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Entries in Game Plans (3)


Keep Things Simple For Doubles Success

Not only is playing doubles fun but it is also a great way to ensure that your singles game will improve. However, the improvement will be limited if you and your partner keep exiting the draw sooner than you should. Because of the dimensions and characteristics of the game, doubles require a different approach than singles. It is not so much about beauty or protracted tactics but about aggressivess and subtle strategy. Think: percentages. 

Here are some tips to help you and your partner win more matches (remember: the more doubles matches you win, the better of a player - doubles AND singles - you will become): 

1. OUTSIDE/OUTSIDE; INSIDE/INSIDE ("OO-II"): This generally means that the net player should cover the spot that is hit by his partner. For example, if the partner hits the ball towards the outside of the court (e.g., into the doubles alley), the netman should cover the line. If the partner hits the ball into the center of the court, the netman should move to cover more of the middle. OO-II will reduce the possibility that the opponent will hit the ball "BY" you. In other words, by covering the line (outside) or center (inside), the opponent will be forced to hit a shot that crosses in front of the netman - giving him the opportunity to pick away some volleys. If the netman's partner hits the ball "outside" and the netman covers the middle (inside), the opponent has a clear target down the line where he could hit the passing shot. In the same vein, limit the number of times you cross on your partner's out-wide serve. If, on the deuce side, your partner slices the serve out wide and the netman crosses, the returner will be able to burn a down the line return without an obstacle in the way. If the netman holds his ground on the outwide serve, the returner will be forced to take that serve in the middle of the court - hard to do with a netman in the way who is ready to cherry-pick any timid replies. 

2. THUMP-HIGH; STICK-NET; DROP-LOW: Inexperienced players tend to overcomplicate the volleys. Sometimes, I see players trying to drop-volley balls on top of the net or hammer balls below the net. Then these players get frustrated when their shot selection doesn't pan out. The great doubles players keep things extremely simple. The pace of the game is too quick to experiment with elaborate plays. So, when faced with a volley, remember the following: A) Balls that are "on top" of the net (2 feet or more) should be hammered down - preferably at an angle. Try to drop volley these, and the gravity will make the ball bounce high thereby enabling the opponents to get to the ball. Take away this possibility and just thump the ball out of your opponents' reach; B) Stick deep volleys that are net level (net level - approx. 2 feet). Balls that are net-height are more difficult to be angled away or drop-volleyed. Therefore, stick them deep and look for the opportunity on the next shot. Treat these balls as set-up shots. C) Drop-volley balls that are below the net. If you're close to the net and the opponent's shot has dipped below the net, try to drop volley the ball. A good drop volley will cause the opponent to pop up a response which you and your partner should put away. If you're farther away from the net, stick these volleys deep and transition your way to the net, however, from close up, the angle over the net is far too steep to do anything but try to drop volley the shot. 

3. GIVE YOURSELF A LIMIT: Too many times, players tend to rally cross-court from the baseline without rhyme or reason. Doubles is about percentages. The first team to get to the net usually wins the point. Therefore, if you're a singles player who uses the same strategy (consistency) in doubles force yourself to become more aggressive; take some chances. Tell yourself (and your partner) that on the 3rd (or 4th, or 5th...) shot you're coming in "come hell or high water". This mentality will assist you in becoming a more proactive doubles player. If you KNOW that you have to be in on the 4th shot, your 1st, 2nd and 3rd shots will be more and more aggressive. In other words, instead of passively waiting for something to happen, you will start making things happen. In the beginning, you will struggle with this mentality...it's something new. You certainly wouldn't come in off some of these shots in singles. However, the psychological implications of doubles (quciker pace; your partner assisting you) as well as the court characteristics make it very attractive to come in even on balls that would be considered high-risk in singles. Once you become proficient at coming in off a variety of balls, covering the ground and making shoelace level pick-ups, your singles game will improve along with your doubles game.

