Doubles Clinic
Part Four:
Distorting the Court--Alternative Positions

It didn't take much, just a high school coach who said, "In doubles, you stand here if you're the receiver's partner," and pointed his finger knowingly toward the T.  Naturally, I questioned him.  "You mean the rules say I have to stand there?"  He put his hand on his hip.  This was usual in our conversations.  He sighed, "No, because I'm telling you, that's where you stand."

Well, he was right.  He usually was.  But I just didn't want to accept everything he said as gospel, and there's still a bratty teenager inside me who questions things to this day.  Over the years, I've become intrigued by deviations from the standard one-up/one-back, accepted team posture that you see when a point begins in doubles.  Moving one or both players out of their usual position can cause some positive results.  It can give the team that switches to new positions a new perspective on the point and, possibly, the match.  And it can be upsetting to the opponents who expect to see what they're used to seeing and suddenly have to change strategy because of something new.  Even if the unusual position buys only a point or two, it might give you leverage against a tough team or even turn around a match. 

Following are some different team positions that fall under what I call Distorting the Court.

The Wall

The first best or strongest posture for a doubles team to be in is to have both players up at net.  But the second strongest position for the team is to have both players together at the baseline.  It's second best because neither player is in a position to put the ball away with a volley or an overhead, but it's strong because the distance between the players is at a minimum, securing the middle of the court, and if they have the right, patient frame of mind, it can be a very tough posture to beat.  It's vulnerable only to short, sharply angled volleys in the forecourt that lobs and hard drives up the middle can make very difficult to hit.

I coach teams to use the wall for a number of reasons.  One is to guard against a very strong serve and the poach off the return.  You see this commonly in men's professional doubles.  When the receiver is returning a first serve, his partner stands back at the baseline with him.  This gives the receiver permission just to get the ball back in play and not have to worry about his partner getting killed at the T by a poach of a weak return.  But this strategy may be utilized for only one stroke.  On second serve, the reciever's partner usually moves back to the T, trusting the returner to get the ball back without a poach.

A more prolonged use of the wall can be used to turn around a losing momentum.  When a doubles team starts to lose, the points typically go faster and faster as the losing team tries harder and harder to make better shots.  The result:  quicker, more frequent unforced errors.  By moving both players back to the baseline, a more reactive, defensive part of the court, the team can stretch out points, by lobbing, by driving up the middle, by making the opposition hit four, five, six balls in a row, and in so doing, not only slow down but shift the momentum of the points in their favor.  The team has to be patient; it takes a different mind set, one that gives the opponents permission to hit ball after ball, rather than trying to end the point with winners.  But if the team is patient, keeping the drives low, up the middle, and the lobs deep, they can drive their opponents crazy, bait them to go for too much on their own shots and start to drag unforced errors out of them.  Just slowing the points down and lengthening them out can drive some opponents right up the fences.  It can be pretty sadistic fun.

Here are some other uses of The Wall.  I coach teams to use The Wall to pick on a particular player, especially if she's the up player, the server's or receiver's partner.  By going into The Wall and removing one partner from the T, a good team can lob and drive at the opposing up player and really test her net skills.  Break her down and The Wall can break her team down, especially if by picking on her she's made to feel that all the mistakes are her responsibility.  I even had one team that, in a pinch, served and volleyed from The Wall!  They were so frustrated by their opponents' lobs off their serves that they both came in from the baseline together.  No more lobs off the return.  It worked!  Teams can go into The Wall because of weather issues, sun or wind.  If your opponents have the sun in their eyes, go into The Wall against them and put up a lot of lobs that they'll have trouble seeing.  Similarly, if the wind is coming to you, go into The Wall and lob into it, trusting the wind to help keep your sky balls in.  You'd be surprised how incredibly effective playing The Wall can be, especially if you use it flexibly.  If, for example, you've turned around a losing match and you feel like you've got the opposition deflated, start playing aggressively again.  Use The Wall against one server, but not the other.  Go into The Wall when you're the returning team but play serve and volley when you're the serving team.  Ultimately, you should have a reason to go into The Wall and abandon aggressive play, but learn to mix things up.  You'll pocket more W's.

