Choosing Sides In Doubles

Q. "I'm a 4.0 doubles player. If you have left-handed and right-handed players on a team, what side should they play, assuming they have no side preference? I'm of the opinion that two forehand groundstrokes and volleys up the middle are better, which means the right-handed player takes the ad court and the left-handed player the deuce court. Any thoughts?"

From Chuck:

I am a left-handed 3.5 doubles player, and I like having forehands down the middle. I know I am more aggressive in this position and usually my partner likes that, also. Some players, though, like having the forehands on the outside to return serves cross court. I know I win a lot more when I am playing the deuce court. If my partner really wants me to play the ad court, I do because I would rather play there than have a disgruntled partner.

From Dan V. (Director, Southbay Tennis Club), Chula Vista, CA:

I totally agree with your strategy of having the two forehands in the middle. Doubles is mostly hitting hard and low to the middle of the court, so you and your partner will be very successful!

From Bill K., Walnut Creek, CA:

I disagree with the idea of playing a bookend pair with all the firepower kept in the middle. I am a 3.5 player, and my partner and I (both righties) recently demolished a very strong 3.5 pair (6-1, 6-1) who used exactly the proposed alignment. This pair both had great forehand skills, which we recognized early. After a few probing games in the first set that were actually fairly close, we began to serve to the outside and return their serves to the far side of the court. We effectively neutralized their net game (by staying away from the middle), and, by playing our strong forehands against their backhands, we forced them to make weak returns that our net player consistently jumped on.

I feel that we could have lost this match if we had been matched forehand to forehand, as their forehands were that much better than ours. I was amazed that they failed to change this in the second set, but the left-handed player was clearly the boss and not inclined to give up the deuce side. I vote for lefties on the left!

From Jon W., TX:

Most of the time I’ve played lefties, they play on the ad side. This sets up forehands returning cross-court returns of serve.

From Ken, Armonk, NY:

I agree that forehands in the middle is a better configuration, especially at the 4.0 level or above. Both overheads are also in the middle, which is much stronger, although the ad-court player (righty) might have to get used to giving up more shots in the middle, as it is also his partner's forehand. But once you get used to playing together, I'm sure you will find it superior. At 4.0 or better, most players will be hitting more shots in the middle, which is generally more effective in doubles. "Solve the riddle, hit down the middle!" over the lower part of the net and more apt to confuse their opponents.

From Mike C., Topeka, KS:

I'm also a 4.0 doubles player. When I play against a team that has a lefty-righty combo, I always hope the lefty is in the deuce court, unless he has a really strong backhand.

I can easily serve to his backhand in the deuce court using my slice serve and often pull him fairly wide. The shots that follow the serve I'll hit cross-court to his backhand, which has the virtue of being away from his net partner. His cross-court returns usually come to my forehand, so it ends up my forehand against his backhand, a situation that I like. Also slicing into his body on his forehand side is easier in the deuce court and is an effective serve because, if he tries to move to his right to hit a forehand, the ball breaks in the same direction, often jamming him.

When the lefty plays the backhand, it is more difficult to serve to the backhand. The shots after serve are difficult to hit to his backhand, as well, if his partner at net is at all active taking away the middle. Any shot directed to the backhand of a lefty in the ad court has to go through the middle close to the net man. It then ends up being my backhand vs. his forehand, which usually isn't a good situation for me. I often go to the Australian formation when playing a lefty in the ad court for this reason.

The main drawback to the lefty playing the backhand court is that to return serves directed at the backhand requires the more difficult inside-out backhand return for both the righty and lefty.

My advice is that if the left-handed player has a really strong backhand, or both players struggle a lot with the inside-out backhand return, then put the lefty in the deuce court. Otherwise, I would suggest he play the ad court.