4. KEEP THE NET-PERSON HONEST: Once a game (at least), you and your partner should decide to take a return down the line towards the net person. Before the game starts, talk to your partner and decide which one of you will - even if the opening isn't really there - take the return right towards the net-persons head. Sow the seeds of doubt by making the net person volley even if she's not looking to volley on that particular play. Keep her honest and send the message that you're not afraid to go down the line. By picking a target in advance, you will hit a much more solid return than you would had you tried to change direction after the net-person signals that she's moving. Chances are that a good down the line return will cause the net player to miss eliciting "I'm sorry" or "my bad" apologies. Do this enough times, and it's likely that the player will retreat to her shell not wanting to touch any more volleys out of fear of letting down her partner. This is exactly what you want: one player (preferably both) to completely disengage from the game. When your opponents are split by doubt and communication breaks down, your chances of success in doubles will improve dramatically.


4 Reminders: Below The Knees and Above The Shoulders

Unless you possess overwhelming power, then here are 4 simple reminders to help you increase your odds of winning.  

1) Make your opponent run.  This is why every great player is a master of the figure-8 drill.  Can you effectively control the ball accurately into the corners while you are moving, hitting over the high part of the net, and changing the direction of the ball?  Everyone talks about hitting great crosscourts (nothing wrong with that), but I challenge you to get really good at hitting down-the-lines and not missing!  Hit down-the-lines in a way that do not hurt you on the next ball- below their knees or above their shoulders.  The moment a coach says practice down-the-lines, the player swings for the fences.  This is not good tennis and will certainly guarantee you losing 1 and 1.  Don't want to be labeled a pusher, well you will be labeled a bonafide loser.  What the coach really means is to find a ball you can effectively hit 10 out of 10 times.  Yes 10 out of 10 is manageable and is what is expected of a great player.  

2) Make your opponent hit balls over the shoulder.  Work on their head.  See if they can mentally handle balls over the shoulder (you must be willing to do your part), point after point.  Be ready to defend and know that winners will be hit against you.  It's okay, that goes with the territory. Play the odds and frustrate them as the match unfolds.  You must not give your opponent any comfortable shots to hit (if you can help it).  You must send a message that this is your identity and you are willing to make them hit 24 winners to win the set. If they win the set, congratulate them and make them work just as hard in the 2nd.  Make life miserable for them, in fact, make them cry!  You will be surprised how many wimps and Momma's Boys there are in the tennis world (Rafa made a living on this!).  "Mommy, mommy!"  Make them cry.

3) Make your opponent hit balls below the knees.  Get really good at slicing.  Slices that bounce above the knees are not slices, so get back on the practice court and learn how to slice.  I don't care what anyone says, its very hard to hit winners against a good slice (ala Stevie Johnson, Federer, Schiavone, Feliciana Lopez).  The ball is below the level of the net and it defies physics to be able to torque a ball hard enough up and over the net to hit a winner.  Your opponent labors trying to generate enough pace to create an opening.  The slice has been known to drive some supposed "tough cookies" mad.  Federer chucked his racquet across the court against Santoro.  Djokovic should have lost the 1st set to Dolgopolov and was clearly puzzled/annoyed/pissed at the same time.  

4) Aim for the middle.  If all else fails, take all the pace off the ball and hit it up the middle.  Hit it high middle, low middle.  So many players can't volley, so make them beat you with a volley.  I would argue your pass is better than their volley.  Odds are your opponent has hit 1 volley for every 50 groundstrokes (sounds extreme, but I'm right).  Middle gives your opponent no angle and no easy way to run you off the court (if you hit it high or low or deep).  Smoke a cigar in-between points as the fume comes out of their ears.  Throw in a defensive moon lob for good measure to accelerate the crying process.  Be ready to run!  But next time you are on the practice courts, do figure eights to learn how to hit closer to the lines while on the move, so you can expand your game.   




Analyzing Your Opponent


Tennis has been compared to life, war, boxing, martial arts and a number of other human endeavors. Heck, I've even compared it to ballet through a minefield with a tennis racket in hand (yes, I have an active imagination). But the analogy that works best is probably war. Sure, nobody dies or gets injured but all the elements are there: weapons, strategy, tactics, elements, planning and preparation (both physical and mental). However, it's the planning aspect that really correlates the two activities. In order to devise a proper strategy (as well as tactics to implement the strategy) you must have a complete understanding of your opponent: stroke by stroke; attribute by attribute; characteristic by characteristic. Before doing battle, you must know your opponent better than he knows himself.

