Tennis Doubles: Rules, Strategies & How To Win More Matches

Singles in tennis might get all the attention at the pro level, but there are a lot of people who enjoy playing doubles. It is a more sociable game, and it allows older people to stay active late into life.

Although it might seem pretty similar to singles, there are a lot of differences that make the game tonight. People who want to excel in tennis as a doubles player needs to work on specific strategies to take it to the next level.

Understanding The Basics

Before jumping into doubles, there are some different rules people need to keep in mind. The game is not to play the same way as singles, but there are some major differences that everyone should know before stepping on the court.

Court Dimensions

The most obvious difference between doubles and singles is the width of the court. While the two sides are the same length, there are two doubles alleys on each side. This makes the doubles court 9 feet wider than singles, and that extra bit of space can open up some additional angles. For people getting used to doubles, it takes a little bit of time to make judgment calls initially. Eventually, most people can determine whether or not a ball might be going out or not.

Serving

Doubles teams have the opportunity to pick who serves first to start out the match. Once the first person is determined, the other person will serve after that. Essentially, each person will serve once every four games.

This messes up the rhythm of some singles players, as they don’t have the opportunity to hit nearly as many serves. It also neutralizes the competition a bit, as one player can’t dominate with their serve and help a team pull ahead.

After each set, the serving order is up to each team. Most doubles teams will make sure that their strongest server serves first every single set.

Receiving

During the first game receiving a serve, the two players must decide on who takes what side of the court. Once it is determined, there is no switching for the rest of that set. Players do have the opportunity to switch between sets if they wish, and it’s a common tactic for those who don’t play well and want to switch things up.

If the two doubles players play with different dominant hands, picking a side is usually pretty easy. Another way the choice is made is to put the strong player on the advantage side of the court. This is where the more important points tend to take place.


Effective Tennis Strategies In Doubles

Tennis players in doubles are always looking for ways to frustrate opponents and really come together as a team. It’s essential for teammates to practice and play quite a bit so that everyone gets used to each other.

1. Total Net Control

The goal in most tennis doubles matches is to be the team that is taking control of the net. As long as both players are adequate at volleys, this is the most consistent way to win matches. At the highest level, teams are always trying to get to the net and put the point away as quickly as possible. While singles might be about extending the rally, doubles is more about finishing off points as quickly as possible.

There is always at least one player near the net most of the time, so what it takes is strategic movement by the other player to get up towards the net as quickly as possible as well. When serving, that player can follow in the initial serve and get in there right away.

As a returner, chipping the bar back or hitting a deep return can swing the points into the direction of the receiving team. Another method is to lob the net person on the initial return, allowing for movement towards the net.

When both players are at the net and solid enough to hit volleys there, it puts a ton of pressure on the opposition. They either need to have pinpoint accuracy for a passing shot, or they need to hit a lob that is good enough to be out of reach. At all levels, this is a lot more difficult than hitting standard groundstrokes and keep the ball going.


2. Focus On The Middle of The Court

A sound strategy in doubles is to focus on returns in the middle of the court. A pair of doubles players might make that a conscious effort going into a match, as it puts a unique type of pressure on the other team.

The strategy doesn’t pop up too much in singles, as players are always trying to keep their opponent on the move. However, hitting shots up the middle in doubles can sometimes be the most frustrating shot out there.

Why is the case? For starters, the opposition has to decide who hits the return when it is in the middle. If a double team is not particularly familiar with each other, this might cause a bit of confusion in the beginning. Maybe both players go for the same ball and the racquets collide. Perhaps both players hold back, and the ball falls in for an easy winner.

Another reason why the strategy works is that balls up the middle are very hard to hit at an angle. This means that the net player doesn’t have to worry as much about passing shots down the line with returns. Being able to lean towards the middle of the court is a slight advantage for any team out there looking for a step up in doubles.

The strategy mostly relates to shots during the rally, but it’s also a plan some use when serving. Serves down the T on either side can allow for the teammate at the net to take more chances on that very first return. A player has to hit a remarkable shot to not be in the range of the net player.


3. Going For Angles

The opposite strategy to the one above is to go for angles in doubles. Thanks to the double alley, it is much easier to hit extreme angles. Some teams try to stretch their opposition as much as possible, and that can work well if shots are falling.

