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Playing the Both-Back Formation
by Kathy Krajco
Operation Doubles

The Both-Back Formation is often played poorly, because few know its strategic objective. From between the sidelines, the only winners a Both-Back team can hit are lobs or drop-shots, because they have none of the vantage points and angles for hitting winners. So, everybody recognizes this formation as a purely defensive one. But what is the strategic way to play it?

The Both-Back Strategy requires a different mindset than playing in the other two formations. It sacrifices the fringes of your territory to consolidate your forces at the heart. The goal is to deny the opposition a winner or forced error between the sidelines. To accomplish that, your team leaves itself open to a nice angle-shot wide.

Why? Because in this situation your best bet is to just throw yourselves on the mercy of the odds. By denying the center and sacrificing the wings, you maximize the quality of the shot it takes to beat you. Also, since your opponents should be net players, and since net players target opposing net players with their volleys, the Both-Back Formation moves you both back to the baseline, where you're least likely to be passed and least vulnerable to having an error wrenched from you. It puts you both in the best position to return anything that stays between the sidelines except a good drop-volley, which is a high-quality shot.

Another strategic objective is the offensive. In the Both-Back Formation you play defense to stay alive for a chance to steal the offensive. Meanwhile, you make it hard for your opponents to end the point, except by committing that error you're playing for or by setting themselves up for the kill.

This is because those sacrificed wings of yours aren't as open as they seem. The weakness of the Both-Back Formation is a lure into a trap.


Let's look at the three common positioning mistakes both-back players often make:

  • Both-Back players often position too wide.
  • Presumably this is because they think they can position as wide as when their partner is at net. Not so. Net players cover more territory than back-players. In fact, they ordinarily cover more than half their team's court. So, the back-player in the Up-and-Back Formation can afford to position wide of the singles sideline, whereas a both-back player cannot. If they did, they'd open a gap for a winner right down the center of their team's court. As a result, the opposition's setup shots to the center mark go for winners.

    When playing against the Both-Back Formation, exploit this mistake by watching for and targeting that gap.

    When playing in the Both-Back Formation, avoid this mistake. You and your partner should position as far apart as possible and still be able to reach a shot down the center of the overall Angle of Return. Since your opponents are usually in the Both-Up Formation, the center of the Angle of Return should be roughly the center line of the court.

  • Both-Back players often position at different depths.
  • When you do that, this side-by-side formation actually becomes a mini Up-and-Back Formation in the backcourt — one with an angular hole in the center. The angle of this hole enlarges any existing gap between partners.

    When playing in the Both-Back Formation, avoid this mistake.

    When playing against the Both-Back Formation, exploit it by angling center shots through that hole.

  • Both-Back players often position too deep.
  • Doing so leaves the wings wide open.

    When playing against the Both-Back Formation, exploit this mistake. If your opponents don't stay well behind the baseline for you, hit penetrating (i.e., deep and heavy) volleys at the center mark to make them back off and expose their wings. Then you'll have an opening for a finishing shot almost every time you hit the ball. And you can increase your margin for error on these finishing shots by hitting them less hard and angling them less sharply. Even if your too-deep opponent does reach the ball, your shot takes them out of the point by drawing them so far off the court they can't recover in time.

    When playing in the Both-back Formation, avoid this mistake by playing on or inside the baseline. From here you reach more of the opposition's angle shots. Just as important, from here you're not drawn so far out of position to play them. Also, by playing shallow and hitting the ball on the rise, you deny opposing volleyers two-thirds of what's precious to them — reaction time. By playing shallow and scrappy, you can make it hard for your attackers to put the ball away.

    When to Play Both-Back

    Because the Both-Back Formation has no vantage points or angles, use it only as a last resort. For instance, don't fall back into the Both-Back Formation because the opposing receiver tees-off on your team's serve to blast ballistic returns at your net player. The problem is your team's poopy serve, not where the server's partner is. Similarly, don't fall back into the Both-Back Formation because your opponents tee off on your back-player's groundstrokes to blast ballistic returns at your net player. The problem is your back-player's poopy groundstrokes, not where their partner is. How do you solve these problems then? Me? I just threaten the poopy partner with worse than whatever they are afraid of, if they don't quit hitting those poopy shots. (Just a suggestion.)

    When you're both back, any time one of you hits to an opposing back-player, the other can simultaneously walk up to the net. So, only the Both-Up Formation can keep you both back. Therefore, it's hard to imagine a situation in which a team might remain in the Both-Back Formation while the opposition is in the Up-and-Back Formation. And it's impossible that a team should remain in the Both-Back Formation while the opposition is too. So, the only sensible time to use the Both-Back Formation is against the Both-Up Formation.

