Tired of Splitting Sets in Doubles? Make Proactive Second Set Adjustments

July 19, 2019
Tired Of Splitting Sets?

We have always taught our students that the most important game of the match is the first game of the second set. (Note: The first game of the third set would be equally important but it is often eliminated in league play). One of the common complaints we get is that players are tired of winning the first set, losing the second set, and having to play a 10-point tiebreaker for the match. This is a common problem for many—if not most—doubles teams. There are a few reasons for this phenomenon:

  • The team that loses the first set comes out very focused in the second set. They are stung by the first set loss and have plenty of motivation to get right to the task at hand. 

  • On the other hand, the team that wins the first set often lets their minds wander to things not relevant to winning the second set; thinking about the post-match snacks, wondering if their rating will go up after the win, or wondering how their team is doing overall, for example.

  • The team that lost makes changes and adjustments since they have nothing to lose. Switching receiving sides or serving order or using new tactics may give them a reason to believe they will do better. Their new confidence will unnerve their opponents, undermine confidence, and instill self-doubt.

  • The team that won the first set plays too loose (assuming they will win and getting sloppy) or too tight (upset and distracted by the opponents’ adjustments and newly fearful of a loss).

We’re  sure you have all faced this situation and have been frustrated by it. You are asking, “How do we prevent this from happening again?” First, we will take a cue from other team sports to better understand a winning approach to the second half. Then, we will learn how to use our practice time to add layers to our game to maintain dominance of the court in the second set.

In football, teams make adjustments at halftime. The team that is losing knows they need to do things differently but the team that is winning also know that they need to make adjustments. If the losing team adapts to what their opponents were doing in the first half but the team in the lead also makes subtle changes, the losing team won’t be ready to solve the new problems facing them. This dynamic should be the same in tennis. Before your opponents have a chance to undermine what you’ve been doing, add a new layer of tactics to your play to keep them on their heels and reacting to you. They are already down a set so they have very little time left and a small margin for error. So how do we apply this concept and make these changes in the second set? This is where the practice court is critically important.

Too many times players are practicing skills that have no relevance to winning matches. Remember: Everything you practice should be related to the critical first two shots of a point, whether serving or receiving. Practice variety and teamwork on serves, use of all three service returns, and work on disrupting your opponents in everything you do. Don’t make them comfortable; make them uncomfortable. Don’t give them problems they always face; give them ones they haven’t prepared for and don’t have an answer to. Here are some examples:

  • When you take the lead in your service game, serve them the ball that they return crosscourt most often (you know this because you’ve been paying attention). Have the net player wait for the serve to bounce and then pinch the middle near the net strap. If the return goes crosscourt as expected, your partner can pick it off. If they hit a lower percentage shot, you’re making it much more difficult for them to mount a comeback. Once you’ve picked one or two balls off, they will be on the defensive and much less likely to break your serve. You’re keeping them from gaining confidence. 

  • Now keep them guessing with your serve placement and net player positioning before the serve. Make them react to you, hesitate, make last-second choices and bad choices. 

  • Stop hitting the same service returns over and over. Your return is now predictable and has lost its effectiveness. Again, here’s where the practice court comes in. You need to practice and master three basic returns of serve to be successful. Use most often the two returns that are the most disruptive: The lob over the net players head and the hard return hit directly at the net player. These two returns unlock the door to long term success in doubles.

    • In practice sets one day, make a rule that all returns must be executed either hard at the net player or as a lob over the net players head. All four players know the rules of the drill - and yet it won’t affect the outcome-- It will still be effective at throwing your opponents off their game. We make sure to only hit at the net player when we can move in and hit hard. All the players you face have mediocre to poor second serves so you can step up, take the ball early, and be aggressive. The net player has little time and few options even if they do make the shot. They will hit a defensive volley and will immediately stop thinking about poaching or moving around at the net. You have neutralized them. 

    • The lob return is a home run because very few players have an advanced defensive plan to counteract it. The lob return puts them in an awkward position with no strategy and only defensive shots to hit. Use it extensively. You will exhaust your opponents both mentally and physically. The key is to keep doing it until you’ve broken their will. Once again, they will be spending so much time reacting that they won’t be able to get their feet under them to attack you. 

You may have already used some of these tactics in the first set. The difference is that by now you’ve seen what your opponents can and can’t do, what they like and don’t like. Luckily, you’ve been practicing all of the things you need to win matches (the critical first two shots) and can then add layers to your game plan as outlined above. So, let’s review:

  • Once you’ve won the first set, have several plans (that you have practiced extensively) that will keep your opponents on their heels. These plans include some elements you haven’t used often (or at all) in the first set. Executing these plans will keep you focused and confident. Learning, practicing and using preplanned plays can be a difference-maker in matches.

  • Create an ever-evolving game plan with the arsenal of information in your head about your opponents and what they like to do. For example, one of the players has a very weak second serve. Come up on the first point and crack it at the net player. Use their weakness against them. 

  • Preempt their tactical changes by making your own first. You are making changes to be aggressive while they are looking to turn the tide against you. They have a much smaller margin for error and are making changes out of desperation, not from a position of strength. 

You’ve practiced for this moment. Now impose your will.


You’ve practiced for this moment. Now impose your will.