The Angle of Return -- those who go very far in singles live and die by it. Yet doubles players like to let it slip their minds. Many use the lines on the court as a positioning grid instead, always recovering to the same spot. Consequently, they're often out of position.
A shot's Angle of Return is the full range of its possible returns, from the widest crosscourt return possible to the widest down-the-line return possible. I think most doubles players aren't sure how the Angle of Return fits into the picture of doubles. Yet the Angle of Return is the same in doubles as in singles, with two important differences:
- Because of the alleys, the Angle of Return in doubles is sharper than in singles.
- Your up-player denies the opposition a wedge-shaped portion of it.
Let's take a closer look at these two facts.
When you watch doubles, notice how many sharply angled shots you see, and notice how extreme the angles of some are. The doubles court is deceptive. It seems that each player's half of the court is more than adequately covered, because two players cover a court only one-third wider than a singles court. But this small amount of added width has a large (geometric) effect on the angles. The doubles court is not adequately covered. In tennis, nobody's court ever is.
The Angle of Return is a vast wedge-shaped slice of territory on your end of the court. But, since back-players avoid hitting to up-players, it has a slice cut out of the middle -- your up-player's piece of the action. So, the Angle of Return is your opponents' piece of your pie, and your up-player's piece is a protected zone in it that he or she denies them. The diagram below illustrates.
This protected zone splits the doubles Angle of Return into two parts: the Crosscourt Angle of Return, which your baseline player must cover, and the Passing Angle of Return (down your net player's alley). With every step your net player takes, that Protected Zone moves and changes. However much room you allow down the alley, you deny across the center, and vice versa. You must realize this to do a good job and not waste your presence at net.
Your net player thus confronts the opposing hitter with a choice -- whether to return crosscourt or down the alley. Your net player covers the Protected Zone, and your baseliner covers most or all of the Crosscourt Angle of Return. The Passing Angle of Return is the narrow angle for a winning alley-shot that passes your net player.
Judging the Angle of Return
The Angle of Return depends on your feeder shot, so you determine it. Whatever angle your opponent has, you fed him or her.
Your first thought might be that the Angle of Return is hard to calculate while playing. But it is not really. Though you can make several errors judging it, everybody always makes the same one: baseliners fail to position wide enough.
Judge the Angle of Return by the feeder shot you hit -- its depth and angle:
- The sharper the angle of your feeder shot, the sharper the angle of its return.
- The shorter your feeder shot:
- the sharper the Angle of Return
- the broader the Angle of Return.
Your feeder shot's spin may affect the Angle of Return. A rolled shot bears heavy topspin and has a long bounce, whereas a drop-shot has heavy underspin and a short bounce. In other words, its spin can affect the length of your feeder shot.
Skilled opponents can also affect the Angle of Return. They can shorten or lengthen your feeder shot by playing it from farther back or closer in. Since closing enables your opponent to hit at a sharper angle, when you see the hitter closing, you should shift a little farther out to the side.
The Angle of Return is sometimes so sharp your back-player leaves a huge opening if s/he doesn't recover to position way over in the alley, or even wide of it.
Down-the-line shots are riskier than crosscourt shots, so sacrifice coverage of the Passing Angle of Return (the alley shot) to cover most or all of the Crosscourt Angle of Return.
Baseline players should recover to the middle of the Crosscourt Angle of Return.
At least one side of it always comes back at a sharper angle than your feeder shot went out. So, when you hit an angled crosscourt shot, your team must get ready for an even more sharply angled crosscourt return. Therefore, it's dangerous to chinch on a sharply angled shot. You should either choose some other shot or make this one good enough to win the point, because if the ball comes back, it could be at a wicked angle.
And so, in the backcourt, when you hit toward one sideline, you recover toward the other. The most common positioning error is hitting a sharply angled crosscourt shot and failing to position wide enough for its return. When that return is a winner, the player beat by it often scratches his or her head while looking at their opponent as if to say, "How did you do that and make it look so easy?" Answer: Because it was easy. First you hit a sharply angled shot to feed your opponent that nasty Angle of Return; then you didn't position wide enough to cover it. What more could your opponent ask?
So, judging the Angle of Return is easier than it would seem. Just use this guideline: Baseliners, err to the crosscourt side. Get a little farther over that way than you think you need to. Or, if you prefer to remember it another way: Watch out for the crosscourt angle wide. It tends to be sharper than you think.
When the Angle of Return is narrow, how deep you position matters little. But if you play deep when the Angle of Return is broad, you must position so far out beyond the sidelines that the ground you must cover is enormous. You can't run fast enough to cover that much territory from back there. This illustrates an important principle of tennis: At the baseline, the deeper you play the more ground you must cover. You can cover only so much. So, when the Angle of Return is broad, "choke up" on it. That is, close -- move forward -- and take the next shot short, either on the rise or on the fly.
How do you know when to choke up on the Angle of Return? You can choke up on it any time. There's advantage in taking shots up short. But when do you need to? You need to whenever you hit a sharply angled feeder. And you need to whenever your opponents are beating you with many sharply angled shots.
