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Coaching Tips - Doubles Tactics

Set up a spike!

What are the the basic principles of good doubles?

Close in on the net and prevent your opponents doing it. Aim shots down and keep them low to force opponents to hit up from below net height. Think of doubles as being like volleyball, where you finish a rally with a spike at the net.

Play to the opponent furthest from the net when you're in a deep position. Target the opponent nearest to the net when you're in a position to hit down on the ball from near the net.

Target your opponents' weaknesses. Play shots which force your opponents to play to your strengths.

Aim between your opponents. It gives you a great margin for error and your opponents may hesitate while they work out who should play it.

Anticipate, be mobile and adapt your position according to the positions of your opponents and your partner.

Encourage your partner!

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Don't frustrate your partner with "false starts"!

Can I serve in a way that helps my partner intercept returns?

Yes! Serve consistently, getting a large percentage of first serves in. If you miss a lot of first serves, your partner's effectiveness as a poacher could diminish. This is because picking off first-serve returns at the net is easier than picking off second-serve returns and also because your partner may get tired of all the "false starts".

Serve mostly down the centre from the deuce court (especially to a right-hander). This cuts down the angles as well as forcing the receiver to play an awkward inside-out backhand return - your partner should be able to pick it off! Serve plenty of serves at the body from the ad court.

Make sure your partner knows where you're aiming the serve!

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Take charge as server's partner!

Is it my job to guard the tramlines when my partner serves?

Yes! And no! If the receiver is regularly passing you down the line, talk to your partner and suggest a different placement!

React to where the serve pitches in the court, i.e. guard the tramlines if it's wide; move to the centre if the serve is down the middle.

You can encourage the receiver to play the shot you want, i.e position yourself wide to encourage a crosscourt return, move towards centre to tempt the pass, close in on the net to tempt the lob, etc. Be active, alert and aggressive (poach, fake poaches, etc). Generally, make sure the receiver is worried about you.

Take the captain's role and suggest service placements.

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Look for the soft centre!

Where should I aim my shots in doubles (when it's not obvious)?

If you can target your opponents' feet, you should be able to pick off the next shot at the net (if it comes back!).

Take advantage of opponents playing one-up-one-back by targeting the area behind the net person.

Aim for the "soft centre". During a barrage of shots, aiming between your opponents may cause neither (or both) to go for the ball! Aiming through the middle also gives you a big margin for error.

It's easier to hit a ball in the direction from which it came rather than change direction, so do this when you're on the defensive.

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Don't be too flashy as receiver in doubles!

How often should I try to pass the net player with my return in doubles?

Try to be consistent and not too flashy. Return most serves crosscourt. The ideal is a low, wide crosscourt return, landing no deeper than the service line. Avoid deep returns if the server's partner is a mobile player - the height of the ball will tempt him or her to poach.

However, sprinkle in some variations, maybe an offensive lob or a drive at the server's partner or a pass down the line, to avoid being predictable or to keep the server's partner honest. The pass down the line becomes a higher percentage option if the serve takes you out wide.

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Be dynamic as receiver's partner!

What is my role as receiver's partner?

Your first duty is defence. Keep an eye on the server's partner who is the immediate threat to your team. Take your cue from the quality of your partner's return. If it's high and close to the server's partner, you're under threat - take cover! If it's high and wide, your tramlines are under threat - cover them! If it's crosscourt and low, move towards the centre and be prepared to poach.

Although you can't play a shot until the 4th shot of the rally, try to be dynamic and be ready for an appropriate contribution.

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No looking back!

How can I react better when a net player poaches (and avoid getting hit)?

Here's the scenario :- you and your partner are receiving; the serve is struck; you watch the ball land; the serve is good; you turn your head to watch your partner hit the return; you follow the ball and before you know it, the server's partner has stepped across and volleyed the ball right at you! Where did you go wrong?

Your mistake was turning your head to watch your partner hit the return.

