You’re The Returner’s Partner

geo1Playing doubles, it seems like everyone is actively engaged – except the serve returner’s partner. But he should be.

The server is putting the ball in play … the returner is actively waiting and planning his return of serve … the server’s partner is at the net waiting for the ball hit at him or getting ready to poach … but it seems all too often that the fourth man on the court is “the odd man out,” just waiting for something to happen. But he should be just as engaged as everyone else.

Where To Stand?

In my opinion, this player should be positioned ON the service line (not inside the service box), closer to the center line than in the middle of his box, and at a slight angle towards his returning partner.

What To Watch and How To React?

1) Where is everyone else positioned? He should look to see where the server is standing; how the net man is positioning himself; and where his own partner is standing to return serve (aggressively in or defensively deeper).

2) Where does the serve land? It is his prime responsibility to call “Long,” if the serve lands out. And I believe he has the opportunity (second perhaps to the returner) to also call the center and wide line too. And if the serve really takes his partner wide into the alley, he should IMMEDIATELY slide more toward the center of the court.

3) What is the net man doing on the return? Immediately after seeing the serve as Good, his eyes should shift to the net man: is he poaching or staying? If poaching, be ready for the ball right out you.

4) His next move? If the net man is staying, his eyes then follow the ball to the server.

a. If the server stays back at the baseline, the returner’s partner should immediately move CLOSER TO THE NET to threaten to pick off the next shot
b. If the server comes in and his partner’s return is shoulder height, he should hold his ground and be ready for the hard ball right at him
c. If the server comes in and his partner’s return is down low so that the server is volleying up, he closes and goes to the middle to pick off the next shot.

Passive and waiting for the play to develop? Nooooooooooo, the return of server’s partner should be an active and critical player in the point.

What are some other tips for this position?

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6 thoughts on “You’re The Returner’s Partner

  1. George – my ideas are:
    1. start the point as you say with feet on service line closer to center than sideline, facing returner’s partner(he is you first threat to defend).
    2. watch the ball, flow with your partner if he is pulled wide. If a very good serve up the middle, sometimes switch sides to allow your partner to follow his momentum & confuse the opponents.
    3. Once the ball passes net man -watch server, if he is in to volley, if your partner returns low -prepare to poach, if he returns high prepare for volley at you.
    4. If server stays back – deep return – poach or big feint, short return wide – cover line, but occasionally feint & poach, especially big points! Short return up middle, crowd the middle anticipating inside out shot.
    Lots to do, but one of the most fun parts of doubles!

    Jeff – thanks. i like #2; and if you and the returner are really in sync, you can pull off that switch! george

  2. One comment about standing close to the center line, and a reason I don’t do it automatically. On the ad side particularly, If the server hits a good serve up the T, the receiving team can be in trouble if all the returner sees to his left is the opponents net man, and slightly to the center or to his right, his own man. It doesn’t give him a clear look at where to hit the ball. If the returners partner is too close to the center and doesn’t move, he’s helping out the opponents by taking away a potential place to hit the return. I think the returners partner should usually move to the outside on a serve up the T so as not to be in the way. Sorry for the wordy description, hope it makes sense.

    Mike – Yes, implicit in your point is that the off-returner needs to be engaged, active, and MOVING depending on what is happening. thanks, george.

  3. There is an excellent segment on Will Hamilton’s video with the Bryan Brothers (called New Partner No Problem) about this. The Bryans assert that the non-receiving partner should be very active as he moves about the service box that he is covering. He should be always on his toes and not standing still.

    Basically, he moves in to the net as his partner returns the ball, but he bases his position either closer to the middle or closer to the alley, depending on where his partner, the returner, has just returned the ball, how deep that return may be, how much pace it may have, etc. So, if the return is hit well and deep toward the middle of the server’s side of the court, the net man wants to move at a diagonal also toward the middle and toward the net so he can intercept the server’s next shot as a poach. But if the return is more angled toward the sideline on the server’s side of the court, then the net man may not want to close toward the net quite as much and he should bias his movement more toward the alley, to be able to intercept a down the line return or a lob from the server.

    The way the Bryans demonstrate this on the video is simply effortless. But we all know how hard it really is to do this in a match. Still, having an awareness of what one is SUPPOSED to be doing is very helpful in a doubles match, even if we mere mortals cannot carry this out as skillfully as the Bryans do.

    The main takeaway that I think everybody should remember from the Bryans’ video is the net man does a great disservice to his team if he just stands there flat footed while the point plays out. Even if he never gets a chance to hit the ball in a particular point, just the fact that he is constantly moving, mostly on a diagonal, either forward or backward and either left or right, forces the other team to have to play around his positioning and that can draw outright errors or give his team various put away options. In other words, keep the feet moving at all times and do not just stand there!

