Let's start with the obvious: doubles is a team game. However, at the club level it often isn't played that way. Even competitors playing in leagues get partnered with people they've never played with before, even met--even in A-level matches where partnership issues become more important and obvious. And, certainly, there's something to be said for the player that can jump between the lines and do well with anyone, return from either side, get along with gals that chat like there's no tomorrow and guys that can't manage a word. But the real pleasure and challenge of doubles is in teamwork. Athletically, doubles may take second to the power and speed required of singles play, but the complexity and nuances of partnerships add a whole different dimension to the game. Two people have to agree on and execute tactics. Two people have to not only get along but lift each other's games. Two people have to overcome adversity together. Two people are required to win. The singles players may get the glory, but the doubles players compete in a more sophisticated game--if they're playing as a team, as partners.
I've coached hundreds of partnerships, and most of my teaching time is dedicated to doubles skills. Yet, after all these years, I've learned that what looks good on paper doesn't always add up to a good team on the court, and what looks like a disaster on paper can turn out phenomenally successful as a team. A proven team is, first and foremost, a relationship. You don't know what's going to work until you try. But some things can be addressed. Following are issues that are of concern for a successful partnership.
Finding a Mate
It's tempting to want to court a partner who's better than you, but it's a bad idea. A good doubles team will isolate the weaker player and shred her game, freezing the better player out of it. It isn't a pretty sight. So the first thing I encourage students to do is to find a player at their technical and tactical level. That way, getting better means improving together as a team, not hoping you can catch a ride on a better player's coat tails. Tactical instincts are the next important issue. If you love to charge the net, chances are you're not going to be happy with a partner that wants to hang at the baseline, and vice versa. That said, if you're an aggressive, tense player, it might do you good to pair with someone more calm--and vice versa. I say "might," because I've coached very successful teams of paired firecrackers and paired laid-back players. But there's room to explore, in this regard. Lastly, personality is huge. You've got to find a partner with whom you feel comfortable, especially the person who emerges under pressure. When you're down 2-5, Love-40, Sweet Sue may not seem so peachy. Teamwork is an intimacy; it's emotional. You won't know how you feel until you get on court and things start to unravel. Then you'll know very quickly whether Big Bob is, well, big. Shop around. Play with all kinds of people. You'd be surprised, as in all intimacies, what might turn you on.
Choosing a Return Side
First, let's dump the "forehand side/backhand side" terminology. For one thing, it's right-handed terminology, and for reasons I can't fathom, left handers, though decidedly strange, are still allowed to play with us normal people, so we need to include them. More importantly, the terms oversimplify. You're going to need both your strokes from either court, and one side isn't easier than the other. Remember, the first commandment of doubles is: Thou Shall Not Hit Straight Ahead to the Opposing Net Person. In making a decision as to which side you want to play, your first test is whether you can hit successfully steady returns off both wings, cross-court, away from the server's partner. As well, and equally important, what are your volleying skills from the respective sides? They, too, need to go cross-court, for the most part. If, bold man that you are, you've returned and volleyed, your usual goal is to hit a winning, short cross-court in front of the server at the baseline. If the server has his way, he'll make you play the putaway volley off your inside stroke, the backhand on the deuce court, the forehand on the ad. Both your return and volley placements, cross-court, are the first considerations for determining a return side.
The Deuce Court
Deuce court receivers live between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the server's partner's forehand volley, threatening a poach up the middle of the court, and the hard place is the server's forehand drive threatening the receiver's partner's alley down-the-line. Return too close to the middle and your shot is poached; hit too wide and your partner gets passed. And there's more bad news. Deuce court receivers run around their backhands to play a forehand at great cost: they cheat to the middle of the court and leave their alley wide open. So much for the so-called "forehand court." If you choose the deuce side, your returns need to be very precise, deep and usually right at the server, and you have to play backhands as backhands.
Is there any good news for the deuce court receiver? Plenty. Down-the-line gambits work really well on the deuce side, especially the lob. Assuming right-handed play, the server's backhand side is behind her partner, so any ball lobbed over the net player's head pins the server high above her backhand shoulder, a position that almost always delivers a lob in reply. If the returning team is camped at their service line, someone's going to have a tasty overhead. And down-the-line passes are easier off the deuce side. Forehands love to hit down-the-line off a ball coming from a cross-court angle, and defending the alley is the server's partner's backhand, a volley that may not be as aggressive or certain as the forehand. Both gambits come with risk, of course. Hit a lob return short and your partner is going to be wearing a ball hit from an overhead; hit a down-the-line pass with not even pace or placement, and the up player is going to split your team with a winning cross-court volley. Nevertheless, the lob comes with another incentive. It usually tempts the server's partner to step away from the net to defend against it, and the middle of the court will be open--the rock has been moved. In fact, if you play the deuce side, you must have a great lob. The down-the-line pass is gravy, but you've got to love to lob to return from the deuce court.
