Fixes on the Fly
You're up against it. Across the net is a server with a cannon for an arm and a partner who is poaching as if he's got wings on his feet. At the same time, because the tennis gods can be quite cruel, you can't hit a backhand return to save your life. Tactically, technically, you're at a loss, and at no time in your long and storied career has a superhero flown to your rescue. Sweat is blinding your eyes. Your dentist is going to have to pay an emergency, courtside visit to pry open your jaws. But wait, it's not your dentist. It's Tennis Fix-It, in a white cape and with a suspiciously large racquet, come to your rescue!
Following are some common doubles predicaments that can be fixed on the fly, in the heat of a match. Sometimes problems can be addressed by a change in tactics; sometimes technical adjustments are necessary. Sometimes both work together.
Serves at a Qadillion Miles an Hour You're cruising along in your 3.5 matches, and, on a given Sunday, some gal is serving like she's 5.0. It's coming at you harder than you've ever faced, and she's getting most of her first serves in. What a b____! Where's a USTA referee when you need one? No problem. You can fix this on your own. First, go into The Wall, especially on first serve. By removing your partner from the T, it gives you permission to just try and get the ball in play without worrying that she's going to get creamed if your sitter is poached. With your partner safely tucked behind the baseline, you can try and get any kind of return in play, see what happens. With lessened pressure, your returns should get better. But help yourself out even more: give ground. Step behind the baseline as much as you need to in order to get a better, longer look at the serve. Unless the server also has a great slice serve that can land short in the box and swing wide, you won't get punished by retreating behind the baseline. And what about shortening that backswing? Even if you don't own a slice return, try to block the ball back; let the server supply your power. On your backswing, keep your racquet head where you can see it in your peripheral vision. Then, with that abbreviated backswing, step in and meet the serve in front of your body, closer to your volley skills than your ground strokes. You'd be surprised how little you have to do in the way of a stroke when the ball is coming hard. If you can chip the return with underspin, this shortened backswing works even better. But relax. Let the server do the work.
Kick Serves Up Above Your Head First time you dare to accept an invitation to play mixed doubles and you're faced with a guy's serve that kicks up above your head. It's not that you've vertically challenged; it's more like the ball is defying normal gravitational expectations. No worries. There's a fix. First, realize that you can read this serve before it's hit. Kick serves are hit off different tosses than flat or slice serves, ones that go in an arc, back across the server's body (a righty server will toss over his left shoulder, to your right). This toss allows the server to hit up the ball's back, from low left to high right, which is how the spin is imparted that makes the ball kick up. And such tosses often make the server bend backwards more than usual, another giveaway. But when you see the toss arcing, you've got two choices: move in and hit the return early before the bounce gets above you, or step back and let the high bounce come down. Your choice will depend on a number of issues. Taking the ball early requires good timing; if the serve is coming hard and also kicking high, this might be a tough choice. But the other issue is what the server is doing after the serve. If he's coming in, you may be forced to hit early, a chip if the bounce still catches you up in the strike zone, especially off a one-handed backhand. Otherwise, the server will be drooling on top of the net by the time you back up and hit the ball. But if the server is staying back, step back yourself. There's no pressure to take the ball early. And, as with any serve that's difficult to return, don't hesitate to move your partner back to the baseline into The Wall.
A Poacher Stalking the Net We've all seen the guy, like an escapee from Barnum and Bailey's Circus, tall as a sycamore, arms so long his knuckles scrape the court when he walks. Short of tying his shoes together or nailing them to the surface, here are some fixes. First, though I hate to repeat myself, bring your partner back into The Wall. Before you start going for harder returns into smaller and smaller spaces, exactly the pressure the poaches seeks to impose, reduce pressure by keeping your partner safe. See if the poacher can make delicate, putaway volleys into the front of your court, along with the bruising ones he's already bashed at your partner. Then, vary your returns, especially down-the-line. This can seem counter-intuitive; your instinct is probably to hit more sharply cross-court, out of the poacher's reach. But that choice can lead to unforced errors because of the shrinking court you've allowed yourself to target, and it can also make the poacher's partner more offensive because you're giving him better angles with which to work. Instead, lob down-the-line; drive down-the-line toward the alley or drive right at the poacher. All of these gambits should give the poacher pause. If you can get him to start thinking about protecting the space behind him and his alley, he'll slow down or get cautious about moving so often, both of which should relieve your pressure. As with any challenge or duel, it can be fun to pick up the gauntlet.
