Tennis Doubles Court Positioning – The Returner’s Partner

When Rob Olson and I won the 1984 USA National 35s Hardcourt Doubles title, our success that year was because of one very specific agreement we developed as doubles partner.

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We trusted each other.  And that’s about as general a cliche as there is, but trust in doubles is really just about one simple fact.

I can’t say this enough about doubles…

When you’re about to play a shot, it’s all about playing a shot that sets up your partner, AND when your partner is about to play a shot, it’s all about you trusting that your partner is trying to set you up so you will move to the right court position to take advantage of that set up.

Look, let’s be real about this, not every shot results in a set up, obviously, BUT it may simply take 2-3 shots to finally get a ball to where the set up presents itself.

Where you move on the court when you don’t have the ball is really what makes or breaks the success of a doubles partnership.

When I started to really trust that my partner and I were truly playing shots to enable the other, that’s when my success as a doubles player took off.

Look, you don’t have to have the biggest shots out there to be a really good doubles player.  And you don’t have to be the fastest player out there on the court.

You simply have to know where to move on the court to create some pretty lousy geometry for your opponents.

OK, let me know your thoughts.  Leave a comment in the area below.

What specifically do you wish you did better as the returner’s partner?


Doubles Strategies & Tactics

- Where To Be On The Court
When Your Partner Is Playing Their Shot –

How To Create Really Bad Geometry For Your Opponents
By Being In The Right Place At The Right Time
At Any Given Moment…

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  1. RodgerS says

    Regarding your ready position for return of serve from the add court, would you reverse it, towards the add net post, if you were playing singles or expected the server to have a preference to serve wide to you? I have made good use of the more angled stance, compared with standing parallel to the baseline (as Greg is doing in the first part of the video). Most of my opponents so far, even in doubles lately, have been serving to my backhand side so I usually start angled toward the left net post so that I’m already turned for the backhand. I adjust that a bit if they tend to serve to my forehand or body, often with their 2nd serve, but basically I seem to set up faster for my forehand than my backhand for return of serve at this point. Was paying attention to your footwork in the video and your shoulders.

    • Brent says

      Good observation Rodger, especially the last sentence about observing the shoulders.

      That is the key to return of serve in both singles & doubles – react to the direction of the serve by turning your shoulders – not thinking racket back.

      I still want you to learn how to face the server when they go through their service motion.

      As you play against different servers (lefties, righties, etc.) , they present different challenges, and if you hedge your bet too much to one side or the other, eventually it’ll back fire on you.

      Start in a neutral position by not facing the net player in front of you, but instead, face the server directly wherever they stand on their baseline, and practice what a full shoulder turn needs to be on your backhand.

      Quick tip – when the server plays their serve towards your backhand and their serve goes into the net, check to see how far you’ve actually turned your shoulders. If it’s not a full turn, then complete it to your full turn position so you feel what that position is…


  2. Bhagi says

    Great tip. The only caveat that I would add is that the partner of the returner needs to have a good overhead and the ability to get back quickly for lobs.

  3. Justice says

    I am always trying to determine in advance where the ball is mostly likely going to be returned and to get to the best position for reducing their return opportunities or to be at the most likely position to strike the easy point. I can’t stand to be in the wrong position for an entire point and not being able to assist my partner. Being a bystander while watching the other 3 players play the point is simply not the way that I want to play doubles.

    • Brent says

      Good comments Justice. Thanks.

      There really is a geometry to doubles.

      Once you understand the math, your shot selections, your anticipation, where you should be on the court given your opponents, where the ball is, where you and your partner are, all of that helps really minimize the choices of how to play doubles.

      I just replied to @Paul where I talked about exactly what you’re describing Justice. Let me know if that’s what you’re thinking…


  4. Paul says

    Hi brent. Great tip.

    I am interested in when your partner moved forward. It seems to me he is anticipating a great return. But if that is the case why not just start at the net rather than halfway there?

    My point is if your return had gone to the net player he is then out of position because he moved so early? Or are you saying he assesses the serve if it is a great one they he hesitates but if it is a return he knows you like then he moves early and trusts you to hit the crosscourt away from the net player?

    • Brent says

      Excellent point Paul.

      Jim and I play doubles almost every Monday. Probably about half of the time he’s my partner.

      Something that I was thinking about yesterday is this – there are days when you know your partner is on, is playing consistently well for whatever reason, and you can sort of anticipate a certain level of shot making from him on that day depending (and here’s the point you’re making) on the degree of difficulty of the serve.

      Also, Jim knows that Cliff (the server’s partner) doesn’t do a lot of poaching, so the calculated risk is for Jim to anticipate me returning cross court until Cliff decides to show he’s willing to poach.

      Once Cliff throws in just one poach, even if they don’t win the point, Jim will now have to be looking for that possibility from Cliff on my next several returns of serve and slightly hesitating before he moves in.

      Greg and I had a sort of a running conversation yesterday about how players tend to cover what is the least probable or likely shot to be played.

      You and I know what the most likely shot is going to be at any given time, you know what I mean, what’s the highest percentage shot, the most probable shot about to be played, but we tend to not actually move to intercept that high probability, but rather stay home and cover the least likely shot.

      I’m not saying you have to be the all out mad poacher on each & every shot from your opponents (and yet I don’t have a problem with it if you’re my partner), but what I am saying is that you have to make your presence known up there by at least showing a fake EVERY time that you don’t actually poach.