Once you've helped call the serve, your attention must turn to the net player - look for any threatening movement. This way you get an early warning which will help you either to take evasive action or even to pick out the direction of the shot and block it back.

Although it seems right to watch the ball, you can't afford to watch your partner if the ball goes behind you. Keep your eyes forwards and "read" what kind of shot your partner has hit by assessing the movements of your opponents. No looking back now!

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Many happy returns!

Where should I aim my returns?

In keeping with the "deep to deep; short to short" principle, you should aim your returns to the server's half of the court (because you're in a deep position and must avoid the threat posed by the nearest opponent, i.e. the server's partner).

In order of priority:
  1. get the ball back into play
  2. avoid the net player
  3. make the server play a low volley (or half-volley).

A good spot to aim for is the area where the service line intersects with the singles sideline.

You should occasionally hit a return down the line or over the net player:
  a. to discourage the net player from intercepting
  b. to catch the net player napping if he has a poor volley or just looks like he's dozed off!
  c. to avoid being too predictable!

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Use signals if you've got no time for a T-break!

Can you suggest some hand signals to use when poaching returns?

Intercepting your opponent's crosscourt return (when your partner is serving) is an important aspect of successful doubles. It's a tactic you don't see too much at club level. We're often guilty of allowing the returner the luxury of a "safe" crosscourt return back to the server. We should at least threaten to pick it off at the net, especially if it's high or weak (or both). Why should the returner have it so easy? Let's put some doubt in his mind and make him come up with a better shot!

We can place even more pressure on him by using pre-planned interceptions. In the professional game, you always see the server and his partner come together before each point to agree a tactic. What are they talking about? Are they busy consoling or encouraging each other? Well, maybe they are (briefly), but what they are certainly doing is agreeing where the next serve will go and whether or not the net player will intercept.

As the top pros always serve and volley, it's usual for the point to finish with both players close together in the forecourt, where they can quickly touch base. I call it having a "T-break", the "T" referring to the junction of the service lines, where these discussions are initiated. The "T-break" is the method of communication I would recommend. Just make sure your backs are turned to your opponents and talk softly so that you're not overheard! Try to plan at least one interception each service game and remember that interceptions usually work best when the serve is directed down the middle. Obviously the server must cross to cover his partner if an interception is planned.

Hand signals are the alternative. If you're going to use hand signals, start with a very simple system - I would suggest just three signals - and make sure the server acknowledges the signal (just calling "ok" will suffice). The following pictures demonstrate the simple signals you could adopt:

Hand Signals
closed fist
I'm going to stay put!
open palm
I'm going to intercept!

The third signal would be the repeated opening and closing of the hand, indicating a "fake" poach, where you make a move as if to intercept but then return to your "normal" position.

Once again, if an interception is signalled, the server will normally serve down the middle and cross to cover his partner.

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Take your doubles to new peaks!

Where should I move when my partner is dragged out of court?

Mountain climbers are usually roped together for safety. In the days of Mallory and Irvine in the 1920's, the rope was actually more a bond between mountaineers than a safeguard against falling.

In doubles, you should maintain a bond with your partner in all sorts of ways. But in particular, you should imagine you're joined at the hip with a length of rope like a couple of mountaineers. If your partner's forced wide, you should move towards him, maintaining the distance between you. That way, you avoid large holes appearing between you. Sure, you'll leave some space to your side, but it's better to get your opponents aiming over the higher part of the net and nearer the sidelines than it is to invite them to fire a relatively safe winner right between you.

Move as a team and plug the centre gap. It will force your opponents to take more risks. You could say it will give them a mountain to climb!

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Sharpen your tusks!

Why shouldn't I look back at my partner while he is hitting the ball?

Looking back at your partner can cost you a lot of points.

There's an Aesop fable about a fox and a wild boar. The fox asked the wild boar why he was sharpening his tusks against a tree trunk when there was no need. The wild boar replied that if he only sharpened his weapons when the need arose, it would be too late.

