Written by Ian Westermann
Doubles Strategy — 26 June 2014
How to Watch the Ball in Doubles

Here’s the scenario: you’re at the net during a doubles point and your partner is on the baseline. An opponent hits a solid shot past you and it travels back to your partner.

Where should your visual focus be? Should you turn around and watch your partner hit? Keep your eyes on your opponents instead?

Find out in today’s tennis lesson focused on doubles strategy and tactics!

Questions? Comments? Leave them below – thanks so much for watching :-)

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  1. The reason I look back to see what my partner is doing with his return is to see whether he's coming up to the net or staying back. If he stays back ( usual ) should I retreat fast in order to align myself with him ?

  2. Dear Ian hi.

    Maybe this is not the right spot to go for a question of mine, but as you encourage people to ask whatever they want below your videos here is my question:
    It has to do with what I call "caught in a deadlock" or vicious circle…let me explain: When my opponent usually strikes a forehand to my backhand in my far left corner, then I answer his forehand with my backhand, then he is repeating his forehand to my backhand again at the same left corner of my part of the court, then I answer again with my backhand, then he repeats exactly the same forehand as before where usually is my end…. I could never recover the ball with my backhand. It appears that this is happening why while playing these balls, the ball tends to lose energy and drop shorter and shorter, to the point that it's no longer recoverable, especially by backhand….People know this deadlock and use to use it against me occasionally. I believe you know what I'm talking about. Do you have any ways out of it? I would really love to know. Thanks a lot. Markos.

  3. Now that we know what to watch, the next step is what do we do when we see our opposing net-man about ready to hit a duck. Back up? Stand our ground? etc.

    • You will back up. When he is about to strike the ball, split step. If you don't have the time, and you are an easy target, turn sideways to present a smaller target as well as protecting your privates.

  4. Nice clip Ian!

    It is really sensible to determine the flow by watching the opponents, BUT… 99.9% of the time, it is the other way around. Probably the phrase 'watch the ball' has been drilled too deep in the psyche of all players who have taken absolutely any type of coaching. WTB is meant for a player to improve their stroking, but transcends to this behaviour in doubles. Turning back to watch your partner's stroke also puts the front player in danger of not being able to react to a shot hit at them.

    Easy to tell, difficult to follow– due to the years of ingrained practise.

    Keep up the good work.

    Bhushan

    ps: it should be watChing the ball, not wathing the ball :-)

  5. Hey Ian,

    With reference to the video above, how can I, as opposing net man, better anticipate where I should move to in order to have a chance to defend against a hard volley coming across the net. I usually end up a couple of steps away. I seem to give up too easily when I could possibly make a defensive stab at it.

    Thanks,

    John

    • I'm not sure your question. If you me on the receiving end of a poach. As the video said first, take peek as your partner prepares for his shot. If he is too deep or on the defensive, don't be a hero, stay on the service line, close to the middle. If your partner can step into it from the baseline or closer, the chances are excellent you won't see a poach. Still, be ready for one.

  6. I don`t see any reason for the net man to look back. What I suggest is to always follow the ACTION of the opponents and they are telling you, by their reactions, where the ball is going so you are always alert and move fast following the ball, cutting into the possible trayectory. This is DOUBLES and of course is more difficult to get use to do this, instead of looking back. But I tell you when you learn to react this way, you fell like you are in other level of playing and it really pays . Try it on the court until you Master it and you will feel a lot better, than turning your face back, for nothing. Thank you Ian for the opportunity to express this which is a most in Doubles.

  7. Good overview on doubles views,etc.

  8. In doubles I watch the ball going back to my partner when I'm at the net. Sometimes I don't watch the ball going past me and only watch the players waiting to receive the ball. I've been confused as to what I should be doing. Now with your useful information video I will change all that. I only play doubles now and love the game here in Kent England.

  9. Not always watching the ball, particularly when it's on your side of the net, makes sense. However, another time I've been taught not to watch the ball is before the returner hits it. I've been told to focus on the returner's racquet in order to read his shot early and then watch the ball. What do you think?

    • Definitely. It's a part of reading the court. You can tell if a shot will be offensive or defensive by their windup and contact point. Defensive, go forward. Offensive, don't go forward.

