Doubles Clinic
Part Eight:
Break the Mold

No sooner have I coached my students to temper the aggressiveness of each point by the score when they watch a pro match and, at 40-Love, see a return of serve right at the opposing net player.  What's up with that?  Shouldn't the guy have played a more conservative return, cross-court, and see if he can help his team find a way into the game?  Well, yes and no.  Because the pro is facing a world-class serve, he feels it's more than a safe bet that the server will hold from a score of 40-Love.  Why not try something different, creative?  What's there to lose?  That's the difference between the pros from Planet Tennis and us, from Earth.  Facing a 40-Love score, my best advice would be to get a conservative return in play and play a conservative point, one point at a time, back to deuce.  It's not likely, but it's far from implausible that a recreational player can be broken from a score of 40-Love.  We've all been there, on both sides of the equation.

But if you're into competition, isn't there just a little bit of a bratty teenager in you?  Don't you want to break things now and then, like the rules?  Don't you, in your warrior heart of hearts, think that playing conservatively is for the feeble and the timid, even if you're eighty years old and a dainty thing?  Shouldn't we, at times, put the pedal to the metal and go for broke?  Yup.

Following are instances where, as a player, I'd break the mold and take some chances, even if the score didn't suggest it was the smartest thing to do.

Fire Away Down-the-Line

Since the first commandment of doubles is Thou Shalt Not Hit Down-the-Line to the Opposing Net Player, let's break that rule first.

At a poacher.  If you've got some gal poaching everything up the middle, she's daring you to go down-the-line.  Do it!  Do it often; do it hard.  Do it even if the server is ahead in the score, because that's when the poacher feels most free to move.  You can bet you're not going to beat her by hitting harder and wider, cross-court.  If you take that bait, she's going to eat you for lunch, because you're choosing to hit to a shrinking target, diminished to the server's alley.  You're going to start missing and that's exactly the pressure the poacher is trying to impose.  You've actually got more court down-the-line!  Fire away, and right at her body.  Don't worry about trying to pass her.  You want to let her know that you've got that shot and she better not be thinking about leaving to poach too soon.  You want to let her know that even if she's proved her prowess at net, you're not afraid to go after her.  Do it early in the set, as soon as you know you've got a poacher across the net. 

At a non-poacher.  You know the guy.  When asked if he wants overhead warm-ups, he says, "No, I'm good.  Let's play."  Good idea.  The guy that doesn't want to warm up his volleys and overheads might as well have a sign on his chest that says, "I hate net."  Test him; see what he's got.  Drive some returns up the middle and see if he's eager to poach.  If he declines some poachable balls and he just doesn't seem comfortable at net, bang some balls at him.  Even if you drag only a few points out of the gambit, you can utterly shake his confidence, and that means you've neutralized the strongest player by court position on the other side of the net.  Yea! 

To punish the server for a powder-puff serve.  When those soft serves come our way, we start drooling.  It's unseemly perhaps, but the ball assumes the proportions of a cantaloupe, and we can't help but think, "Kill!"  The problem is, there's rarely a kill cross-court.  It's the longest leg of the court, and no matter how hard you hit, you're usually not going to fluster the server with the pace of your ground stroke.  In fact, she wants you to try; she wants your returns into the fence.  Instead of hitting hard at her, hit hard at her partner, standing up at net, knees quaking, a mere twenty feet from your early contact.  This is not a pass; it's a drive right at the net player.  In the end, you want the server to feel that the physical well-being of her partner is a function of the risk she's willing to take on her serve.  Do it enough times, though, and you can usually get the up player to back off the net and the server trying to hit harder than she really wants to.  Two birds, one stone, like they say.  Nice job.

