Doubles tennis net play strategy: (Don’t) cover the alley!

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This is a guest post by our monthly contributor, Will Boucek, a former college tennis player from Austin, with over 20 years of experience playing and coaching. Will specializes in doubles and was 4.5 men’s and mixed doubles champion in Texas in 2017. Fascinated by the strategy of doubles, Will shares his valuable insights on his website The Tennis Tribe. Will is also the founder of Tennis Tribe Marketing where he designs website & helps tennis businesses grow. In this month’s column, Will is encouraging doubles players to be more aggressive at the net.

Imagine you have to make one shot to win $1,000. Miss, and you get nothing. You get to choose one of two shots:

  1. A forehand crosscourt.
  2. A forehand down the line, that must land in the doubles alley.

Which would you chose? If you know anything about tennis, you chose the crosscourt shot.

  • There’s more area to hit into.
  • The net is lower.
  • The court is longer.

Whether you’re a club player, or Simona Halep, you’re more likely to win that $1,000 by choosing the crosscourt shot. So why then, in doubles, do we let the opponent hit the crosscourt shot, instead of the down-the-line shot?

Why people cover the alley in doubles?

We’ve all been passed down the line before. It’s deflating and slightly embarrassing. So why do we do it?

One word. Fear. We’re simply scared.

We don’t want our partner to blame us, and we don’t want it to be our fault if we lose the point. So, we cover the part of the court that the ball is least likely to come. We cover the part of the court that the opponent has the lowest likelihood of making it.

How do we get over this fear?

Keep a mental tally of errors & winners

The easiest way to get over this fear is to do some simple math. I like to keep a mental tally of all the times the opponent tries to hit in my doubles alley.

They missed. That’s 1-0 me.
They made it. 1-1.
They made another. Down 1-2.
They missed 2 in a row. That makes it 3-2 me.

This helps you remember that even though it feels embarrassing, getting beaten down the line is still only 1 point!

What you’ll find is that they usually cannot make more than 40%. Yes, it’s an embarrassing 40%, but take pride in being better at math than them 😉

What if they keep making it?

If they’re making the down-the-line winner more than they miss, one of two things is probably happening.

  1. Your partner should hit a shot with more depth. If the opponent has to step back, the shot down-the-line becomes more difficult.
  2. Your partner needs to hit a shot with less angle. Angles open up the alley which is not good if you’re the serving team or the team on offense during a point.

What to do at the net instead?

The best thing you can do from the net is take away the crosscourt shot by making the opponent see you. You want them to know that if they don’t hit a good shot, you’re going to be there for a volley winner.

Work with your doubles partner to make them hit more difficult shots. Give them enough of the down-the-line shot, so they’ll make around 40% or less.

When they’re way back on their heels, give up a lot of the line. It’s a great way to force an error. However, if your partner hits a weak angle that floats to their forehand, you may need to cover more.

The more you can control the crosscourt shots, the better.

What happens when you stop covering the alley?

I was teaching a doubles workshop the other day to two USTA 3.0 ladies doubles teams, and here’s one thing I noticed about most of them: as the opponent was about to hit, they would retreat to the doubles alley, as if to say “don’t hit it here, I’ve got this covered.” I had them make an adjustment. Instead of retreating to the alley, I told them to move towards the center net strap.

Pro tip: To encourage them, I gave 2 points for any volley winners.

They immediately started hitting more volleys, which was expected. But what was surprising is this: after playing three 10-point tiebreakers, and all of them giving up more of the doubles alley, there were still zero winners down the line.



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