  10. Ian, thanks SO much for addressing this. I have a couple of men on my mixed doubles team who turn around and watch the ball until after their partner makes contact. Their reasoning is that they can determine the trajectory, placement, and spin. I have had little success in changing this bad practice despite a group clinic with a pro so I think this video lesson should put the topic to rest once and for all. Thanks, Misha, for asking the question.

    Now for another mixed issue: The women on the team all take doubles clinic lessons but the men do not. We have a problem with the men NOT talking or calling the ball. This causes wasted steps and time as the women often move to cover a situation when a simple "Mine" would eliminate those unnecessary steps and wasted time. This results in suboptimal court positioning when the ball is returned quickly from the opponent. We've tried to ask them to talk and call balls to no avail. Perhaps court communication would be a good topic to cover in a future video. There's a lot on team strategy communication but not on the simple calling out of, "Mine, yours, help, etc."

  11. Ian: I have faced several opponents who have excellent drop shots. How can I learn to better anticipate their drop shots by learning to read theiir raquets as they prepare to make their shots so that I can move forward more quickly to the ball?

    • If they are doing it properly, they will do it from inside the baseline while looking like they are going to hit hard. They will abort their full backswing to hit a short chip-like shot. Always be looking for this every time. If you are wrong, the comes to you.

  12. Oh I see!

  13. appreciated watching the ball in doubles video. I have a follow up ? So you are at the net and your partner puts up a duck for the opponent net person. Do you try and scoot back and cover the service to base line area or scoot over on the net to block the shot. I am always baffled at what to do here.

    • Probably not one single right answer to this question, but their proper action is usually to hit at you so usually the right thing is to get ready for the storm.

  14. Question.
    Hi Ian,

    When playing mixed doubles, our oponents usualy start attacking weaker player, directing the balls to her.
    Can you suggest a solution or approach, to influence the oponents in order to change that pattern?

    Most of the time I am moving back and forth, say to offer oponents to lob me, and redirect the ball to my directon but mpst of the time oponents just dont accept that bait.

    Melan

  15. When I am a receiver partner is the only time I need to turn my face a bit, to help with the line call. Other than that I am always looking and moving towards the action of the opponents. This way I am always following the spot where the ball bounces and that is were the Action is. When you learn to follow the Action ( Movement of the opponent, getting his racket ready, moving into an Split Step etc) Then is when I will say, you are playing doubles. You will be Anticipating, you will be moving to the Center of the Cone of the returning ball and most of the times, then you will be doing a killer volley to the return. The other time when I look back is in a coming deep Lob in order to maybe make a run for it, if is going above the head of my partner. In this case will be easier for me to run for it and then my partner should go back to the opposite side, behind the position I just left. Remember in deep lobs is the only time that you both, have lost the offensive and you should, start from the Base Line and move forward accordingly to the return of the Lob and move forward, towards your Net Positions, accordingly to your returns. If you have to look back, that means your partner is not in the right position. Remember FOLLOW the ball and this way you are anticipating. If you start your move until you see where the return is coming, YOU ARE ALL READY LATE: If you want to be a good singles player, learn to play DOUBLES, correctly. THANK YOU IAN

  16. Such great instruction, Ian! I don't know why I hadn't thought of this a long time ago. I feel more in the point as I watch my opponents watching my partner. Reading their eyes and body language "telegraphs" much about what they intend thus giving me room for anticipation. This is working very well for me, Ian. Thanks a million!

  17. Up the Middle Solves the Riddle!

  18. As with Brian Moore below, I am of the camp of almost never looking back at my partner. I think the only time I really look back is if there is a lob, and I am checking to see if my partner is going to take it as a forehand or backhand, so I can switch to the other side if it make sense.

    Also, as I am getting a little older, it helps my vision on the ball to not be moving my head around unnescicarily. By keeping my head calm, and looking with loose focus on the opposing net person, I am much more able to keep the picture of what is important to me (what my opponents are doing with the ball) rather than checking the balance of my partner.

    One thing I do use to assess the quality of my partner's shot, in addition to the actions of my opponents, is the sound made by the racquet hitting the ball.

  19. ericJULY 29, 31 2013 AT 2:29 PM
    OK , Ian
    Your partner serves to deuce court. Opponent returns with high looping ball. My partner server returns crosscourt a high looping ball. Opponent repeats same back to server,. How do I at net respond to this madness. The balls are too high and have much topspin so hard to intercept. THANKS

    • Not much to do. One of strokers have to crack.

