As a seasoned tennis player, it’s evident that playing single or doubles is entirely different. If you’re just dipping your toe in the world of doubles, you’ll quickly realize that you have to drastically change your game plan and mentality if you want to become part of a dynamic duo.
I’ve always loved playing doubles as it reminds me of my soccer days where I was not only playing for myself. Having a teammate can uplift your game and make you go the extra mile; at least, that’s the effect it has on me.
In this article, I will give you all the best specific strategies, tactics, and tips to prevail in doubles tennis. Whether you are an advanced player or a beginner, there are key takeaways that you must assimilate and apply on the court. Let’s get started with a few basic doubles strategies.
Common Tennis Doubles Strategies
Attacking The Center Of The Court
Divide and conquer. In a nutshell, you want to be attacking the middle of the court when your opponents are side-to-side (ideally at the net).
Why is this strategy effective, and when to best utilize it?
- You’re creating confusion and forcing the opposing team to communicate and organize on the spot. Usually, the player with the forehand is supposed to take these, but what if one is right-handed and the other left-handed? That’s right; they are either both on their forehand or both on their backhands.
- They won’t have any angles. The last thing you want to do is to give your opponents the opportunity to pass you wide. It’s especially more critical on doubles since the court is wider.
Target The Opponent’s Feet
Have you ever tried hitting a volley from a low-ball? Well, if you have, you know how difficult it is to do, especially when the ball comes at you with pace.
Your opponent will have to either play a tough low-volley or a semi-volley while going backward. In both cases, tough shots will either result in a direct foul from the opponent or set you up for a point-winning hit.
Attack The Net
This one is all about putting pressure on your opponent by giving him less time to play and adjust. Both players need to move towards the net, and both play volleys. Careful with this as it exposes you to lobs.
If you can perform this efficiently, you will force your opponent’s mistakes by having them hit tough shots. The goal is to hit winning points with the angles you just opened up for yourselves.
This strategy was the cornerstone, the bread, and butter of the Bryan Brothers, who reigned supreme over the doubles circuit for close to 10 years, respectively winning 23 and 22 grand slam titles and a summer Olympic gold medal at the 2012 London’s games.
I was once playing with my girlfriend in a mixed doubles game. Both opposing players had a reasonably solid net game (definitely stronger than ours). Their strategy revolved around them both aggressively attacking the net as often as possible. To counteract this, we decided to play longer and take a bit more risks to place groundstrokes deep into their court.
The goal here is to hit a proper deep ball, charge forward to beat them to the punch, and finish the point while they’re still on their heels. Be careful and do this only if your ball is going deep and the player is out of position (you don’t want to give out an easy passing opportunity).
Target The Volley Player’s Backhand
Have you encountered many tennis players with a stronger backhand volley than their forehand one? Not really, right? Then go ahead and exploit this weakness as much as possible. This is especially good if you’re looking to set up an attacking shot next.
A word of caution, only use this strategy when both opponents are at the net and a lob isn’t an option (see strategy #7). Just hit it hard and low on their backhand side.
The “Windshield” At The Net
This should be a “default” mode for any double player in any game. You want to take advantage of your ability to be a threat while at the net. Players are actively looking to avoid you, so make it harder for them and be constantly on the move, especially if they’re about to hit a groundstroke.
Being a dynamic net player will reap several benefits; you’ll force tons of errors by making your opponent change his shot’s direction or technique. You will also be able to pick up a lot of easy volleys and directly win the point by catching them off-guard on a good movement.
Be careful not to become too predictable or commit too much to a position that would leave a big part of the court exposed.
This technique takes some experience and flair to master, but it’s a deadly weapon for any doubles player looking to get serious. Practice, practice, and practice this.
If You Can’t Pass Them, Lob Them
Later in this guide, we will see that a lot of what you do in doubles revolves around making your opponents uncomfortable. This tennis doubles strategy is the epitome of throwing your opponents off-balance. It will run havoc on their side of the court and force them to change directions, positions, play a challenging overhead, or a weak defensive strike.
