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How to compete well

There are some things players need to learn, practice and remember if they want to win more doubles matches.  Doubles involves a great deal of thinking and strategising and the more automatic these processes become the easier it is to apply them.

Play well or make the opponents play badly?

There are two ways to win a match, play well or make them play badly.  Which is easier to do?  Obviously everyone wants to play well but it’s unrealistic to think that will happen all the time.  Instead the focus should be on making the opposition play badly.  This is when doubles becomes so interesting as there are many different formations and strategies players can use to get the opponents to make unforced errors rather than having to hit winners past them.  There are no bonus points to be had for hitting winners so forcing the opponents to miss instead is a mindset every good doubles player has.

Unforced errors v Forced errors

The ratio between unforced errors and forced errors in comparison to the opponents is what determines whether a match is won or lost.

An unforced error is one where a player makes an error when under no pressure either from the ball being received or the positioning of the opponents.  A forced error is when the ball is irretrievable either because of the way it was hit or the positioning of the opponents.   For example, if a player were to miss a return on a slow 2nd serve with the serving team in 1 up 1 back formation that would be an unforced error.  However, if a player missed a 1st serve return because the serving team used a planned switch then that would be a forced error.

To win the match the pair should try to minimize their unforced errors and try to force the opponents to make errors.  If both pairs do this well then it will be a very close game, however, if one pair has a large margin between unforced errors and forced errors with the unforced errors highest compared to the opponents then they will lose.  

Often unforced errors are made because the player is trying a high risk shot, they may gain a couple of forced errors or winners from it but if they make lots of unforced errors too then it has a negative effect.  For example, a player may like their forehand passing shot down the line and hit 2 winners from it but they also missed 5 going for the same shot.

Control the controllables

There are many reasons behind why players make errors and these need to be controlled as much as possible.  A pair can make an executional error, a positioning error, a strategy error and a shot selection error.  Of all of these the only one that is not in the players control in a match is executional, technique mustn’t be thought about during a game as it is distracting and often out of the players control.  It is important therefore to control the other 3 and use them to try to force an error from the opponents.  For example, instead of a player trying to out rally a player with a great forehand they should use a strategy to make them do something different.

Do the basics well

The first thing a pair should do when starting a match is ask the question ‘Can we win just by doing the basics well?’.  This applies to making returns, being consistent and keeping unforced errors low.  If the answer is ‘yes’ then that is the easiest way to win.  There is no need to try something special or different, they just need to get the job done.  However, if the answer is ‘no’ because the other pair are either more consistent or they can hit more forced errors/winners then a change is needed.  That will include getting to the net more, using different strategies and formations and trying to find their weaknesses to make them play worse.

The blame game

Generally there are 2 things doubles players tend to take personally, whether they win their serve and if they get passed down the line.  

The service game isn’t all about the server, even if they get all their 1st serves in their partner can miss the volley or might not be in the correct position.  Most players value speed of 1st serves far too highly and the server can become ego orientated. The better way for the server to play is to think tactically about what return they will give the returner and what ball they want next.  Changing formation for at least one point per game will also gain the serving team a huge advantage mentally.  

Being passed down the line could also not be the net players fault, if the baseliner has received a ‘dead’ ball i.e. one that is slow and short, they could hit a winner practically anywhere in the court.  The net player could have also been winning many points by successfully intercepting middle balls, if they get passed a couple of times down the line but have won 7 interceptions then the stats are still in their favour.   

Make them play difficult shots

As discussed earlier there are 2 easier shots and 1 harder shot depending on the ball they have received.  Leaving them the hardest shot to try and execute is worth risking, even if they make it every now and again as they are unlikely to make it under pressure.  For example, often players favour a forehand down the line and as the net player in front of them is usually keen to intercept it can be effective.  However, it involves changing direction of the ball and going over the highest part of the net so it may work when the pressure is low, early in the set or 0-0 in the game, but will it work at 4-4 or when it’s an important point?  Probably not but if they’ve been successful before they may try and then make an error at a crucial moment.  Sometimes it’s worth being passed!

Sometimes people get lucky

Was the winner they just hit repeatable or not? In other words, if they had it again would they make it or was it a one off and a bit lucky?  If the answer is the latter then the strategy is still working but if they keep repeating the same shot successfully and winning the point as a result then something has to change.  Players often give up on a strategy after one winner, especially if it is something out of their comfort zone but they should persevere.  Players should work on the rule of 3, if they get beaten by the same shot 3 times in a row then they should make a change.

File of evidence

Strategies need to be tried out so that players know what to use in big points and when the score is getting near the end of the set or match.  It is tempting to play it safe and resort to ‘normal’ doubles when it’s close but that’s exactly the time when a pair need to be using their best strategies and formations based on how they’ve been experimenting with them earlier.  It is easy to focus on mistakes but remembering how points have been won as well as lost is key in pressure situations.

What can you remember?

Knowing whether certain games have been won or lost previously can arm a pair with the strategies they need immediately at the start of the next game.  For example, they could be about to receive in a game that they have won the two previous times as it is the weaker server.  This should give confidence to the returners but also a sign to focus knowing that they need to make sure they win that game again.  

Say good shot

The aim in doubles is to cover the middle by correct positioning and shot selection.  If a pair gets beaten by a clean winner that lands near any of the outside lines by roughly 0.5m then they should simply say ‘good shot’.  It is important not to worry about exceptionally good, high risk shots but worry more about covering easy, low risk shots.

Know your game

It’s very hard to be good at everything, to be able to win from all areas of the court and have a great serve to match.  Instead it is better for players to understand what they are good at, what game style they have and which strategies match up well.  They can then spend time practicing a much smaller range of skills and get much better at it than trying to do everything.  For example, they may prefer being at the net and cope with volleys much better than groundstrokes so should spend time practicing serve and volley and getting in after returns. 

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