  20. Great and solid advice.

    Thanks!

  21. I tend to lose track of the net man during the point. Maybe reading his movement will help me correct this. Thanks

  22. I look back past the ball bounce only when I have reason to doubt what my partner may do, and looking back that way invariably gets me in trouble. All I really need to know is where the ball is bouncing on our court, so I can reposition myself, and the actions of our opponents will tell me all I need to know about the kind of shot my partner hits, its quality, etc. I check the opposition first, and then refocus on the ball as my partner hits it over the net, and then reposition myself accordingly. It works well, and I do not get overheaded when I do it. I have been overheaded when I didn't do this and looked at my partner–lesson learned…

  23. I have a partner who hits the opponent's return of serve directly to the net person continually thur every match which sets up opponent's net partner with a direct overhead shot at me the net person. What can I do to remedy this problem for me? Do I play back at the base line or service line or just what? Thanks for and suggestions you may have. Dee

    • As usual very nice video and clear message Ian!

      One thing which I would like to add is that it's the best if you can be aware of full court – including the ball, both opponents and your partner as well. How to achieve this?
      Human vision is quite wide and even just a peripheral vision is good enough to spot what your opponents are doing. Focused human vision angle is 120 deg, which is going up to 160 deg with peripheral vision. But if you just move your eyes left-right direction you can cover far more than 180 deg (just try now and you'll see). Over the top while you're on the net you should always be a little bit turned sideway which with combination of fast eye moving can cover whole court most of the time (when you need it). You don't need to stare at your partner all the time but my opinion is that is good (on club level) to be aware what he's doing and where he aims the shot. I'm going to check one ATP double match on youtube now and focus on this :)

      Thanks and cheerz

      • I agree with Nele.
        And certainly, that's what I've been seeing the Bryan brothers do. They are in angle with the net and not facing forward totally. Copying that move has given me lots of more anticipation, offensive and defensive. I don't have a perennial partner, so I have to adjust to every style I share on the court. My lob lovers partners and opponents are the fun ones. When i'm at the net…it's pointless. I have to start on the baseline and make my move forward. Ironically, then you want them to keep lobbing.
        cheerio!

  24. had to change my email address, hope I can continue to hear from you via the new email address.

  25. Wow. I do the same mistake. Thank you very much. Roula

  26. Ian,

    Great tennis tip for doubles play.

  27. If your partner hits a weak shot and the opposing net player moves in to put the ball away, do you stand your ground or move quickly back to the baseline if you have time?

  28. I never watch my team mate behind me. Everything that matters is in front of me. The opponent can hurt me, my partner can't. Also, turning one's head tends to stop one's feet from moving, then, one's got to move their head forward and before one knows it a quick poach or volley is on your body and an opportunity to prepare based on the opponents preparation or movement is lost.

    In general, I watch the net opponent who is closest to net. His movement, preparation, and eyes tell me everything, and I can always see the other opponent too. He's in the field of view.

    • My partner has hurt me more than once…….in my behind, back of my head and it hurts a lot more because it's usually off a serve :)

      • @Steve–me too. My partner hit a ball that bounced off the back of my head and proceeded over the net and all kept playing out the point just to see how it would go. Had I been watching him, I'd have been hit in the face. Yet another reason to face forward. ;-)

  29. Ian, your videos are invaluable. Today's lesson on watching the ball in doubles will serve me well during Fall League play. I have been guilty of watching the ball too long but will now only glance! By the way, your good friend, Spencer Mai, is my tennis instructor! He has taught my 11 year old son, Forrest, for over a year and is an amazing teacher, player and mentor.

    • Glad to hear this was helpful, Angela. Tell Spencer I say hi! He and I used to battle together for hours at a time back at Ferris. Great guy :-)

      • I see Spencer tomorrow and will give him your message. He enlightened me about your web site.

