Doubles Clinic
Part Two:
Team Poaching To Stop the !#%&)@ Lob!

Team tennis in high school or college is way different than at clubs.  At clubs, every member pays the same dues and feels that he's got an equal right to play on the team.  In high school and college, there are only a certain number of spots on the team, reserved for the best players, and the rest get to sit on the bench.  As a freshman in high school, the guy who stood between me and the last varsity spot was a kid named Mitch Bradley.  If you looked up the word "nerd" in Webster's, there was a picture of Mitch.  It'd be 110 degrees on the court, Mitch would have the top button of his shirt buttoned.  If the shirts came with pockets, Mitch would have slipped in one of those pocket protectors and filled it with pens.  In case he had to work on his calculus homework during the point.  Mitch had time to do this because all Mitch did was lob.  Sky high, every damn shot.  Even his serve was a kind of lob.  Everyone dreaded playing him.  You'd be on the court for hours.  He never missed.  Let's just say that I carry scars from the lob to this day.  I know the power of the shot, and I teach it.  But I've also dedicated a good deal of my teaching to beating the lob.

In doubles, at the club level, C players lob because it's safe.  They don't want to risk an unforced error with a drive.  Plus, it causes confusion if you lob over the opposing net person's head.  Plus, it bores people to death.  If you're a good enough lobber, it's not uncommon to see the opposing team yawn and fall asleep at their baseline where you've made them retreat.  B players, happy to have left that kind of tennis, often forget about the lob.  In the A's, the lob comes back with a fury.  Without it, everyone has their noses on the net.  But when I watch recreational doubles, the lob generally causes the same response at every level:  one-up/one-back tennis.  OMG!  So wrong!

Yeah, But If I Come In, My Partner's Going To Get Lobbed

Good!  Think about it:  a high, slow, fat, juicy ball.  What could be better?  If the threat of the lob causes one or both of players to stay back, this relatively weak shot has caused untold damage to the offensive potential of your team.  If the server, for example, stays back, she can cover the lob, to be sure, but she's covering the entire width of the baseline, including the alleys, and watching her run side-to-side, the lobber is just going to keep lobbing.  As well,  by staying back, the server has relegated herself to a defensive position on the court.  From her baseline, she can't attack the vulnerable space in front of the lobber, as she could if she came to net.

And what if the server's partner backs up to her service line to stop the lob?  That move makes me apoplectic.  Because, though the push backward will certainly stop the lob, it also completely negates the poach.  That means that when the point begins, the most offensively situated player on the court, the server's partner, has been completely neutralized as a threat.  By a lob!  As well, what about the space in the middle of the court?  Now that the server's partner is cowering at her service line, the entire gut of the court is open for the drive.  Bad, bad, bad.

So let's talk about some solutions from the serving team's point of view.

Serve and Volley Against the Lob?

Bingo.  The only play that stops the lob is if both players are willing to reply from the front part of their court.  As the server, I would always trade moving behind my partner and taking the lob on the fly, even high on my backhand volley, over taking a low, cross-court return at my feet.  I mean, all day long.  I stop the lob by taking it on the fly and moving in.  If I'm comfortable with this, why would a receiver continue to lob?  Against my serve and volley, he'd be smarter to drive or chip the ball at my feet rather than offer me a ball I can hit shoulder high.  And by coming forward, I allow my partner to stay forward and threaten the poach.  I've got his back, covering the court behind him.  I repeat, and I shout this from the top of the fences:  the only tactic that stops the lob is serve and volley.

Note:  This means my partner and I have to have good communication.  My partner has to let me know very quickly whether he can or can't reach the lob, for it's preferable that he takes it with his overhead rather than I take it with a high backhand volley.  If he takes too long to decide, I'll get stalled in my movement behind him, and he'll get stalled in crossing over to take my side of the court.  Established partnerships get a sense of this, what each player can or can't retrieve.  It can be a problem with less established partnerships, and may require a planned poach.  Hold on, I'm getting to that.

Why Can't I Just Come In After My Serve?

