Editor’s note: Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA. In this column, Shuttle Zone, he discusses the aspects that make badminton doubles different from singles.
Let me start this article with two different questions from two different decades.
Back in 2015 when I was in the national camp and had switched completely to become a doubles specialist, one of the coaches decided to make a promising Under-17 shuttler a full time doubles player as well. The kid immediately called his parents who came down to the centre and asked the coach, “Why doubles, let him play singles. Isn’t it better for him in the future?”
There was a lot of drama that followed the question. Unfortunately, the coach didn’t have an answer and the boy never switched to doubles.
Now, cut to 2022. Why don’t Viktor Axelson or HS Prannoy or Akane Yamaguchi or PV Sindhu play doubles at the World Tour events, just like how Sathiyan Gnanasekaran plays doubles in table tennis and Nick Kyrgios plays doubles in tennis at big events? This was along the lines of a question thrown at me by Mr. Saha (who was very pleased with his presence in my last column regarding drift too).
I thought it could be interesting to address the underlying thought for these two questions: what makes doubles in badminton a unique beast?
And, if you have watched Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty create history repeatedly this year and are wondering what goes into becoming a good doubles player, and want to start early, hopefully this article helps answer some of the questions. Doubles, after all, is the topic closest to my heart.
Note that most of this article will address men’s doubles, because even across the three different doubles disciplines – while there are technical similarities – there are subtle differences too.
Paired events in badminton are a completely different ball game. The first difference is the grip. As you can see in the image below Arisa Higashino is holding the grip higher than Yuta Watanabe at the back-court, who is holding the standard grip. Players in the front-court use the higher grip for more head control as you don’t need a lot of shot power compared to the back-court player, for whom power is a high priority.
But in singles, as you can see in the image below we have PV Sindhu holding the standard low grip for both front and back-court shots. The reaction time at the net in doubles is much less than singles, hence the short grip is used by most front-court doubles players.
Chirag Shetty, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Arjun MR and many more of the doubles players who are doing well for India now all gave up singles at 14 or 15. It gives the coaches more time to work on the different technical aspects of doubles.
Satwiksairaj always had a strong back-court game but didn’t have the best mobility for singles hence he was moved to doubles at the age of 14-15. Chirag had a knack for doubles very early and was far more comfortable in doubles and maybe even lacked the patience for singles at an early age.
Similarly Arjun – my former partner with whom I reached world No 32 – has extremely quick hands but didn’t have the height to challenge for singles, hence he made the switch to full time doubles.
Safe to say, all of the above made the right call in trusting their coaches who made the move of switching them to full time doubles specialists early enough.
One of the clear examples of technical differences, is in singles you tend to go under the shuttle and play the spinning net shot and sometimes even use a little bit of a loop on it. Whereas in doubles you play the net shot with a slightly horizontal racket, where the priority is not giving any kind of loop as there is a player right in front of you challenging the net from the other side from close proximity.
In the first image blow, you can see the great Lee Chong Wei with the singles spinning net shot. In the second image you can see Thailand’s doubles superstar Sapsiree Taerattanachai executing a doubles net shot with a near horizontal head.
The movement patterns are also completely different in singles and doubles. In singles, everything is directed from the centre of the court which is the base that players must revert to. Whereas in doubles, you’re moving more side to side or front and back. A player in a doubles match needs to cover lesser court distance as there are two players, obviously. The rallies in general at the highest level are longer in singles whereas in doubles it’s much more shorter and intense, especially in men’s and mixed doubles. Women’s doubles witnesses mighty long rallies sometimes, especially with the usage of slow shuttles in huge multi-purpose arenas combined with the defensive qualities of many of the top players.
What you see in the above images is the difference in the base positions for singles and doubles. The defensive base in singles is more towards the centre compared to the defensive base in doubles which is at the centre of the half court so the movement is more front and back. So, again there is a different pattern in movements.
As a doubles player, hand speed and optimum racket speed are keys to successful defending. If you are an aspiring doubles player, I would suggest hitting against the wall with a wide low stance - it will help in the above set-up. It is something which Satwiksairaj does even today as part of his daily routine
Also, look at the current world champion Aaron Chia’s low wide stance (left) at the time of defence in this still below... which is what, in my opinion, makes him have the best defence in men’s doubles at the moment.