Often times, the only feedback is that the opponent is a righty and has a big forehand. That's a start. In the grand scheme of things, however, it's like saying that he's "half-white and good at square-dancing". It scratches the surface but doesn't quite get into the substance of the matter. Before preparing for a tough match - preferably the night before - try to approach the match as a general would approach a battle. Start by asking some questions about the opponent so that you have a better understanding of what's to come. Remember, this is only an exercise; you will not be right immediately or all the time. In many ways, breaking down your opponent is like appraising the value of a house: there are a number of factors to consider but in the end it's more art than science. However, by continuing to continuing to engage in this process you will become more proficient at it. At some point, you will face a 6'3" lefty from Perth, Australia (with a two-handed backhand) and you will identify him more by strategy than by name. Again, the underlying theory is that a BAD PLAN IS BETTER THAN NO PLAN AT ALL. A bad plan can be changed (particularly if you have back-up plans). If you have no plan, then it's harder to get one going on the fly (especially if you're down 2-3 breaks). So here are some questions to help you along the way. These are NOT the only questions and you have to formulate your own to assist you through this process.

1. Is the opponent a righty or a lefty? We've covered this before, but this a good starting point as it will assist you in visualizing his serves and weapons as well as your own serves and weapons.

2. Does he have a two-handed backhand or one? This can have various consequences based on your own attributes but it may assist you in figuring out whether to hit the ball high (usually against a one-hander) or low; make him pass you on the run (easier for one-handers than two-handers); where you serve (generally, one-handers hold a backhand grip on the returns); etc.

3. Is your opponent tall or short? Tall people like high balls and, generally, move better up and back than side to side. Short people usually like lower balls and are better moving side to side than up and back. If you hit a high ball, will it elicit a short response (around the service line) that you can thump? 

4. Is he fast or slow? That is, how good does he cover medium distances around the court (e.g. baseline to net)? Slow people are like walls - they hate to move and love pace directed to them. If you make the opponent move will he (a) miss, (b) get tired and/or (c) hit short? If so, you can figure out a game-plan. 

5. Is he quick? Unlike #4, above, this deals with how well the opponent adjusts to the ball and covers small distances. Someone can be fast but not quick. If they're not quick, wrong-footing them or hard body-shots sometimes work as they will not be able to change direction as well or adjust to your shots.

5. Is he strong or weak? That is, can he generate his own pace or does he feed off someone else's pace? Make a weak player generate his own pace. A strong player should be forced to generate pace from the most awkward positions (high/low/jam/slice).

6. What type of player is he? Serve and volleyer; baseliner; pusher; touch-player; all-around? What does he like to do; what does he not like to do? Who coaches him and do you know the coach? This may be a more advanced concept but there are certain "schools of tennis" throughout the world. Some produce big forehands; others have more of a serve and volley approach; some produced fighters; etc. If you know the "school" you will be in a better position to develop a counter-strategy. Furthermore, "indoor" players sometimes hit the ball flat and "without dimensions" (i.e. deep). Indoors is not as conducive to angles (maybe because the air is thinner) and, usually, favors bigger-flatter hitters (who, incidentally, are not accustomed to long rallies or sharp angles). If he's a high-altitude player, there's a chance that he might not hit the ball as hard when playing at sea level (since, at high altitudes, the ball tends to fly). However, high altitude players normally have incredible serves and strong lungs so it's important to be prepared for big serves and long points.

7. Who are the players that have beaten him? You want to defeat this opponent, correct?! Well, often times you're going to step outside of your own comfort zone and emulate another player. It doesn't have to be Roger or Rafa; it can be Johnny from down the street. What did he do to win.

