but the world’s best women’s team (Virginia Ruano Pascaul and Paola Suarez), as well as the men’s Olympic gold medal winners in doubles (Chileans Nicolas Massu and Fernando Gonzalaz), use this alignment as a matter of course.

If you have exceptional groundstrokes, or comparatively weak volleys, these great players have proven that this “baseline strategy” in doubles can be effective at even the highest levels of the sport.

Q. I tend to be a “slow starter” in a match, which leads to the dreaded USTA third set Super Tie Break. No matter how well I’ve played in the two prior sets, I seem unable to pull it together for that tiebreaker. I’ve heard all the trite sports phrases. Do you have any concrete suggestions for my doubles partners and I?

A. Mostly, I just have trite answers myself, so I’m not sure how helpful this will be.

You and your various doubles partners should stick to the basics during crunch time. That means getting your first serves in, making all of your return of serves, playing sound volleys, and- when in doubt- hitting down the middle. Remember that most points are lost, not won. By playing tactically sound tennis during the 10-point match tiebreakers, you’ll give yourself a better chance of success.

Lastly, be aware of maintaining positive body language during these crucial moments during a match. So much success in doubles is based on momentum. If your partner sees you moping around the court and looking negative, it will be hard to put together one final charge as a team. Even if you are playing below your expectation level and feeling lousy, learn to fake it. This will often help to keep your partner motivated.

Anyway, good luck in these third set tiebreakers. Remember that a tiebreaker is usually a 50-50 proposition. By virtue of arriving there, it indicates that you and your opponent(s) are evenly matched. The smallest tactical or psychological edges can make all the difference.

Q. I am interested in buying a book about playing doubles and wanted to know if you have any to recommend. I am a 4.0 player.

A. I think "Winning Doubles" written by Stan Smith (2002, Human Kinetics) is outstanding. Smith is one of the game's all-time greatest doubles champions and his book is filled with great ideas, tips, and tactics. In particular, Smith writes about the importance of good communication, including the non-verbal variety, between partners.

Q. I know that the correct way to play doubles is to have both players at net with the receiver of the serve moving up to the net after the serve. However, I watched the University of Illinois women’s team play and they kept one player up and one player back. The player in back was playing almost like singles with the net player covering most of the net area. Sometimes when we compete (we are older ladies) against a team that lobs a lot this seems a better option to me? Can it ever be? Thanks.

A. This has been a surprising evolution in doubles over the past several years. Players are so comfortable nailing their groundstrokes and scrambling along the baseline that they are bringing this style to competitive doubles. A short generation ago, coaches would frown upon any tactic that favored staying back in doubles, unless your opponents were really dominating on serve games for example. Today, there are many successful doubles teams on the professional tours (such as the world’s #1 women’s team of Virginia Ruano-Pascaul and Paola Suarez) that incorporate staying back, or using the one-up, one-back style that you write about.

My advice would be for you to use the style that makes you most comfortable. Particularly if opponents are successfully lobbing the net player, then having one player stay back might be prudent. The important thing to realize is that there are no hard and fast rules that you MUST obey when it comes to tactics. The object of tennis is to get the ball over the net and inside the lines. As long as you meet this objective more often than your opponent(s), then you will be successful on the day.

Q. When do you recommend using alternate formations in doubles?

A. When all else fails…

Actually, using alternative formations can be highly effective against a doubles team really in a groove. For example if a specific returner is consistently nailing their returns low and crosscourt, then you might employ the I-formation. This will force your opponent(s) to alter their shot selection and perhaps disrupt their rhythm. Another tactic that often proves effective is used against a big server (or team that has been enjoying easy “hold” games). Have both you and your partner stay back when returning, particularly against first serves. This will take the pressure of having to hit a low, crosscourt return each time. If they hit a huge serve, you can play a more defensive return and then try to scramble defensively at the baseline and, at least, make your opponents hit several shots to win the point.

These alternative formations can make doubles even more fun. Enjoy!

Q. While volleying in doubles, if the net person is given a high ball, is that ball best placed at the closest opponent or is it supposed to go the furthest opponent? If given a low ball in the same scenario, where is it best placed? Thank you in advance for your help.

A. Generally in doubles, when you have a high, easy ball you can nail it hard at the nearest opponent’s feet (if they are also at the net) or angle it away.