As the serving team, the process of hitting extreme angles obviously starts with a great serve. In doubles, players can take a little bit more risk with where they lineup for their serve. Lining up near the doubles alley can help create that initial extreme angle to start the point.

If the server pulls the opposition off the court, the net player can read that serve and more than likely cut the ball off for a solid second shot. The initial serve opens up a big hole on the court, and is impossible for the other player to cover everything.

Patient Is Key

When rallying, or hitting a return of serve, hitting extreme angles might not be available right away. It might involve hitting some safer shots of the middle of the court at first, and then going from there. Once the opportunity arises, hitting for extreme angles usually leads to the point ending very soon. It’s either an error with the angle shot going out, or it opens up that opportunity to win a point.

Since both of these strategies make the list for doubles, how does a team decide? It doesn’t have to be set in stone for an entire match to play either style. Some teams will switch it up, while others will heavily focus on one over the other.

And that only comes down to the strengths of a doubles team, but the opposition as well. If it becomes apparent that the opposition has a weak side, exploiting as much as possible just makes sense as a competitor. Pay attention to where the two players have their strong hands on the court. Some teams like having their forehands in the middle of the court, while others will put them on the outside to allow for extreme angles.


4. Targeting The Weaker Player

Whether it be a local league or a professional doubles match, there’s always the weak link on the opposition. Fairly early in the match, double teams can identify which player is more prone to not only making errors, but not getting the shots in general.

As soon as the weaker link is identified, a very common double strategy is to go after them as much as possible. It might be frustrating for the better player on the other team, but the goal is to win, not evenly distribute the shots.

Just make sure that when going after the weaker player, there is also a focus on making sure shots don’t feel too forced. If a team becomes a little too predictable, it could cause some unforced errors. There are times in which shots just have to go to the stronger player. It also keeps them on their toes, because they might start to lean a bit too much to the middle if they know the ball has no chance of going to them.


5. Lob Returns

It doesn’t make sense to lob the return in doubles every single time, but it is a strategy worth trying on occasion. It works specifically well if a returner can’t get a clean look at a serve, because they can put it over the net person’s head and make their teammates hit a good shot.

As long as it’s not done too much, a lob is going to cause instant confusion with the other team. The net person might feel like they need to run back and hit an overhead, and the other player is calling them off along the way.

While it might seem pretty easy in theory, hitting a well placed lob is difficult at higher levels. It must be good enough for the net player to not have a chance at it. That’s why it’s often recommended to hit a lob over the shoulder of the net players weak arm. That way, if it’s left a little short, the net player won’t get as easy of a look at a overhead smash right in their wheelhouse.


6. Staying Back On Serve Returns

This used to be rarely seen in doubles tennis, as most want to dominate at the net as quickly as possible. With new technology and players hitting harder than ever, skillful players might try keeping both players back from time to time. It’s probably not going to work with every single point, but it does offer some benefits.

For starters, staying back helps out for those struggling to keep returns away from the other team. Specifically, their net player won’t have as many opportunities in theory. It is not a sign of weakness, but a change of strategy can add some benefits.

It also opens up the court a bit to make people feel pretty confident overall. Instead of feeling under constant pressure right away, it feels a little more like a singles match with another person on the team as well.

Fast players can benefit from staying back, because it allows them to get to just about anything. If the ball draws them in, there is also the opportunity to move in as well. This is a way to get some momentum going into the net and turn defense and offense.


7. Killing With Softness

There is a time and a place to hit some shots in doubles, and doing a strategically can open up some opportunities for players. Of course, if it is not done correctly, there is an opportunity of leaving everyone on the court very vulnerable. 

It’s a tough adjustment at first, but some soft shots overall can really allow players to have different opportunities. Just make sure not to do it too much, because the opposition might be able to read everything. If players pounce on a soft ball, it’s usually a great opportunity to hit a winning shot.


8. Use Down The Line Opportunities As Bait

When people start playing doubles for the first time, they tend to gravitate towards the double alleys and lines. This may seem like a smart strategy, because no one wants to be passed with a good shot down the line. However, those great shots don’t happen as much as a lot of people think. In fact, a frequent double tactic is to bait people into thinking that they can hit a winner down the line, when they are taking one of the most difficult shots in tennis.