From Walter O., Aurora, Ohio:

There is a lot to consider here. First, personal preference for players should always take precedence over "what should be." Personal preference has a lot to do with confidence. Confidence is essential in returning well under pressure. On the other hand, if you would like to analyze this age-old question, here are some things to look at in detail:

1. Inside the Ball/Outside the Ball:

Ask the question, "What side do you hit inside-outs and traditional cross-courts better?" In other words, if I am a righty playing the deuce court, I better like the inside-out backhand AND a cross-court forehand. More specifically, I better LOVE my inside-out backhand at the 4.0 level. Why? 4.0-level players can target the T in the court well. That means a lot of inside-out returns. A lefty may not automatically hit a certain kind of shot well.

In the most advanced sense, many players that love their backhand MAY NOT LOVE a certain kind of backhand (like the inside-out). That means you have to do an inventory of approximately 12 returns between (2) players:

Deuce Court:

1) Cross court (outside shot)

2) Inside out (inside shot)

3) Outside down the line (righty forehand down line)

4) Inside IN (righty backhand down the line)

5) Outside LOB (righty forehand lob)

6) Inside LOB (righty backhand lob)

The same (6) shots will have to be hit from the AD court, as well. That is your (12) returns. On the other hand, 1) and 2) are the priorities for success. As a matter of fact, if I am a righty who is ON FIRE on the inside shots and outside shots from the ad court, I should play the ad even if my partner is a little better in the ad.

2. Great returner vs. average returner:

ALWAYS allow the GREAT returner to choose (lefty or righty). You want at least one of you to be ultra confident. Often having a partner who is a great returner takes a lot of pressure off a partner who is average. As an example, I am a righty and an average returner. I have been lucky to play with many great step-up players. No matter whether that player is a lefty or righty, I let them choose because of the confidence factor.

3. Impact on volleys and poaching out of the hotseat:

A final thing to consider is how you and your partner move to cut off middle balls. Some players really like playing the ad court because they like when their partner returns a low ball from the deuce court. That low ball allows them to poach. A righty from the ad court gets to poach with a forehand volley. This is something to consider since comfort in poaching off the return has an impact on breaking serve. You need to analyze this and see how it fits in with your game plan. Some players move to middle volleys better with their backhand. Make sure you consider how they cover the line on down-the-line returns, as well!

4. Lob coverage and overheads:

It is often overlooked, but consider lob coverage and retrieval. At 4.0, you are trying to take most lobs out of the air with an overhead. This is a tough one to analyze, since everyone has a favorite overhead target. If you return and press on a second serve, you could be facing a lob in the rally. How you cover that lob needs to be considered in relation to your righty-lefty formation.

5. Mixed doubles or lower-rated player on the court:

You may have to be flexible depending on whom you are playing. In a mixed-doubles match, you may have to change your sides, since the down-the-line return is more important. Often, the male player tries to challenge the female player right after the other male serves to him. The same could be true when playing a team with a higher-rated player. If I am lefty in the deuce court and there is a 4.0 player serving and a 3.5 at the net against me, I may be considering more returns down the line.

Conclusion:

The righty-lefty relationship is often a good one (ask the Bryan brothers). There is no perfect answer to who plays deuce vs. ad. The key is to keep an open mind. There is nothing worse than players saying, "I only play the ad." That reduces many options as discussed above. If you have more questions, feel free to e-mail me!

From Lindylou, Bensalem:

Concerning which side each should play, I would say to remember:

1. The better player should play the forehand side.

2. In general, I agree, lefty plays the forehand side so you have your strength down the middle.

3. The good news is that you can test out both ways rather easily – play lots of practice matches and see which configuration works best.

From Chip R., Derby, KS:

I think that forehands cross court are the optimal set up for right-handed and left-handed double partners, which means the left-handed player will play the ad court, and the right-handed player the deuce court.

Some people feel that the better player should play the ad court. When I was in high school, my doubles partner was left-handed, while I was right-handed. Since I was the stronger player, I played on the ad side the first three years. The fourth year, we switched sides, and we did much better with the left-handed player on the ad side.

John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova both played the ad side and are both left-handed. The Bryan brothers used to play that way, but they have recently changed, with Bob, the left-hander, returning in the deuce court.