When you are forced to play a low ball, you are better served to try to volley it back toward your opponent who is furthest from the net. This will give you a few extra moments to recover and to get in position for their next shot. If both opponents are at the net in this scenario, try to softly “dump” the ball back as low you can, which will force them to hit up on their next shot.

Q. I would like to know if there is a trick to deciding when to poach in doubles. What should I do before poaching? What should I look for from the opponent...?

A. The “trick” is to poach when you know that you are going to get a ball that you can put away comfortably. Admittedly, this is easier said than done.

I advise my students to always expect that the next ball is coming to them when playing doubles. I know from my own experiences that staying completely alert in doubles can sometimes be a challenge. This mindset really helped me to improve.

As for picking the ideal times to cross (or “poach”), look for cues from your opponents. For example, if they look like they are about to float a chip backhand, then Go! If they are forced to play a tricky half-volley, then also look to cut. The more attempts you make, the more comfortable you will become.

Q. What is the best doubles strategy to use?

A. Generally the best strategy is to get to the net as quickly and as often as possible. An old coaching adage for doubles is to control the net and you will control the match.

Do this by serving and volleying, preferably getting the majority of your first serves in. When returning serve, try to hit your returns low and away from the player closest to net. If your return is strong enough (or low enough), try to get into the net right away.

Q. I am left-handed. My partner is right-handed. Which one of us should play the deuce court? Thank you in advance.

A. It depends upon your strengths and weaknesses. For example, do you and your partner prefer “forehands down the middle”? As a helpful gauge, some of the greatest teams in history (such as Martina Navratilova-Pam Shriver, John McEnroe-Peter Fleming and Todd Woodbridge-Mark Woodforde) played with the right-hander in the deuce court and the lefty receiving in the ad court.

One tremendous advantage that you lefty-righty combos have, however, is that you’ll never need to serve while looking directly into t he sun again. The “sun side” is opposite for lefties than it is for righties, so adjust your serving order accordingly at the beginning of each set.

Q. I’m a 3.5 player who has just begun to play doubles with players who use signals. Are there specific signals that all players use?

A. Generally, the player at net will signal to his partner who is serving whether he intends to “poach” or to “stay” after the serve is hit. In more advanced doubles, the partners will often signal which direction the serve will be hit, in much the same manner that the pitcher and catcher communicate in baseball.

Hand signals are common in doubles, but perhaps not the best form of communication. Australia’s Roy Emerson is quite possibly the greatest doubles player of all-time. He always believed that talking to his partner between points was more effective than flashing signals. So… you and your partner might be better served to talk and listen to one another between points, as Emerson did with partners throughout his career, instead of flashing signs. Either way, enjoy playing “dubs.”

Q. How can you play an effective double’s game when you know you are matched with a weak partner and the opponents are relatively strong?

A. Try to be a “good teammate” is a start! When your partner is encouraged and positively supported, she might surprise you with some inspired play. For example, talk with her between points about how “we” are trying to win the next point. When she misses, encourage her by saying things like: “good idea” or “that was the right shot- bad luck.”

Be sure that your body language between points is very positive too. A partner can really feed off of this energy. If you act annoyed or discouraged, believe me, your partner will see this in your body language and begin feeling (and playing) even worse.

Lastly, realize that if your opponents feel they are a superior team, and you and your partner manage to “hang in there” and make it close, that strange things can (and do) happen at the end of a set (or a match). Some nerves might start creeping into their games and before long you might enjoy a surprising result.

Q. In doubles, for the receiving side, what are the rules (or best practices) of the player not receiving the serve. Should he be standing without any movement during the server’s service motion or is it ok to be moving around to some degree?

A. While your partner is preparing to return serve in doubles, I advise that players straddle the service line at the mid-way point. This puts you in prime position to assist your partner with calling the lines on the return of serve. It also allows you to move forward aggressively should your partner hit an effective return, or to “hold your ground” (with a good chance of staying out of the hospital) if he hits a lame floater.

When you are in this position, stay alert. Convince yourself that the next ball is headed your way (every time). This mindset enables you to stay eager and active around the net.

