Doubles Clinic
Part Three:
Tandem Formations to Stop the [email protected]#%&) Lob

Here a lob, there a lob, everywhere a damn lob!  Take a seat at any club and watch some doubles.  At every level of play, you'll see the poor sky perforated with these high, arcing shots, while the poor players down below just about faint with boredom.  Unless, of course, the player is the proud author of that sky ball, Ms. Libby Lobber, who is sauntering toward net behind her shot until she perches on the service line.  Libby's got a smile going.  She's watching her opponent climb the fence to retrieve that lob, only to put one up of her own.  Which is why Libby's smiling, already with her racquet behind her shoulder, waiting to crash an overhead.

In the previous tennis tip, we talked about poaching gambits from the serving team's point of view to stop the lob off the return.  Our focus here is from the receiving team's point of view.  That's right, we're talking about that lob that comes on the third stroke of the point:  serve, cross-court return back to the server, and then up it goes, right over the returner's partner's head, who's just recently, sadly, closed to net.  Let's put a stop to this once and for all!

A Little Heresy Can Be a Good Thing

Hold on to your hats, but I'm going to suggest something that goes against just about everything you've been taught as the returner's partner.  The standard coaching is that the receiver's partner positions himself at the T when the point begins.  No problem.  This helps protect the returning team from a poach by the server's partner off the return.  By standing at the T, the returner's partner, bold man that he is, helps guard the middle of the court with his very own tender body.  But--and here's where the trouble comes--if the receiver gets the ball by the server's partner on the return, the returner's partner is supposed to charge directly toward net to see if he can't pick off a poach from the server who has stayed back.  Good thinking, except the server has stayed back for a wily reason.  He's waiting for that charge to net, and then he sends up a lob down-the-line right over the returner's partner's head.  Bad, bad, bad.  Now the returning team is scrambling in lob recovery, chased back to the baseline, sending up a defensive lob to a pair of panting brutes hanging out at the service line, just waiting for an overhead.  And it's all because the returner's partner closed like he was supposed to.

Let's say the returner's partner doesn't close.  Savvy guy that he is, the returner's partner sees that the server has stayed at the baseline and so he declines to close, staying instead at the service line.  His partner, the receiver, comes in behind his return, and he, too, camps at the service line.  Now, on that third stroke, when the server wants to put up that lob, no one's close enough to net to lob over.  Now, it's the receiving team that's drooling at the service line, ready for an overhead, some old fashioned, smashing fun.  Take away the lob by the server on the third stroke of the point and you'll go a long way to stopping the lob altogether. 

(Note:  If the server is Big Bob From the Baseline, who thinks lobbing is morally beneath him and all he wants to do is drive, drive, drive, then the returner's partner would close as soon as his partner's return has passed the server's partner.  It's the server who wants to lob that we're concerned with.  We don't want to give him the chance on the third stroke.)

Close and Fade

What happens if the server doesn't lob on the third stroke?  Now the receiving team has a choice to make.  If both stay camped at the service line, their tandem formation will stop the lob, but both players will have their feet exposed to the drive.  No good.  Similarly, if both players close toward net, their tandem formation will stop the drive, but their back court will be open to the lob, doubles sideline to sideline.  Also no good.  Instead, the players need to stagger their formation, one on the service line and one close into net.  The player who does not close toward net will preclude a lob over her head, but will have to be responsible if a lob goes up over her partner.  And, similarly, the player who closes to net will have her feet protected against the low drives, but will have to try and poach any balls heading toward her partner's exposed feet at the service line.

Who closes toward net and who stays at the service line?  I like the receiver's partner to stay at the service line and become what I call The Fader.  She's straight ahead of the server at the opposing baseline and because of that has the highest part of the net to help guard her feet.  As well, if the server can be baited to drive down-the-line at The Fader, the server has violated the First Commandment of Doubles:  Thou Shall Not Hit Straight Ahead to the Opposing Net Person.  The Fader can take that drive from the server and hit a winning cross-court volley between the serving team, ahead of the server and behind her partner.

I like the receiver to continue to close toward net after her first volley and become what I call The Closer.  Because she's cross-court of the server, looking over the lowest part of the net, The Closer is most vulnerable to low drives.  But closing in toward net, she's better able to defend against low drives, and her proximity to net puts her in a great position to hit a winning, short cross-court volley, ahead of the server.  However, The Closer moves to a rather unusual position, closer to the net strap than would be usual if both players were up together (not staggered).  If the server drives up the middle toward The Fader, The Closer needs to protect her partner's feet and pick that ball off.  Her position toward the net strap allows her do that.  And her proximity to the net, even shifted toward the net strap, will not expose her to a cross-court pass in her alley. 

So, in Close and Fade, we have a division of labor:  one player positioned to account for the lob at the service line, one player positioned to account for the drive, close to net.  The first virtue of this staggered formation is that at least one player gets in tight to net, as opposed to the usual team problem in facing the lob, where both are hesitant to come in.  Instead, the players are playing as a team, with one in a commanding net position.  The second virtue is that both players have an assignment.  The Closer looks to pick off all the drives.  She's free to poach, move in, be aggressive.  The Fader, by her position at the service line, will preclude a down-the-line lob, usual for the server.  But The Fader has to guard her partner's back against the possibility of a cross-court lob, which The Closer is vulnerable to.  If the cross-court lob gets over The Closer's head, The Fader should be able to run it down on the fly, given that she's already half-way back in the court.  If she does, the lob hasn't moved either player on the receiving team off the net, a very good thing.

