One of the most frustrating things about playing doubles can be when your partner plays their own game rather than working with you as a team. Find out how to you can take the first steps to improving this in your own game and become a better doubles partner.
We’re not the pros
In all my years of playing competitive doubles finding the right partner has been a big challenge, I don’t mean choosing the ‘best’ partner necessarily, but one that understands how to work with you to help win the points as a team. This doesn’t always mean serving strategies either. The pros make serving strategies seem easy, they control exactly where their serves go and hit them at a speed likely to put their opponents under pressure. Playing well as a team for me is more about good shot selection, standing in the right place and knowing how to cover the court as a pair.
Doubles is a Team Sport
I see doubles like other team sports, the net being where you hopefully score points from, like a goal. In order for me or my partner to have a chance at winning the point from the net, the baseliner has to do the right thing. This can be as basic as consistently hitting the ball cross court, to more advanced by trying to get to the net. Often I find myself in the position where I have a partner who is happiest at the back of the court (fine, not ideal but everyone has their strengths and weaknesses) rallying cross court until she decides to go down the line. This has a couple of quite big effects on the point. The first one is that, unless she is sure the opposing net player either has a very weak volley or has left her line wide open, then I am suddenly a sitting target at the net and am going to have to react very quickly. The second is that I can only move forward closer to the net after my partner has safely hit the ball away from the net player, if she doesn’t then I have to stay back in the defence volley position (DVP) to cover the middle. So unless my partner is going to hit a winner (difficult!) then going down the line is extremely unhelpful.
The correct positioning for where the ball is
Often coaches tell players to not only hit cross court as you become predictable, I’m not sure how that helps your partner at the net, surely predictable is good? When I’m at the net and those rallies have been going on cross court for a long time what I’m really hoping for is either:
1) My partner to hit a really deep shot so that I might get a volley or
2) That she’ll come to the net to join me
It can often become a game between the 2 net players, ‘who’s going to intercept first’, unfortunately it also can become a game between the 2 baseliners, ‘who’s going to go down the line first’. The longer both those games go on then the more likely it is that someone will either go down the line but the net player hasn’t moved or a net player tries to intercept on the wrong ball and misses. I will have done neither but am probably exhausted with all the backward and forward movement I’ve had to do following the ball whilst at the net!
Get to the net earlier
The other misconception I hear is that you have to wait for a short ball to come in. It’s no wonder players don’t come into the net then. Short balls very rarely appear in rallies, players are really good at hitting the ball deep enough to not be considered a short ball, especially on the forehand side. For me it would not necessarily be a short ball but any ball that you can take slightly earlier so that your feet can get just inside the baseline, a ball that is short enough or at least slow enough to give you time to take it early.
Alongside that goes the myth that to be ‘at the net’ you have to be in the service box, well if that’s the case then no ball will ever be short enough or you will have to abandon getting balanced and will be running whilst the ball is travelling to you and therefore hit a bad volley. The correct positioning for a player coming from the baseline to the net is about the service line, I use the phrase ‘toes on the service line’ at least 40 times a week. The reason this is the best position is because you have to cover the lob, unless you play people that never lob, a very rare player indeed, especially at club level. So if you only have to get to the service line, coming to the net suddenly seems a bit more achievable.
Why is it so useful?
So why is it such an advantage to be both at the net? Surely you’ll get lobbed or passed all the time or do bad volleys? The answer to the latter is yes of course you will get lobbed, passed and do bad volleys but not all the time. The majority of the time the baseliner opposite will panic when they see both players at the net and instead of just safely hitting in cross court into a big open space they will see no space (assuming both net players are in the correct position) and most probably try to do a different shot therefore make a mistake. The majority of points that I win are done by exactly that, I come to the net and they either hit the ball straight to my partner (who should be closer to the net) or try something different and miss it. Even if they are particularly good at lobbing and win a few points that way I still manage to win more than I lose which is good enough to win the match.
What your partner does is key
But coming in is only a good plan if your partner, who is already at the net, does the right thing which is move to the middle of the service box not including the tramline (another thing I say 40 times per week!). If they don’t do that the baseliner isn’t under enough pressure, sees spaces rather than players and the net player won’t get an easy volley. So often I see players come to the net only to have their partner retreat hurriedly back to the baseline, probably in fear of the dreaded lob. If they know that their partner had it covered then perhaps they would feel more confident to stay in the right place.
Once up and in the right place working as a team is as simple as it is when in 1 up 1 back formation, the player furthest away from the net hits the ball cross court so that the person closest to the net can stay there. If the person furthest away hits down the line then a space appears down the middle. They are too far back to go for a winner and if they go closer to the net then they are exposed to the lob.
I often joke about how my first coach, Dennis Lloyd, would say the art of doubles is picking the best partner, I think players often over value players who perhaps hit the ball hard and have big serves as ‘the best’, it is difficult to win doubles matches in only that fashion unless you are playing people a lot weaker than you. The best players are usually the ones that are in the right place, are consistent and volley well.
When I teach now I can see how players often choose the wrong shot at the wrong time and lose points not by their tennis ability but by things that are more in their control. Hopefully by continuing to teach them I will be able to make vast improvements to their doubles games, increase their enjoyment and maybe get a few sneaky wins as a result!
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