How to win at doubles

Aug. 08, 1960
Aug. 08, 1960

Table of Contents
Aug. 8, 1960

European Track
The Money Away
Head Man
Bull Hancock
Tip From The Top
Modern Pentathlon
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

How to win at doubles

By William F. Talbert

As played by Earl Buchholz and Chuck McKinley of the U.S. Davis Cup team (left), who demonstrate the basic moves on this and the following pages, doubles is an extremely fast game requiring the ultimate in skill, ingenuity, reflexes and power. Almost anyone who plays tennis at all assumes he can play doubles; to play it well, however, one must master its surprisingly complicated strategy.

This is an article from the Aug. 8, 1960 issue Original Layout

Successful doubles, like successful warfare, is based on position, and the winning position in doubles is at the net, where an offense can be maintained. A player should retreat to the baseline only when he is forced back. Once driven there, he must wage a vigorous campaign to return to the net in an attacking position.

The players' exact distance from the net should be determined by their heights, the speed of their reactions and their ability to anticipate the return. As enemy shots are angled left or right, both players should shift (see below), the proper distance for each shift depending upon the angle from which the return is about to be made. After each volley, the partners should return to within two racket lengths of each other (bottom picture).

A number of circumstances might force a modification of the basic net position. A lob, for instance, should make the net team drop back a step or so. A weak shot should move the net team closer to volley for placement. On the following pages you will learn how best to utilize the attacking position and how, as a result, to win.

Serving, player is better off with a consistent, well-placed service than with an erratic cannonball. His aim should be to force the receiver into a weak or defensive return. Partner stands eight to 10 feet from the net and slightly toward the outside. Server, in this case McKinley, moves in rapidly after hitting ball, in order to gain proper position for volleying. He should try to reach a point inside service line so he can punch ball for a placement or force opponents into a weak return.

Volleying, server should play his first return deep down the middle if the receiver hangs back. However, if the receiver advances to the middle of the court, the return should be at his feet, where he will have no alternative but a shot from below top of net. Ultimately, server should advance to a position even with his partner and in the middle of his own side of the court. From these stations both players should be able to reach most returns—including angled shots, lobs or dinks over net.

Offensive position at the net should be practiced until it becomes second nature. Two men stationed approximately 12 feet apart can—as illustrated in these drawings—cover almost the complete width of the net. When the opponents are stroking the ball from a wide angle, or from close in, the net players must shift relative positions to maintain best court coverage. For instance, player at left above is moving to his left with his partner as the latter prepares to return sharply angled shot.

Covering center (above), partners concentrate on protecting low part of the net, over which most shots will come. Net play depends to some degree on anticipating shots and moving quickly to the ideal position. But experienced partners know each other's playing habits and often have a prearranged understanding about certain types of shots. However, when this is the case the player not handling the shot must move swiftly to cover any section of court exposed by his partner's action.

Defending against the service

The tactics of defense are directed toward the same end as those of offense—that is, to attack at the net as early as possible. If the receiver can make an effective return of service and get well in to the net, he switches the odds on winning the point from 2 to 1 against him to 2 to 1 in his favor. A low, cross-court return, preferably not too fast, gives the receiving team the time it needs to reach the attacking position at the net. Another advantage of this kind of service return, which might better be named an approach shot, is that it cannot be volleyed down or through the receiver's partner. To keep the server and the netman guessing, an occasional flat drive cross-court or down the line should be played by the receiver—or occasionally a lob might be tried. However, the receiver may not always be able to exercise an option of this sort—and a weak return over the net is much better than a spectacular error into it.

Receiving serve, player should be a step inside the baseline where he will be able to take ball on the rise. His partner should be at a modified net position inside the service line and close to the center of his service court, ready to volley weak return.

To elude reach of the opposing netman, the return of service should be a sharply angled, soft, spinning shot inside the service line. If the ball is correctly placed, the server will be forced to volley up weakly, as the player (lower left) does here.

Vital area for receiver is deep in his own backhand corner (1 and 2), where server will try to place ball. Most serves are twists hit at about three-fourths speed. Using them, the server usually has greater control, better chance to get to net. But receiver must also be on alert for other types of service and other speeds and targets which server will resort to occasionally to prevent receiver from taking liberties with serve.

Wherever ball is hit, receiver's primary responsibility is to get it back, no matter how he has to hit it. "On a crucial point," Don Budge once said, speaking of his tournament days, "I always had only one thought: keep the ball in play." A return of service, it has been estimated, will result in winning the point 50% of time. The burden then rests on opponents.

You can use signals to vary attack

Once a doubles team is absolutely sure of its basic moves, it should work out variations that will keep its opponents off balance. Indeed, surprise changes are an important element in doubles play.

Everybody knows, for instance, that on the serve the man serving the ball stands on one side of the court, and his partner stands on the other. But near the turn of the century some Americans and Australians experimerited with a reverse formation for the serving team. Hoping to offset the cross-court return of service, which often forced weak first volleys, they placed the netman on the same side of the court as the server. The trick worked well then and is still used to advantage today.

But it is not only on the serve that doubles partners should try unconventional formations. Using a variety of formations, poaches (that is, switching positions at the last possible instant and covering each other's territory) and fakes, a team can so upset its opponents that they will become distracted and fall into errors, thereby losing points.

The tricky team, too, can err unless 1) it is sure of its moves and 2) it practices its deceptions. To avoid mistakes, partners should develop a reliable set of signals. On many good doubles teams the netman is the person who gives the sign. Before play begins, he turns his back to the net, faces the server and then either flashes one or more fingers or holds his racket in such a way that the server—but no one else on or off the court—knows exactly what to expect and where on the court he is supposed to move.

