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Playing Both-Up Against the Both-Back Formation
by Kathy Krajco
Operation Doubles

Everyone says that the way to win doubles is by attacking the net. But are you one of those teams who often loses the point when you do? If so, and if your strokes are good enough, you are probably just making a strategic error, one you can eliminate almost as soon as you understand it.

Usually when you are in the Both-Up Formation, the opposition is in the Both-Back Formation, so that's the situation we'll look at. In the end, you'll see how this applies to volleys you hit toward the baseliner in the Up-and-Back Formation, too.

Against the Both-Back Formation, the geometry is simple. You have two tactics to choose from on every shot:

  • Hit a setup shot-a penetrating volley deep to the baseline, usually at the center mark.
  • Hit a finishing shot-an angled volley (or overhead) to either alley for a clean winner.

    The diagram at the right illustrates:

    You have three main lines of fire against the Both-Back Formation. Your finishing shots are angled overheads and volleys to either side. You should go for a finishing shot whenever you can, but hitting winners against the Both-Back Formation is harder than it looks.

    Why? Because your opponents are both baseliners, and baseliners have a good angle of pursuit on your angle volleys to the alleys. Despite appearances, they can often reach these shots, especially if they play shallow-on or inside the baseline.

    Result? You're dead. Because your shot is a short shot, so that opposing baseliner hits from close range with a choice of no less than five lethal returns:

    • down-the-line passing shot from outside the net post
    • bullet at your fronting player
    • net-skimming dink angled very sharply crosscourt
    • through the gap between you and your partner
    • short-range offensive lob.

    If your team shifts to guard against one of them, you just open up another.

    Therefore, your side-angle shots in the diagram must be winners. Don't attempt a finishing shot if the opponent on that side is in a position to make the get.

    I think every author of a book on doubles has emphasized the previous statement in one form or another. Yet both-up players often underestimate how much ground baseliners can cover. Consequently, both-up players either attempt finishing shots when they shouldn't, or they fail to volley finishing shots smartly and sharply enough. The result? Disaster.

    An angle volley to the baseliner's alley is even more dangerous when the opposition is in the Up-and-Back Formation. That's because the baseliner in this formation can position wider than the baseliners in the Both-Back Formation. Therefore, he or she is even more likely to reach and return your shot.

    And so, when you have no clear shot at this angle, or when your opponents' positioning leaves no opening for it, or when such a shot would be difficult, don't try it.

    When you can't go for the finishing shot against opponents in the Both-Back Formation, "soften them up a little" with penetrating volleys first. That's your setup shot. Think of this tactic as a preliminary bombardment to weaken their defenses. The idea is to force them to play deeper. Thus you punch through the Both-Back Formation's solid defense to create an opening for your team's finishing shot. This setup shot's depth and heaviness make it penetrating.

    For recreational play, good depth makes your shot penetrating enough. For competitive play, the heavier your volleys the better. Aim your setup shot at the center mark on the baseline. Centering the ball like this draws your opponents toward center, opening the wings. It also restricts their Angle of Return. For dessert, it sends the ball to pass like a con artist between partners stationed side-by-side, all too often creating confusion about who should play it.

    When to Hit a Setup Shot

    The following occasions call for a setup shot deep to the baseline instead of a finishing shot to an alley:

    • You have no clear shot at an angle-volley winner when you are more than fourteen feet (4.5 meters) from the net. So hit a setup shot instead.
    • You have no opening for an angle-volley winner when an opposing back-player is in a position to reach it. So hit a setup shot instead.
    • You have no shot at an angle-volley winner when that shot would be too difficult (like, say, a backhand overhead). So hit a setup shot instead.

    The third case is self-explanatory, but let's understand the other two.

    To have a clear shot at an angle-volley winner, you should be in the front two-thirds of the forecourt. Farther back, your vantage point and angles are poor. Your diminished perspective affects both your placement and percentages. So, attempted winners from too far back aren't just returnable, they're also low-percentage shots that often go into the net or out. This fourteen-foot (4.5-meter) guideline is a generous estimate that assumes you move forward as you volley to make contact even closer to the net.

    As a rule, to have an opening for an angle-volley winner, your opponent on that side should be inside the singles sidelines and behind the baseline. The latter criterion is important. From on or inside the baseline, back-players will reach most angle-volleys.

    Even among the great doubles players of Donald Budge's day, many couldn't resist the temptation to go against this advice. In fact, this common mistake irked Budge so, that, in reply to a request to describe the ideal doubles player, he said: "He would at all times play his volleys deep and down the middle, using the alleys only when they are wide open, but even then hating himself whilst doing so."

    Bear in mind that this mistake was especially dangerous at Budge's level of competition, where opponents played on or inside the baseline and had excellent anticipation. Nonetheless, his remark expresses for all the importance of hitting angle volleys that don't return.

    Summary:

    • Like all offensive strategies, Both-Up Strategy is dangerous when not executed aggressively. On every shot your aim should be to put the ball away or to force an error or a weak return.
    • Your tactical options are to hit a setup shot or a finishing shot.
    • Your setup shot is a penetrating volley to the baseline. Hit it deep and down the center.
    • Your finishing shot is an angle-volley (or overhead) to either side for a winner.
    • Go for the finishing shot whenever you can.
      • Don't go for the finishing shot when you are more than fourteen feet (4.5 meters) from the net (that is, when you are in the rear third of the forecourt).
      • Don't go for the finishing shot when an opposing back-player is in a position to make the get.
      • Don't underplay the finishing shot.


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

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