8. What are his weapons and when does he like to use them? How does he use them? It's not enough to say that he has a big forehand. You have to know FROM where and TO where so that you can either stay away from it or know where to go if he manages to get a shot where he wants it. So, for example, in the first diagram below, which "X" represents his "kill shot(s)" and which question mark represents his preferred target(s)? In the second picture, from which height does he like to hit the ball: 2 feet off the ground (white line); 4 feet (purple); 5+ feet (red)? Not every player can hit the best shot from all positions so it's important to break it down three-dimensionally so that you can figure out exactly the spot to keep it away from.



9. Where does he like to serve under pressure? How good is his out wide serve? Kick-serve? Does he get nervous when you "crowd the T"? Does he have specific serving patterns (e.g., does he always starts the game with either flat "down the T" or a slice out wide)? If you chip and charge, does he start to get shaky on his passing shots?

10. How is is head? Is he a fighter? Is he smart? Does his concentration lapse? Is he better when he's in the lead than when he's behind? Can you "get in his dish" if you show some "game" (i.e. feistiness) or would it better if you were an iceberg? Is he patient or does he try to rush off the court?

11. Does she have obvious weaknesses and how does he defend them? Someone with a glaring backhand weakness will often plant herself in the backhand corner. Hitting MORE shots to the backhand won't get her out of that spot. You have to break some eggs and hit some shots to the forehand AND THEN pick on the backhand (like a dried booger).

12. If the opponent is an attacking player, is he just as good when he's BROUGHT in (e.g. through a drop shot or short, low-lying slice)? Some players will love to attack but only like to come in on their own terms. If you take the initiative and bring them in once in a while, they will be coming in unprepared. Sometimes, it's best to also try "taking the net away from them" by beating them to the net. For example, if you're first in, your opponent will be forced to play a defensive role - something she might not be accustomed of doing.

13. How is her overhead and backhand volley? These are two shots with which most young players struggle. It takes a great deal of pressure off you if you know that your opponent can't hit overheads to save his life or "duffs" the backhand volley short. If that's the case, when your opponent makes it to the net, belt the passing shot for the backhand and bolt in.

14. How does your opponent handle losing the first set? Does she usually "bag it" or is she a fighter. If so, maybe it's important to be fired up early and steal the first set away from her (obviously, "steal" DOESN'T mean cheat). Figure out the best way to "fire on all pistons" from the get-go. Don't rely on winning the second and third set. Scratch, fight and crawl for the first one.

15. How are the opponent's returns? Does she run around the backhand a lot? Maybe preparing for a slice serve to "keep her honest" would be a good play. Also, someone who routinely punishes the second serve return should not see many second serves to begin with (i.e., MAKE YOUR FIRST SERVE). Does he have specific targets that he likes to hit with the return? If so, cover them. Kids are NOT THAT SMART. They will, generally, do things over and over (even until they lose) without realizing that they're getting burned. All you have to do is figure out their patterns. Remember, if any of your opponents were actually good they'd BE ON T.V.

16. Does he have endurance (is he fit or fat)? Is he a fighter; could you "take him down" if you were 1-on-1 in a cage match with him? How many matches did he play the day before? Is he far away from home and homesick (i.e., looking for a "way to the airport")?


As you progress through the sport, you will, hopefully, identify further issues and trouble spots. By being a "thinking player" you will often find yourself beating players who are far superior on paper. It all boils down to figuring out your opponents' likes/dislikes and tailoring around it. Will these strategies work for everyone? Of course, although many "pure hitters" will continue to do things without realizing whether they are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Many will stumble onto the correct strategy over and over (until wily opponents figure out the best way to take them out of their game).

As a player, it is important to be confident but to FORGET ABOUT CONFIDENCE when you're faced with a tough match. Coldly analyze the facts and figure out how you would beat the opponent on your WORST day. Or, alternatively, figure out how to beat your opponent if you believe that, between the two of you, he is the best ball-striker. Don't assume that the chips will fall in your favor this time (or every time). Perhaps it helps to assume that things will NOT go your way. NOW HOW DO YOU WIN?! When you know that you can (and will) win on your worst day - THAT's true confidence (the rest is cockiness that masks uncertainty).