Such tactics not only give a team a variety of offenses and defenses, but they also present a psychological barrier to the opponents. Below are some of the signals worked out by Buchholz and McKinley. Both players review them constantly for one very good reason: they don't want to make mistakes. Nothing can make a team feel sillier—or make it look more foolish—than a tricky maneuver that backfires.

Full hand tells server there will be no trick on upcoming serve. Signal is often used to disconcert team's opponents.

One finger tells server netman will fake poach. Server will run forward, as if netman were crossing and then retreat.

Four fingers tell server netman will poach on both serves to backhand. Server will cut across to cover exposed area.

Two fingers tell server to place the ball down the middle of court. Tactic minimizes the angle of the opponent's return.

Signaling to McKinley, netman Buchholz turns back to opponents and holds hand on racket close to belt where sign cannot be stolen. One-finger sign given here tells McKinley he is going to fake a poach. Buchholz will move early on play to tempt the receiver into hitting hurried shot down the line, and McKinley will fake to right and then go in. True value of signals lies in psychological effect on opponents, who sometimes become hypnotized by movements, forget to follow ball.

The tricky art of poaching

The real object of all shots in doubles is to force the opponents to volley from beneath the level of the net. Both sides, therefore, must direct their strategy toward getting favorable, put-away shots. Sometimes the conventional ways fail, and a team must find new paths to the right shot.

The best and most direct is by poaching. Literally, one man infringes upon another's territory. This can either happen naturally in the course of play, or it can be planned. If it is obvious that the netman can get the better-angled shot even though, by rights, the return belongs to his partner, he should take it. Partners who have played together for a long time know instinctively when each will poach on the other, but it is a good idea to signal a poach whenever possible. If the poaching partner misses the ball, the other will be in a position to cover for him. The successful poacher never commits himself too early, as this would destroy the surprise of the poach. He learns the give-away motions of his opponents' stroke productions, their idiosyncrasies, habits and favorite shots under certain tactical conditions. Once he has committed himself, the poacher never hesitates in his dash to intercept the return.

A variation of the poach (and faked poach mentioned earlier) is the drift. Anticipating a cross-court return, the netman drifts, slowly at first, and then quickly, along the net toward the center of the court where he can drive home a cross-court return.

Poaches and drifts can be used to fine effect as long as they are not overdone. Used in excess, however, they can make for poor doubles, drawing the players out of position too often and giving away their tactics. They can also run the legs off a team, since they require an uncommon amount of stopping and going.

Faking poach from conventional serving position, Buchholz, at net, starts to left as ball goes to receiver's backhand corner. Server McKinley starts his move toward the right.

Recovering, McKinley steps back to the left and advances quickly to the net. Buchholz draws back to the right. Both players are now in conventional position to volley expected return.

Beginning to drift, Buchholz moves along the net after McKinley's serve has passed him. Netman must be careful not to make the move too soon and thus give away strategy.

Finishing drift, Buchholz is in McKinley's court, where he now has excellent position for a backhand put-away. McKinley, meanwhile, has crossed to cover the court vacated by Buchholz.

Concealment is a major weapon in player's arsenal. Like Buchholz (above), the best players start every stroke with the same motion, to disguise the speed and direction of the shot.

Target area at close range should be the mid-section of opponent. With the ball coming fast and straight at him over the net, the player is prevented from making an offensive return.

The summing up

In as complex a game as doubles there are procedural points which have to be left to the common sense of the players. However, there are several areas, in addition to those already covered here, where a knowledge of tested methods can improve one's game.

There is, for example, the problem of each player's responsibility. Generally speaking, a few basic rules govern which return each of the partners should take. They are:

1) A ball hit straight down center should be taken by the player with his forehand toward the center.

2) A lob hit down the middle should be smashed by the man who can reach it with his forehand.

3) During a rapid exchange at point-blank range, the man who last hits the ball should take shots returned in his area.

4) On a return of service hit down the center the netman usually moves over to try to volley it away. However, the server must be prepared to back up his partner if the latter can't make the shot.

There also is the problem of the return of service, which is the most difficult shot in doubles. This stroke, more than any other, determines how the point will go—and the serving team averages two points to every one for the receivers.

The receiving team must get as close to an attacking position as possible. The receiver himself should be a step or more inside the baseline for a first service. Every step that is safe to move in against the particular server is an advantage, as it gives the receiver a better chance to take the serve early and return it offensively at the feet of the incoming server. The partner of the receiver should be at a modified net position, just inside the service line and near the center of his court.

To be a winning combination, a team must realize that it can score as many points by outmaneuvering its opponents as it can with overpowering shots. Both players must be dedicated teammen, and this does not imply the mere mechanical mastery of doubles techniques.

It is the intelligent diagnosis of the opponents' game, finally, that makes the difference between a good team and an excellent one. Most players have a stroke weakness or a court-position weakness or both. A stroke weakness should be exploited by playing it but not by overplaying it. Any player will develop a compensating defense of his weakness if it is constantly exploited. Similarly, a court-position weakness should be cashed in when needed, but not exploited to excess.

A good doubles team will note carefully whether the opposing netman is too close to the net or whether he leaves the alley or center unguarded. It will watch to see whether the opponents fail to move to the proper defensive position against a sharp cross-court return and whether returns of service are followed to the net. Once such lapses have been spotted they can be capitalized on for crucial points. And once you have mastered the points here and on the preceding pages you will be ready to play winning doubles.



Much of the strategy demonstrated in these pages by Earl Buchholz and Chuck McKinley appeared originally, but in somewhat altered form, in the book The Game of Doubles in Tennis by William F. Talbert and Bruce S. Old, Henry Holt, New York, $4.95.