Like the wild boar in the fable, you've got to be ready for both danger and opportunity. Your partner's shot is his concern. You should be concerned with whether or not the opposing net player will intercept it. If you're watching this player, you'll spot the first signs of danger or opportunity.

It takes time to turn your head from watching your partner to watching what your opponent is going to do and you'll miss the early signals. You could even get hit!

So watch the closest opponent. What he does or doesn't do will tell you who is going to hit the next shot and whether you should back off or get aggressive. Be prepared like the wild boar and your tennis could become the stuff of fable!

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Don't look at me like that! It's deliberate hindrance! My point!

Can I try to distract my opponents by moving when my partner's serving or receiving?

If your intention is to distract your opponents, you can't do it!

However, if your intention is to gain a tactical advantage by popping up in an unexpected position, you are quite entitled to make whatever moves you like!

Rule 21 states "If a player commits any act which hinders his opponent in making a stroke, then, if this is deliberate, he shall lose the point or if involuntary, the point shall be replayed."

It's a bit of a moot point really and it depends on your interpretation of "deliberate hindrance". The USTA Code of Conduct offers the following guidance:

"With respect to a player moving when a ball is in play or about to be in play, in general he is entitled to feint with his body as he wishes. He may change position on the court at any time including while the server is tossing the ball to serve. Movements or sounds that are made solely to distract an opponent, such as waving the arms or racket, stamping the feet, or talking are prohibited."

My advice is to move as much as you like to gain advantage, but tone it down a bit if your opponents object. There's no point getting into an argument over it - unless you enjoy debating semantics.

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Me, my partner and "I"!

What is the "I" Formation?

The "I" formation is becoming more amd more popular in the pro game. It's certainly a useful variation to try when an opponent's return of serve is causing damage and you need to give them something else to think about.

Server's partner squats down low a few feet from the net, right on the centre line. The server takes up position almost right behind him (just to the left or right of the centre mark), such that the two players form a straight line (hence "I" formation).

Having agreed in advance which side each will cover, the serving pair keep the returner guessing as to where the net player will go.

As a rule, serves should be directed straight down the middle or into the body. The returner, figuring that the server's partner is going to move either right or left, may well opt to counter the tactic by returning through the middle. The server must take responsibility for that particular return.

Consider it as a useful extra weapon in your arsenal. Like the Australian formation, where both server and server's partner start the point on the same side of the court, it's best used rather sparingly - something to try when you're behind in a match and you need to change the pattern in the hope of changing the momentum.

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Don't flick the switch unless you have to!

What do we do when our opponents start lobbing?

If you're commanding the net as a team, it won't be long before your opponents come up with the obvious countermeasure and start throwing up lob after lob to frustrate you.

Basically, you have three options and you should consider them in the following order of priority:

Option 1 (first preference):

NO SWITCH (BOTH-UP). Continue your strategy of rushing the net. Both of you retain responsibility for your own half of the court, hitting overheads whenever possible. Move up, back-pedal for an overhead and move up once again. If a lob goes over your head, chase it down yourself - your partner should move back too (and you should both move in again as soon as you get an opportunity). This strategy will succeed if you both have fairly sound technique on the overhead and if you're both fairly fit. Good footwork and conditioning are a pre-requisite!

Option 2 (second preference):

SWITCH (BOTH-BACK). If you find you can't take many lobs out of the air and you're chasing back to hit them after the bounce, it may work better if you cover behind each other. The partner who was lobbed switches diagonally back towards the baseline and the two of you adopt a solid defensive formation. Move in again as soon as you get an opportunity (e.g. a lob over your advancing opponents).

Option 3 (last resort):

SWITCH (ONE-UP-ONE-BACK). When a lob goes over your partner, you cover it as in option 2. Unlike option 2, however, your partner simply switches across to the other half of the court, so essentially one of you covers the back of the court and the other remains at the net. I mention this option for the sake of completeness only. DON'T DO IT!

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When you go Aussie, go for the body!

Where should you aim your serves when you use "Australian" formation?