The way the net is positioned and the court shape makes it one of the lowest percentage shots to hit a groundstrokes down the line. It looks great when is pulled off, but this is a low percentage shot only quality players can hit consistently in the first place.

Instead of protecting against a few of those great shots, it makes more sense to gravitate towards the middle. Leave the lines open to a degree, almost baiting players into trying to hit a great shot. When they do try to pull it off, they are playing right into the hands of the opposition.

Sure, it’s going to end up being a strategy that doesn’t work all the time. It also works much better at lower levels for obvious reasons. However, even pros will do this to a degree, playing the percentages and banking on the fact that shot with any level of consistency is more complicated than it seems.


How To Win More Doubles Matches

Now that the rules have been covered and the strategies have been discussed, the toughest part is consistently winning in doubles. While singles is always about the individual, doubles is a team effort and needs worked on to a certain degree. The last thing a person wants to do is continuously go out there without any strategy. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind to increase the winning percentage.

Practice With Consistent Partners

If a player is trying to really step up their doubles game, there needs to be some type of commitment to a select few players. Maybe a person has one main doubles partner, and then somebody else they play with from time to time. Playing with different partners all the time helps socially, but it’s not going to allow a team to really form. It forces a player to learn the strength and weaknesses of a partner, and to communicate on the fly.

When a pair of players play doubles consistently, they start to know what the others doing without any type of communication. It’s beautiful to watch, and just about all the top doubles players in the world experience this.

When developing that partnership, make sure to focus on getting everything right in the beginning. Talk about different strategies, learn how the partner reacts to specific shots, and don’t be afraid to try new strategy against weaker opponents. When a match is lopsided, there is an opportunity to take a few more risks here and there and see what works.

Mix Of Different Strategies

All those strategies above are useful in specific scenarios, but very rarely should they be the only way to play the game of tennis. In fact, perhaps the biggest key to winning more matches is mixing up different strategies depending on situations.

Certain opponents will need certain plans when it comes to pulling off a win. For example, when facing a doubles team that goes for winners a lot, the plan might be to take a step back and focus on consistency. In a way, letting the opposition beat themselves might be the ticket to success against those opponents. In other cases, it might be necessary to dictate points and hit winners instead of being conservative.

Scouting

Scout opponents and ask for pointers from others when playing unknown opponents. It can be a little bit tricky in the beginning to play brand new people. Players get a bit of a feel on players play during a warm-up, but it’s still pretty hard to figure a strategy out at first.

For those really serious about winning more matches, scouting and asking others for scouting reports is an excellent way to get a feel on a new opponent. It really doesn’t take that much time, and a few tips here and there can make a difference between a win and a loss.

If it’s a typical league, there is usually a chance that there will be scouting opportunities. Show up early on league night and see who is playing on the other courts, and maybe even take in a few points. The scouting doesn’t need to be too in-depth, especially if it’s just a recreation league.

Move In To The Net Together

At the start of every point, the common positioning for doubles is to have one player at the net, and one player back. While this is a great starting position that has been used for decades, moving in together at the net is something that can overwhelm opponents. When two players move in together, it closes off nearly every angle, and it instantly puts pressure on the opposition as they try to figure out what to do.

One of the biggest things work on when moving together towards the net is figuring out what to do with balls down the middle. Those balls could be hanging there and slightly out of reach for both players, so communication is key to figure out who takes it.

It’s frustrating when the opposition does hit a winner or two, but it shouldn’t be all that discouraging. When moving towards the net, there are bound to be some good shots hit by the other team that will result in winners. As long as moving towards the net is yielding more wins, it’s a calculated risk in the end.

Taking Doubles To Another Level

With the strategies above and plenty to work on, there’s always room for players to become better doubles players. It is all about working on strategy and understanding the differences between singles and doubles. A great singles player can struggle initially at doubles, but practice and thinking about the game the right way pays off in the end.

Fred Simonsson

I'm Fred, the guy behind TennisPredict. Apart from writing here, I play tennis on a semi-professional level and coaches upcoming talents.

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