Don’t forget to lob on the non-dominant shoulder’s side of the net player. It is an excellent way to make sure they can’t reply with a strong smash in case your lob is poorly executed.
Tennis Doubles Positioning And Formations
Now we know how valuable positioning can be in any given doubles game. But you’d be surprised how many so-called “serious” players actually disregard it and rely solely on their tennis skills.
Standing too far from the net or too close to the doubles alley are the most common positioning mistakes I see. Net players tend to forget that they are responsible for their half of the court too. If you really want to step up your game, there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind at all times while on the court.
- Whether your partner is serving or returning, you want to stand between the doubles alley and the centerline. That maximizes your chances to get a volley opportunity by covering more zones. This position also doesn’t give any openings to your opponent.
- Don’t stand too far from the net. You want to keep the pressure on your opponent at all times; remind them that if their return is anything but perfect, you’ll be there to punish them right away.
- Don’t be static at the net. Make sure that you move back and forth and left to right unpredictability. In the same spirit of what I said on point #2, this will put pressure on your opponent as they won’t know which way you’ll go.
We’re now going to dive deeper into some more actionable and advanced formations. Make sure to not just apply them blindly. Add them to your arsenal, but make sure to play to your strength, and more importantly, exploit your opponent’s weaknesses. Tennis doubles strategy is always situational.
Standard Doubles Formation
By default, you want one player in the back and one in the front. Simply put, it is the easiest and most appropriate option in the vast majority of scenarios.
Net players and baseline players are crosscourt from one another. The first baseline player to hit the volley player “loses” as they would be giving away a volley opportunity to the opposing team, which often results in a point.
By playing in this formation, you can cover pretty much everything efficiently while having a threat in position at all times (the net player).
What Is The Serving Strategy Called The Australian Formation?
As you can see in the picture above, the Australian formation is quite peculiar as the net player is on the same side as the server. It’s used, for example, in cases where the net player has a weak backhand volley.
After serving, the player will need to move to the other side to cover his side of the court.
One of the main advantages of this formation is that you kind of force the returner to play a down the line return, which is frequently a low-percentage shot. Be careful not to use this against someone with a strong down the line forehand, for example.
The best two scenarios where you want to apply the Australian formation are
- If you’re losing the crosscourt battle. Force your opponent to hit a more difficult down the line return
- If the server has a weak backhand and feels more at ease hitting groundstrokes on his forehand side
Serving Strategy For Doubles
The goal behind a proper serving strategy for doubles is to set up your net player for an easy volley and an easy point. To do that, you must find and exploit the returner’s weaknesses.
It’s common knowledge that most tennis players have a stronger forehand than backhand, but you want to assess every situation and every player individually before jumping to conclusions. Some pro players have been known to favor their backhand (Richard Gasquet, Benoît Paire, Mardy Fish, Fabrice Santoro, David Nalbandian, and even Stanislas Wawrinka, who probably has the best backhand on the tour).
Back to the matter at hand, you also want to get a good grasp of what types of serves your receiver struggles the most with. Slower, sliced serves? A topspin serve into the body? Or a good ol’ flat fast-paced serve on the T? Are they better playing cross-court or down the line?
Once you can comfortably answer these questions, you can adjust accordingly and take advantage of that knowledge on the strategic level.
Serve The T
Unless your opponent has no issues whatsoever with either the forehand and the backhand, you should serve on the T to reduce his return angle. Make sure that your teammate is aware when you do so because it is very likely that he’s going to have a volley opportunity on the return. As always, communication is key.
The I Formation
As you can see, the I formation is quite straightforward. When you serve, you want to be as close to the center service line as possible while the net player stands close to the middle as well.
The key is to determine through hand signaling where each player will go after the serve. This is a terrific way to confuse your opponent as he’ll not be able to know where the net player will be when he has to return the ball.
Quite similarly to the Australian formation, you want to avoid doing this against a player with a strong down the line return.
This serving formation is best used to throw the returner off-balance if you feel like he’s getting into the zone. Throw him a curveball once in a while and apply this formation.
Serve & Volley
A more old school approach to doubles strategy, the serve and volley is still a weapon you must have in your arsenal.