    Marty – The big difference between what the Bryans recommend and what i wrote is that they say START well inside the service box; and i think that is too close for us mere mortal senior players. thanks, george

  4. George, I would agree with you that the starting position the net person should take on both the receiving AND the serving side is different for the pros than it should be for us mere mortal amateurs. And it is probably different for us mere mortal senior amateurs than it should be for younger, faster, stronger, more reflexive mere mortal amateurs.

    When I started out playing tennis, as the net man in doubles, I was always instructed to stand about a racquet’s length away from the net when I am on the serving side and about dead center in the service box when I am on the receiving side. But that was a long time ago, with wooden racquets and the like and in an era when players simply did not (and probably could not) hit with the kind of explosive power and spin that they now can.

    So, over the years I have adjusted my positioning as the net man. Now, when my partner is serving, I back off from being on top of the net and I tend to stand somewhere about a third of the way to two thirds of the way in the service box away from the net (with the average probably being in the middle of the service box), based on whether I think the return that is going to come from the receiving player could be a lob (thus the two thirds of a way back from the net) or a low return (this the one third of the way from the net). And these calculations, which are fluid throughout a game, are based on such other factors as where the server tells me he is going to place his serve, how fast (or slow) his serve typically is, whether he tends to hit flat serves, slice serves or kickers, etc.

    For similar reasons, but this time based on the type and quality of return that I think the returner is capable of making, when I am the net man on the receiving side I tend to stand right at or slightly behind the service line — as you counsel, George — on most serves. I especially stand there on pretty much all first serves and most second serves. But if the server has a weak second serve, then I may “cheat” a little and actually stand inside the service box six inches to even a foot, based on how weak the server’s second serve may be and how well I think my partner, the receiver, can crunch his return. Unlike your counsel, George, I don’t normally bias my stance toward the middle of the court, but I stand pretty much in the middle of the service box relative to the service line because I don’t want to telegraph to the server my intentions about either trying to poach or moving to the alley to cover an anticipated up the line shot. That is, I prefer to make these movements kind of like the Bryans suggest, which is based on where the return goes and the overall quality of that shot and not as a pre-ordained positioning. But, if the server has a particularly bad second serve, and especially one that seems to get rattled when under pressure, I have been known to stand right on the center line when my partner is receiving a second serve just to give the server something (i.e., my ugly face) that he doesn’t want to be looking at when he is trying to concentrate hard on getting a decent second serve into the box. I find that a number of players seem to do this, and it does seem to draw errors on second serves with some frequency from servers who lack confidence in their serving.

    As for the pros, and this is not limited to the Bryans, I have noticed that the net man does tend to stand closer to the net on both serving plays and returning plays almost all the time. I think this is mainly because, at the pro level, players have much faster foot speed and overall reaction time than we mere mortals do. They also are generally much better than we mere mortals are at reaching lobs over their heads. So they can get away with cheating a bit by hugging closer to the net because they don’t need the extra distance of ball travel to be able to react and get to the ball when they are playing at the net. To the contrary, they want to take a few milliseconds of time away from their opponents so having the net man cheat a bit closer to the net in the ready position promotes that goal.

    Marty – As we have seen at Newk’s camp, even the “old pros” can do things we mere mortals cannot. thanks, george.

  5. Like a linebacker reading the guards movement to determine first steps instead of watching the ball and quarterback, the doubles returner’s partner should be watching the non server opponent’s reaction to the return in order to determine positioning, readiness. If seeing that the non server is not going to be hitting the return of serve shot, then moving based upon the server’s movement as the serve return is in play is the next cue. Essentially, every one is saying that. I ask my returning partner to make his own line calls on the serve so that I do not have to swivel from the serve landing to the cueing on the non serving opponent. With a strong serve and strong return, there is not enough time to switch the vision and move, prepare for the next shot. We make our own calls in singles, why not in doubles as the returner? For me, the risk that my partner will play an out serve is more than offset by my improved ability to reflex a poach shot at me by the split second more preparation. Just my preference.

    Winder: good analogy. Even tho my preference as the off returner is still to watch the line to help on the call, on more reason NOT to is the added chance of making a wrong call that is reversed and point to the servers. thanks, george.

  6. BTW, being actively engaged as discussed above is relevant every time the ball is hit to your partner – same movement and 1st “read” of whether or not the opponent in front of your partner is going to hit the next shot or whether to move and adjust to the opponent in front of you hitting the next shot.

    Winder – exactly!! tks, george

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