So Where's the Catch?

Close and Fade ain't perfect.  No staggered formation is.  You'd never see the pros do this, but of course, those folks from Planet Tennis move backward a tad more quickly than us folks from Planet Earth.  The pros don't fear the lob like we do.  And because Close and Fade opens the court to a cross-court lob, many coaches don't trust this formation, fearing that the lob is moving too far on an angle away from The Fader as she crosses behind her partner.  It's a risk, to be sure.  But no greater than keeping the returner on the service line while her partner closes in.  That formation, which coach Pat Blaskower called Terminator, opens the door to the third stroke lob down-the-line and keeps the receiver strung out on the service line, more exposed to low drives.  Further, my experience is that I can train most teams to run down on the fly the cross-court lobs that threaten Close and Fade, and even athletes that aren't particularly speedy can cover all cross-court lobs except those than land in the last four feet of the alley behind The Closer.  That's pretty darn good, surrendering only the last four feet of one alley to the lob.  From the receiving team's point of view, I believe that Close and Fade is a superior formation than Terminator.

What about from the serving point of view?  Here, I've been won over by Coach Blaskower's formation.  If the server is serving and volleying against a returner that stays back, the server's partner begins the point in the usual closed to net position, threatening the poach.  If the returner lobs off the return, the server can move behind her partner and pick it off.  If the returner drives cross-court, however, I think it makes more sense to have the server arrest her progress at the service line, leaving her partner tight to net.  The alternative would be to have the server's partner shuffle back to the service line once she hears the server play the volley at mid-court behind her, and have the server continue toward net.  That shift of positions can be confusing, and my students usually prefer not to make it.

Variations on The Theme

 What happens if The Fader has to move behind The Closer to defend the cross-court lob?  First, in regard to The Closer.  As in all cases where the ball gets over your head, you've got to cross over to your partner's side but not blindly.  Look over the shoulder toward your alley to see your partner.  Unless you see where she's going to hit the ball, you won't know how far over to cross.  As well, you need to see if she's taking the ball on the fly or is forced to let it bounce.  If she's taking it on the fly, you get to stay up at net.  However, if she's turned her back and is running to the baseline to play the lob on the bounce, you've got to run back with her.  You can almost bet that she'll have to put up a defensive lob in reply.  Stay at the service line and you're going to get creamed by an overhead.  Ouch. 

Assuming Close and Fade has worked, however, and The Fader tracks down the lob on the fly, the server likely won't follow her lob in and risk an overhead or a high volley to her feet.  So, as the returning team switches sides of the court, they also switch roles.  The Closer will shift to her partner's side and stay at net but at the service line.  Given the team's switch of positions, The Closer is now straight ahead of the server at the baseline, which now makes her The Fader.  And the player that was The Fader, after she's tracked down the lob on the fly, returns the volley cross-court back to the server at the baseline, and now becomes The Closer, tight to net.

What happens if, off the return, the server puts up a weak ball?  Can The Fader run in and poach it?  Yes, yes, yes!   The Fader isn't stuck on the service line if he has a better play on the ball than his partner, the returner, coming in.  However, if The Fader moves in to poach and doesn't put the ball away, the staggered formation changes to Terminator.  The returner's partner would stay tight to net and his partner would have to arrest his progress at the service line.  Assuming the server has stayed back, likely after sending up a weak shot, the returning team still has to divide the threat of the lob and the drive, one player tight to net to take the drives, one player at the service line to guard against the lob.

Insurrection!  Improvising between the two tandem formations.  I was teaching Close and Fade to an A-level, particularly willful, opinionated, smart-mouthed, wonderful group of women.  They took over the clinic and taught the coach a few things.  Impatient with having to stay at the service line as The Fader (not uncommon when first learning this gambit), they wanted the freedom to move in if they thought the server was going to drive off their partner's return.  That would mean that the team had to be ready to improvise between the two staggered formations, but it worked.  What they figured out was that The Fader shouldn't move in if the returner hit a deep or in any way troublesome ball that looked like it would force the server to lob.  Closing then would only provide an avenue of escape to the compromised server, and ruin a great return.  But if the return was short and the returner's partner could read that the server was going to drive, she closed to try and poach it.  If she wasn't able to poach, she stayed tight to net and the returner had to stop at the service line, in Terminator formation.  However, if it looked like the server was forced to lob the return, they played Close and Fade, the returner's partner holding at the service line (as The Fader), the returner moving in and continuing all the way in (as The Closer) if the rally got past the fourth shot.  It all worked great because these players were able to combine their skills of reading the opponent with improvised team work, each player knowing where she should be in a staggered, tandem formation.  If that combination of skills are honed, any combination of the two gambits can work.    

More than anything else, lobs threaten aggressive play, keeping players off the net.  If the players aren't playing as a team, both players become hesitant to come in, each fearful of the lob, each taking individual responsibility for covering it.  But if you have a team plan which involves a staggered formation, one at the service line, one up at net, you can beat the lob.  In fact, you can pound it.  So, so sweet.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip:
Doubles Clinic
Part Four:
Distorting the Court






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