In tennis, doubles is a very different and more complex game than singles. The court is bigger, there are more players on the court, you typically spend more time at the net, and points are generally shorter.
When creating a tennis doubles strategy for your team, there is a lot to consider. Below you’ll discover proven strategies, tips, and tactics so you can become a better doubles player, frustrate your opponent, and win more tennis matches.
What You’ll Learn
6 Basic Doubles Strategies
Positioning Strategies & Serving Formations for Doubles
How to Develop a Serve Strategy with Your Partner
Return Team Strategy
3 Effective Net Strategies for Doubles [Video Lesson]
The Key to Doubles Strategy that Works
You should have a primary strategy that works well for you in most matches based on you and your partner’s strengths. You will also have to adjust the strategy based on how your opponents play.
For example, maybe you’re a serve and volley doubles player, but you may come up against a team that hits really low returns that give you a difficult volley. In this case you might want to stay back for the first shot after the serve before coming in.
Below are common strategies you can use in your tennis match for different situations.
If you can take over the net consistently in a doubles match, you will put pressure on your opponent. You can force them on their heels, and make them try to hit difficult low percentage shots. Volleys close to the net are usually easier shots as well, so you’ll win more points. You have better angles at the net, and you can smash the ball down into the court.
You should always be using this strategy at the net in doubles. Moving laterally at the net, especially when your opponent is about to hit a groundstroke, will put pressure on them. Tennis players are taught to not hit to the net player in doubles so they will likely try to change the direction of their shot, or hit a more difficult shot. This can cause countless unforced errors and frustrate the other team. If you are faking (see below) you may also get an easy volley to win the point.
It is much more difficult to hit a good volley from down low by your feet or ankles than a volley up high at your chest or shoulders. Hitting the ball at their feet puts the opponent at a big disadvantage. They will usually miss the shot or pop the ball up since they have to lift a difficult volley back up over the net. This is usually a good time for you or your partner to poach and put the ball away.
You can get the ball to their feet by hitting heavy topspin on your groundstrokes to get the ball to dip at the opponent’s feet. Another tactic is to hit a soft volley that stays low over the net before dropping to the opponent’s feet.
When you’re returning or hitting groundstrokes, try driving the ball deep in the court to push the opponent back. This will allow you to charge forward for the next shot. Typically the opponent hits a weak shot because you’ve forced them on their heels behind the baseline. This also gives you time to attack from the net. I like to do this with my forehand, aiming for the deep corner near the doubles alley.
One of my college tennis teammates used to say “down the middle solves the riddle.” This is a great doubles strategy, especially if both opponents are at the net. There are several advantages you get from attacking the middle of the court in doubles.
Almost every doubles player has a weaker backhand volley than forehand volley. If you can hit a hard, or low shot at the backhand volley of the weakest opponent, you will likely make them miss or get an easy next shot. When both players are at the net, this should be the default shot unless another obvious shot is better.
In tennis, doubles positioning is highly underrated by recreational and competitive players. I see way too many people standing too close to the doubles alley or too far back from the net. In general, there are several guidelines you should follow when considering your doubles positioning on the tennis court.
You’ll also see several different formations in doubles, especially from the serving team. Below, I will break down the advantages, disadvantages, and strategy of each of the most common doubles formations.
The standard formation in doubles is one person at the net, and one person back for both teams. This is the most common, and is the best option in most cases. The net players are crosscourt from each other. This allows the baseliners to hit deep, more consistent groundstrokes crosscourt.
Advantages: Using this formation allows your team to have someone covering the lob, and someone ready to attack any weak shots from the net. It also allows the baseline player more room for error since they’re hitting a crosscourt shot.
Disadvantages: Timid net players will tend to not get involved with this formation. This is a bad thing since you always want your opponent to have to go through the net player. Also, if you’re playing a good team, they can get in a rhythm if you stick to the standard formation because you’re giving them the easy crosscourt shots.
When to use it: I recommend use the standard doubles formation 75-90% of the time, and add different looks below to keep the other team off balance. The exception is if you find a glaring weakness from the other team that makes a different formation consistently more effective.
The I formation is when the net player and the server form something close to an I. The net player will stand on, or close to the center service line. The server will stand close to the middle as well. The server and partner will communicate before the point to determine which direction each player will move after the serve. This is often done with hand signaling.
Advantages: The returner does not know where the net player will move. This puts pressure on the returner to hit a good return. You can force a lot of missed returns with this formation.
Disadvantages: If the returner hits a good down the line shot, it will likely be a winner or put your team off balance.
When to use it: If a returner is getting into a rhythm while you’re using the standard formation, try the I formation to give them a new look. I don’t recommend using this the whole time in a match, but feel free to try it in 3-5 times per set.
The Australian doubles formation is when the server and the net player both stand on the same side of the court, leaving an entire half of the court open.