Finally, deuce court receivers aren't under as much pressure as ad court receivers. Games are only decided on the deuce court at 40-15. And unforced errors only result in a one-point swing of the score, e.g.15-15, is either going to be 30-15 or 15-30. You can't play the deuce court unconscious of the score, but there isn't as much pressure on this side.
The Ad Court
The ad court is the hot seat. Except for 40-15, every game-deciding point is played on the ad side: 40-0, 40-30, Ad-in, Ad-out. This fact carries a double consequence. Ad court receivers have to possess steady, dependable returns, often under the pressure of a game point. If the returning team has got all the way to 40-30, they don't want to see a chance to get to deuce evaporate with a return in the net. Conversely, ad court receivers have to feel comfortable being aggressive. At 30-40, the ad court receiver needs to make something happen, to play boldly, grab the break point. To put even more pressure on the ad court returner, there's always a two-point swing in the score every time the ball is on her racquet. A score of 15-30 is either going to become 30-30 or 15-40, in other words, night and day. The bottom line is that if you don't like pressure, don't play the ad side. The better returner (not necessarily the better player but the better returner) should always play the ad side.
Is there any good news for the ad court receiver? You bet. First, ad court receivers can run around their backhand with less risk than deuce court receivers. The move simply pushes the receiver toward her alley, leaving two racquets guarding the middle of the court. And, looking toward the serving team, the ad court receiver faces a backhand volley up the middle of the court from the server's partner, and the server's backhand ground stroke, out wide. Often, the server's partner isn't comfortable poaching off the backhand wing, and if he isn't, there's a gold mine right up the middle of the court. A drive there will bring the server to his center mark, leaving his alley wide open for a winning volley. As well, it's a far more difficult shot for the server to take a sharply angled cross-court return and pass down-the-line off the backhand drive, so ad court receivers can usually work their returns wide toward the server's alley without jeopardizing their partner's alley, and that can really open the court. In fact, sharply angled cross-courts are the trademark of a good ad court player. If you can hit wide and thrive under pressure, the ad court is for you.
The pros and club players handle a lefty/righty return combination differently. Club players like to put two forehands and two overheads toward the middle of the court, which means that the lefty is the deuce court receiver and the righty is on the ad side. There's certainly something to be said of this combination, providing more strength up the middle of the court, the usual vulnerability of a doubles team. However, as pros, only the Bryan brothers play this way. McEnroe and Navratolova, both lefties, and this coach's favorite male and female doubles players, played the ad court. Placing the lefty on the ad court protects him or her from the right-handed slice serve to the backhand that, on the deuce side, takes a lefty wide of the court. That can be an important consideration, depending on the servers your team is facing. But experiment both ways. Besides putting forehands up the middle, the other important issues are, as stated: control cross-court off both ground strokes and volleys, which player is the better lobber, and which player is the better returner, all around.
Who Serves First? The standard thinking is that the better server should serve first, giving him more opportunities to serve over the course of the set and the match. If this works for your team, remember that at the beginning of each set, your strongest server should begin, even if he's served last in the previous set.
However, there are a couple of other concerns that may mean that the weaker server should go first. If one player is really dominant at net, an aggressive and capable poacher, she should be at net as often as possible, even if she's also the strongest server. Good net players dominate doubles. It's far more important to put a great poacher at net than a great server back at the baseline. Another consideration is the sun. A lefty/righty combination can work it so that neither player has to serve into the sun, but if both players are righties, somebody has got to serve well when he's on the sunny side. If the sun is a problem, have the player serve first on your team that's most comfortable serving into the sun, even if it means the weaker server. She's got a better chance of holding.
Who Calls the Poaches? Good doubles teams plan their poaches, for the most part. You'll see them either conversing before each point or with the up player giving hand signals behind her back. Both players should have a voice in choosing to poach, but the server should have the final say. After all, no poach will be successful if the server can't place the ball where it needs to be and where the server has told her partner that it's going to go. If this added pressure results in more missed first serves, the poaching isn't doing the serving team much good, only making it harder to hold. The server, then, toward the end of getting more first serves in, should be able to shake off the signal to poach. That doesn't mean that if her partner can pick off a return she shouldn't try, only that the server isn't guaranteeing the ball is going to a certain spot and that no team movement is planned in advance of the return. Veteran teams may also decide in advance to plan a poach on first serve and none on the second, also to relieve pressure on the serve.
