Beating Alternative Positions
I'm not ashamed to admit it. The first time I came up against "I" formation as a receiver, I grinned. All that open space on both sides of the court! Ooh la la. After my first pass down-the-line went wide and my second return slapped into the bottom of the net, I stopped grinning. And I guess that I should also disclose what happened when my partner and I first faced The Wall. We both had good overheads, and we just camped at the service line, drooling, as lob after lob came our way. We thought we'd knock those guys through the fence. But somehow, they just kept getting the ball back, and then another, and then another. I was wet behind the ears. I didn't have much patience with the word patience. Same with my partner. We got spanked.
Following are some tips about how to defend against and beat alternative formations and positions. May you not suffer the frustrations that I did.
Cracking The Wall
Play the Offensive Wall. You won't beat The Wall by staying at the baseline, but neither player may want to risk getting closer to net than the service line, the position I call the Offensive Wall. Given the predictability of a lot of lobs coming your way from the opposing players at the baseline, if you get tight to net, you invite those sky balls to get over your head and put your team in lob recovery, scrambling back to your baseline. No fun. I have coached particularly athletic teams to send the deuce court player toward net to guard against the drives and have his partner hang back at the service line. Any lobs that go up over the player tight to net are retrieved on the fly by his partner's high forehand volley or overhead. But if your team is not comfortable with that kind of movement, you both need to hold at the service line in the Offensive Wall.
That position, of course, exposes your feet to the low drives, but you have to defend against that. Be patient. Keep your volleys deep and your overheads deep, preferably toward the middle, until you get a shorter ball or lob that you can angle away. Be patient. I've repeated myself to save you a most painful lesson. Wait until you have something good to angle off the court. Those guys at the baseline are counting on your unforced errors--your impatience.
Break The Wall. Now we're talking. At the first opportunity, take any short ball offered by The Wall and send it back short, forcing the players off the baseline and up to net. Get them to play your game. Stop the boredom, and make them take some risks. If the serving team, for example, is in The Wall, dink the return back, preferably with an angle inside their service line. Make them hustle in as a team. If only one comes in, you've still broken The Wall, forcing them into a one-up/one-back formation. If you're serving against The Wall, wait one stroke before you try to come in. If you get any kind of a short drive, chip back a short one of your own, and break The Wall.
On paper, offense should beat defense every time. Two players up at net, even if only as close as the service line, should win over two players camped at the baseline. The Wall is vulnerable in the front of the court. But, again, the offensive team has to be patient. Hit deep and wait for something high and short to come your way. When it does, remember that the kill comes softly: angle the ball short for the winner.
Erasing the "I" Formation
Don't get suckered into returning with pace. That's the bait, isn't it, the serving team lined up in the middle of the court and all that open court for a pass. Don't get me wrong. If the serve is in your wheelhouse, give it a ride. But if the serve doesn't have Smack Me written all over it, don't. The serving team wants you distracted by the up player, trying to guess which side she's moving to, trying to hit so hard you can pass her or make her muff the volley. The result of these distractions and temptations is unforced errors off the return. Don't give the server a cheap game; get the return in play; make a quality shot, not a perfect one. To do this, ignore the up player.
Instead, to drive aggressively toward the edges of the court, have your front shoulder point the way for your return toward one singles side line or the other. Let's say, for example, that you're the deuce court receiver. You can almost bet that the serve is coming to the T and your backhand. But there are backhands and there are backhands. If the serve is tight to the T, you'll feel your right shoulder come across your body as you stretch to reach the ball. It's telling you to hit inside-out cross-court. If the server's partner is moving in that direction, fine. Let him take your best shot and see what he can do. But let's say the serve is on your backhand side but more in toward the middle of the box and your left hip. You'll feel your right shoulder in a more open position. It's telling you to hit down-the line. Again, if the up player happens to move in that direction, no problem. Let him have a taste of what you can do when you don't try and force your shot.
Test the Middle and Try the Dunk. Another alternative to attacking the edges of the court is to attack the middle. Though receivers don't know to which side the up player is going to move, that she is going to move is almost a given. And the receiver also knows that the server will move opposite her partner, their movement forming an X. What's open? The middle of the court, right at the net strap. A well-placed, low return can go behind both players. Very, very satisfying. And safe.
