This is an excerpt from Pickleball Fundamentals eBook by USA Pickleball Association & Mary Littlewood.
Basic Doubles Strategies
While the best players may use the strategies of the doubles game automatically now, they, too, were beginners at one time. Select one or two strategies to work on; when they become automatic to you and your partner, work on two more. Eventually your team will truly be one working together toward a common goal: success!
- Strive for 100 percent accuracy on serves. The serve is the only shot in the game that is uncontested - the receiving team must let the ball bounce before it can be hit (the double-bounce rule). Therefore, there is no excuse for not serving the ball over the net into the proper court. Your first objective should be to serve with 100 percent accuracy. Once you accomplish that, then you can focus on a more aggressive serve and placing the serve. Don’t try to get too fancy with your serve too soon.
- The forehand player has the primary responsibility for balls down the middle. Even though, as Alex and Jennifer said, it’s better for both players to go for the ball rather than neither one trying for it, balls down the middle are the primary responsibility of the player whose forehand is down the middle. Most forehands are stronger than backhands, so allowing the player whose forehand is in position to hit the ball will enable your team to return the ball with the strongest possible shot.
- Anticipate what the return shot will be and move into position to cover the possible angle of the return shot. The location of the opponents on the court, the paddle position and the body position of the player hitting the ball, and the possible angles for the return shot will tell you what the shot will probably be and where it will be hit. Be prepared to move into position for the return. For example, if you and your partner are at the net and one of you has executed a mis-hit that will be a setup for a smash, instead of maintaining your position at the net, both of you should move back with the hope that one of you will be able to get your paddle on the ball as it is smashed back across the net (figure 11.1).
Covering the angle of the return.
- Always face the ball on the other side of the net. Regardless of where you are on the court and where the ball is on the other side of the net, assume a position that is always facing the ball. In addition, always be prepared for the ball to be hit to you.
- Know where you are on the court and where the boundary lines are. Many beginners will hit any ball coming to them regardless of the flight of the oncoming ball and where they are standing on the court. Every time you hit a ball that would have gone out of bounds, you’re extending the rally when, had you let the ball hit the ground first, you would have won the rally.
- Always strive for placement and control rather than speed when you hit the ball. The more games that you play, the better you will be able to see where your opponents are on the court. As the ball is coming to you, note where your opponents are and in what direction they’re moving (if they’re moving). Then place the ball behind them or in an open space on their court.
Advanced Doubles Strategies
When you and your partner both feel confident that you’re playing a smart game and you’re satisfied with your play together as a team, you can start thinking about using more advanced strategies, such as poaching, stacking, and putting spin on the ball. Don’t force their use, but when the opportunity to use them arises, give them a try.
If one partner is already at the net - especially on the left side while facing the net - and the other partner is coming to the net but is not there yet, and the opposing team is pretty predictable about where their groundstroke is going, the net player can poach by moving across in front of the partner staying behind the non-volley zone line and hitting the ball just after it crosses the net (R2 in figure 11.2). Normally a shot hit by a player poaching will be a winner, but in the event it isn’t, R1 switching to the side vacated by his partner ensures that their court is covered. The advantage of poaching is that the ball is returned quicker than it would be if it were allowed to continue on to the partner who is still advancing toward the non-volley zone line. The disadvantage of poaching is that if the opposing team suspects that the net player is going to move across to poach, they will hit a line shot behind the poaching player. Poaching can occur on either side, but is usually a stronger shot if the ball is hit by the forehand of the player poaching.
Every year, there are more players of all ages interested in competing against others in local, regional, national, and international tournaments. In preparation for that competition, players are exploring ways of improving their chances of winning. One of those is to use stacking. Simply put, stacking means that during the serve, the stronger player, whose forehand should be down the middle, lines up either at the baseline or at the non-volley zone line to the left (facing the net) of his partner. If the doubles team consists of one right-hand player and one left-hand player, the right-hand player would always line up to the left of his left-hand partner.
Jim Hackenberg, winner of multiple gold medals in men’s doubles and mixed doubles, notes that more pickleball doubles teams are stacking and explains two situations in which it is particularly beneficial:
The first relates to a doubles team that consists of a left-hand player and a right-hand player. Stacking allows them to keep both of their forehands down the middle. As most players know, hitting the ball down the middle of the court is one of the best shots. The net is lower in the middle so there’s a higher margin for error if you mis-hit the shot and there is the possibility of confusion about who should take the shot by the opposing team.
Stacking also can be an advantage to a doubles team that consists of one player who is more dominant - quicker, stronger, and more consistent - than his partner. Mixed-doubles teams that consist of a player who is stronger than the other often use stacking so that the stronger player’s forehand is covering all middle shots.
The rules pertaining to the serve and the return of the serve apply to the two players involved in the serve action, not their partners. So while the server must stand behind the baseline and behind the proper service court, the server’s partner can stand anywhere. Similarly, the player receiving the serve should be in a position that will allow for a return of serve, but the receiving player’s partner can be anywhere on or just off of their court.
Jim considers that there are a full stack, a 75 percent stack, and a serving (defensive) stack. For a 75 percent stack, your team would stack in all instances except when the weaker player is receiving the serve behind the left service court. If your team chose to use a serving (defensive) stack, you would stack only when your team is serving; with this option, both players would receive serves normally.
Figure 11.3 illustrates the way players would stack in various situations.
Jim offers this advice to players who are considering stacking:
The advantages of stacking are fairly easy to identify - both players hit more shots with their forehands, and the dominant player has more opportunities to cover a larger area of the court. The disadvantages are also pretty simple to identify - teams forget where they are supposed to be! Nothing is worse than losing a point by being out of position. Never enter a tournament and try to stack if you haven’t practiced it several times with your partner. Just as you need to practice the skills of the game, you also need to practice stacking. Have the first server wear a red wristband just like in a tournament. After a rally, ask yourself what your score is. The answer will tell you which partner is where. Your first server will be behind the right service court (facing the net) any time your score is even and behind the left service court when your score is odd. With practice, stacking becomes a valuable tool.
Putting Spin on the Ball
Once your pickleball game becomes consistent and you feel confident that you can control the speed and direction of the ball coming off of your paddle, then you might want to experiment with putting spin on the ball. A topspin or a backspin on groundstrokes, a sidespin on a serve, and a backspin on dinks can be very effective. (See the More to Choose and Use section in chapter 3 for details on applying spin.)
Learn more about Pickleball Fundamentals.