The Improvised Poach A good doubles team will have a plan for an improvised poach, say, a return where there wasn't a planned poach, but is hit so weakly that the up player makes a move for it. If that happens, you'll never see a veteran team wonder where each player should go if the poach isn't put away. The poacher will continue to move across the court even if she hasn't crossed the center service line to hit the ball, and her partner will cross behind her. Period. No waiting to see where each other goes, no second guessing, no horrible "I" formation with both players frozen in the middle of the court--they just go to opposite sides. This is an example of unspoken communication that comes from experienced play with a regular partner, but it's also something that you can agree on prior to a match with a partner with whom you're unfamiliar.
Serve Placement and Serve and Volley Even without a plan to poach, a good partner communicates where she's going to try and place the serve. It's no guarantee, of course, but the players need to be on the same page, especially if the server is going out wide and her partner's alley may be in jeopardy. And a good partner also communicates where she'll be after the serve. Her partner needs to know this, too. If the server chooses to stay back, the distance between the players will be at its greatest, and her partner may want to shuffle between the net and the service line to help guard against poaches from the opposing net player. Or, if the server is coming in, who's covering the lob? And if the server is coming in against an opposing baseliner, which tandem formation will the serving team use, Close and Fade or Terminator? And, of course, the decision to come in or stay back may change between first and second serves. A good team will communicate around all of these issues.
Going Against the Grain Against a good serve, just getting the ball back in play can be a small miracle. But against a mediocre serve, and depending on the score, receivers may try to take some chances that deviate from the standard deep, cross-court reply. Good partners communicate these plans. If, for example, the deuce court receiver plans to put up a lob, it's smart that he tells this to his partner. After all, his partner is the one at risk of an overhead to the nose if the lob is short. As well, if the returner is thinking of going down-the-line for a pass, it's good that his partner gets a heads up. If the pass fails, the middle of the court is going to be under attack, and that means the returner's partner better be ready. Or, what if the receiver is going to try a drop shot off a weak second serve? That's a ball that may be poached, but if it gets by the up player and the server is barely able to reach the ball, the receiver's partner needs to hold at the service line so the server doesn't have an avenue of escape with a lob down-the-line. In advance of the point, a good team will communicate in all situations, even if the returner is choosing the standard cross-court reply. But a trusting team will also give permission for the receiver to change her plan, say, if she sees premature movement for a poach, and goes down-the-line when the team had agreed for her to go cross-court. This isn't a contradiction. Doubles is tennis, after all, and there's a good deal of improvisation; a good partner is ready for anything.
Shots Up the Middle
If you've got a regular partner, through experience, you develop a clear sense of who's going to take which balls when there's a choice. But if you don't know your partner well, the middle of the court can be vulnerable to indecision by both players. C-level players usually want the forehand to take the shot up the middle, but as play improves, it's a mistake to think that backhands are always weaker than forehands. In advance of a match, I coach players to discuss this issue and come up with a plan. One strategy is to have the person closest to the net take the shots up the middle; she's in a more offensive position. Or, you can even decide arbitrarily, for example, the person cross-court of the opponent hitting the ball will take the shots up the middle, as this is usually the case. But it can work the other way, too, where the player down-the-line of the hitter takes the shots up the middle. Anything works better than having both players watch the ball go by for a winner, untouched! So sad.
Who Decides? I've already talked about the server having the right to call off a poach, but who decides whether to use Auto Switch or Bait and Trap, for example, if there is going to be a planned poach? (See my earlier tip about planned poaches to stop the lob.) Or whether to use "I" Formation? Or to go into The Wall? Or even whether it's a good time to use the lob down-the-line or a pass down-the-line? How these questions are answered goes to the heart of what determines a successful partnership. There isn't a right and a wrong answer. There's trust. And there are usually instincts that run the same. Though it's not uncommon for a team to have a leader (usually the better player), both players must have a voice and know that their opinion is valued and respected. Otherwise, it simply isn't a team. However, it might be that one player is a superior tactician, better able to discern weaknesses that might be exploited by a certain gambit. Or it might be that one player isn't as comfortable making decisions on the fly and would simply prefer to defer to his partner's judgment. Or one player may have better knowledge about the opposition from previous matches. No matter who decides or on what basis the decision is made, good partnerships learn how to handle tough choices as a team. And if they don't learn, very simply, the partnership fails.
How partners communicate is as important and as complex as the concerns and tactics addressed above. That's the next tip, do's and don'ts of partnership communication.
c Keith Shein
Doubles Clinic, Part Seven:
Partnership Communication or Watch Your Mouth!