April 22, 2024 - Serve or Receive First in Doubles?

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

In both singles and doubles, I usually advise players to choose to receive first, if they win the choice at the start of the match. This is the time when a player is most likely to miss easy shots—he may not yet be fully warmed up or he may still have early-match jitters—and it’s better to blow a couple points receiving than on your serve, where you hope to win a majority of the points. It also means you’ll be serving at the end, such as at 9-all, when there’s lots of pressure!

In doubles, it’s even more important to receive first. This allows you to set the order of play for the match. (Remember that in doubles, whichever team serves first has to choose which player serves first, and then the receiving pair sets the order for that game by choosing the receiver, with the order changing each game and when a team reaches five in the fifth.) You want to set an order that favors your team. How do you do this?

Suppose you have an order that favors your team, while the other team is favored with the other order. If you start the match with the bad order, then you may lose the first and third games, win the second and fourth, and start out the fifth by falling behind—but halfway through the fifth game, you’ll switch sides and the order of play, and then you’ll be in the good order in the second half of the fifth game, when the match is on the line. And if the two orders even out in that fifth game and you reach deuce, you’ll have the good order at deuce, and probably win. So, surprisingly, it is often an advantage to start out a match with the “bad order.”

However, you don’t really change the order halfway through the fifth game; you do so when a team reaches five. What does this mean?

  • Short version: It means you play more points after switching sides and order of play when a team reaches five.
  • Long version: Suppose your team starts the fifth game with the bad order. Suppose your team is down 4-5 when you switch sides in the fifth, and then the order changes to the better order, and now you outscore the other team 5-4. It’s now 9-9, and you have the good order, both here and at deuce! Or suppose the order makes an even bigger difference, and you are down 3-5 at the switch, and then outscore them 5-3 with the good order. Then it’s only 8-all, and you have the good order the rest of the way! So I recommend starting with the weaker order in the first game so that you’ll have the strong order at the end of the fifth game.

It’s actually more complicated than this, since about half the time you will only play two points when you reach deuce, and so the whole order of play—four different servers (and corresponding receivers) in a given game—is reduced to only two, and so the order that favors you overall might not favor you for those particular two. Few if anyone actually works it out that far, but it’s something to consider in a big match.

The main reason to choose to serve first is if you or your partner needs to build up confidence, and so prefer to serve first. If you have a very nervous team (compared to your opponents), then you might consider this, though you might want to consult a sports psychologist later on.