      Cliff is always covering the down the line, but that is far and away the lowest percentage return for me to play.

      I don’t have a problem with him covering down the line most of the time, BUT we need to poach once in awhile so our opponents will try to hit the ball down our alley which simply sets us up for a put away opportunity. This is just good understanding of the geometry of doubles.

      But if you show zero movement as the server’s partner when you don’t poach, you probably have a problem…

      If you don’t also establish the fake poach in that returner’s mind, then every time they catch you moving, they know you’re going and your alley is wide open.

      OK, so a little off topic here, but you get the idea…


      • Paul says

        Thanks Brent. I think I get it and also on reflection if the RP stands up at net then you are probably telling the Net player that a cross court is very likely so even a reluctant poacher may start to edge over.

        Have you ever had the Aussie formation played against you? I started experimenting with this when I played opponents who seem very able to hit good cross court replies. Provided I can persuade my partner it is a good idea it has been incredibly successful. Amazing how many players can hit the vanilla cross court but really struggle with a different view. Luckily, so far, no one has ever returned the compliment and tried it on me!

        • Brent says

          Hey Paul. I prefer a different version of the Aussie formation which is the “I” formation.

          I’ll get some video clips posted on this formation, but you’ve probably tried it before, so we’ll work through the best ways to make it work for you and your partner.

          No matter what formation you use (regular, Auusie, I), the server’s partner has to move on every serve.

          Did I say poach on every serve? No, I said show movement.

          What are the basic movements?

          Poach, fake, fake & go…

          You’ve got 3 choices on every serve, mix them in, but always show something.

          Here’s a secret for how you can best help your serving partner – establish the fake early in the match.

          It may take you a few points to get a feel for how your partner is serving that day, how your opponents are returning, etc., but you MUST establish your presence from the beginning of the match.

          Start with the fake so that you show movement. If the only time you show movement is when you poach, that’s right, your opponents will now you’re going when they see any kind of movement.

          Establish the fake…


        • RodgerS says

          Hi Paul. What you mentioned happened last night. Steve said he has played the Aussie formation against others, but when we played it against him he told me he got confused and didn’t know what to do.

          I agree with the thought that one benefit against many of the players at my level is they hit a lot of cross court shots and few down the line shots. When you go Aussie it is really is uncomfortable for them. I have found that I need to do this with a partner, preferably one who also plays singles, who is comfortable moving over and covering down the line – players who said no to me were basically uncomfortable with the idea.

      • RodgerS says

        I like the idea of fake poaching as a way of encouraging them to hit down the line to set up a put away.

        I often try to cover the highest percentage shots, but I have learned that I have to be careful not to do it too much, otherwise they learn what to expect and then try to take advantage of it. On the other hand, at my level, sometimes them hitting one successfully down the line is offset by them giving up a lot of points being unsuccessful or hitting too weakly.

        Last night I got my partner to switch to an Aussie setup because both opponents hit weakly down the line – it worked very well.

        • Brent says

          When an opponent hits up my line, into my alley for a winner, I try to think what they’re now thinking which is usually, “Ah ha, that’ll keep him from moving again!” to which my response is to always poach the next time it’s his turn to return serve.

          Movement at net in doubles is a lot of figuring out what your opponent is thinking, what their tendencies are, and how yo can force them into hitting heir shots to predictable targets.

          If you know where your opponent is about to play their shot, you and your partner have a big time advantage…


  5. Greg says

    Over the years, I have played doubles in a reactionary mode, starting from a traditional spot and waiting for the point to evolve. Brent has finally gotten through to me that I can dramatically improve the probability of winning any point by constantly adjusting my position based on where the ball is and what shots I want my opponent to hit. The key is to utilize movement that forces your opponent to play low percentage tennis. Most doubles teams think in terms of a starting formation (e.g. regular or Australian) and poach or no poach. Further, most teams view the poach as an all or nothing event. Brent thinks in terms of movement that will limit his opponents options and make the next shot easier for his team. The movement becomes even more effective when choreographed with his partner. The last match we played, he orchestrated fake poaching, moving forward or backward depending on what side of the court the ball was on, pinching middle, faking middle and covering the line, etc. We did not actually poach much and we were rarely side by side on the service line.

    • Brent says

      Mr. B…

      Thanks for joining this conversation. I appreciate it.

      I think one of the things you really zeroed in on last Monday when we partnered up in our Monday doubles was the fact that every shot from me and every response from our opponents requires you moving to a specific place inside your service box.

      Every shot has its own life…

      Moving with the ball is an aerobic activity. That’s right, when you’re up at net and don’t have the ball, you’re NOT in a static position.

      You’re right, too many players get up there at net and basically just get hunkered down to about a 1 foot sphere of influence.

      Doubles players can affect the outcome of an opponent’s shot, the pont, the game, the set, and the match with out ever touching the ball.

      Where you move and when you move will force opponents into shots that help set up your partner and/or force your opponents into unforced errors.

      Folks, re-read Greg’s comments again. They are important.

      We’ll spend more time on this topic.


  6. RodgerS says

    I just want to compliment the players responding to your posts. As a group, they seem to be a lot more creative, willing to experiment, and willing to learn compared to the hard core stabilized players I often play with. I really like the give and takes here.

    • Brent says

      Thanks Rodger and kudos to the WebTennis subscribers for what Rodger just said.

      It’s true, when you are free to experiment and not worry about the consequences, your improvement in whatever area you’re tinkering with will happen a lot sooner.


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