June 2, 2005
Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston
University and each month he will give us a new tennis
Okay, dear readers, today we are going to discuss something
that a lot of people are interested in, but few really
know well. I am speaking, of course, of How to Pick
Up Tennis Groupies.
Okay, I'm kidding. If I could pick up tennis groupies,
I wouldn't have time to write this column. Or eat. But
this month's tip is something that is very near and
dear to my heart. As well, it can benefit players at
all levels, and should affect the vast majority of tennis
players the world over. I am speaking about...
Okay, following are the main tenets of doubles tactics,
in, what I feel is, descending order of importance.
Some of the lines between these ideals blur somewhat,
but they each have their place.
Paramount to any successful doubles partnership is
communication. You and your partner must be able to
let each other know what the plan is at any given moment.
Imagine if the Dallas Cowboys just ran every play from
scrimmage without first getting into a huddle to disseminate
the plan. They would lose every game.
Okay, bad example. But the truth still remains. Having
a plan is far better than not having a plan. And both
teammates knowing the plan makes things that much better.
Ever watch a professional doubles match? Ever notice
how between every point, both teams get together in
a sort of huddle? They're discussing the plan for the
next point. And probably also swapping recipes for delicious
casseroles. But never until after the plan has been
Back in college, my doubles partner was Mexican; we'll
call him Raul (because that was his name and he would
object to being called Winky). Raul and
I had a great system for communication. We gave verbal
signals in Spanish. Since the majority of the players
we faced were Swedish, Brazilian, Canadian, South-African,
Ethiopian, British, Belgian, or German, chances were
good that they wouldn't know what we were planning.
It also saved us from having to huddle on each point.
It was the best system ever... until we faced Raul's
brother, whose partner was also Mexican. That was a
bad day. Coach let us have pizza, though, so everythng
worked out in the end.
So, what sort of things do we need to communicate,
Bird? I can hear some of you asking. Well, mostly
you want to communicate your intentions, your plan,
your next shot. And there are various ways to go about
communicating these. Exactly what gets communicated
will be discussed in the sections below, but just know
that these are the sorts of things that you need to
clue your partner in on.
The number one manner of communication between doubles
partners is the hand signal. The pros don't do this
much, mainly because they communicate in other ways.
Pros have to be more subtle. Imagine a catcher holding
up his fingers right in front of the batter's face.
The batter would know what pitch to expect. Such is
the world of doubles in professional tennis: half the
stadium can see your hand signals.
The typical hand signal is from the server's partner
to the server. The communication is what the netman
intends to do. There are many variations on this theme,
but the general gist of it is the same. The netman will
either poach or stay. There is also usually the fake
poach as an option. The netman will hold his non-racquet
hand behind his back, giving the hand signal, so that
only the server can see. Take care with this... I once
knew a guy whose ready position was to bend over far
at the waist. This put his signaling hand high up for
everyone to see. He lost a lot.
Typical signals to use for this situation are: closed
fist means stay; open palm means poach, index finger
extended means fake poach. Raul used to extend his middle
finger when he wanted me to go for an ace (something
only people with very big serves should do). Perhaps
he was daring me to hit him in the back with my serve.
I don't know.
I see some teams using a pair of hand signals in this
case, the second is where the server should serve. This
is similar to the catcher signaling the pitcher to throw
outside or inside. Personally, I disagree with this
philosophy. A decent player will know where to serve,
and a less-than-decent player probably won't be able
to control his or her serve well enough to satisfy the
netman. So, it's academic. I'll discuss where to hit
these serves in a later section.
When Raul and I were giving signals in Spanish, we
used a few words to describe pretty much everything
we wanted to do. Clever doubles teams could come up
with nonsense words that have meaning only for them.
Generally, you want to be able to communicate the following:
me, you, alley,
and up. These four concepts can mean a wealth
of different things depending on the situation. For
instance, say I am serving and I want to communicate
that I am going to try and take the receiver wide. I
would say the codewords for you alley, meaning
that I was going to hit toward my partner's alley. This
would alert my partner that the receiver might have
a good angle to try and go down the line, so my partner
would cover that. Conversely, if I said the codewords
for me alley, then my partner would know
that I was aiming up the middle, toward the T, and he
could likewise crowd toward the middle to increase his
odds of getting an easy winner.