Libby Lobber You've seen so many lobs during the match that you feel as if you've aged watching them, as if your chiropractor is going to need more than his hands to take the kink out of your neck. We've all been there, bored to death and bent out of shape. If the lob is coming off the return, experiment with your serve. Make sure the receiver is capable off both wings; usually they prefer one stroke over the other to lob. If you find a side where the lobs don't come, it may be worthwhile to serve there, even if it means to a big forehand on the deuce court, for example. It's usually easier for a team to respond to pace than it is to lobs. And don't forget to explore different speeds on your serve. A deft receiver usually wants to take a very small, blocked or cut shot to hit a lob; slowing your serve down may make her hit harder than she wants. However, if the lobs are coming from the server, typically on the third stroke of the point, either hit deeper, or shorter. If you hit deep enough and push the server backward, you may compromise the depth of her lobs and set up yourself or your partner with a juicy overhead. If you can chip short enough, you may drag that baseliner up to net where she can't lob. Otherwise, because lobs are such a complicated threat, you have to employ team tactics and maneuvers. Tips to do this, from both the serving team and returning team points of view, are published here at the website in this Doubles Clinic series. Go to those tips for more info. Consider not playing against lobbers ever again. Let them play amongst themselves. Ah, to dream...
King Kong and Bobby Bumbler Looking across the net, it's like night and day. King Kong, over there, is just dominating the points. If only you could get more balls to his partner, Bobby Bumbler, who's hitting one unforced error after another. Don't fret. Wherever the weaker player is, you can isolate him and, in so doing, keep the ball away from the dominant player. It's easiest, of course, when the weaker player is the server or the receiver. Anytime the weaker player begins the point at the baseline, drives deep cross-court or lobs down-the-line can make him play the points without letting his partner get a shot. Make sure, though, that you keep your focus. Dominant players have a tendency to draw the ball to them like magnets. However, if the weaker player is at net, as the server's or the receiver's partner, he's in a more dominant position, typically one to avoid. But if the choice is hitting to King Kong, it might be better to keep picking on the weak guy, even if he's at net. Go into The Wall. That way, you can drive at the net player or lob him and keep the pressure on without jeopardizing your partner's tender flesh. Lastly, if you must play the ball to King Kong, change things up. Big hitters tempt you to get into a gunfight with them, tennis at the OK Corral. Don't; you've got nothing to prove except that you can win the point. Chip the ball low, float the ball deep. Make King Kong supply his own damn pace. Keep him off his rhythm. The big ape.
Betty Bomber From the Baseline You'd like to be aggressive, come in behind your serve and return, but you've got Betty Bomber across the net, and she's just creaming the ball at your feet when you come in. Plus, she's just a few years out of college tennis, is way too young and athletic, and is perfectly happy to camp at the baseline and smash balls all day long. Gotta hate her. But the thing is, Betty Bomber isn't that different from King Kong, above, except that she's wearing the cutest skirt, tight, showing off her thin everything. Gotta hate that, too. Still, don't fight fire with fire, as they say. If you're serving against her, try pulling the string on occasion, hitting your second serve as your first, see if you can get her timing off and give yourself an extra step to get in toward net. And don't forget serving into the body. Everyone has a navel; plant the ball there, and don't let Betty get extended on her drives. And if you're coming in as the receiver, it's even easier to diffuse Betty's threat. If you're the deuce court receiver, lob, making Betty run behind her partner. See if Betty can generate pace up above her shoulder on her backhand side. Or lob cross-court, right at Betty. She if she can pound a ball that has no speed, up around her eyebrows. Chips work, too. Keep the ball low to the court, below her strike zone. Make her scrape her racquet trying to swing hard. And try planned poaches. Big hitters make everyone frightened to move, but if you don't, your team is too predictable. Go into "I" Formation; make her guess. Doubles doesn't reward pace the way the open spaces of the singles court does. If you're savvy, you can mix-up a big hitter with poaches and slow balls, and win.
Bruises on the Shoe Tops Sometimes it isn't only the big hitters that keep us from serving and volleying, but those wily folks with chips and their uncanny ability to keep the ball low and put a bruise on our shoe tops. Ouch. If an opposing baseliner is slicing and dicing you to death, however, there are some answers. First, vary how far you come in for the first volley. When you serve and volley, the receiver sees your contact and your first couple steps before the ball's on his strings and he sees only that. He assumes you're coming all the way in and will get near the service line for your first volley, but it's only an assumption. If, when you see his head go down to watch his contact, you put the brakes on, you're going to have an easy ground stroke as an approach shot and can comfortably keep moving in. Stopping in no-man's-land will let you take his return that bounced at the service line (where he thought your feet were going to be), and hit waist high. Of course, you have to mix things up. If you stop early all the time, the receiver will pick it up and adjust his target, hitting deep, catching you at your feet. As well, counter the chip return with poaching gambits. Chips are hit softer than topspin drives, and you should be able to pressure such a return with Auto Switch or "I" Formation. (See previous Tips.) At some point, you should be able to make a slicer actually drive the ball.
