Yours! Who Should Take the Middle Ball in Doubles?

In tennis, doubles is a partnership. The stronger your partnership is in terms of communication, trust, and strategy, the better your chances of winning.

One question that came up recently from a reader was when, as the net player, you should take the middle ball and when should you let your partner take it. So that’s what you’re going to learn today.


Covering the Middle in the Deuce Court

Your partner is serving, and they hit a body serve to the opponent who strikes a return over the middle net strap.

Your doubles partner then hits a backhand into the net.

In a lot of cases, players will blame the partner who missed the backhand for losing this point. But in reality, it’s not so clear.

It’s a bad idea to blame one person on a doubles team, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s say someone has a gun to my head and is making me blame one person.

Before they pull the trigger, I’d have a few followup questions.

  • Was it a 1st or 2nd serve?
  • Did you (the net player) know that a body serve was coming?
  • Are you right-handed?

Let’s go through a few scenarios.

Scenario #1

The net player can be more aggressive on 1st serves and should look to take any ball over the middle net strap.

Let’s say it was a 1st serve. You and your partner talk about serve strategy before each point and called the body serve.

I would, in this scenario, “blame” you, especially if you’re are right-handed.

Let’s examine why…

On the 1st serve, you should be more aggressive by pinching towards the middle, or poaching.

If you knew it was a body serve, then there is no reason to cover the alley because the returner doesn’t have a great angle to pass you.

Since you’re right-handed, your forehand is in the middle of the court. This means you’ll have a better volley, and be able to reach more to cover the middle so your partner doesn’t have to hit a backhand.

If your forehand volley is in the middle, priority #1 is to cover the middle and protect your partner’s backhand.

Scenario #2

Let’s say it was a 2nd serve, and your partner called a wide serve but missed their spot.

In this case, the “person to blame” isn’t so clear.

  • It’s more difficult to be aggressive on the 2nd serve.
  • A wide 2nd serve gives the returner an easy angle down the line (especially if it’s a forehand).
  • Your partner missed their spot.

All that said, I’d still blame the net player. Unless you had been beaten down the line consistently by that returner already in the match, you should still be owning the middle of the court as much as you can.


Covering the Middle in the Ad Court

In the ad court, it becomes more difficult to decide, as the net player, if you should take the middle ball.

You now have a backhand volley, and your partner has a forehand groundstroke.

In doubles: volley > groundstroke.
However, in tennis: forehand > backhand.

So how do we weigh these options against each other?

From the deuce court, we can wait to move and be comfortable with most forehand volleys we get. However, in this scenario, we have to read the opponent more and see what type of ball they are hitting.

To help you decide how aggressive to be, we’ll use a few simple rules.

Rule 1: When the opponent looks uncomfortable, pinch or poach

If you see them hitting an off-balanced backhand, from deep in the court, we can be more aggressive. Poaching early is a good option because you can force an error and not have to touch the ball.

If they’re hitting a short forehand, we probably want to stay home and let our partner take the ball.

Pro Tip: If they’re hitting a short forehand, ask yourself how they got in that position. How can you avoid it next time?

Rule 2: Take the high balls, leave the low balls

You’ll want to read the ball as well.

If it’s a high ball over the net, go for it. But if the opponent hits a low ball with a lot of pace, it will be a more difficult backhand volley.

In general, a doubles team should figure out which person improves the odds of the team winning the point most by taking the ball in the middle. In my course, The Mental Game Masterclass, I discuss principles and frameworks for working through these decisions.

Do you have a scenario when you’re not sure what to do? Comment below and I’ll give you my best doubles tips & advice.

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About the Author

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.

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