On the receiving end of things, if I wanted to attempt
a sharp crosscourt return, I would tell my partner,
you alley so that he would know what I was
attempting. He could then relax his attention off the
opposing netman slightly, looking for my shot to be
going crosscourt. Now flip that. If I said, me
alley, then my partner would know that I was going
to attempt to pass the netman off of my return, and
he could then crowd the middle of the court a bit more
and pay strict attention to the opposing netman. Finally,
if I said the codeword for up, then my partner
would know that I was about to attempt a lob. This is
also good for during the point when you want to tell
your partner to lob or tell them that your intention
is to lob. Finally, you can use the codewords for me
and you to tell your partner that you are
either taking a ball (running down a lob or calling
for an overhead, for example) or you aren't able to
get it and that they should make the attempt.
Sure, you may realize that once the point starts that
using a code isn't as necessary. But before the point
begins, it is very handy to have a plan and for both
you and your partner to know what it is. Whether you
communicate in code or by having a pow-wow before every
point is up to you and your partner.
Most lower level players and club players do not communicate
at all on the court. The extent of their communication
is saying, yours or mine. And
that can be a lot of fun. I mean, what is more fun than
going into a point not having the slightest clue what's
about to happen? But in the end, you and your partner
will surely win more matches if you find a method of
communicating each point's plan.
Know Your Partner, Teamwork
This is pretty simple and straightforward. If you know
your partner, know what they can and cannot do, then
you will be much better equipped to make spur-of-the-moment
decisions when the need arises. Say, for instance, that
you know your partner simply cannot get their second
serve to the opponent's backhand side. You may want
to take a step back from the net, anticipating a strong
forehand return from your opponents. Heck, you may want
to play back if they're eating you up at net. Or you
may just want to get a new partner.
Many of the people I play doubles with appreciate two
things about my game: one, that I have a big serve,
and two, that I am very good at putting overheads away.
Because of this, partners that know my game well will
not take overheads from me and will instead try to get
me to hit more than 50% of them. As well, they also
know that they can crowd the net a little more when
I am serving because I am sure to force some weak returns.
On the other hand, my partners also know that, being
a big Bird, I am not very fast on my feet. Therefore,
if there is a tough lob, they might need to run it down.
But the truth of the matter is, I usually know when
a lob is likely, so I don't crowd the net in those situations.
A partner that knows me well enough will know this and
might decide to crowd the net a little tighter realizing
that I have the lob pretty well covered.
These are just some examples of how knowing your partner
can help when on the court. As well, there is a big
benefit to doubles that many do not realize. If your
partner makes a mistake, you can take it upon yourself
to help them forget it and move on. Always always always
support your partner on the court. If they make a bad
call, then defend their call and tell them privately
that they made a mistake. I am not advocating cheating
here. It's just that if your partner makes an honest
mistake and you bust them on it, they will feel betrayed
and, in some ways, confused, which could cost you many
more points. And if your partner is a rampant cheater,
dump them and play with someone that knows how to win
As well, you and your partner need to learn how to
function as a unit. This includes, but is not limited
to, movement. There is a famous doubles drill where
the instructor will take a length of rope and tie each
end to the waist of a doubles team, keeping them no
further than about 20 feet apart. This forces the pair
to move as a unit. And a good doubles player will use
this to his or her advantage.
Back in college, some of the most fun was spending
evenings at the school theater, watching whatever production
the troupe had done for that quarter. Going to a small
school, far from Hollywood, it was easy to see that
not all of the people onstage really needed to be there.
Suffice it to say, their careers as actors were ne'er
to be. But one thing that set the good actors apart
from the bad was what they did when they didn't have
a line, when it wasn't their turn to speak. Most bad
actors just stand in place waiting for their next set
of lines, and only then putting in a performance. But
the good actors would act even when they didn't have
a line. I understand this is called reacting.
The point I am making, and yes I do have one, is that
a good doubles player plays the point whether the ball
is hit to him or to his partner. The emphasis should
be put on attaining that 20-foot distance and then maintaining
it. If your partner is drawn wide, then you have to
take responsibility for your half of the court as well
as the part that your partner cannot cover, due to their
being out of position.
As well, if you hit a wide angle and your partner moves
toward his or her alley to cover the down-the-line,
then you need to move toward the center to cover what
your partner is leaving open.