Does one player return particularly well from one side or really bad from one side? The return of serve is very important in doubles, so it might be wise to select sides based on who returns best from one side or the other.

The best thing to do is play some practice matches and switch sides after each set and see which setup seems better.

From Dave S., Saratoga, CA:

You can't just assume that forehands are better at the 4.0 level than backhands. So it might be a mistake to put forehands in the middle. But there are more important considerations, some of which are:

1. Do these guys have better serve returns from their forehands or backhands? The same question needs to be answered about their volleys, as well.

2. What style do they normally play? Is one guy a consistent finesse player, while the other is a baseline banger?

3. Can they get along on the court?

I have been putting together doubles for years as captain of many different USTA league teams. There are different philosophies about what makes a good doubles team, but here's mine. I think the player's styles need to be complimentary: one guy should be consistent and the setup guy, while the other player forces errors through power. One guy should be emotional, while the other is more even-tempered. That way, they won't get too high or too low during a tough match.

You should put the player with the best shot in the middle of the court on the ad side because most of the points that decide a game are in that court. So if you have a lefty with an outstanding backhand return and volley, he should play the ad court. If possible, the mentally stronger player should play that side, too, but it isn't a requirement.

Often, putting together a good team is a balancing act: one player has a good forehand return but lacks an effective overhead. Another just loves to rip the return but makes a lot of errors by going for too much. One guy is outspoken, while the other is taciturn. Once you think you have a good pair, you need to test them under pressure because the final intangible is on-court chemistry. I have seen many good players be a bad doubles team because they just rub each other the wrong way on the court.

From Coach Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

I would say the best places would be the other way around, right-hander taking the deuce side, and the left-hander taking the ad side. This is a tough call, but a team like this is always a good set up for serving. Practicing volleys is so key. I am a back-court singles player but have started to practice my volleys for singles to cut off the court and win the point quicker, and for doubles, it is also so key. I like the format of having both return players back on the first serve, the South American way. It works!

From Doug E., Medford, MA:

Look at it several ways:

1) Inside and outside returns of serve - for example, a right-handed player might have a great backhand cross-court and a great inside-out forehand, which means he would play the ad court.

2) Is there at least one good overhead in the middle? You may put the righty in the deuce and lefty in the ad if one player is quite mobile and can cover the lob in the middle. If not, two overheads in the center are better than one.

3) Inside and outside volleys - again, same thing...do you volley well inside? Forehand or backhand? How solid are the outside volleys?

4) Poaching - most people are slightly better poachers on the forehand

In short, it depends on the strengths of the team. You need to weigh this. Also consider weighing the opponent’s style. Do they love to hit hard in the middle, like college players? Are they a finesse team, like many super seniors? Who is this team? Men or women?

Chances are, most 4.0 teams don't place finesse volleys in the alleys well, so maybe you don't need to cover the outside volleys. Personally, I like the lefty in the deuce court if the cross-court backhands are solid.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

This is a great question, Villarrd. Since I am a lefty, I know what most combination team’s experience. Here are some ways to approach who plays where.

First thing to look at – Are you and your partner playing together as a team on an ongoing basis? This is important when putting forehands in the middle, although this should increase down-the-middle control, but defense can be hazardous. You both know each other’s strengths and can cover each other. On the other hand, put two type “A” personalities this way, and somebody may get clobbered with aggressive play.

Whether you are paired with same-hand players or opposite-hand players, this is the most important matter to consider – “Who is the stronger of the two?” The strongest player should play the deuce court. This way the stronger player can set the lead and take the pressure off the weaker player. When it is your ad, the pressure is on the other team. They have to try to get back to deuce to stay in the game.

Personally, as a lefty, I like the ad court, in general. There are simply more serves hit to my forehand and, at 58, who needs to dodge a forehand to the back of the head? However, if I am paired with a weak player, I take my chances and play the deuce court. We are keeping score; hence, we are playing to WIN.

With this in mind, the choice is up to you. Just have fun, even if the outcome is less than expected. You can always switch for the second set.

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