Sorry, there's no guarantee of that.  First, if the lobber is good enough, you're going to get pinned at your baseline, running side-to-side.  You may get in, but only if you're carried on a stretcher.  Second, remember that moving in to net always comes with the risk of getting caught at mid-court by a low ball at your feet.  The closer you get to net, the less risk you take.  But if you come in arbitrarily, say off a deep lob from your opponent, beginning your progress from behind your baseline, you'll be lucky to get within a yard of your service line.  Ouch.  If you stay back after your serve, in effect you have to wait for an invitation to come in, and that means a short ball on your side.  Fat chance of that happening against a good lobber.

What If The Lobs Are So Good, I Can't Reach Them On The Fly?

That brings us to the point.  If, as the server, on an improvised basis, you can't reach the returner's lobs on the fly, or you can't regularly get there in a position to hit a good shot, your team should consider a tandem maneuver that will get both players into position more quickly:  a team poach.  Following are three gambits that can be used to stop the lob.  All have in common getting each member of the doubles team to move directly and quickly into position; each has an assigned role and direction.  It takes the guesswork away as to who's going to take lob or the drive, and it has the added, important benefit of making the poach a team commitment, so that if it fails, no one player shoulders the responsibility for the loss of the point.  I'll explain each gambit and why they have to be used in combination.

Bait and Trap

Bait and Trap is not to be confused with bait and switch, an illegal con, which will get you arrested.  Bait and Trap is used exclusively to defeat lobbing.  If youíre not being threatened with lobs, you would never use this gambit.

The bait is the serverís partner staying in her normal position, tight to net.  (As opposed to the server's partner moving back to the service line to diffuse the threat of the lob.)   This tempts the receiver, especially the deuce court receiver, to try and put the ball over her head.  But right when the receiver is about to hit the ball (when her eyes lower to see contact), the serverís partner backpedals to the service line.  She poaches backwards.  If the ball is lobbed to her, she should try and direct her overhead to the returnerís partner who, if hit, will quickly yell, "Myrtle, stop lobbing!"

The server must serve and volley.  If the returner sees that the server is staying back, it won't stop the lob.  She'll note the backward poach of the server's partner and stop lobbing down-the-line, but now she'll lob or drive deep cross-court and do just as much damage.  She'll avoid the backward poach and keep the server pinned at the baseline, keeping the serving team in a one-up/one-back position.  If rather, bold and intrepid girl that the server is, she serves and volleys, both she and her partner will be camped on the service line, ready to cream the lob with an overhead.  Yea!

The weakness of Bait and Trap is that the serverís partner is moving backward away from net.  Her feet are more exposed, as is the alley and the middle of the court.  A good receiver, if constantly threatened with Bait and Trap, will stop lobbing but start driving down the line.  Thatís why Bait and Trap has to be mixed in with the next gambit, Auto Switch

Auto Switch

Auto Switch can be used to help diffuse a lob threat or simply as a means to get the serverís partner poaching more regularly to pick off cross-court drives.

In Auto Switch, the serverís partner poaches laterally across the net while the server crosses behind him to defend the side of the court his partner has just vacated.  The team, then, makes an X in their movement.  Auto Switch is particularly useful when the receiver is good at both sharp cross-court returns as well as lobs down-the-line.  The serverís partner moves to cut off the drives cross-court; the server moves to cut off the lob down-the-line.  Both players poach at the same time, not cutting toward their destinations until the receiverís eyes go down to watch her contact.  Because both players are poaching, there is less hesitation; each player gets going a step earlier than she would if the gambit wasnít planned.  And each player can leave her side of the court knowing that her partner will do her best to cover it.

The server must serve and volley.  If he doesnít, the receiver will simply lob down-the-line or cross-court and keep him pinned at the baseline, avoiding the poaching player at net.  If, however, bold and intrepid guy that he is, the server comes in, the usual down-the-line lob is covered by him.  But, and this is important, in Auto Switch, it's crucial that the server take his first few steps to net straight ahead, as if he were coming in to his usual position.  If the server cuts too quickly cross-court, before the receiverís eyes go down, his premature movement will give away the poach.  Server and serverís partner both poach at the same time, when the receiver's eyes go down to look at contact.

The weakness of Auto Switch is its vulnerability to the cross-court lob.  If this is the only gambit that you use, a savvy receiver will see the X of the movement, the server's partner moving across the net toward the server's court, and the server cutting across toward his partner's side.  What's open?  The spot the server just left.  A cross-court lob gets the ball over the head of the server's partner at net, and behind the server who's moving to the other side.   Thatís why a good serving team mixes up Auto Switch and Bait and Trap.