This type of movement also pertains to vertical movement
(toward and away from the net). One of my mixed doubles
partners isn't very comfortable at the net. Some day
she will learn how valuable it is in doubles to capture
the net from your opponents. But the thing is, she is
famous for retreating from the net toward the baseline
as I am coming into the net. Nothing could be more counterproductive.
If anything, realize your opponent is moving in, and
then function as a team.
Likewise for a lob. If you partner is running down
a lob, the best place for you to be is back with them.
There are a lot of variables to consider in this situation,
but it is almost certain that if your partner is back,
you need to be back too. The best advice here is to
survey the situation, realize what you partner is going
to do (remember to communicate), and then try to place
yourself so that you can cover the court in the best
way possible. If you partner is at the back fence, then
you pretty much have responsibility for the entire court.
But, if they throw up a defensive lob, then your partner
will be able to recover, making only half of the court
your charge, but then realize that your opponents might
be hitting an overhead, so you want to be back for that.
In short, think like a team and move like a team.
Know Your Opponent
This one is a little more difficult. Most of us play
league tennis or club tennis and end up seeing the same
faces across the net, time and time again. Heck, your
partner today may be your opponent tomorrow. Or next
As such, if you know what your opponent is likely to
do, you can use that to your advantage. Beware of this,
though. The group of guys that I play with, we are all
intimately aware of what everyone else is thinking,
planning, and capable of. We use this to our advantage
so much that when we play new people (such as in a league
or a tournament), we are suddenly unable to judge the
particular situation in the moment. Just don't get lulled
by it; that's all I'm saying.
Okay, now we're getting to the meat of it. Where do
we hit the ball and when? We can communicate our plan,
but what is the plan?
Doubles, like every other facet of tennis, is all ebb
and flow. You have to be flexible. Sometimes, you can
be winning a match, and then your opponent figures out
what he or she has been doing wrong, and then adjusts.
If you don't adjust to the adjustment, you may find
yourself losing and not really knowing why. Doubles
is no different.
If there are obvious weaknesses in your opponents'
game or strengths in your own, exploit them. If there
are obvious strengths on the other side of the net or
weaknesses on your own, cover for them. Pretty simple,
Not always. It takes time to uncover what works and
doesn't. And things can change. There is generally less
running in doubles, so you may not be able to readily
exploit some facets of yours or your opponents' games.
So how do we start?
Well, here are some basic tactics, which can lead into
overarching strategies as the match progresses.
First, the stronger player returns from the ad court.
There are many reasons for this, but here are the strongest
two reasons. First, most players are right-handed and
the higher-percentage serve is to the middle of the
court. This means that the stronger player, being on
the ad side, will hit more forehands. Second, all the
crucial points are on the ad side. The most crucial
point in any game is usually the 4th point. These are
the 15-30s, the 30-15s, the 0-40s, and the 40-0s. Winning
these points is key. As well, even though more points
will be played to the deuce court on average, more game
points will be played to the ad side. Only 40-15 and
15-40 are served on the deuce side. All the 0-40s, 40-0s,
30-40s, 40-30s, and every ad point in a game that goes
beyond deuce will be served on the deuce side. There
are also other factors to consider, such as who will
get the majority of the overheads. The right-handed
player on the ad side will be able to hit all the overheads
that are in the middle of the court, so putting the
stronger player on that side only makes sense.
Second, the netman has to move, move, move! A lead-footed
netman is a source of comfort to his or her opponent's
because they know he or she is not going to pull anything
sneaky. However, if the netman establishes that they
might suddenly jump into the middle of the court to
pick off a shot, then the opponents have to try that
much harder to keep the ball away from them. So, don't
be afraid to just suddenly bound into the middle area
of the court to intercept a shot. Even if you mess it
up, it is a mental victory.
That is a poignant thing to mention at this point.
If ever you can do anything to surprise your opponents,
do it. Even if it doesn't pan out, you leave them thinking,
uhhhhh, what the heck will they try next?
And I don't mean putting on an oversized sombrero on
the changeover. That's a surprise, yes, but not the
kind of surprise I am talking about. I mean doing the
unexpected. Try some oddball angles. Go right at the
netman instead of trying to pass them in their alley.