    In those rare instances when you find yourselves Both-Back against a team that is not Both-Up, it is either because you fell back unnecessarily or because you missed a chance to advance. No problem. Here's what to do about that:

    • How to play Both-Back against the Both-Back Formation: While one of you hits a shot, the other takes the net. Alternatively, while one of you hits an approach shot, both of you take the net.

    • How to play Both-Back against the Up-and-Back Formation: As usual, since you are back-players, avoid hitting to the opposing net player. While one of you hits to the opposing back-player, the other takes the net. If your advancing player is on the same side as the opposing net player, your team can switch-poach the return. Alternatively, if your hitter hits an approach shot, you both can take the net.

    In other words, the way to play Both-Back against these formations is to NOT play Both-Back. An approach shot is necessary only when your hitter advances to net. That's because they will need an easy first volley in no man's land, and an approach shot draws one. The hitter's partner needs no approach shot, because they get a head start and make it through no man's land before the return is back.

    Now for the only situation in which you may really need to play Both-Back: you're under attack and pinned Both-Back by opponents in the Both-Up Formation. Though this is a difficult situation, if you understand the Both-Back Formation and know how to play it, you have a good chance to win the point. In fact you have no less than three avenues to victory.

    Your Three Avenues to Victory

    Against the Both-Up Formation you have three avenues to victory:

    • through doctoring your odds
    • through working your way off the defensive and onto the offensive

    • through springing the Trap

    You doctor your odds at both ends, both strategically and tactically, to win the point through an error. By working your way off the defensive you play for D-day. By springing the Trap, the Both-Back Formation strikes like a coiled rattlesnake to score outright.

    Let's explore each of these avenues in turn.

    Your 1st Avenue to Victory
    Getting Along With the Tennis Gods: Doctoring the Odds

    Tennis is a game of errors, because errors decide 60 percent of the points. The Both-Back Strategy minimizes your odds of erring, while maximizing the opposition's odds of erring. What more could you ask of a strictly defensive strategy?

    Not that this odds-doctoring makes your odds good, but it's a definite improvement. To maximize your odds, you should also use error-drawing tactics.

    Error-Drawing Tactics to Use Against Net Players

    • To force errors, take advantage of your increased margin for error when hitting to volleyers: Hit out on the ball, because volleyers haven't time to judge your hard shots and must play anything that looks as though it might land in.
    • To draw errors and to prevent penetrating volleys, make volleyers hit up: use touch and dead aim at the tape to make your shots dip as they clear the net.
    • To draw errors, feed a volleyer's bad habits with occasional underspin: be on the lookout for incoming feeder shots suitable to chip, chop, or slice.
    • Test the opposition to see if they'll hesitate to hit a shot midway between them.
    • Anticipate and make great gets: Statistics show that, the longer the point, the higher your team's odds of winning it. So, break your neck to return the opposition's forcing shots and attempted winners. The idea is to keep the ball in play till you can hit a forcing shot yourself.
    • Lob: The lob is the only shot that targets the Both-Up Formation's vulnerable area in the rear. It is also the only way to drive at least one opponent from the net. Just as important though, lobbing keeps the opposition from crowding the net. You don't dare let them do that, because crowding the net gives them horrendous angles and makes it practically impossible for them to err. Unfortunately, many players lob only when they must. That is, they lob only when they're stretched out and barely reaching a shot. Which is why a high percentage of lobs are poor and get smashed. But don't be a player who lobs only in emergencies. Lob also when you're not forced to, when you're not expected to. You hit much better lobs then, and they are unanticipated to boot.
    • To maximize the territory you cover, to maximize the speed of your shots, and to minimize the opposition's recovery time, play the ball on the rise from inside the baseline: If your opponents hit penetrating volleys, doing this will be hard. The point becomes a contest to see which team has their way over how shallow the both-back team gets to play.

    Playing both-back is closing ranks. Your team gives away the borderlands to concentrate on defending a smaller area. In that area your defense is rock solid, making it hard for your opponents to end the point, even with the most forcing shots. As a result, their inability to put the ball away often frustrates them. It at least racks their nerves, because volleyers feel the percentages slip-sliding away beneath them every time the ball returns. That's pressure. Frustration and pressure. This may cause them to overplay their shots and hit short or cough up that error you're looking for. It may also cause them to become impatient and go for the finishing shot when they shouldn't.