As far as jumping around when your opponent is preparing to serve, I would advise against it. This is clearly an example of gamesmanship, and a violation of the code of behavior that should define our sport. Instead, be respectful of your opponent’s concentration, and prepared to support your partner with good, alert positioning.

Q. My doubles partner and I have a philosophical difference when it comes to a key strategy point. When she is serving, she insists that I position myself very close to the net. I understand that most players would agree with her, but I don't feel comfortable being that far up. I prefer to play about two steps back from where she wants me.

I'm wondering if I should play the spot that most would agree is where I should position myself or should I play where I am most comfortable if I don't think it's hurting our performance?

A. Respectfully, it sounds as though you and your doubles partner both need to compromise a little. Why not start where you prefer, and then move forward immediately as the point begins?

I agree with her, in that the closer you are to the net, the easier it becomes to put volleys away. When she is serving, you need to do everything to help her through "her" games. Presumably, she’ll do the same for you when you’re serving.

If you continue to disagree with her all the time, find a new partner.

Q. I’m 4.0 doubles player. If you have LH and RH players on a team what side should they play assuming they have no side preference? I’m of the opinion that two forehand ground strokes and volleys up the middle are better which means the RH player takes the ad court and the LH player the deuce court.

A. Maybe you're right, but some great teams have done it differently.

In the cases of John McEnroe with Peter Fleming, Martina Navratilova with Pam Shriver, and Mark Woodforde with Todd Woodbridge, the lefty has returned from the ad side. The #1 doubles team on the ATP Tour, the Bryan Brothers, choose to do it your way though. Lefty Bob Bryan plays the deuce side and his righty twin brother Mike Bryan returns from the ad court.

The bigger advantage, as I see it, is that neither player on a lefty-righty doubles team needs to ever serve while looking into the sun. Now THAT is a competitive edge!

Q. I am 71 and playing 3.0 doubles and having a ball. Not doing badly. But I could do better by learning to poach better. There are some shots that just float by that are easy. I move without any problem, but I am doing something wrong. Incidentally, sometimes my opponent goes down the alley, as I am obviously giving myself away. Help!

A. Just go for it. If you decide to cross a lot in doubles you will put a lot of pressure on your opponents. Even if you don’t hit a winner or finish the point, your movement can be disruptive.

Also, understand that if you are willing to take the risks associated with crossing, then you need to accept that sometimes your opponents will beat you down the line. That’s all right though, because hitting down the line is often harder and a lower percentage shot than going cross-court.

Lastly, I’ve always thought that doubles was a LOT more fun when you are constantly moving. So… continue to be aggressive.

Q. I am a serve-and-volley doubles player. Often I have to play doubles with a non-serve-and-volleyer (normally, one who likes the one-up, one-back court position). When this happens, should I play this formation, which I don't like, or should I try to continue to play my serve-and-volley game on my side, knowing that my partner and I will have some big holes on the court? I don't like to play what I consider "bad" doubles (one up, one back), but I also don't want to frustrate my partner. I believe that serve-and-volley really only works when both partners are doing it; however, it's difficult at my club to find another serve-and-volley player every time I play doubles.

A. When I was learning tennis, coaches insisted that you serve and volley all the time in doubles. Well, times have surely changed! In fact, it seems pretty common on the WTA Tour (less so on the ATP Tour) to have players playing in the one-up, one-back formation. Consider the top-ranking teams of Virginia Ruano Pascaul/Paola Suarez and Svetlana Kuznetsova/Martina Navratilova. Both of these teams quite often play this style, and it is particularly surprising to see Navratilova and partner using this style but, again, times have changed. (Where have you gone, Pammy Shriver?)

As a “good partner,” you need to fit in with whomever you are playing alongside. If you are playing with someone who prefers to stay back, then you will need to have more in-between-point discussions. Constantly tell your partner that you will be looking to cross at the net, and encourage him/her to come forward whenever the opportunity presents itself. Regardless, be encouraging to your partner at all times.

In terms of style of play, I tend to agree that attacking the net is generally the most effective strategy in successful doubles. Given that, I would encourage you to continue attacking. There will be times when you feel “out of position” when a partner is reluctant to move forward, but be patient when this happens. Most of all, stay positive out there -- your attitude is often even more crucial than your tactical decisions to becoming an effective partner in doubles.

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