Lob instead of going for the obvious potential winner.
The worst that can happen is that it doesn't work out,
but you still have a partner that may be able to save
your bacon. And then the next time you get that situation,
your opponents will hesitate or might move the wrong
Now let's discuss the serve and what each player should
First of all, the safe serve is to the
middle. When you go wide, you open up a lot of angles
that your opponents can take advantage of. The aim,
in general, is to take the net and get both you and
your partner there, where you can command the point
and hit more winners. If you serve wide, you force your
partner into covering his or her alley, making more
room to return back to you. And if you aren't quick
about getting to the net, then you may find yourself
setting up your opponents' netman frequently. Therefore,
the wide serve should be used as a surprise only. A
full 70% or more of your serves should be up the middle,
if you can get them there.
As the server, you have the responsibility for getting
your netman's signals and reacting accordingly. If they
are going to poach, serve up the middle to take away
your opponent's angles. If you serve wide and they go
behind your partner, then you have a lot of court to
cover and you're way out of position. If your partner
is faking the poach, take your serve wide. When your
opponent sees your netman move and then they get the
wide serve, they will see a juicy opportunity to return
down the line; but that avenue will be cut off when
your partner jumps back to cover that shot. Obviously,
don't do the same thing in the same situation every
time, but try to take your serve wide more than 60%
of the time when your partner signals for a fake poach.
If your partner signals that he or she is staying put,
then you need to come up with your own best judgment
on where to serve, and then communicate that to your
partner. If you've perceived a weak backhand, or your
wide serve isn't on today, then use that to your advantage.
As the netman, when your partner is serving, you are
the most influential and important person in any point.
What you do is crucial to the outcome of the match.
You may have heard it said that not holding serve is
more the server's partner's fault than the server themselves.
This is very true. Here is what you need to be doing
when your partner is serving.
First, try to read your opponents and try to confuse
and surprise them. The relationship between you and
your partner (the server) is much like that of a catcher
to his pitcher in baseball. The catcher calls the pitches
because he is in a better position to observe the goings-on
in the field. Likewise as the netman. The server is
busy trying to work the magic that is the serve. You
can take some of that pressure off them by being a good
netman. If you see that your opponent is returning up
the middle a lot, try and cut that off a few times.
Make him or her have to think about what they're doing.
Poach a few times. Once they see that, then throw in
some fake poaches. Really stir things up. The more your
opponents have to think, instead of having the luxury
of simply reacting, the easier it is for them to make
a mistake. And then that gets them thinking even more.
Finally, always take a step toward wherever your partner's
serve goes. If he goes wide, then step out to cover
your alley more. If he serves to the middle, then step
toward the middle to try and pick up anything that you
can get your racquet on.
As the receiver, you need to formulate a plan of action.
If you are returning on the deuce side (assuming all
four players are right-handed, which most are), realize
that you can throw up a down-the-line lob that will
go over the opposing netman's backhand, making it tough
to hit an overhead while also making the server hit
a backhand if he has to run it down. Even on the ad
court side, lobbing off the return periodically can
keep the serving team on their heels.
As well, as the receiver, you have to get a feel for
what the opposing netman is doing. Is he poaching a
lot? Then crack a few up his line to make him think
twice about how much he poaches. Does he mix up his
poaches and fakes a lot? Give him a few lobs to think
about. And, of course, always communicate to your partner
what you're going to do.
As the receiver's partner, you have a big responsibility.
If the receiver's plan doesn't pan out right, chances
are you will be in the hotseat very quickly. This is
the main reason why the receiver's partner begins the
point on the service line. Most think it's to aid in
calling the serve in or out, but the reality is that
if the server's partner gets his or her racquet on the
ball, if you are any closer than the service line, then
there will be a huge gap between you and your partner.
It is your responsibility to try and keep that gap closed.
As such, I also like to stand closer to the T since
that is where most poached volleys will go.
The key thing to do as the returner's partner is to
watch the eyes of the opposing netman. Their eyes will
tell you everything you need to know, including where
your partner's shot is going (you should never watch
your partner hit the ball, always watch the opponents)
and what they are doing about it. On a lighter note,
I one time looked skyward to make the opposing netman
think his partner had hit a lob when in fact he hadn't.
