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Doubles for Learners by TennisTom 2011

▌ © C. Tom Harton 1991-2011 ▐

This and other related writings are motivated by the possibility that some players will pick up new, useful information, and will use it to improve their game and have more fun. This instructional – PLAYING SMART -- may be the most important instructional of all.

How to play smart is one of the most valuable talents to incorporate into your game. It is not the greatest invention since the discovery of the wheel, but it may be the single most rewarding accomplishment that you can integrate into your everyday tennis, regardless of your playing level.

Once you have learned the basics of how to play tennis, the linchpin of winning tennis AT ALL LEVELS is making smart tactical choices on each ball that you hit. A fundamental idea is to avoid making shots which are beyond your known capabilities. Most players know from experience which shots they can make with dependable success. The mindful selection of those shots is the key to winning. That is to say, choosing a dependable, split second percentage shot over a risky shot will substantially result in winning against more or less equal opponents who generally and unconsciously take unwarranted risks.

Doubles courts everywhere are populated with players who use low percentage shots. One of the most frequently used high risk shots is the attempt to make a winner from the baseline. Another is the attempt to hit a winner down the 4 ½ foot wide alley rather than choosing to hit a shot into the rest of the court. Smart doubles tennis is about where and when to hit your shots within those 27 feet between the doubles alleys.

Depending on your shot skills, most smart shots are simply a matter of using them regularly. Playing smart does not require learning how to change your form. For most, it does require reprogramming your tennis thinking.

Here are two partial lists of smart doubles shots and tactics. Part 1 is more basic. Part 2 is slightly more advanced. There are always exceptions or counter arguments, but these instructions have proven to be the most successful for the most players. It is a wealth of information which has taken me years to compile.


  • Put your best player on the ad court, because the majority of game points start or end on the ad court (40-0, 40-30, 30-40, ad in, ad out)! If partners are approximately equal then put the player in the ad court that has the best service return. The only exception to this is if one partner has a particularly weak forehand or backhand that is used for down the middle returns. (See the next pointer.)

  • Hit most of your shots “down the middle.” This does not mean literally down the middle; it does mean splitting the distance between your two opponents. This requires aiming your shots with intention. You may be surprised at how well this works.

  • Avoid overhitting from your backcourt. This is an extraordinarily common tendency. Successfully making pacey winners from the baseline is very difficult against equal players. Swinging too hard is a common cause of player error.

  • Lob over your opponent net player whether or not you follow your lob in to the net. The smart move is to close to just behind the service line after your successful lob in order to take control of the net. This is an easy way to change the momentum of a doubles point. PRACTICE THIS UNTIL YOU ARE GOOD AT IT.

  • Control your racket swing speed, (which relates to the preceding overhitting interdiction.) On groundstrokes the speed of the incoming ball tells you how hard to swing your racket. The rules are: If the ball is approaching fast = swing slow; if medium = swing medium; if slow = swing a little harder. Control is your “holy grail.”

  • Avoid playing in the area know asno mans land, which is several feet inside the baseline. It is called that because balls often bounce in that area and cause you to hit defensive shots. (Colorful monikers: “toes balls” or “pickup shots.”) Playing in no man’s land or no woman’s land is extraordinary common in many players.

  • Take your racket back early on groundies so that you do not cause yourself an unnecessary emergency. (A timing issue.) If you have ever taken lessons from a good instructor you will undoubtedly have noticed that most of his or her shots appear to be effortless. Part of that is simply due to early racket preparation.

  • When your partner is pulled wide, you should adjust your position in the same direction in order not to leave a large gap between you and your partner. In other words, you should move to the middle of the open court. (Basic doubles.)

  • Use topspin or slice (underspin) on most of your groundstrokes. Do not hit flat except on certain lobs. Your topspin shots should clear the net at least a foot or more. If you do this, the best percentages are in topspin. Spin is your friend.

  • Be constantly on the balls of your feet at the net during a point so that you can pivot and move as quickly as possible. At net, fractions of a second make a huge difference. Do not take your racket back past your shoulder on volleys. (The sole exception to the latter is if your opponent has hit you a soft, short, yummy lob.)

  • Aim most of your serves to the receivers backhand side as this is usually their weaker side. Be observant and take note if an opponent is left handed.

  • Develop your rallying threshold (shot tolerance) -- the number of balls you can comfortably hit during a point before you become anxious about missing. While you are playing a regular practice match, count each hit as you make it and you will soon be able to determine the average number of balls you can hit before you begin to feel a little nervous. The way to increase your threshold is to try to maintain a 10-hit, 20-hit groundstroke rally during practice. [See my Companion Reference Instructionals list below.]

  • Compliment your partner every time it seems reasonable (Good shotorGreat shot) and proffer encouragement when your partner misses any easy shot. This type of team communication creates tons of positive energy.

  • Move your feet quickly to get to every ball so that you have time to set up and swing with control. The mnemonic is: Run quick, quick, quick; swing slow.

  • Be patient. Playing good tennis takes good patience and is the offshoot of on-court experiences worked through. Being impatient to win the point is rampant among many doubles players and often results in imprudent shots. (Translation: an imprudent shot often means loss of point, and is the bane of many recreational players.)

