Bird's Tennis Tips: Doubles

June 2, 2005


Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

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...

Doubles Tactics
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 discussed!

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 fairly.

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 set, even.

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.

General Tactics

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, right?

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 way.

Now let's discuss the serve and what each player should do.

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 you.

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 joke.

Sort of.


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