    Despite all this odds-doctoring, your odds still are not good. That's because it's not so easy to make an unforced error at net. Therefore, do not play defense to play defense; play defense to stay alive for your next chance to go on the offensive.

    Your 2nd Avenue to Victory
    Getting Off the Defensive and Onto the Offensive

    The offensive is a strategic objective because it enables you to force an error or knock at least one opponent off the net so at least one of you can take the net.

    In tennis, offense and defense are relative terms. At almost any moment, each player or team is playing a blend of each. All too often, strokes are labeled as "offensive" or "defensive" by their names. Nevertheless, volleys and even overheads are sometimes hit defensively. Though the net is the best position from which to offend, it's not the only one. Many great backcourt singles players play offensively and are even more aggressive than some net rushers. In the Both-Back Formation, you need to take a lesson from them.

    What counts are your chances of winning the point, not your chances of making the next shot. So, while the worst thing you can do is take unnecessary risks, the next-worst thing you can do is fail to take calculated risks. If you hit a just-get-the-ball-back shot, you're almost certainly going to lose the point. So, your odds are actually better if you raise the level of your play and try to do some damage with your shots.

    Seldom can you seize the offensive against a Both-Up team with a single stroke. You must work your way onto the offensive in a series of shots from the backcourt. Thus you fight your way back over previously lost ground. Think of it this way: In a tennis match the contestants relate to each other through the shots they exchange. That relationship is like a teeter-totter. When your team is on the offensive, the balance of power is tipped your way, and you have the leverage of the upper hand.

    So, when you're on the defensive, refuse to yield to your opponents' strokes. That is, refuse to hit off the back foot. Answer with the most formidable returns you can. You want to level that teeter totter. It's like Sumo Wrestling or arm wrestling or football line play: once the opposition penetrates to start driving you backward, they're gaining overwhelming momentum. Your aim is to get back on an even footing. Once you've accomplished that you've neutralized the force of your opponents' attack.

    Now you're in position and reaching shots in good shape. Now you're hitting off the front foot and from a balanced pose, so your point of contact with the ball is in the optimum strike zone. Now you're able to hit more forcing and tricky shots.

    So do. Use them to cultivate chances to go on the offensive. Such chances typically arrive as a short shot.

    The Short Shot

    Most forcing shots and winners from baseline play are returns of a short shot. About one in every three incoming shots will be short. If that next short shot lands between the sidelines, it gives you two options:

    • Option #1: You're probably in good shape to stroke an offensive lob. The object is either to win the point outright or to drive one of your attackers from the net. If this lob drives one of your opponents from the net, there's nothing to keep your partner in the backcourt. What's more, this lob serves as an excellent approach shot. So, either one or both of you should take the net behind it.
    • Option #2: You can tee-off on this short shot to fire a bullet at your attackers. The object is either to force an error or to drive them back a little. As they give ground, you advance. If you drive them back into the rear third of their forecourt, consider taking the net.

    If, however, that short shot is wide of the sidelines, lick your chops. The opposition has made the Big Mistake: they have given you a vantage point and an angle. They have also drawn you out of position though. So it's surely time to end the point: spring The Trap.

    Your 3rd Avenue to Victory
    Springing the Trap

    When a back-player reaches a Both-Up team's attempted finishing shot — an angle volley — the back-player has the Both-Up team in Catch-22. You may take your pick of five lethal returns. They are shown in the diagram below.

    The Five Lethal Returns of an Attempted Angle-Volley Winner
    Lethal Return #1 — Down-the-Line Passing Shot From Outside the Net Post: When available, this is usually your best option. You can make this shot even when you're stretched out. It goes around (rather than over) the net, so you can slap it to skim it unplayably low. The down-the-line opponent should shift laterally to cover this return, but even if they do, you hit from so far wide they can hardly reach your shot.

    Lethal Return #2 — Bullet at the Down-the-Line Opponent: You hit at this opponent because they are the nearer opponent, the one with less time to react. You'd have to hit harder to deliver the crosscourt opponent a shot too-hot-to-handle. To make this return, you must reach the ball in good shape. Since you hit over a high point of the net, it can be a low percentage shot and therefore a poor choice. Nevertheless, it's a sensible choice when you can contact the ball high and hit from close range. Then you needn't hit hard to get the job done.

    Lethal Return #3 — Net-Skimming Dink Angled Sharply Crosscourt: The finesse shot. The shot that flies east-west on a court that runs north-south. If the volley you chase down is sharply angled, you have a shot at this cunningly angled return. Many doubles players have a poor eye for the angles, so they fail to see the angle you have and leave themselves way out of position for it. In fact, I've seen people so stunned by the angle of this shot that they don't even chase it.

