"Hit em' where they ain't." These words were the first most of us heard when we were
learning tennis strategy. Translation: hit the tennis ball where your opponent is not standing so that he or she will not be able to return it and you will win the point.
Being a former English major, I'll correct the grammar and say that the advice to "hit them where they are not" is relatively sound advice when playing singles, but for those who play doubles on a regular basis, the theory often loses more points than it wins.
As I said in my previous columns on "Mortal Tennis," the singles court is twenty-seven feet wide from sideline to sideline and must be covered by one player. So yes, when playing singles it is a realistic goal to try to maneuver your opponent to one side in order to open up the other so that you can put the ball away.
In doubles, however, there are now two players covering the court. Yes, the court is widened by nine feet due to the doubles alleys, making it 36 feet wide, but the fact is each player only has to cover 18 feet of court. This makes the amount of "open" space relatively limited.
Plus, if you're playing against a team that knows what they're doing, they'll be following the ball, moving side to side and leaving you very little open space to "hit them where they're not."
Let's imagine that you are at the baseline on the forehand side and Bill and Sam are positioned at the net. The ball has come wide to your forehand and you are preparing to hit your shot. Bill and Sam are experienced doubles players so as you began to move to your right to hit your shot, they both shifted to their left. Bill moves directly in front of you, covering your shot down the line towards his alley, and Sam moves to cover the middle. Is there any "open" space? Sure, a sharply angled cross-court return past Sam, the most difficult spot for you to place the ball from where you are positioned.
Is the open space a make-able shot? Sure, about 10% of the time. Believe me, your opponents will like nothing more than for you to be trying to hit clean, angled winners past them when they are positioned properly. Actually, the only thing they would like more would be for you to make one or two of those shots early in the match. They know that if you do hit a couple of those low-percentage shots early, you're going to keep trying them and they know what that will mean----errors, lots of them.
Simply put, a good doubles team will position themselves in every situation so that the only "open" space for you will be the space that is most difficult for you to hit.
So, I try to stay away from the "hit em' where they ain't" approach when coaching my doubles players for the simple reason that I believe it produces far too many unnecessary errors, the cardinal sin of the "mortal" tennis player.
How then do you win your points in good doubles? By hitting a large percentage of your shots three places; down the middle, at their feet or over their heads.
DOWN THE MIDDLE
This is pretty much always a good shot in doubles for many reasons. First, a shot hit down the middle travels over the lowest part of the net, the center. Second, when you hit down the center, there will always be an element of confusion by your opponents over whose ball it is. Also, when you play down the middle, you are taking away your opponents' angles. When you hit down the outsides of the court you offer your opponents many opportunities to angle the ball away for a winner. Down the center, your opponents must create their own angle, which is a difficult thing to do.
Finally, hitting down the center, if you don't hit the ball well, you'll probably still keep it in play. Aiming for the outsides of the court, if you miss your target, you'll most likely hit the ball out of the court.
Tennis legend Vic Braden agrees. "I've long been fascinated by the intermediates who say 'Watch your alley,' while the pros are always talking about protecting the middle. Intermediates are so afraid of their opponents hitting down the line that one of them plays wide to the left and the other wide to the right. Unfortunately, they're one man short."
"You could drive a truck between them. They're so intent on guarding their alleys that when a ball is hit down the middle, they both automatically turn and say 'yours.' You always want to entice your opponents to try those difficult, low percentage shots to your outside," continues Braden. "Pros will only drive the alleys if they think their opponent is breaking too early for a ball down the center (poaching) or if they want to keep them from overplaying the middle."
AT THE FEET
This is a difficult concept for some players to accept because it is the exact opposite of everything we have been told since we first picked up a racket. However, the fact is, quite often the best shot is a shot hit right at your opponent. I can't tell you how many times I've seen a player with an easy, high volley make an error because they attempted to "hit em' where they ain't" by angling the ball off the court instead of simply hitting right down at their opponents' feet.
Obviously, you're not trying to hit the opposing player, but rather hit the ball at them in such an awkward manner that they won't be able to respond. Even if they do manage to get the ball back, they'll have to hit "up" because your shot is so low, and most likely their return will be an easy sitter for you to put away either down the middle or back at their feet.
Plus, as with hitting down the middle, if you miss your target, you'll still probably keep the ball in the court. If you're trying to angle the ball away and don't hit it well, you may very well hit the ball out.
A brief word about hitting the opposing player; it's not the nicest thing to say, but more often than not, when a player gets hit, it's their own fault. They're either not in the right position or not paying attention.
Good doubles is an extremely fast, aggressive game where quite often the best shot is right at the opposing player and it's up to all players to make sure that they stay alert and are positioned properly.
If you do accidentally hit someone, immediately make sure that they are okay and, even though it's probably their own fault that they got hit, apologize in the spirit of good sportsmanship.
OVER THEIR HEADS
One of the most misunderstood and underused shot in recreational tennis is the lob. Watch a "C" level game of tennis and you'll see lots of lobs because the lob is the only way that players at that level are able to keep the ball in play at that point. At this level, because of the lob, they are often able to play long and enjoyable points.
Then a funny thing happens. The players get a little bit better, learn to hit the ball a bit harder and totally forget about the lob. They figure that since they are able to hit the ball hard, they should always hit the ball hard. As a result, their points become very short and unenjoyable, while each team tries to hit the ball hard and the points become a race to see who can make the error first.
Now, take a look at the next level, the high "B" or "A" level recreational players. These players now have a good command of most of the games shots and have learned when to use them. With this knowledge comes the return of the lob because good players know that it is one of the most effective shots in the game.
"People tend to think of it (the lob) as a weakness in tournament tennis, but it's not--it's a gigantic strength," says Braden. "People make fun of those players who like to throw up a lob every two or three shots, but they seem to forget that good lobbers have more trophies than any other person at the club."
Be it the high, deep defensive lob which gives you time to recover or the lower, offensive lob used to surprise or push your opponents away from the net, there is not a good player out there who does not possess and understand the benefits of an effective lob.
Finally, when selecting your shots during a doubles match, try to make a mental shift from thinking side to side as you do in singles, to high or low.
In singles, you're trying to move your opponent side to side to open up a particular area of the court. In doubles this is quite difficult for the reasons I just outlined, so I try to get my players thinking low and high. I want them to try to hit the ball at their opponents feet, which will force them to pop the ball up in the air, or high over their opponents heads so that they can then attack the net.
If your opponents take control of the net and you are not certain that you can drive a good, low shot at their feet, put it up in the air. Day after day I watch recreational players trying to hit clean winners past two players at the net with dire results.
Put the ball up in the air. Force your opponents to move back and hit an overhead, the most physically demanding shot in the game. I'd much rather has my opponent hit a winning overhead to beat me than to beat myself with a silly, unnecessary error. Remember the number one rule of Mortal Tennis: make your opponent hit the ball to beat you!
Down the middle, at the feet, or over the head. Hit a large majority of your shots with these tips in mind and you'll be amazed at how your errors will decrease and also, how your points will become longer and more enjoyable.