  • If you have an open court shot opportunity, go for a placement shot instead of going for a muscled miracle. Tennis is a game of percentages. [See my Companion Reference Instructionals list below.]


  • Hit a safe (soft) angle shot at times against a baseline opponent. This is best done with slice (underspin), however if you have not yet incorporated slice into your game, a soft, flat-hit angle is your next best bet. Your opponent should have to run hard and usually has to hit up on the return. A good time to do this shot is when you are returning a soft second serve, however you can use this shot anytime from anywhere on the court. Practice this relentlessly until it is in your repertoire and becomes a safe shot for you. Examine the simple diagram below. It does not mean aim for the alley.

  • Hit your first serve at ¾ pace in order to get it in. It makes no sense to overhit your first serve if your percentage of success is low, thereby throwing away your first serve and giving the opponent a slower second serve to look at.

  • Be a threatening factor at the net (threatening to poach) so that the opponent constantly worries that you might intervene. A good fake poach is often effective because you are getting into your opponent’s mind. Being a statue at the net takes you out of the point and out of the game. Part of your job at net is to help your partner win the serve by being active.

  • Watch your opponents in the early part of the match and make mental notes on what they usually tend to do. This adds greatly to your anticipation skills and will help you win more. The more observant you are, the more confident you can feel.

  • Watch the opponents racket swing path and racket speed. If you see a low-to-high swing, the ball will usually have topspin; high to low, underspin (slice). Excluding lobs, a slow, short swing often belies a short shot; a longer, faster swing usually indicates a deeper groundstroke. These are secrets of anticipation.

  • On groundies, move your body forward one stepinto the ballas you swing. This may require your backcourt position to start one step further back than usual. Your body should move forward in concert with your racket head. This is free power which does not affect your control when practiced. Many novices and intermediates tend to hit withall armwhich requires them to swing harder for a given ball speed = less control. Learn to move your body weightintothe ball.

  • If you have time, direct your volleys with a specific target area in mind. The target area which is most advantageous is the dynamic (changing) area between the opponent net player and opponent baseline player. Do not expect your first volley to be an outright winner. Be keenly prepared to hit several volleys if necessary. Study the diagram below and practice using the information.

  • If in your repertoire, hit a drop shot when your opponent is behind the baseline. This is particular effective when your opponent is slow or not expecting it. The more an opponent has to run, the better your chances are of winning the point.

  • Use a modified swing on incoming balls which are pacey (fast). Many learner’s brains intuitively tell them to swing faster on pacey approaching balls, particularly balls at their feet. WRONG. Shorten your backswing and swing slower.

  • Choose an option when returning serve (if you can control the return) according to your opponents abilities. Your pre-shot return options are 1) crosscourt back to the server; 2) short angle shot or drop shot; 3) lob over their net player; 4) down the alley; or 5) directly at their net player. Examples: choose a lob against a great server or against a poacher; or choose right at a net player who volleys poorly. Note that if you hit a moon ball lob, it gives your opponent plenty of time to get to your shot. A medium high non-topspin lob is much smarter.

  • If you are feeling nervous during a match, accept it, and go back to the basics with mindful attention. Returning to basics is an intellectual procedure and can help you control your emotions. This is true even before a match, when you might be worrying about winning or losing. Even world class players have to return to the basics at times.

  • If you are losing the set by 3 games, try to figure out why, and change your game. Example: If you are losing too many points at the net, or if your opponent’s serve is overwhelming you, play in a both-back formation and approach the net as soon as you get a short ball or when your opponents are not expecting you to come in. It is difficult to win with both back but a temporary adjustment may change the momentum of the match. Greater patience will be required.

  • Know how to play tiebreakers and practice them. At 6 games all, everything comes down to winning the tiebreaker. Never practicing tiebreakers is as unsmart as never practicing your serve.

  • Know the Rules of Tennis. Many matches have been lost because players didn’t know the rules. Follow the rules, even in social matches. The best book of rules is “Friend at Court,” and is published every year by the United State Tennis Association, 70 West Red Oak Lane, White Plains, NY 10604-3602. Telephone 1 888 832-8291 (8AM-10PM). USTA members get a discount.

  • Focus on your court position, as footwork is especially important in doubles Excellent court positioning can have an enormous effect on beating your opponents.

  • Know roughly how many unforced errors you have made during a match. Adjust your game accordingly. Almost all matches by near-equal players are won or lost according to the number of unforced errors a team makes rather than the number of outright winners. Ta-da! This is a universal tennis fact for 90-some percent of us. The best fix is to focus harder on each ball you are hitting at the moment. Be aware of your own game tendencies and abilities.

  • Think. Initially the only way you can possibly incorporate these instructions into your game is think about them. Eventually they will become second nature. By that time you will be winning more games and matches. Guaranteed.

  • Have fun. This is probably the only life you will get.

Companion Reference Instructionals by TennisTom

“Angle of Possible Good Shots and Percentage Tennis”

“Basis of Percentage Tennis by TennisTom”

“Rallying Threshold – Shot Number Tolerance”

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