You should use the "Australian" formation very sparingly, because it leaves you vulnerable to the angled return into the empty court. However, you can try it occasionally to disrupt the rhythm of an opponent who is consistently causing damage with a cross-court return. When your partner takes up position on the same side of the court as you, it forces the returner out of the groove - he or she has got to come up with something different.

If you and your partner decide to try this tactic, the server should stand as close to the centre line as possible and avoid opening up angles for the returner. Try jamming the serve into the body of the returner or force a tight backhand that your opponent can't take too much of a swing at.

It's easy to remember - when you go Aussie, go for the body!

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When two become one!

How can communication help you in doubles?

Communication in doubles is not beneficial in itself - what's required is GOOD communication! Good communication is the special ingredient that helps two individuals think, move, and act as one.

Some of this could take place off the court. For example, you might want to sort out which side you'll play, who will serve first, who will chase the lobs, who will handle the overheads and which of you will take the down-the-middle shots.

Some of the on-court communication is in the form of essential basic instructions (e.g. "Leave!", "Mine!", "Switch!", etc). Some of it is in the form of tactical discussions, such as pre-planning an interception.

Much of the rest of it comes down to establishing the "chemistry" of a good partnership. It takes time and it's not possible to be too prescriptive about it. That's because everyone's different. Some people like to exchange high-fives, some people don't. Some people welcome constructive criticism, others resent it. Some people respond to being gee'd up, others perform better when they're calm. You and your partner need to get to know each other. You need to know what to do when your partner's feeling down or nervous or angry or over-confident. It'll take time before you even get to recognise these things!

In general, it's a good idea to avoid negative talk. Avoid pressurising your partner by saying things like: "don't double fault!", "don't miss this return!" or "we need your first serve here!". Sometimes your partner will have a bad day. Just remember you have them too! You must resist the feeling that you're being handicapped - your partner will sense this and feel alienated. Once that happens, you're both on a slippery slope, heading for disaster. So stay supportive and helpful and positive. Boost your partner with appropriate praise and encouragement. Emphasise the team factor by using the "we" word a lot, e.g. "we'll really focus on this one!", "we're going to turn this around!", etc.

When you've been playing together for a while, you should feel you can discuss some of these issues openly. It will help if you can both identify phrases that annoy you on court. It will certainly help if you and your partner know what to say (or what not to say!) when the other is making mistakes.

Don't underestimate the importance of good communication in doubles. If you communicate well, you're more likely to enjoy the experience. And if you enjoy it, you're far more likely to perform well.

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Stand by to repel boarders!

When your opponents close in on the net very fast when they're serving, what can you do?

Faced with a person at the net and a server who follows his serve into the net, your first target is the server because he's vulnerable while he's trying to get in to join his partner. Force him to play a low volley (or, better still, a half-volley) while he's still only about halfway in to the net. You can do this in a variety of ways: by using topspin (to make the ball dip), using slice (taking the ball early while it's still relatively high) or simply by using a soft pace. If you succeed in forcing the server to scrape a ball up off his shoelaces, take advantage and move in because he is sure to hit a rising shot which one of you should be able to put away.

A lob return could be used once in a while for variation - but probably only off a second serve.

Once they're both in to the net, you can still make life uncomfortable for them. Use the lob to take them away from the net or target the space between them. Even good players often hesitate for a fatal moment when you do this - they sometimes both go for the ball or both leave it!

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Big groundstrokes? Pah!

What's wrong with one up, one back?

I've seen lots of successful doubles pairs playing one up, one back. I've even done it myself, lots of times. In fact, I thought one up, one back was a given when I first started playing doubles. I couldn't see any disadvantages in the formation, until one day my partner and I came up against a pair of experienced veterans. We were supremely confident when our finely honed topspin groundstrokes were met by unstylish chops and slices in the knock-up. Imagine our surprise when we trudged off court little more than half an hour later, scratching our heads after our biggest defeat of the season. They'd completely flummoxed us by closing in on the net behind all their serves and returns. In the tennis we'd hitherto been used to, the net player had been ignored and avoided. On this occasion, whichever of us was unfortunate enough to be the "one up" felt exposed and vulnerable, because he was ruthlessly targeted whenever a ball floated anywhere above net height. When we tried to pass them, they angled volleys through the big hole between us. When we tried to lob them, well, it was like flying a white flag - boy, could those guys smash!