    Whereas some openings are smaller than they look, this opening is bigger than it looks. It's biggest when your crosscourt opponent hangs deep in their forecourt. It's an easy shot, so easy you don't have to get to the ball in good shape. It barely clears the low point of the net at an unplayable angle. When you've hit it a few times, the opposition starts looking for it. Then you can get nasty by just eyeballing it to make your opponent anticipate it and crowd the net. That's great, because they thus opens a hole in their team's formation that you can hit Lethal Return #4 through, instead.

    Lethal Return #4 — Through the Hole: In this situation the down-the-line opponent usually sees the danger of Return #1 and reacts by shifting laterally. If their partner doesn't sag, the shift opens a gap in your opponents' formation. This gap enlarges to become a hole if your opponents position at different depths. So you may have an angle for a shot through a sizable opening, especially if (a) your down-the-line opponent shifts laterally and backward for fear of Return #1, and/or (b) your crosscourt opponent fails to sag and crowds the net for fear of Return #3.

    Lethal Return #5 — Short-Range Offensive Lob: This is a little lob. It's just high enough to clear the opposition's overhead. You hit it from close to the net, so it gets over the other team and comes down quickly. Especially if you apply topspin (so the ball bounds away instead of bouncing straight up), neither opponent will be able to run back for it in time. This shot works best when you disguise it. So take a full backswing, making it look as though you intend to drive the ball. You can place this lob anywhere deep in the opposition's court.

    And so, if you play shallow, your unprotected wings are not as unprotected as they look; they lure your opponents into this trap. Both-up players can hardly resist the temptation to go for angle-volley winners when they shouldn't. And when you make the get, they get burnt.

    One more thing. Angle volleys draw you forward and wide to play them, and your opponents return your shots as volleys from the net. So when you return an angle volley, you won't have time to recover. Since you've been drawn out of position, yours is now the team that wants to end the point. You must go for a finishing shot. Unload one of these five lethal returns on every angle volley you chase down.

    Final Analysis

    Whenever your team is in the Both-Back Formation, look for a chance to get at least one of you into the forecourt. If you pass up opportunities to do so, you're not playing the odds for all they're worth. You're putting all your eggs in one basket — the Error Bag — and making no use of additional means to tilt the odds more your way.

    The Both-Back Formation is good for what it's for. Yet it's good for nothing to a team that makes any of the following mistakes.

    Cardinal Mistakes:

    • falling back into the Both-Back Formation unnecessarily
    • letting a shot pass between partners
    • passing up opportunities to hit forcing shots and go on the offensive
    • failing to unload a finishing return on every angle volley reached

    As for letting the ball come between you and your partner: never let any third party come between you and a partner. Whack it. Whenever you let a shot pass between you, Both-Back Strategy has failed, because the winner that passes between you is not a quality shot. All it is is embarrassing. So you lose more than the point when you lose it that way. If you both swing, the racket in front will hit the ball. That's all. Any knocking of racket heads almost never affects the shot. As for your rackets, most of us knock them around worse than that twenty times a day. So the gods — that is, the odds — are with you if you swing.

    Review of Key Points

    • In the Both-Back Formation your team has no strategic vantage points or angles, and court coverage is at a minimum.
    • Give ground grudgingly, and do not fall back into the Both-Back Formation unnecessarily.
    • While in the Both-Back Formation, look for a chance to get into the Up-and-Back Formation or the Both-Up Formation.
    • To advance, only your hitter needs to follow an approach shot. Your hitter's partner can advance on any shot to an opposing back-player. So, only the Both-Up Formation can pin you Both-Back.
    • The Both-Back Formation sacrifices the wings of your territory to concentrate your defenses within the sidelines, thus increasing the level-of-difficulty of the shot it takes to beat you.
    • Often there's a surprise gap in the center of the Both-Back Formation.
    • Never let a shot pass between you and your partner. When in doubt, swing.
    • When playing in the Both-Back Formation, play as shallow as possible. When playing against the Both-Back Formation, drive your opponents deep by hitting penetrating setup shots to the center mark.
    • Doctor your odds on both ends: Force errors. Draw errors. Play the percentages.
    • Work your way onto the offensive.
    • Do not let yourself be drawn out of position by angle volleys. Instead, spring the Trap by hitting a lethal return.
    • Don't forget to lob.

    Kathy Krajco runs the website Operation Doubles: Tennis Doubles Strategy & Tactics.

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