Yet another alternative is to hit what I call The Dunk. In other words, a return that's not a slam. Instead of trying to rifle a return against the "I", chip one. Take it early and hit it short down-the-line so that it lands near the intersection of the singles sideline and the service line. By hitting down-the-line, you don't have to hit hard, just low. If the up player is moving in that direction, she'll get to the ball, but she won't have anything high to hit. If the server is moving in that direction, she'll be lucky to hit the ball on one bounce. The point is, if you can make either player hit the ball from below the net, they'll hit up to you; you'll have your fun on your first volley. (Note: It's important to hit The Dunk down-the-line. With serves coming predictably to the T, your angle inside-out isn't particularly great, and it will take longer for the ball to get where it needs to go to the singles sideline. Taking the serve from the T down-the-line will actually give you a true cross-court angle, but most importantly, the chip will get to its target more quickly.)
Any poaching formation is designed to rattle the receiver. The "I" is the best poaching formation, period. But it can be beaten if the receivers play steady tennis. Hit quality returns toward the singles sidelines (not the alleys) and up the middle. Eliminate unforced errors, and you can erase the "I".
Deporting the Australian
Lob, drive, dunk. They all win. Of all the alternative formations, Australian is the easiest to beat. In fact, I think it gives the receiving team the advantage. The first weakness to test is the serving team's up player. He's moved to his partner's side to diffuse your sharp cross-court threat, and he's in a great position to do this if he stays tight to the net. But if he stays tight to net, the Australian formation is ruined by a cross-court lob. The server has to move away from his partner, toward the vacant court. A cross-court lob gets up an over the net player and behind the server. Point for the receiving team.
If the up player moves back to defend the cross-court lob, the receiver's drive beats the formation. First, stick with your sharp cross-court, the very thing Australian was supposed to stop. With the up player forced to camp at the service line, your low cross-courts go right to his feet. Yippee! He'll hit up, and your partner can poach and will adore you. As well, the drive right up the middle can work. Every time a net player retreats to the service line, the middle of the court gets softer. And with the server running toward the receiver to guard against the down-the-line pass, the drive up the middle gets behind both players. Double yippee!
And don't forget your down-the-line options. You've got one half of the court stark naked, a lovely sight. Predictably, the serve will come to the T to compromise the down-the-line threat, but if you follow your shoulder and don't try to force the pass, hitting toward the singles sideline may win the point outright or at least cripple the server as she tries to run it down. And The Dunk works against Australian, too. In fact, it's best against the Australian, because the receiver knows that the up player is never going to move for it. Chip short down-the-line, aiming for the singles sideline just up from the service line, and see if the server has the wheels to get there. Even if she does, you can bet she's going to scoop the ball up. Triple and quadruple yippee!
Be happy if servers go into the Australian formation. Be very happy. You've got options galore.
Crowd the Crowder
Serve at the body. If a returner is crowding the service to threaten your serve, one thing you know for sure is that he's got quick hands. He wouldn't risk the gambit if he didn't think he could handle your pace. So it makes little sense to try and hit harder or toward the corners of the box to outgun him, especially if this means that you're serving beyond your comfort level. Go there, and you've taken the returner's bait and are likely to double fault. Instead, park your right as his body, preferably in his navel. Even quick hands are handcuffed by that placement.
Serve more slowly. This reply is a little counter-intuitive, but a receiver who crowds the service line is really counting on your pace. He's almost obligated to shorten his backswing to accommodate his earlier return, and, mentally, he has to prepare himself for a faster serve. Go against the grain and slow your serve down, throw a change-up, to use a baseball comparison. His short backswings won't work as well if you're not providing the pace, and there's a good chance you'll get him to swing early, given his expectation of a faster placement.
Slow down your first serve to get more in. Nothing is more comforting to a receiver than a guy who tries to knock the cover off the ball on his first serve and just pushes his second serve over. It's what I call teeter-totter serving, and it inevitably puts the receiver in charge of the point on second serve, even if he isn't crowding the service line. In doubles, especially, where pace doesn't have the virtue it does in singles, it's far more important to get a high percentage of first serves in so that you're not looking constantly uphill while hitting second serves. Serve toward the end of making a placement, not an ace.
Learn a good second serve. C'mon, walking on to a tennis court with just one serve is like walking on to the court with just one shoe. You're not ready to play. Serving a first serve flat and hard and a second serve flat and soft isn't serving, at all. You need a reliable, aggressive spin serve, one that lets you swing with the same offensive intensity as your first serve, one that you know will go in. Swear to God, it isn't that hard to learn. And if you don't learn it, you'll be the one swearing.
There's a reason why doubles is played with conventional formations and positions: it's all about increasing the percentages for success. Deviation from those patterns comes with a risk. Often, the risk pays off for players willing to gamble because they get into the heads of the opposition and take them out of their game. But for every gambit, there's an answer. Learn them. Play in practice against teams that challenge you with alternative formations and positions so that when you encounter these issues in a match, you and your partner are ready.
c Keith Shein
Picking a Partner