The "I" Formation

Putting both the server and his partner in the middle of the court can be a very effective way of distorting the court.  As we've talked about in other Tips, given that the server's partner will move to one side or the other unpredictably to poach the return, this can erode the comfort and confidence of the receiver.  As well, receivers often get greedy against the "I."  They see all that space on the edges of the court and want to hit big passes in the alleys.  Good!  If going into the "I" means that you've narrowed the rerturner's target to a three foot section on each side of the court, you can anticipate that his unforced errors are going to pile up into a nice heap of cheap points. 

You can use this gambit flexibly, too.  Often I coach teams to use the "I" against right handed ad court receivers.  I want them to test that player's ability to pass down-the-line off their backhands, often a skill that's weak for ad court receivers.  If the serve goes wide to the sideline of the ad court receiver (to his backhand), and the server's partner moves away from the receiver, anticipating a predictable cross-court reply, you've got the ad court player trapped.  He'll have to hit down-the-line to avoid the poach and, at least, use a shot that isn't easy to hit or typical in his repertoire.  As well, you can pick on right-handed deuce court receivers' backhands more easily by using the "I".  If the receiver is adept at running around his backhand to play a forehand, by putting the server at the center mark, he'll have a straight placement to the T, and he can force the receiver to play a backhand.  You can play the "I" when you have a lead, adding more pressure on the returner who may want to play back a safe return.  And you can play the "I" when you're down, just to try something new for a few points, see if you can turn things in your favor.

What I like most about "I" formation is that it gives the receivers a very different look and it forces the serving team to poach and play aggressively.

Australian Formation

I can only imagine what the Ausssie's call this formation, Tanzanian or something, but, to us, playing the Australian formation means placing the server at the center mark and placing the server's partner on the same when the point begins, leaving one-half of the court unoccupied.  Of all the distortions of the court, this is my least favorite, and I hardly ever recommend my students using it.

The advertised value of the Australian formation is that it takes away sharp cross-court returns.  By placing the server's partner on the server's side of the court, the up player is ready to pick off any cross-court return.  Certainly, it works for that issue.  However, if as a server I were being hurt by sharp cross-court returns, I'd first try serving more to the T or into the body, even slowing the serve down so the returner wasn't able to use my power against me.  Using the Australian formation would be a last resort because it causes a serious offensive liability.  With half the court unoccupied by the serving team, it's clear that the server must cover the down-the-line return by the receiver, and given the predictability of the server's movement, what beats the Australian formation every time is a cross-court lob, over the server's partner's head and behind the server who is moving away to the other half of the court.  To counter this threat, the server's partner has to move way back in the box, so far that her effectiveness as a poacher is nearly nullified.  Bad, bad, bad.  This cost is too great.  If by changing the placement of the serve toward the T, a team still can't stop sharp cross-court returns, go to "I" formation.  Then, at least, the server's partner plays close to net and remains an effective poacher, and the unpredictability of her poach has a better chance of throwing off the returner.

Some of my students have wanted to use Australian to stop the lob off the return.  And, it does this.  By placing the server's partner way back in the service box, and by having the server come in from the center mark toward the receiver, there isn't a side of the court to threaten with a lob.  However, drives threaten the Australian formation.  The obvious vulnerability is to the alley by the down-the-line drive on the vacant side of the court.  But, the middle of the serving team's court is also open to the drive because of the remove of the server's partner from the net and the forced predictability of the server moving toward the receiver.  No good.  The serving team has other options that are far more aggressive to beat the lob.  (See my Tip about poaching to stop the lob.)

Switching Return Sides

My students Jeanne and Joan made me a believer about this distortion of the court, though I was a reluctant convert.  The pair wanted to switch return positions if they lost the first set, especially if the first set wasn't close.  I couldn't argue that they were both capable of playing each side, but I didn't see the point.  "Stick it out," I'd say.  "Change something else," etc.  They said, "No, it works."  I'd ask why.  They didn't really have a reason, they just believed it.  I insisted on a reason.  They said, "Nuts, we're doing it, anyway."  And they did.  And they often won doing it. 