Note:  Hitting at an opposing net player can seem like a "guy thing to do," i.e. something that a person more evolved, say a female, wouldn't dream of.  There's definitely a line there.  I wouldn't suggest it at a fun, social, club tourney or a match among friends.  But if it's a tournament or a league match, it's a legitimate and important part of the game, even in mixed doubles.  Surely, I'm not suggesting you try to injure anyone. And if you do hit someone with the ball, be sure to make eye-contact and hold up your racquet as an acknowledgement.  But it's not an apology.  Do it again if you have the chance to earn a point.  If your opponent has words with you, like, "You've got the whole court to hit to, why are you hitting at me?" again make eye-contact, and again hold up your racquet.  Reply, "You don't have to stand there, but if you do, I've got a right to attack that part of the court."  Because, in effect, you're attacking a position, not a body, the same way you'd attack an open court with a drop-shot.  No one would fault you for that if you did it against a player with a brace on both knees and who was fifty pounds overweight.  You're out there to have fun, but you also want to win.  Most folks get it that hitting at them is a legitimate play.

To attack the weak player.  Sometimes weak players are paired with strong players.  Sometimes one player is having a particularly bad day, one unforced error after another.  Sometimes one player becomes particularly voluble, shouting about how badly she's playing and how upset and frustrated she is.  Sometimes a player starts to wilt, psychologically or physically, shoulders slumping or seemingly winded.  Ooh la la!  All these players are ripe to be attacked, even if they're the opposing net player and the effort breaks the first commandment of doubles.  If you can pressure a weaker or unhappy player you might just break him down entirely, a lovely thing.  However, it does involve risk.  If the weak player has proved that he's good at net and likes to poach, it might be worthwhile to move your partner back at the baseline with you into The Wall.  That way, he's not a target at the T, and you can bash away at the weak player with more safety.  And be careful.  Hit too many balls to someone playing badly and you just might warm her up.  If the unforced errors stop coming, quit the gambit.

Because you're an ad court receiver.  You can almost bank on it:  the last time the server's partner was passed down-the-line by an ad court receiver's backhand was 1985, and that was when she was two years old.  Club players just don't look for this pass.  Even if you don't have a killer backhand, you can use the unexpectedness of this placement to steal a few points, and boy, does it feel good.

To be contrary.  Even if you believe that all sports are inferior to tennis, which is categorically true, watch a high-quality major league pitcher some time.  The good ones can throw at least three kinds of pitches, and they can do it with control at any time in the count.  They win because they keep the batters off-guard, not able to predict what's coming their way.  As a returner or a baseliner in doubles, you've got to think the same way.  Mix it up; take some chances.  Doubles is typically played cross-court because it's the high-percentage way to go.  But it's predictable, at the same time.  In fact, you just may have put the opposing up player to sleep with your cross-courts away from him.  Maybe he needs a wake-up call.  Though, obviously, it can't be an every shot gambit, don't be afraid to go down-the-line  Be capricious.  Just because.  It feels wicked and fine. 

Vary Your Serve

Away from the T.  The standard service placement in doubles is toward the T.  The standard thinking is that this placement minimizes the angle of return and helps set up the server's partner for a poach.  Serve out wide, and the placement exposes both alleys on the server's side of the court.  As well, the wide serve tends to marginalize the server's partner, forcing her away from the middle of the net and toward her alley to cover the down-the-line pass, especially facing the deuce court receiver.  All true.  So why against the dictates of the tennis gods would you want to serve out wide?  One reason would be to keep a deuce court receiver honest who's trying to cheat to the middle and take her backhand as a forehand.  Spin that serve out wide, ace the naughty thing, and she'll stand closer to the singles sideline so you can properly pound her backhand up the middle.  Another reason would be a wristy forehand, all the current rage.  Most club players can't control the modern stroke, and if you bait them out wide to try and yank the return sharply cross-court, they'll use their wrists and miss.  You can also serve out wide when you have a lead, say 40-15, after you've been placing the serve to the T and depriving him of forehands.  Give that player a nice slow serve out wide to her forehand; see if he'll try to make up a two point deficit with one swing of the racquet.  It's one of the reasons we have fences around tennis courts.  That's the deuce court.  What about the ad?  The ad court receiver's backhand is out wide.  If it's the weaker stroke, that placement is a no brainer.  As well, many ad court receivers don't pass down-the-line off wide serves to their backhands.  If the receiver doesn't possess that threat, your partner can even poach off the wide serve, assuming an inevitable cross-court return.  Go into "I" formation and try the same.  It works even better.  The bottom line is that if you're not mixing up your placements, you just aren't serving.