  30. Great video as always, Ian!

  31. OK , Ian
    Your partner serves to deuce court. Opponent returns with high looping ball. My partner server returns crosscourt a high looping ball. Opponent repeats same back to server,. How do I at net respond to this madness. The balls are too high and have much topspin so hard to intercept. THANKS

    • please see below re: high ball returns returns Eric Thanks

  32. good stuff

  33. Great video as always! On a related topic… I would LOVE to see a video or series (or a paid course) on anticipation. It's occurred to me recently that, in addition to speed, what allows pro players to get to the ball early and get set up to for a quality shot is the fact that they're good at reading their opponent's shots before they even hit the ball (at least some of the time anyway). This is particularly important on the return of serve. I would guess that lack of anticipation skills at the rec level may be one of the least addressed topics, while contributing to a very high degree of losses. I'm sure that everyone out there has been on the losing end of a winner that was in reality a pretty mediocre shot because you didn't start moving to the ball until it was already crossing the net. I know I have!

    • Hey Brian,
      Anticipation is a skill for sure. When one wants to get better at it, it's all about ANGLES. If you've ever played pool, it applies. If you played volleyball, it does apply too. The hardest reading of angle is the return of serve, as you said, but very doable. Body position is the first thing to see. From there you determine what kind of angle is possible with the hit your opponent is about to hit. Then, racquet position. The easy example is, racquet down, ball up. One tries to cut the angle. If opponent has good wrist movement, it's his/her point. Percentage is going to give you the edge.
      I think it's working for me. I still want to be more aggressive on anticipating the return of serve, when I'm at the net. I'm getting there. A video on this would be nice, agreed. Good luck!

  34. Ian , nice precise video as usual. Just a small point I wanted to make. When a ball is hit to the player on the baseline in the one up one back situation the net player should always move back on an angle with his body facing the opposing teams net player. To many club players move back withe their body square to the net as they move back. Keep up the good work.

  35. Hi Ian I think your doubles court positions are incorrect as the severs partner should be nearer the net and the receivers partner should be on the service line.

    • You're absolutely correct, Day. This video wasn't a lesson on positioning :-) Thanks for watching!

  36. I second Ronald's question: What should I, as a net player do when my opponent's net player closes in for a volley? Or rather, what are some options. I'm just getting started with doubles, and my inclination is to back up generally (assuming my other inclination to run screaming at him/her is bad sportsmanship ;-).

    • Check out my answer to Ronald's question! Worst case scenario you'll want to scoot back and get out of harms way, preparing for defense. Best case scenario you can hold your ground. Great question!

  37. Ian, related to your comments about eye focus I was wondering what you watch when your partner is serving. Specifically, when my partner is serving I have started to watch the returner's eyes first and not the racquet or his body. I find that the very first indication of where the serve is going is the returners eyes. After I get a read there I switch to his racquet. Any thoughts whether that is a good or bad idea?

    • I think that's pretty spot on, Marc. I definitely start with the returner's eyes as well, after that I think I shift to picking the ball up off the service box, but that's something I'll actually have to pay attention to next time I'm out there playing.

  38. Ian…great detail…this very precise, tiny but critical snippet is a terrific approach to teaching…very absorbable
    very quickly…nowhere enough of this for doubles on the Net…congrats for going this way…I don't like doubles because I don't play it..because I lack this kind of understanding you are providing…super and please keep it going

  39. In your response to Misha concerning watching your opponet at the net after a return has been hit to your partner. You did not explain what are the options for you at the net when the opposing net player closes on a weak return. Is it best to hold your ground at the net and trust your reflexes to possibly volley with the net opponet or retreat to the baseline to give yourself more time to respond to the opposing net player? Or is your reponse based on your comfort or ability to respond as well as the ability of the opposing player.

    • Excellent question, Ronald! The answer is: "it depends". How much trouble is your partner in and how competent are they avoiding the net player? How good is that net player at hitting aggressive volleys at your feed? How good are your hands?

      In a situation where all those things are going against you scooting back to buy time is often the best thing to do in terms of positioning. If all those things are in your favor, on the other hand, you can often be just fine standing your ground and being as prepared as possible for a very possible aggressive volley attempt by your opponent at the net.

      This is why doubles is so much fun – lots going on at once and lots of variables to consider!

      • agreed! it all depends!
        love the answer.

  40. Hi Ian, thanks for the doubles video's. Nice to see it for club players. The other thing players can remember is to listen to the sound of shots being hit. That will give them an idea what is happening behind them.
    Looking forward to the next video.
    Marinus