The sweep of a sharply angled shot keeps running farther away from you while you chase it. It draws you way out wide of the court. Even if you do reach and return the ball, you're still in trouble, because the shot drew you so far out of court you can't recover in time. When that happens, you might as well be gone. On vacation. Off mushroom-and-lost-tennis-ball hunting in the woods. Crafty opponents do this to you on purpose. They see you playing too deep and exploit the mistake by hitting angled shots that take you out of the point, leaving nobody home on your side of your team's court.
Net Player Positioning
When playing net in Up-and-Back Doubles, step back and toward your alley while your back-partner chases and hits the ball. Watch the opposing net player; if you see him or her letting your partner's shot go by, step forward and toward center. Exactly where you position your Protected Zone depends on the Angle of Return and the following considerations:
The general guideline is to "catch the drift" of the opposing back-player's movement as he or she chases the ball:
- If the opposing back-player runs wide in chasing your partner's shot, drift the same direction -- toward your alley. Doing so adjusts for the opposition's line of fire down your alley.
- If that opposing back-player runs toward center, drift toward center. A centered feeder shot leaves no line down your alley, so you needn't stay close to it. In fact, drifting toward center adjusts for a return that must cross the net in the center.
- If that opposing back-player runs forward, drift backward. Your partner has hit short, and drifting backward prepares for a return fired from close range.
- If that opposing back-player runs backward, drift forward. Your partner has hit a deep and forcing shot. Advancing seizes the offensive, anticipating a weak return. It will probably be soft, high, and not well aimed -- a floater -- a shot you should be looking to pounce on.
- In short, go with the flow. Move the same direction -- not as far, but in the same direction -- as the opposing back-player.
There is an exception to this guideline though. When the Angle of Return is dangerously sharp and broad, you naturally want to sag toward center instead of drifting toward your alley. That's the right thing to do, because you thus spread your court coverage thin, stretching it to cover more of the center so your partner can position wider. Your partner will see you shift toward a center, think, "Oh good," and move out wider. So, instead of leaving a tiny opening down your alley and a huge one crosscourt, you even-out the two openings. You're making the best of a bad situation and playing the odds for all they're worth.
You may be aware of the debate between authorities who say teams should shift as a unit and authorities who disagree. They argue about whether partners should shift laterally in the same or opposite directions. But both sides are right, because they are talking about different situations. Normally, the net player catches the drift, so partners move in opposite directions -- either diverging or converging. But when the Angle of Return is dangerously sharp and broad, the net player sags toward center, so the team shifts as a unit -- either to the right or the left.
How much room do you leave down your alley? Here's a good rule of thumb: Make it take a good shot to get the ball past you. That is, position so no easy alley shot and no weak crosscourt shot can get past you. Playing the net this way is better than denying the alley but leaving the center wide open. That's only partly because of the winners you'll hit. It's also because (to our sorrow) tennis is a game of errors. Most points fall on them. If you are a menace at net, your opponents make more errors.
Gauge how much to respect your opponent's alley shot by testing them early in the match. It will surprise you how far out toward center some opponents let you roam. Others readily go for your alley, but make them prove they can make the alley shot consistently.
At net, you have greater range crosscourt than down the line. This is because down-the-line shots travel a shorter distance to get to you than crosscourt shots do. So, down-the-line shots arrive quicker. At net the split-second difference counts. Since net players have less time to reach down-the-line shots, they must favor the down-the-line side a bit to compensate. A "bit" is a step, maybe two.
Recall that at the baseline you can cover more territory by moving forward. Not so in the forecourt. At net you can cover more territory by moving backward. That's because, in the forecourt, you're toward the front of the Angle of Return, where it's narrow. Every foot of your range covers many degrees of it. So, in backing off, you gain more by giving yourself more time than you lose by having to move a bit farther to reach the ball.
But never hang back, because the court gets narrower and the net gets higher with every step backward you take. Back off momentarily, only when necessary. Then try to get back in closer as soon as you can.
Other considerations in Positioning
If your backhand, say, is weak, position a little left of the midline of the Angle of Return. We call this "favoring" your backhand. You use it less that way. Also, if you have a big forehand favor your backhand. You get to use your big shot more that way. You usually need to favor a two-handed side, not because it's weak, but because your reach on that side is shorter. When your alley is on your two-handed side at net, stay a bit closer to the alley.
- Judge the Angle of Return mainly by the angle and depth of your team's feeder shot. The sharper the angle of your feeder shot, the sharper the angle of its return. The shorter your feeder shot: (a) the sharper the Angle of Return and (b) the broader the Angle of Return.
- At the baseline, err to the crosscourt side, because that side of the Angle of Return tends to be sharper than you think. Be sure you're positioned wide enough to cover it.
- Whenever your team hits a sharply angled shot, prepare for an even more sharply angled return.
- As a net player, catch the drift of the opposing back-player's movement as he or she chases the ball. But, when the Angle of Return is dangerous, sag toward center, instead.
- As a baseliner, if the Crosscourt Angle of Return is great, choke up on it.
- As a net player, favor your down-the-line side a step or two, but don't overprotect your alley.
- To increase the territory you can cover, move backward if you're an up-player, and move forward if you're a back-player.
- When at net, to gain time for reacting to shots from close range, back off. But never hang back: get back in close to the net as soon as possible.