Advantages: If the returner has a weak down the line return, this can be used to force them into that low percentage shot causing a lot of errors.
If you use this on the ad side, the server will have forehand groundstrokes (assuming they are right-handed).
Disadvantages: You are leaving an entire half of the court open. A hard down the line return could be a winner unless the server is very fast.
When to use it: There are two good times to use this formation.
When one of your opponents is hitting really strong crosscourt returns, and you’re losing most of those points. The Australian formation will force them to go down the line which is a more difficult return.
When the server feels much more comfortable hitting groundstrokes from one half of the court. I, for example, have a weaker backhand, so I could do this on the ad side to force the opponent to return the serve to my forehand side.
See more advanced strategies for doubles positioning on my youtube channel where I break down USTA doubles matches.
When considering a serving strategy for doubles, you want to do your best to set up your net player with easy volleys. The best way to do this is to find the opponent’s weakness on their return.
Most people have a weaker backhand than forehand, so it’s typically best to serve up the T on the deuce side and wide on the ad side. Don’t worry about hitting aces, just get it to the backhands so your net player can get themselves involved.
As you progress through the match, stay aware of how the opponents are handling each serve. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
Answering questions like these will help you develop a more effective strategy throughout the match. You can continue to make your opponent more and more uncomfortable by attacking their weaknesses while serving.
The ability to return in tennis matches and break serve can help you take your doubles game to the next level.
However, there is nothing more satisfying for your opponents than you missing a return. This is why it’s important to focus on making a high percentage of solid returns. Giving away free points on the return can let a match get away from you quickly.
Don’t go down the line (too much) or worry about the net player poaching. Trying to go for too much on the return is a huge mistake that many players make. By simply make returns consistently you will win return games because eventually the opponents will miss a few volleys or groundstrokes and lose a game.
It is the lowest part of the net, so you have more room for error. It also makes for a difficult volley for the net player and takes away their angles if they do poach.
Against a team that plays well at the net, you’ll want to keep the returns low. They will have a more difficult volley and likely pop the ball up. If the server stays back, and the net player is timid, then you can hit returns deep crosscourt. As discussed above, this makes for a tough groundstroke so your teammate can poach.
You will be at the net a lot in doubles, so it’s very important to have an effective net strategy.
A common misconception in doubles is that you have to either poach or cover the line at the net. Really, you should always be moving at the net.
If you’ve ever told your partner, “I’ll cover the alley,” then you’re doing it wrong.
There are three options you have as the net player… poach, fake, or pinch. I’ll show you how to execute each one below.
A poach in tennis is when the net player crosses towards the other side of the court to cut a ball off and hit a volley.
I typically recommend poaching early in the match. Most players never return down the line early in a match so you should be able to poach a few returns during the first few games. If your partner can serve to the backhand, the return should be fairly weak. Be sure to close towards the net, and hit the volley at its highest point when you poach.
Poaching can also be done during a rally. Anytime you see the opponent in an uncomfortable position, like on their heels behind the baseline, poaching can be an effective strategy.
The fake is when you act like you’re going to poach, but you recover towards the alley in the service box.
One of the best ways to force missed returns or groundstrokes is to fake. If we’ve poached a few times in the match already, maybe they hit a few shots up the line, or tried a lob. This is a great time to counter with a fake.
Leave super early and get to the middle of the net as the serve crosses. Then just before the opponent makes contact with the ball, jump back to your side to put away the volley that’s sure to come down the line. A lot of times, they’ll just miss but other times you’ll get a pretty easy volley.
Pinching is when you move diagonally towards the center net strap. In this case you are giving up a little bit of the alley, but you’re also taking away some of the crosscourt shot.
Pinching is a great tactic to force the opponent to hit an uncomfortable into a smaller target. If they hit a weak return crosscourt, you’ll be there to put it away. To get it by you down the alley, their return or groundstroke has to be within a few feet of the sideline, especially on a serve is up the T. This will make them miss often, and will get you involved in the point as a net player. Anytime I’m not poaching or faking, I’m pinching.
The alley is open on two of these three options when my partner is serving (all but the fake). That’s intentional because I want the opponent to go for that lower percentage shot, and increase my odds of closing the point out at the net by getting more involved.
The key to all of these tennis doubles strategies is to stay active at the net and make your opponent hit uncomfortable shots. Between every shot, we should be creating some movement to force the opponent to think about where to hit. Never let them into a rhythm, and change up the looks you’re giving them. Test different strategies out, and work with your partner to see what works best for your team.
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Will Boucek is the Founder & CEO of The Tennis Tribe. He has played tennis for over two decades, including in college. Will has worked with ATP & WTA tour players and coaches. He currently lives in Austin TX where he plays USTA leagues & tournaments, writes about tennis, and teaches doubles workshops.