Service, return of serve and the third shot
You will often hear men’s doubles players and commentators talk about the first three shots in a rally.
The service, return of serve and the third shot which is made after the return. This sequence of exchanges, in my opinion, is one of the most important and differentiating aspects of men’s doubles compared to singles.
For instance look at this still from the World Championship final between Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan and Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik, history-makers for Malaysia. Ahsan/Setiawan are one of the all-time greats at this but Soh/Chia aren’t that far off from them when it comes to serve, return of serve and the third shot.
As you can clearly see in the stills below how both pairs are trying to get the attack early in the rally by keeping the shuttle soft and low or flat low. Chia makes a good low serve, Ahsan plays the soft net shot with the horizontal racket, Chia is alert to that and plays the flat low shot to Setiawan with Soh also trying to anticipate the next shot and trying to get the attack early in the rally. The intensity in the first three shots of a rally in doubles is significantly higher compared to singles.
In comparison, here are stills from the men’s singles final between Viktor Axelsen and Kunlavut Vitidasarn, where you see a low serve is met with vertical head for the net shot and Axelsen is happy to just lift it off. The serve itself and the next two shots are not very often decisive in singles.
You will see the occasional change on the serve but you won’t see it happening too often.
If you are a budding doubles player, my advice would be to practice serve and the return of serve repeatedly, make it a part of your daily routine once you finish your regular training. Back in 2018 when we had Tan Kim Her as the national doubles coach in India, all the players mandatorily spent at least half an hour practising serve and return of serve with their respective doubles partners post dinner before calling it a night. That is something Chirag follows even now, and it has become a part of his routine. Just like how all top tennis pros have their routines in serve, the best servers in badminton also have uniformity in their serve routine if you observe closely.
Some players are a great fit for doubles as it comes naturally to them. Make no mistake, almost everyone starts off learning singles at an early age, as doubles is only later integrated to the player’s training. Hence the understanding towards it takes time for players, but for some, it just comes naturally.
Generally, coaches look out for hard hitters from the back-court along with players who have got fast hands at the net and have a knack for the serve, serve return and third shot.
Anticipation of shots is something you hear a lot from the commentators in the doubles games more than singles. It is the ability to read your opponent’s stroke as they hit it which gives you the extra second to catch your opponent off guard. Hendra Setiawan, in my opinion, is the best reader of the game which makes his front-court anticipation the best in the world.
The stills from the 2022 Worlds final below will give you an example why:
In this instance Hendra (front-court player on the far side) anticipates Soh’s drop shot from the back, catches the shuttle high with the horizontal racket and then plays the shot in between Chia and Soh. He baits Soh into playing the straight drive and Soh falls into the trap. As you can clearly see in the still, Hendra is ready and waiting for the shot and is so confident in his anticipation that he has left the left hand side at the net completely open for the shot, giving him the extra second to put away the shuttle to get the point.
While I have broken them down in frames, on court, you barely have time to think regarding these exchanges hence decision-making becomes key. A quick tip for budding doubles players would be to watch a lot of high quality doubles games and get an idea of how the players are reading the game because no coach can teach a player how to anticipate, it is something you learn with experience and watching tapes.
Coming back to the 2015 anecdote earlier in the piece, I understand the parent’s point of view because the prize money in domestic and international tournaments is less than singles (which shouldn’t be the case, really). Secondly, I remember going for the trials for a central government job and was asked to play singles even though I was a doubles player because apparently the sports policy does give more importance for singles results than doubles. Jwala Gutta, for instance, has for nearly a decade now fought for doubles to be given equal importance.
But the reason I stated, recently in an article for Scroll.in, that Chirag Shetty / Satwiksairaj are the crown jewels of Indian badminton is because they have now given coaches across India an answer to the question the doubles coach in 2015 could not reply to. Their success is reason enough.
Screenshots in the article courtesy BWF TV YouTube channel and are used solely for illustrating some of the technical points.