April 15, 2024 - How to Play Doubles with a Much Stronger or Weaker Player

(Excerpt from Table Tennis Doubles for Champions by Larry Hodges. April is Doubles Month!)

What are the best tactics for a lopsided team, where one player is much stronger than the other? (This often happens in rating or mixed doubles.) Many believe that a more balanced team has an advantage over a more lopsided team, but that’s usually only true if the balanced team is experienced at playing together. In general, I have found that a lopsided team that plays smart generally is favored against a more balanced team. This is because they can play tactics that allow the stronger player to dominate play. However, a more balanced team that is experienced together will tend to beat a more lopsided team that isn’t as experienced or doesn’t play smart. (Often a lopsided team has a weaker, inexperienced player who doesn’t play good tactics.)

In general, with a lopsided team, the stronger player must dominate or control play. His partner needs to do what’s necessary to allow him to do so. It usually means the weaker player plays consistently, keeping the ball in play, but not so passive as to let the other team attack too easily, putting the stronger player on the defensive. It doesn’t mean the weaker player just pushes. If he gets a ball he can put away, he should take it. If the opposing team can attack backspin well, it’s often important for the weaker player to open with a consistent loop just to stop the other team from doing so. But every doubles pair is different.

What is the difference between dominating play and controlling play? If a player attacks over and over successfully, he’s dominating play. If a player makes less aggressive shots but doesn’t give the opponents anything good to attack effectively, while often setting up his partner, he’s controlling play.

Six Things to Focus On

  1. Confidence. The weaker player may be a bit intimidated, since his partner is much stronger and probably more experienced, and he’s likely the weakest player at the table. If his team loses, it’s mostly because of his mistakes. However, this is the wrong way to look at it. Assuming this is a rated doubles event, then the only reason the strong player is eligible is because he’s paired with a weaker player. So the thinking should be, “Without me, you can’t even compete!” It’s extremely important that the weaker player not be intimidated or he’ll play poorly. His goal shouldn’t be to outplay his partner or even his opponents, who are stronger players; his goal should be to play his level or better, and to play smart
         If you are the stronger player, it’s important to put your partner at ease. If you are the tactical leader of the team, explain to him the simple tactics you want him to do, but don’t go overboard. An easy way to lose here would be to ask the weaker player to play outside his game. If he’s used to looping against backspin and doesn’t push well, let him loop, as long as he focuses on consistency. If he misses an easy shot, shrug it off, tell him not to worry about it, and focus on the next point.
  2. Serving. Your team should usually dominate when the weaker player is serving, but that takes preparation. If the weaker player’s serves are easily attacked, then he will put his stronger partner on the defensive right from the start of the point. This is a double-whammy—a lopsided team should be at their absolute best when the weaker player is serving, since this means the stronger player gets to make the first shot. If the weaker player’s serves allow the opponents to take the initiative, then it potentially puts his team at their weakest. In the large majority of cases, the single most important thing here for the weaker player is to be able to serve low and short, with either backspin or no-spin, and toward the middle of the table (so the opponent’s don’t have an extreme angle to the forehand). Ideally, he should practice in advance so he can serve short, low serves. If he does this, it stops the opposing team from making strong returns, and allows the stronger partner to dominate the point. This is often the single most important thing a weaker player can do in preparation for playing doubles with a stronger player.
         When the stronger player is serving, if he has good serves, he may want to simply serve for winners. This might mean serving deep, and challenging the opponents to read and attack his serve. But it depends on the opponents. At higher levels, serving long usually doesn’t work. (However, sometimes it does, and they may want to test this to see if they do.) One issue that often comes up is the stronger player uses a tricky serve that the opponent’s pop up, but the weaker player then misses the smash. Don’t let it worry you, and just encourage your partner to do his best, and (usually) encourage him to continue trying to put the ball away if he gets the shot. If he absolutely cannot make that put-away, he might have to push or you might have to switch to a different serve.
  3. Rallying. The weaker player should focus on keeping the ball in play with well-placed shots. Don’t take the stronger partner out of play by constantly going for (and often missing) risky shots. If you are an attacking player, perhaps tone your attack down some for consistency. If you loop, focus on consistent loops, not trying to rip the ball. In general, try to keep the ball deep so your partner has time to react to the opponent’s shots. In general, by keeping the ball in play without giving the opponent easy attacks or put-aways, you allow your stronger partner to dominate. And guess what? When he dominates, you get equal credit for giving him the opportunity to do so.
         The stronger player should normally look to dominate the rallies with strong attacks. It depends on his style of play, but in general, he shouldn’t hesitate to end the point or make such a strong shot that it gives your partner an easy ball to put away.
  4. The weaker player shouldn’t hesitate to end the point. This may seem contradictory to the idea of keeping the ball in play, but it is not. The stronger player will often force easy balls, and the weaker player shouldn’t hesitate to end the point when he gets one of these. The key is he should focus on keeping the ball in play until he sees an easy put-away—and then unhesitatingly put it away. Of course, if the weaker player absolutely cannot put the ball away, then he shouldn’t try to—but he should go practice that for next time.
  5. Both players need to get their strengths into play. Whatever your best shots are, if you don’t use them, your level goes down. Therefore, both players should work together to find chances to get their best shots into play. This often means a focus on serve and receive. The stronger player in particular should play so as to give his partner shots he is good at while avoiding ones he has trouble with. The weaker player should also focus on setting up the stronger player, in particular with serve, receives, and consistency. (If the weaker player keeps the ball in play, he gives the stronger player more chances to play his strengths.)
  6. Absolutely No Squabbling!!! Read that three times. Refer to it often. Play for fame, but never blame.