One up, one back works fine as long as your opponents cooperate and do exactly the same. If they don't, you'll usually find yourselves in a whole bunch of trouble. I say "usually", because a team that tries to own the net must own some decent volleys and a decent overhead.

Big groundstokes? Pah! I bet that's what those wily veterans were thinking when we were swaggering through that knock-up. If you and your partner are serious about improving your doubles, don't waste time practising your groundstrokes for hours. Practise your serves and your returns and work hard at your volleys and overheads. In matches, take the first opportunity to approach the net. That means when you're serving, serve and volley! When you're returning, keep the ball low and close in whenever possible (certainly on second serves)! If you can't get in behind your return, your partner may be vulnerable to an attack. If the attack does not materialise, get in on the next shot! If it does materialise, your partner may be better off joining you for some resolute defence from the back of the court (but if you successfully lob your opponents, move in and take the net).

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Gamekeeper turned poacher!

What are the do's and dont's of poaching?

When you first start playing doubles, there's a kind of unspoken rule that you've got to protect your alley when you're at the net. Well, that's perfectly true, especially when your partner serves wide. But it's also important to poach occasionally. If you don't, you put no pressure on the receiver, which puts more pressure on your partner coming in behind his serve. That's a scenario that will eventually lead to you conceding a service break.

There are two kinds of poaching in doubles. One is an opportunist gambit, whereby the net player spots a weak shot and risks crossing in front of his partner to take advantage of it, and the other is where both players execute a pre-planned switch of sides (usually to intercept a service return).

If you and your partner opt for a pre-planned switch, it's usually a good idea for the server to aim down the middle, because this reduces the angles available to the receiver and makes it less likely that the net player will have to protect his alley.

The net player should always be looking for an opportunity to take out a weak crosscourt shot during a rally, especially when an opponent is forced back behind the baseline. Like the pre-planned switch, an opportunist poach should result in a switch of sides. The poacher should commit to it 100%, targeting the area occupied by the receiver's partner, and his partner should cover for him.

An important aspect to successful poaching is cutting off the ball on an angle, closing in on the net as well as moving across. This diagonal movement ensures the ball has less time to get away from you and also allows you to get some weight transfer into your volley.

Timing is crucial. If you make your move too soon, your opponent will see it and hit down the line. Try to time your poach so that you move when your opponent starts his forward swing. At that point he is committed to the shot and is unlikely to be able to change direction.

When your partner's serving, protect your alley by all means, but don't make life too easy for the receiver - be a gamekeeper, but turn poacher occasionally!

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Don't use a last resort first!

I get lobbed a lot. Should I stay back more?

Just about everyone who plays doubles at any level knows that a good team should try to own the net. So why is a principle that is so universally accepted so seldom applied? I suspect it's because many doubles players have a phobia about hitting overheads.

In doubles, you are responsible for your half of the court and if you're lobbed you must strive to hit an overhead so that you can keep your offensive position at the net. Too many players duck out of this responsibility too easily. As soon as any kind of lob goes up, they call "Yours!" and retreat diagonally to the baseline on the other half of the court, leaving their partner to retrieve the situation. Obviously this is necessary at times, but you shouldn't use a last resort first!

Players just don't practise overheads enough! When an opponent tosses up a lob during a match, they're required to hit a shot that they never normally hit except in the cut and thrust of a real point.

You've simply got to develop your overhead if you want to become a useful doubles player. When you practise, track the ball with your free hand and work on moving back sideways to reach deep lobs. Keep your head and your eyes up and strive for full extension as you reach up for the ball. Don't muscle it - let your racket head generate the speed. If you're forced to hit from a difficult position, take some pace off the shot and concentrate on getting the ball back deep.