I personally use it a lot, and I can tell you it’s very efficient. I do it once or twice per game depending on the dynamic, and I also do not hesitate to do it on second serves.
The goal here is to pressure your opponent into having to hit perfect returns or be at the mercy of a volley no matter what.
I’d still recommend you do it even if you’re a mediocre net player, just to keep the returner in check at all times.
Switching It Up
Your primary goal when you’re serving, aside from hitting an ace, is to set up your partner for a volley. You want to put the returner in an uncomfortable position by either serving deep in the box, on his backhand, or the body.
Although this makes a lot of sense, I like to be unpredictable and switch things up as much as possible. I often serve the T on both the deuce and ad side, but I more importantly try to go for my opponent’s weak points.
Returning Strategy For Doubles
Your capacity to consistently return high-quality balls can be the X factor that’s keeping you from reaching higher heights in tennis doubles.
If you can return hard at a high frequency, you can upset your opponent and make him throw away his serve games. There’s nothing more annoying than facing a wall on your serves.
Try not to worry about poaching too, but hit consistent deep crosscourt returns, and most importantly, do not change your mind mid-hit. Your target decision should be made before you start your hitting motion. Too many times, players try to change the direction of their shot halfway through. Trust me; this is a recipe for disaster.
Two Players Back
No shame in the game; if the opposing players are really good, bring everyone back on the baseline for the first ball. By doing so, the returner is not pressured into returning perfectly, and you remove the volley target that is your partner’s feet.
Your opponent will have to get creative, and this opens up some opportunities for you: lobs.
Think about it, if your lob is good, you can straight up win the point or at least take back control of the net. If it’s not good, you have two players in the back to defend the overhead.
Aim At The Middle Net Strap
Now that one is quite obvious, but it’s always good to go over the basics once in a while.
The middle part of the net is also the lowest, which allows you a more generous room for error. Interestingly, this zone in doubles makes it tough on the net player to poach, and it doesn’t give them much angle.
It is incredibly efficient against good net players where you want to return as low as possible.
In case the server stays back, you can hit deep cross-court groundstrokes and set up your teammate for an easy poaching opportunity.
Net Strategies For Doubles
Most of your time will be spent at the net in a doubles match. I guess I don’t need to tell you how important it is to have an effective battleplan here.
The keyword here is “movement.” You always have to be on the move, whether you’re poaching, faking, or pinching.
A doubles game is won or lost at the net, so make sure to work on your volley and thoroughly apply these strategies to maximize your chances to win.
What is poaching exactly, might you ask? Well, it’s quite simple, when the net player crosses to the other side of the court during a point, he is poaching.
It is especially efficient during long rallies when you notice the opponent is only hitting cross-court groundstrokes. Take everyone off-guard and poach for an easy volley. Bonus point if you do that after a backhand (usually weaker strikes).
I also like to poach during the first few games because players do not usually return down the line by default. Keep them off-balance; the goal here is to let them know that whether they hit cross-court or down the line, you could be there and get an easy volley. Keep things balanced and be unpredictable, do not always poach, and do not pitch a tent on your side either.
There can be no faking if there’s no poaching. Faking is simply the act of making it look like you’re about to poach, to try and make your opponent hit a down the line shot, but then you don’t.
Too many players, even advanced ones, either poach or stay perfectly still. The key to efficient faking is that you want your opponent to think you’re poaching (duh). If you’ve poached a few times already, fake once or twice and grab these easy volleys and overhead hits.
To perform a fake efficiently, move as early as possible toward the center of the net, then come back while your opponent is about to hit the ball. You’ll either get an easy volley or your opponent will simply miss.
Use this tactic hand in hand with poaching if you’re a great volley player. The opponents will be actively trying to avoid you and will, as a result, make tons of mistakes.
My favorite tactic against a weak crosscourt returner: Pinching
Pinching, as the baseline player, is basically moving towards the center of the net diagonally. This tactic pressures the opposing baseline player into hitting a smaller target and can generate many misses on his part.