If you're suffering low balls at your feet when you return and volley, you just aren't hitting deep enough. This is usually because of the aggressive point you're planning to play, storming the net. Settle down, big fella. Aggression doesn't always mean pace. If you hit the return hard as an approach vehicle, instinctively you won't hit deep; it's too risky. A better way to leverage your position at mid-court is with depth, even a moon ball or a lob. Get the ball to the server's feet or up above his shoulder and you'll compromise his downward control. And because the server is the first one exposed to a ball at his feet, returning and volleying is an easier gambit than serve and volley; you should be able to create up balls when you come in. I'm not saying the balls will actually be comfy, but you should be able to keep your shoes from getting bruised.
Horror of Horrors--Unforced Errors It's tennis nightmare numero uno: what if I can't get a ball in play? What if I double-fault the entire game, the entire match? What if I shank every overhead, hit every high volley into the fence? I'm going to stop with these questions; I'm making myself ill just thinking about it. Putting a game back on track takes both individual effort and support from your partner.
Returns and Groundies If your ground strokes are suffering, first be sure that the errors are unforced. If you're being over-matched by a serve, for example, make defensive adjustments, discussed above. But if your errors are coming off serves that you think you should handle or baseline exchanges in your comfort zone, you're breaking down. Take a breath. Remember that in doubles, ground strokes have very little offensive potential; the court's too crowded with people, and there are few holes that can be exploited by pace from the back court. Given that, it matters little of you're not capable of the pace that you usually control. Depth is far more offensively important in terms of setting up your partner to poach or getting your own bad self into net. If you're taking your eyes off the ball and aren't able to follow through, if you're spraying errors, dial it back until you're comfortable. Use whatever pace is available to let you hit a relaxed placement to your opponent's baseline. If you let yourself hit slower, you'll find a pace that you can control. It changes day to day, even over the course of a match. Sometimes, it can be as simple as taking more time to get in after your return; rushing forward too quickly causes your eyes to come up too soon and to abort your follow through. Sometimes, you may need to go into The Wall for a game, get into a team posture that rewards defense, patience and steadiness. But your warm-up should anticipate a bad day. Don't leave your warm-up without discovering your "pace for the day," which speed lets you keep your eyes on the ball and complete your finishes. If you do this, and your ground strokes suddenly go into the toilet during match play, you can slow-down and rescue them. The key is believing that you can play offensive, winning tennis hitting slower than you usually do.
Missed First Serves and Double Faults Given that the serve is self-initiated, fixing breakdowns means knowing your habits and tendencies for problems, and the repairs that work. Miss your first serve, throw up the toss and hope that the gods will be kind on your second serve, and you'll see exactly how cruel fate can be. Smack, and then smack again, into the net. So sad. In-depth discussion of common serve problems are in another Tip, so I won't go into technical comments here. But here are some tactical fixes. Hit your second serve first. Get it in and relieve yourself of facing the anxiety of a double fault, point after point. Tell your partner you don't want to execute planned poaches; it's putting too much pressure on your serve. Avoid the lines; hit right in the middle of the box. That's usually right at the body and an excellent placement, anyway. If you're a regular serve and volleyer, don't come in all the time. Mix it up, especially on second serve. That way you won't have to do as much with your serve when you choose to stay back. Most important, dial back your pace. That can make you feel naked and defensive, I know. But remember, the serve is hit from the baseline, the least offensive position on the doubles court. If you wouldn't reasonably expect to win every point with an ace, it's perfectly plausible that you can play aggressive, winning tennis by hitting serves at 75% instead of 100%, especially since good serving really means changing placements and paces. Be brave. It's more studly to adjust and win than it is to go down in flames.
Net Game If you're shanking overhead, hitting high volleys into the fences or clunking volleys into the bottom of the net, chill. True enough, the speed of net play makes it excitable; in and of itself, those brisk shots can cause tension. But, overwhelmingly, unforced errors at net are the result of over-hitting. Just because you're at net and in a dominant position, perhaps the only player on your team in such a position, doesn't mean you have to hit the cover off the ball every time. Nothing feels finer than knocking down the fences, but if your choice of pace finds you making errors, you're not helping the home team. Remember, even though we're looking for winners up at net, most winning net shots come from placements not pace, including overheads. Make short angles against opposing baseliners--softly for the kill. Hit at the feet of opposing volleyers, as opposed to hitting past them or trying to knock them down. Place your overhead at the feet of the nearest opposing net player, instead of trying to bounce it over the fence. Seriously, dude--chill.
As a kid, Coach Joe suggested that if the gods were kind to me, I'd get to play five times over the course of a lifetime when they granted that I could hit all my strokes well in a given match. The other 99.9999% of the time, it was going to be up to me to discover what I had and didn't have on any day, and figure out how to win. If you do win, it's because you understand this frightening fact: most of the time that we're on the court, something isn't working. Play your strengths; protect your liabilities. If you don't win, it's because your expectations are usually too high, and you can't make fixes on the fly.
c Keith Shein
Doubles Clinic Part Ten:
Practice Almost Makes Perfect--Drills