Guide to the Rules of Doubles Tennis

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  1. Basics of the Game
  2. Key Differences
  3. Doubles Strategy
  4. Types of Doubles Matches
  5. Trivia
  6. Further Reading

Though it doesn’t get as much attention as singles competition, doubles tennis is fascinating variation of the game with its own unique intricacies. In this article we’ll run you through all you need to know about the doubles game, it’s rules and game play.

Of course, understanding how doubles works will be much easier if you are already au fait with the rules of tennis. If you need to brush up, check out our guide to the rules of tennis.

If you already know the ins and outs, then we can start looking at the differences that come into play in doubles.

Basics of the Game

In doubles is played in two teams of two, with each team occupying one side of the court. The basics of the game are the same as singles. Points are scored when a rally is ended by a shot that goes out, hits the net, or bounces more than once before being returned.

Though there are two players on each side, only one player will play a shot each time the ball crosses the net. Unlike a game like volleyball, where you can pass the ball between you and tee you partner up for a shot, in tennis doubles every time you play a shot it has go back over the net into the opponents side of the net.

Here’s a look at a doubles rally to illustrate the above description.

Scoring is exactly the same as the singles game, with the accumulation of points deciding the outcome of games, the outcome of games determining the winner of each set and the outcomes of sets deciding the result of the game.

Key Differences

Despite the overriding similarity, there are a few major differences aside from the number of players.

The Court

The court is the same in all regards bar one. Of the two tramlines that run down the side of the court it is the furthest out which marks the boundary in doubles, where as it is the closest in for singles play.

Despite this, serves, still need to land in the service box, just as they do in singles play, so in this regard, when serving the closer tramline rather than the further one counts as the boundary. The only difference that applies when playing a serve is that, you can deliver it stood anywhere between the centre mark and the far tramline.

Rotation of Serve

In a singles match, serve alternates between each player after every game. In doubles in take four games to make a full rotation as every player has to take a regular turn serving.

Normally you will opt to have the stronger server on your team serve first. So, you’d have a service game from the strongest server from team one followed by the strongest server from team two, the weaker server from team one, and the finally the weakest from team two.

Between each set, within your own team you can opt to change the order of your service games if you wish.

Serving rotation works the way in tie breakers, everyone takes two serves before rotating, with the exception of the first person to serve in the tie break. They will just play a single serve before handing over to the other side, just as in a singles tiebreak.

Receiving Serve

At the start of each set each team needs to decide which player will receive serves delivered to the left of the court and who will receive those coming into the right hand service box. Once you’ve picked you can only receive serves from that side for the rest of the set.

As you can see, there really aren’t that many differences in the actual rules. However, the game play and tactics needed to win are very different.

Doubles Strategy

Teamwork really is the name of the game in doubles. Though there’s nothing in the rules to cover it, you should seek to make effective use of your pooled resources when playing with a partner. One good rule of thumb is to stick to the side of the court from which you will be receiving serve. This can help avoid mix ups where you and your partner go for the same ball.

As well as staying put of each other’s way, you also need to think about how your combined positioning changes the type of shots that will be effective. In a singles play points are very often won by players using the exchange of a rally to open up a good angle for a passing shot (one which will reach a part of the court their opponent can’t get to).

This is far less common as, with twice as much of the court being covered, the angles required for such shots rarely open up. Instead you are more likely to see players coming to the net and playing volleys (shots taken out of the air before the ball has bounced). This in turn makes the lob a more frequently used shot, as there is often space to aim for at the back of the court which can be reached by arcing a shot over an opponent’s head.

Finally, the increased use of volleys and lobs also means you see more overhead smashes (a shot from open player which looks similar to a serve – the player watches the ball falling and then volleys in from above his head, often mid leap.)

In singles play any of these shots (volley at the net, lob, or smash) if played without error would normally be expected to win a point, however in doubles they are frequently just part of the rally. This is an extreme example, but in this clip (if we’ve counted correctly) 13 different overhead smashes are returned successfully (we especially love the one where he jumps the hording!). In singles play, it’s a minor miracle to even return one.

Of course, all rallies spring from the serve and the return. In doubles, the policy adapted for return shots is a bit less varied. As one the non-serving player is free to rush the net as soon as the point begins it’s almost always wisest to play across court back to the server, to avoid your return being knocked down at the net.

Finally, it is an established doubles tactic to pick out the weaker player on your opponents team and to put pressure on them by playing to them more than their partner, which can be effective both from a pragmatic and a psychological point of view.

Types of Doubles Matches

Generally, doubles matches are played between four players of the same sex, however, there are tournaments which feature mixed doubles competitions, where each team is comprised of one female and one male player.

There are also variations on doubles which are not played in any formal setting but can be used for training. Canadian Doubles is where a doubles team plays against a single player. While the single player can hit in to the full court, the doubles team have to hit into the singles sized court on their opponents half.

Australian Doubles is another variation for three players. In this game, again, a double team play against a single opponent, but the teams are mixed up after each point, with players taking it in turn to be the single player. The single player always serves.

Each person accumulates their own score, picking up two points if they hold serve whilst on their own, and one point each time they and their partner manage to break someone else’s serve.

Doubles Trivia

  • Martina Hingis became the youngest player to ever win a Wimbledon title by winning the 1996 doubles tournament aged 15.
  • Well loved Brit Tim Henman became the first ever player to be disqualified at Wimbledon when, in 1995, playing in the doubles competition he struck a ball in anger that hit a ball girl.
  • Prince Albert, who would later become King George VI once entered Wimbledon in a doubles team with Wing Commander Louis Grieg of the RAF. They lost on the opening day.
  • With 21 titles the Williams sisters are the most successful women’s doubles pairing. In all 7 different sets of sisters have.
  • Doubles is an Olympic sport. The USA and Britain are the two most successful countries with 4 golds each.

Further Reading


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