It’s also a great option to go for if you have hit a deep crosscourt groundstroke as there is only one efficient shot left available to your opponent: the lob, which he would have to hit perfectly to threaten your game plan anyway.
A Couple Words On Doubles Rules
A doubles tennis match is played with four players on the court. The starting position of a team has one player on the service line and the other on the baseline. The net posts are placed all the way outside the doubles line. Unlike singles matches, points scored in the sideline zones count.
Each player will serve every four games since there are four players (duh), and there are no restrictions regarding how many times a single player can hit the ball in a row.
A Couple More Doubles Tennis Tips
Less Is More
Now I know this seems counterintuitive and will go against every instinct you may have while at the net: Play soft!
Hitting hard on the volley may work in your opponent’s interest as there is typically one player in the back and one in the front. If you hit a hard volley towards the baseline player, he has more chance of getting to it than if you had hit it softly.
Your highest priority target is, of course, the net player’s feet, but this is not always available, so what do you do? You hit a soft volley on the baseliner’s side. You want to make it as wide as possible.
This is usually a more challenging shot to master, but trust me when I say this will be a game-changer for you. Get on the court and practice this as much as possible because it will make you a bigger threat when you poach.
In a nutshell, attack the net player’s feet on high volleys, and attack the baseliner’s side with soft and short balls on low volleys.
Don’t Cover The Line
Probably one of the most customary mistakes I see in doubles games: The net player camping the alley.
We’ve gone over the many reasons why the net player should stay as dynamic and active as possible, but I want to emphasize once more the importance of letting go of the line.
There’s much more to win by giving up a bit of cover down the line than there is to lose.
Pick Your Spots Wisely
Too many players try to be heroes and think they can hit these extraordinary shots we see on TV or in our favorite player’s Youtube compilation. Truth is, these players are on another planet.
If you’re off balance, falling, rushing backward, or simply running at full pace to get that ball, just play a defensive hit. Wait for a better spot to hit where it hurts, and don’t rush things.
Think of it this way, you can either use your shield or you can use your sword. Do not use your shield to attack, and vice versa.
Doubles tennis is won by the team that had the better decision making. Remember that. Most points are won as a direct or indirect result of a mistake. As long as you minimize your mistakes and take the right shot decision, you’re going to come out on top.
Avoid The No Man’s Land
If you’re an avid tennis player, you probably know what the no man’s land is; in case you don’t, here’s a visual explanation:
It is true in singles; it’s even more accurate in doubles. This zone is dangerous to stick around, so if you find yourself there, go back to the baseline or hurry up to the net.
Why is this zone so bad, might you ask? Well, it’s where you’ll get the toughest shots, between a volley and a groundstroke. Not to mention that you’d be leaving your opponents with many good angles to exploit and would pose no threat at all.
Communicate With Your Partner
In any relationship, communication is critical. Tennis doubles is no exception, so make sure you establish a good relationship with your doubles partner(s) and get organized on hand signals too.
Each doubles pair has its code and vocabulary. As long as you can quickly exchange information or make adjustments on the spot, it’s all good.
You also want to be re-evaluating your game plan whenever you have the time to do so, keep what’s working and switch up what’s not.
Now, this is a personal thing, but I like being encouraged. A simple “great shot” can go a long way, so I don’t shy away from motivating my doubles partner.
Try to keep a positive tone at all times, the mental aspect in tennis is often overlooked, and tilting is never far away in the tensed situations of competitive tennis.
Tennis doubles may seem much more complex than singles. However, it’s bound by an elementary set of rules and best practices that allow you to have a strategic edge over your opponent if you know how to master them.
Remember, a doubles match is won at the net, so make sure to practice that aspect of your game in priority, as well as your footwork.
Diligently practice these above-mentioned strategies with your doubles partner, understand them thoroughly, and implement them in perfect situations or matchups.
“In duels of strategy, you must move the opponent’s attitude. Attack where his spirit is lax, throw him into confusion, irritate and terrify him. Take advantage of the enemy’s rhythm when he is unsettled, and you can win.” – Miyamoto Musashi (1643). A Book Of Five Rings.