Pretty funny watching the guy back-pedal to get away
from my overhead when there wasn't one coming.
Some Various Other Sundries
Doubles, when played well, is a fast-paced frenzy of
serves, volleys, and overheads. It is a wonderful, high-adrenaline
match where the quickest thinkers often come out on
top. Watch any professional tennis highlight reels.
The most spectacular points are always in the dubs.
Now that you have a good feel for the tactics involved
in doubles, it's time to talk about a few straggling
ideas. First is the idea of picking on the weaker player.
It is always best to choose a partner that is about
your same level. If there is a lot of difference in
abilities between you and your partner, then neither
of you will have any fun because one of you will be
hitting everything and the other nothing. Several years
ago, my partner and I were playing a tournament in Del
Ray Beach, Florida. Okay, we were partying down in Del
Ray Beach and while nursing daily hangovers we partook
in some tennis that happened to be organized into tournament
fashion. In one match, we took on one of the top Open
players in Florida. This guy was easily better than
my partner and me combined. But he was playing with
his brother-in-law, whose skills paled in comparison.
We tried to play straight-up doubles, but after getting
pasted in the first set, we discussed a change in tactics:
hit everything to the brother-in-law. We won the match
and the brother-in-law broke a racquet in frustration.
That was the second most memorable thing about that
match, that we were able to take on a far superior player
and win by simply picking on his partner. The most memorable
moment in that match was when I hit a serve that the
brother-in-law returned into the upper observation deck,
where a small crowd of older gentlemen had gathered
to watch. Now that was a great serve! Disclaimer: no
retired citizens were harmed in the making of that match.
Mixed doubles is a phenomenon unto itself. Mixed dubs
can be a great way to make contact with members of the
opposite sex and have a lot of fun. But there are some
big caveats to mixed doubles. Namely, many a marriage
have been broken up on-court. Make sure that if you
or your spouse are very competitive that you are able
to leave that on the court and not take it home with
And that competitiveness is another point. In general,
you will find two types of players on the mixed doubles
court: the raging competitor and the easygoing fun-seeker.
There generally are no in-betweens. I have seen men
hog the entire court to keep their wives from touching
the ball. My best advice for anyone who wants to play
mixed doubles is to just remember that tennis is a game,
a recreational activity that is meant to be fun. Don't
make it such a competition that you make everyone else
miserable in the process. Please.
But the thing is, in mixed doubles, the chances that
both players are evenly-skilled is very close to zero.
Generally you will have a stronger man playing with
a weaker woman, or else you will have a strong woman
that's playing with her husband who should probably
play softball instead of tennis. Either way, it may
seem obvious that a winning tactic would be to pick
on the weaker opponent, and yes, it is. But mixed doubles
is intended to be a more enjoyable and less competitive
activity. Treat it as such.
Unless you are playing against an ex-girlfriend. Then
it's about BLOOD!
There is one last little-known tactic that has recently
come to my attention, but has not yet been explored
by the tennis community as a whole. Actually, it's more
of a doubles strategy than a tactic. But it goes something
like this. If you are losing badly, whack your partner
over the head with your racquet. If you can do it right
and draw blood without knocking them out altogether,
then apparently you will be in good shape to come back
and win the match. If anyone understands how this works,
please let me know.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Beginning players should relish in playing doubles.
In dubs, you're not alone. You have help. And the cameradery
associated with having a partner can make tennis that
much more enjoyable and, because of that, you will want
to play more and you will improve faster. Work on the
communication. Even if you cannot control your shots
that well yet, you can still communicate what you are
planning. And getting into the habit of poaching and
such will make you a better player in the future.
Intermediate players should work on the communication
as well as the teamwork. Move with your partner. Schedule
time to tie a rope between you and your partner and
practice doubles drills. Work on your return of serve,
as it is very important in doubles. Ditto volleys and
overheads. Work toward achieving a consistent first
serve, even if you have to take some pace off of it.
Advanced players should be fine-tuning their communication
skills with their partners. Above that, they should
spend the majority of their time working the psychological
angle of the game, working on misdirection and surprise.
Work on moving those feet at net to keep your opponents
off-balance. As well, work on changing up your returns,
mixing in occasional offensive lobs and down-the-lines.
Now go on out and have fun! And p.s. don't whack your
partners over the head with your racquet. That was a
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