How do you choose which one to use?  (Assuming right-handed play.)  Bait and Trap is preferred on the deuce court.  It gets an overhead to reply to the lob rather than the serverís high backhand volley.  Auto Switch is preferred on the ad court.  Even A level ad court players often canít drive backhands down-the-line, so the return comes predictably cross-court, in the direction of the poaching server's partner.  As well, ad court receivers donít usually lob, and if she does, it will be to the serverís forehand and overhead side as she moves in toward her partner's court to serve and volley.  But you have to be willing to mix it up.  Any poaching gambit should cause the receiver to guess at the movement.  Unpredictability is a huge key to poaching success; nothing else makes the returner more uncomfortable.

"I" FORMATION

"I" Formation is used to get the serverís partner more involved in poaching and to diffuse the lob.  It is the riskiest of the poaching gambits because both server and her partner are aligned in the exact middle of the court with both sides vulnerable to the pass.  However, it has the real benefit of getting each player in their assigned position more quickly than any other gambit.  By starting in the middle of the court, each player has to move less to get into position.  As well, the serverís presence at the center mark makes it almost a given that she can run down a lob to either side and take it on the fly.  And, because the receiver sees the formation in advance of her return and canít know where the up player is going to move, "I" Formation typically causes the most discomfort for the receiver.

In "I" Formation, the server and her partner agree before the serve where each will go. The serverís partner starts in a crouch just inside the T, either straddling the center service line or slightly off to one side of it, away from the box to which the server is aiming.  This off-center position can give the server a better view of the box, but some server's don't mind if her partner straddles the center service line.  The server takes a position at the center mark.  Both server and server's partner poach at the same time, when the receiverís eyes go down for contact.  If the serverís partner is going away from the returner, the server will go toward the returner, making an X in their movement, or vice versa.  But the server must serve and volley.  Otherwise, a lob toward the serverís backhand will avoid both the poach of the serverís partner and the serverís overhead, and keep the server pinned at the baseline in a one-up/one-back formation.  The server must make her first steps straight up the middle of the court, toward her partnerís back; both cut at the same time, when the receiver's eyes go down for contact.

The weakness of "I" Formation is the drive down the alley and the drive up the middle.  To protect the edges of the court, the server must make good placements to the T.  However, the serverís position at the center mark makes this placement easier.  Smart receivers will also return right toward the net strap, hoping to go behind both players as the make their X.  Smart servers can call a ďstayĒ to answer this, agreeing where the up player will go, but having her delay her movement for one stroke, until after the return.  If the receiver hits toward the middle, then, the up player is right there.

How do you choose where to go?  We donít hit many down-the-line returns in doubles, so I like to test that first.  That means the up player should move away from the returner, cutting off her usual cross-court drive.  This can be especially deadly against ad-court receivers who canít hit backhands down-the-line.  Here, the server can break the rule and serve out wide to the ad court, testing this down-the-line ability.  But you have to mix it up.  Again, the whole idea is to be less predictable and cause fear and trembling in the receiver.  Keep him guessing.

Practice, practice, practice.  It's dicey bringing out a planned poaching formation during a match if you haven't practiced.  Players feel safer playing from the regular formation even if it means getting lobbed to death and playing one-up/one-back doubles.  Drag your partner to a practice match.  Poach as much as you can, even if it means getting killed at first.  It's practice! You'll get better at poaching.  You'll come to know what works for your team and what doesn't  You'll play more confidently as a team.  You'll feel like a team. 

Aggressive net play should always stop and trump the lob.  That's why you don't see the shot much in professional doubles.  But the other reason, of course, that the lob isn't a regular professional shot is that it risks the overhead, and pros move backwards like the super heroes from Planet Tennis that they are.  Recreational players don't.  That means getting better at backward movement and the overhead is essential to beating the lob.  But it also means that recreational doubles players need to learn staggered formations up at net to guard against those deadliest of baseliners, the one who drive and lob.  That's the subject of the next tip.

 c Keith Shein

Doubles Clinic
Part Three:
Staggered Formations to Stop The @#%&! Lob