During pre-match warm-ups, get into the habit of asking your opponent to send up at least half a dozen lobs - and expect to do the same in return.

Your overhead should be one your most lethal weapons. Use it as often as you can.

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You're in power - don't let confusion reign!

How do you contend with opponents who use the Australian formation?

The Australian formation is so-called because the Aussies were the first to use it. In contrast to the conventional formation, the net player stands on the same side of the court as the server. The server approaches the net diagonally (or moves across laterally) to cover the empty side. It's usually adopted by a serving pair when they're in trouble, struggling to deal effectively with crosscourt returns - it forces their opponents to hit returns down the line over the higher part of the net.

The first thing to realise is that if your opponents are resorting to the Australian formation, they're doing it because you're causing them problems. It's likely that you and your partner are hurting them with your crosscourt returns. If that's not it, then you're probably doing damage with lob returns or forcing the server to hit volleys on his weaker side. You should draw confidence from this.

There are inherent weaknesses in the Australian formation. The obvious one is that both players start the rally on the same side of the court, so it's difficult for them to cover the far alley (between the singles and doubles sidelines). Initially you should aim your down-the-line returns towards the alley to exploit this weakness. After a few points, review the situation, bearing in mind that the middle of the court will become very vulnerable for your opponents if the server moves at too great an angle to cover the alley. And if the server's partner starts to cover the middle, bear in mind that the other alley may then become vulnerable!

They're just hoping to confuse and baffle you for a while. But remember, it was the quality of your returns that forced your opponents to adopt this tactic. You're operating from a position of strength and that should give you the leverage to continue being aggressive. Stay confident and adjust your returns as I've suggested here - just give them a fresh set of problems.

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What's the best way for me and my partner to practise our doubles?

You can obviously set up drills for the important shots in doubles, e.g. the serve, the return, volleys and overheads. But the best way for two people to sharpen their doubles skills is to play what I call Crosscourt Singles.

Crosscourt Singles is a full game with normal tennis scoring using the diagonally opposite halves of the doubles court. In other words, the first point of a game is played out crosscourt from deuce court to deuce court (including the alleys, of course) and the second point is played out crosscourt from ad court to ad court. To get the maximum benefit of this practice, you and your partner should serve-and-volley, but you don't have to make it a hard and fast rule.

If possible, mark out a line from the centre of the service line to the centre of the baseline using throw down lines (rubber strips). Otherwise, just rely on each other's judgement and honesty!

Crosscourt Singles provides a really intense way for you to develop your doubles skills. Intense, because you don't have a partner to help you out so you're twice as busy as usual. It's no use calling out "Yours!" when you get lobbed!

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Turn the poacher into a gamekeeper!

As receiver, how can I avoid a poaching opponent?

It can be intimidating when you come across an opponent who is always looking to poach at the net. It can distract you and force you to make errors as you look to see what the player is going to do. It can make you feel you need to hit better and better returns with the result that you stray outside your comfort zone and make more errors. If you allow yourself to be intimidated like this, the poacher has planted the seeds of doubt in your mind and won the mental battle.

A poacher is vulnerable to down-the-line returns and lobs and you can plant some seeds of doubt of your own by going for a couple of these early in the match. If you go for a lob, which is the lower percentage option, don't worry if your opponents can retrieve it - just make sure you get it high enough to clear the net player. It will backfire badly if you fail to do this.

You can't afford to pay too much attention to what the net player is doing. Focus on the ball and direct your returns away from the middle of the court. The poacher will feel less inclined to cross if you've persuaded him that you may very well go down the line or send up a lob. The harmony between server and partner can easily be disrupted if the net player's alley is selectively attacked. Returning down the line becomes a particularly attractive proposition if the serve takes you out wide. It's also a good idea to fire the odd drive straight at the net player. Don't overdo any of this. You should probably opt for the variations just frequently enough to avoid being predictable.

Once you get the net player worried about protecting his alley, you'll have turned the poacher into a gamekeeper!

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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