When I first began playing doubles I had very little knowledge as to why I was standing in the standard one up one back formation and serve and volley wasn't a top priority for me. As I got older players got younger and their returns came back like serves. I still depend upon my net partner to make quick kill of returns saving my strength for the next big serve.
When serving I desire quick points with lots of quality first and second serves. It is a time when I'll hold nothing back on that one shot. It is without question the most important shot in a game of doubles. You should position yourself as a server to place it to the receiver's weakest shot, typically the backhand, but not always!
And when I have a bad day serving it leads me back to my fan base, a flock of seagulls watching me practice hitting serves on a broken outdoor court into the wind by the sea. I'd say, that's the one. No, that won't do, it's not what I want at all. It was a freak lucky serve, non-replicable. Toss at one o'clock like Taylor Dent. This is the self talk I go through to this day.
I'll save writing more about the serve for another day. But it's importance must be stated here in the beginning of your journey of doubles. Without a good serve, doubles will be a tough day at the office. My digression is over.
There are general positions on the court that you should know to play doubles.
The starting positions:
“The server” is typically located half way between the doubles line and the center slash mark, staking claim to the middle of that half court. This allows the server to cover both the serving side and the back court of the net partner should a lob clear the smash zone of the net player, causing a retrieval by the server on the net player’s side of the court.
“The net player of the server” should take position six feet from the net, centering half way between the doubles line and the center service line. This position allows the net player to attack a middle return from the opponent and protect the alley. This position can be adjusted depending on where the ball is served and also if the opponent tends to lob frequently.
“The receiver” should stand in a position that draws a straight line from server to the receiver, and that line splits the receiver’s service box in half. If the server changes position then the receiver must adjust to keep the line through the service box straight to the server causing an equal division of the box. If the server stands wide in the court then the receiver would take a wide position. If the the server moves closer to the middle then the receiver must take a more middle position. If the server hits a weaker serve then the receiver should take position inside the baseline. If the server hits difficult hard serves then the receiver should back up behind the baseline. Alternatively the receiver may try blocking the return of serve early to reduce width the angle of return. The receiver should make calls on wide serves in the service box. “The receiver’s first job is to return the ball away from the net player.”
“The receiver’s partner” should take a position on the service line, facing 45 degrees to the back service line, close to the middle of the court. This allows the receiver’s partner to make good back service line calls and cover a volley from the server’s net player off the return of serve.
“Following the ball” as a net player: If the receiver of serve returns a ball cross court and clears the server’s net player, then the “receiver’s net player” should move up at a 45 degree angle toward the net (distance moved is determined by the speed of the ball, player’s ability to cover ground, and opponent’s tendencies) and cover the alley and potentially poach. At that point the “server’s net partner” should move back at a diagonal 45 degrees toward the center service line and cover the receiver’s net player in a defensive volley position. This “following the ball” movement by the net players occurs during the rally. This is a “diagonal shift.”
“A vertical shift” occurs when one or both players move toward the net. If two players are up and the other team is one up and one back then the team that is split will no longer diagonal shift as the opponents have taken the net position. It also occurs if two net players run back to retrieve a bouncing deep lob, hence giving up their net position to their opponents.
“A lateral shift” occurs when both members of a team move to the left or right based upon where they direct their ball. Lateral shifts occur in two up verses two back positions. This allows the team to cover the angle of return.
In general, two players up at net verses one up and one back is an advantage for the net team. That would be an offense verses defense positioning. Put-aways are easier for two up at net. One up and one back verses one up and one back is neutral. Two up verses two back is offense verses defense. Two up verses two up is neutral. It is best to be offensive, then neutral, then defensive. That being said, any formation can win if played by a team with better skill sets than their opponent’s.