What we came to understand is that when they switched sides of the court, the match started new for them.  They were literally looking at the court from a different perspective, and this, of course, is a key ingredient to any mental toughness success.  As well, the other team had to look at Jeanne and Joan differently, serve differently, anticipate different returns from a changed pair of receivers.  It doesn't always work, of course, but it never hurts to try, though it does depend on competent versatility of both partners.  Not everyone feels comfortable switching return sides. 

And, by the way, Jeanne and Joan, were quite gracious about my stubborn ignorance.  There were a few "We told you so," but not as many as I deserved.

Changing Return Positions

Pressure the serve by crowding the service line.  This is one of my favorite distortions of the court, especially against weak second serves.  Get as close to the service line as you feel comfortable, even up to four feet behind it.  It's purposefully disrespectful, daring the server to go for more on the serve.  At the same time, it makes the court look very different to the server, shortened, almost claustrophobic.  If the server takes the bait and tries to knock you down with the serve, fine.  Who's dictating the terms of the serve?  The receiver.  Interestingly, if you press this gambit on the second serve, it's the first serve that suffers.  Servers start to think that if they don't get their first serves in, the receiver is going to take charge of the point.  There are a lot of double faults caused by such pressure, and the threat is twofold.  First, you get in to net quickly because you've started so close to the line.  You can intimidate the server's partner by driving at her from just the other side of the net.  You can rush the server in her decision to pass or lob if you drive deep cross-court.  And you can dink or drop-shot cross-court, attacking the ball with your feet but taking advantage of your proximity to net to just feather the ball over.  (Note:  Hitting the return early takes a certain skill.  Shorten your backswings, either by chipping the return or taking half a backswing with your drive.)

Trick the server and crowd the service line while she's tossing the ball.  This is another way of distorting the court, by shifting return positions when the server's blind.  Instead of starting the point by crowding the service line, position yourself just inside the baseline as you would to drive a weak second serve.  The threat of the drive will persuade the server to move back behind her baseline for your return.  This can be helpful if your intent is to hit a sharp angle or a drop shot cross-court.  Then, while the server is tossing and can't see you, run in and take the return early.  Other times, don't run in and crowd the line.  Servers won't know where to go after they serve.  If all you hit by crowding the line are drop shots, for example, the server will likely cheat into No Man's Land after she serves, trying to get in a better position to run down your angle.  If you catch her starting to do that, stay back and drive to her feet.  The bottom line is that you don't want to be predictable.  Shift positions.  Bully that pushy second serve.  Threaten it both with sharp angles and deep drives. 

Have the returner's partner crowd the T.  Heck, do more.  Have the returner's partner put one foot inside the receiver's service box.  It drives servers crazy.  Some even think it's illegal, though it's not.  You could prostrate yourself in the service box and the rules are perfectly content with your behavior.  The risk is that if you're hit by the ball, your team loses the point.  So don't stay there.  While the server is tossing, jump back to your normal position, but your distortion of the court when the point begins can get in the server's head.  There's definitely some gamesmanship in this gambit, but if the server is nonplused by your different position as the returner's partner, it's his job to control his concentration, not yours.  And if you bait the server to try to hit you with the serve, you've controlled the server's placement to the T and really helped your partner out in knowing where the serve is coming.

The most effective distortions of the court come with team agreement and comfort.  Both The Wall and "I" formation require team practice to become good.  But even crowding the service line to take returns early is a team gambit.  The returner's partner has to cover the alley if the sharp cross-court doesn't hurt the server, and if the server is dragged wide of the court and the returner's partner closes to net, the server has an avenue of escape with a down-the-line lob.  The point is that doubles is a team game.  If you have a steady partner, practice alternative formations and positions.  It can turn a match around, and the W's feel so good.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip
Doubles Clinic:
Part Five
Defending Against Alternative Positions