Great Shot – Don’t Do it Again!”
By Greg Moran
posted November 12, 2017

These are the words that I often recite to my doubles players after they’ve hit what they view to be a “great” shot. You know the type I’m talking about: a player sprints across the court and fires a desperation forehand down the alley that barely kisses the line. Or, they move out wide and roll a sharply angled ball that skims the net and lands just beyond their outstretched opponent’s racquet.

From time to time, we’ve all hit shots like these. They’re exciting to see, exhilarating to execute, and the response they draw feels awesome. The other players on the court (and sometimes adjacent courts) drop their racquets, clap their hands, and bow to our “greatness.”

Everyone loves praise so, of course, we set out to recapture that magic moment and that’s where the problems begin. We continue to try to pull off the “great” shot and, more often than not, our efforts result in little more than a stream of impressive looking errors. Before we know it, we’ve hit a few “great” shots and lost the match.

When I say to my students “great shot, don’t do it again” they frequently look at me as if I’m nuts. “But I won the point,” they’ll argue. “Yes, you did.” I’ll say. “That time.” But the fact is these “great” shots are not “great” at all. They’re lucky and trying to recreate them over the course of a long match is a recipe for disaster.

If you doubt me try this: the next time you walk onto a court, take ten balls, drop them one at a time and try to hit a line across the net. Or, try to hit that sharply angled ball that just skims the net and brushes the doubles sideline. How many times out of ten can you do it: one? Two, maybe three if you’re a particularly skilled player.

If you can only execute these “great” shots 20% of the time, in a no pressure situation, what does that say about your chances of hitting them under the fast paced pressure of a match? It says that when you do it you’re lucky and “lucky” seldom wins matches. Forget the high risk, low percentage attempts at greatness. High level doubles players understand that there are five shots in doubles that are truly “great” and consistently win matches.

At the Middle

This is a “great” doubles shot for several reasons. First, a shot hit towards the middle of the court crosses the net at the center, the lowest part, making it a very safe shot. Plus, by hitting to the middle, it doesn’t matter if it’s Bill and Bob from the club or Venus and Serena at Wimbledon, there’s always a sense of confusion over who should take the shot.

I’ve watched the best doubles players in the world turn and look at each other as a well struck ball flew between them. Finally, when your ball travels to the middle of the court, you offer your opponents no angles with which to respond. They must create their own, which is not easy to do.

At their Sneakers

When one of my players commits an unforced error and I ask what they were trying to do with the shot, the response is often, “I was trying to keep it away from them.” This goes back to tennis strategy 101 which says to “hit the ball where your opponent isn’t.” While this is sound strategy when playing singles, on the high level doubles court, it usually brings far more pain than pleasure.

When you compete against teams at the upper levels, you’re going to find it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the ball “away” from your opponents. Experienced teams strategically move to position themselves so that the only areas of the court that you can hit “away” from them are the most difficult spots to place the ball.

Don’t try to hit untouchable shots. Instead, commit to hitting great doubles shot #2: down at your opponent’s sneakers. The goal is to force an error or weak reply. If your opponents are able to get your low shot back, they’ll have to hit “up” and most likely their return will be an easy sitter for you to drive back down the middle or at their feet again.

Over Their Heads

One of the things that separate lower level teams from those at the higher levels is that the stronger teams make fewer errors. A large portion of which are the result of trying the wrong shot at the wrong time. Often, I’ll see teams on the defensive after their opponents have taken the net, try to bail themselves out with a low percentage groundstroke. The result is usually an error and easy point for the bad guys.

This approach is prevalent among the 3.0-3.5 set. These players, who have begun to develop strong groundstrokes, often panic when pressured and go for the great/lucky shot. The 4.0 and above teams understand that winning doubles is not about hitting a few lucky shots but rather a lot of pretty good ones. They’ve moved away from the “one big shot” mentality and moved toward point development. They play patient tennis, probe the opposing team for weaknesses and strive to control the net. Above all, they refuse to give the other team free points.

The next time you or your partner find yourselves on the defensive, instead of trying a high-risk shot, put the ball back in play with great doubles shot #3: a good lob. This, often disrespected, shot can be a life raft for your team when you find yourself scrambling.

Chasing down lobs and hitting overheads are two of the most physically demanding and frustrating skills in the game to master. Even if your lob is put away, you’ve still made your opponent hit an extra shot. Plus, if you can force them to hit two or three overheads to end a point, their tongues will eventually be dragging.

An additional advantage of the lob is that it will keep a net-rusher guessing. Many “macho” men and women are stubborn and refuse to lob. Their opponents know this so they charge the net like bulls in a china shop. By throwing up the occasional lob, you’re telling your net rushing opponents that they must always be aware of the possibility of a lob.

With this thought in their heads, they won’t charge as aggressively or get as close to the net. This then opens up the possibility of driving a shot at their feet.

Serve Into the Body

Forget trying to ace your opponent’s out wide. It’s a low percentage serve which not only takes your partner out of the play (he must shift to cover his alley) it also opens up sharp angles for your opponent’s return. Instead, hit great shot #4: a medium paced serve right at them. This “body shot” will handcuff the receiver and often force an error or weak return. When that weak return comes, you or your partner can then move forward and attack with a strong shot either down the middle or right at the opposing net player’s feet.

Cross-court Return of Serve

It’s a tiny area on the court (4 ½ feet) yet, for many players when returning serve, the urge to aim down the alley is irresistible. It’s one of those low percentage shots that bring the cheers when it wins a point, but more often than not, it’s a strategy that brings a smile to the opponent’s faces.

When receiving serve, you’ll undoubtedly be facing a strong net player who will be moving, faking, and poaching in an attempt to sucker you into the alley attempt. High level doubles players recognize this and refuse to be intimidated into trying the low percentage, down the alley, return. (Note: Against an opponent who poaches aggressively, the occasional down the alley shot will keep him honest.)

They understand that, for many reasons, the low, cross-court return of serve is doubles great shot #5. First, it’s a safe return as it travels over the lowest part of the net, and the court’s longer on the diagonal so you have more space to work with.

Plus, when you hit your return cross-court, your partner will be in a good position to poach your opponent’s next shot. Finally, by returning cross-court, you’ll keep the ball away from the opposing net player. Remember, it’s the opposing player who’s closest to you (the one at the net) that provides the most immediate threat and you want to keep the ball away from that player.

Always remember that “great” shots are not those you hit once in a while. Sure, it’s fun to pull one out now and then but the next time you clip the sideline, recognize it for what it is, luck, not a winning strategy. Great shots are the ones you are able to strategically execute on a consistent basis and will win you points over the course of a long match.

Aim at the middle, at their sneaker, and over their heads. Serve into their body and return serve cross-court. These are the truly great shots of doubles that will force your opponents into errors and win your team matches.~