Slow can be good.  Besides mixing up your placements, what about your speeds?  Absolutely.  Just for a few points, tear yourself away from the image you have of yourself as Andy Roddick or Venus Williams, especially if you've chosen the wrong gender as your alter ego.  That's a whole different issue.  Instead of hitting every first serve as hard as you can, hit one at three-quarter speed, one at half-speed.  Establish your hard ball first, create the expectation of it, then vary your speeds.  You'd be astonished how you can throw off the timing of a good returner, especially because the good ones have seen pace before and have long since ceased to worry about it.  In fact, the good returners like pace.  It ain't your job to please them.  As well, you can get in a couple extra steps for serve and volley by slowing your serve down, and give the receiver less ammunition to hit hard back at you.  If you've got a good lead in the game, pull the string.  Down in the score, the receiver has to prepare himself for your heat.  Cool it down, suave dude.  Get the receiver to swing too soon.  Way to use your head.

Lobs, Moon Balls, Slices and Drop Shots

It's all but lost in the modern game, but varying speed and spin on your ground strokes can be a very effective thing.  True, I will be the first to admit that smoking a forehand feels so very fine, but I take no less delight in watching a big baseliner hit the fence with an unforced error because I've hit a moon ball return, or seeing some guy that wants nothing to do with playing the net have to scramble in because I've forced him with a drop shot off his junky second serve. 

Pull the plug on Big Bob.  If you've got an opponent who doesn't come in behind his serves or returns, it's for a reason:  he likes to hit ground strokes, and usually is pretty good at it.  And you can bet that if he's good at it, one thing he likes to do is hit the ball hard.  Good for him.  Testosterone can be a very good thing.  But why please Big Bob?  Why not, instead, moon ball that guy, make him supply his own damn power?  Hit cross-court but with a semi-lob, soft and high and deep.  See Bob hit the fence with his reply.  See Bob climb the fence in frustration.  See Bob lose.  Don't be afraid to change your paces, mix it up.  You can drive big hitters straight to the nearest psychiatrist by pulling the string on occasion--even most of the time!

Yo-Yo the baseliner.  I've talked about defending against lob in other tips, but I haven't mentioned one of my favorite gambits:  yo-yo tennis.  Bring the baseliner in with a drop shot, cross-court,especially off a slower serve.  Once that card is on the table, you can bet that the server will creep into no-man's-land after his serve to guard against another dropper.  Instead, lob over his partner's head, down-the-line.  Bring him in; push him back.  It works the other way, as well.  Lob first, and get the baseliner to back up, looking for it again. Instead, return with a dropper, cross-court.  Or, you can bring him in with the drop shot and next time at bat, bang the ball deep and hard.  Mix it up!  You should have at least two reliable speeds off your ground strokes, and you should be able to hit both deep and short.  That's the whole package.

Scrape the Court.  One other way you can change things up is by switching sight lines, hitting high and deep, and then low and short.  Usually this involves changes of speeds, but most importantly, moving between topspin and underspin.  You need slice.  With it, you can bend those big hitters down and give them a bird's eye view of the court surface.  Let them try to hit big on a ball that's around a foot high.  This works against serve and volleyers, too, dropping the ball right on their shoe tops.  The basic idea is to keep the ball out of the strike zone, up above the waist and down below the knees.  It takes a pretty capable hitter to deal with those changes.

Team Smorgasbord

Another way you can mix things up and break the mold is by being unpredictable as a duo.  I loved watching Navratilova and Shriver do this.  Navratilova hit hard and harder, but Shriver, who had a huge forehand, often just sliced the ball, even pushed it back.  This simple change in tempo did a great deal to keep their opponents off balance.  But you can do more.  If your partner drives, you lob; if your partner slices, you drive.  If your partner hits a drop shot, you hit a drop shot.  Your first obligation, of course, is to get the ball in play and be steady; choose your shot selection by score and capability, what feels secure for you.  But if you can develop multiple weapons and your partner is similarly armed, you can really switch things up off the return.  Be zany.  The worst thing that can happens is that you get a reputation as being offbeat and tough to beat, a good rep to have.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Doubles Clinic Part Nine:
Problem Solving:  Fixes on the Fly