Do you often find yourself struggling to win service games in doubles? For some reason, your opponents just seem to get on to your serve, the game drags out, and you have to fight tooth and nail just to hold onto serve. I often get this feeling. I don’t lose my serve all that often, but for some reason, I just have to work so hard to survive my service games.
When this seems to be the case, I often find that the main reason is a lack of variety. I can be hitting big serves and trying to place them into the corners, but all too often they come in at the same speed, and they’re too easy for the returner to get on to. One solution I always find works is really adding a lot of variety to my serve; varying the spin and speed of serves so that my opponents are always guessing.
You must remember that when you’re playing doubles, the returner only gets to return your serve every other point, and once every four games. This can make it really hard for your opponent to get a read of your serve, but once they do, and they start getting on to it, then suddenly your service games can become extremely difficult to win. Adding variety to your serve is a great way of stopping your opponents from getting comfortable on your serve, but there is also something you can do with your formation that might just be the answer to your problems.
Whenever things are starting to go pear-shaped on my serve, (and preferably before they start to go pear-shaped), I bring out the I-Formation. The idea behind this is that my partner lines up at the net in the middle of the court, meaning the returners don’t know which side he is going to end up covering. This means that the returner no longer has the option of hitting an easy return cross-court because he can’t be sure that my partner won’t pop up on that side of the court and have an easy volley.
You’re now asking the returner an added question that might just make him take his eye off the ball. You’ve made him question whether he can continue to hit his favorite cross-court return and have forced him to consider attempting the much harder return down the line. It might not sound like a big deal, but, if you’ve had it done to you, you know the kinds of questions it can make you ask yourself.
I remember one time in college, I had been returning out of my mind, just smashing every return as hard as I could, and these two kids didn’t get close to winning one of their service games. Quite sensibly though, they switched to I-formation, just to try and put me off my stride a bit. The result was I hit the next two returns down the line for a clean winner. Rather than giving up on the I-formation though, they kept going, and eventually, the constant guessing put me off my stride. It may have been too late for them, but they didn’t lose their serve again after that.
The I-formation is a brilliant tactic to take back control of your service games. At the end of the day, the pros don’t just do it for show! It works, and it can work for you too!
The volleyer is going to crouch in the middle of the court, a foot or two inside the service line. This gives him the ability to pop up and cover either the deuce side or the ad side when the returner returns the ball. If the server likes, this also gives the server to move in a little bit closer to the middle and serve from more of a singles position.
The most important thing here is going to be communication. If you both end up covering the same side of the court, and the returner rolls the ball into the open court, you’re going to look pretty stupid, so make sure you both know what you’re doing.
The best way to do this is talk through your tactics before each point. The server needs to know exactly where he or she is serving, whether that’s out wide, down the T, or at the body, and the volleyer needs to know if he’s coming up to the left or the right. Most top players will have hand signals to convey these tactics, but in general, they will talk through the tactics for the first serve between points, using the hand signals more on the second serve.
Make sure you don’t rush through this part of the plan, there is plenty of time between points and you should use it to make sure everything is planned out as you want.
There is an obvious danger with this tactic. In a normal doubles formation, you and your partner are on opposite sides of the court, so you have the entire court covered. With the I-formation, you both start in the middle of the court, so you’ve got a lot of ground to cover when you do move into position. Essentially, if you don’t get things quite right, and the returner hits a good return, then you’re going to be in a lot of trouble!
The thing you need to remember though, is that you’re not using the I-formation just to win the next point. You’re using the I-formation to put doubt in your opponent’s mind, and that can have a lasting effect for the rest of the match, no matter no wins the point.
So how are you going to maximize your results using the I-formation? The answer is, using the T serve down the middle effectively. When serving down the T, the ball has less distance to travel than when you serve out wide, so the returner has less time to see where the volleyer is going to pop up. This takes a vital few milliseconds away from the returner and can make a huge difference.
Serving down the T also makes the returner contemplate hitting a much more difficult return. When you’re on the stretch as a returner, it’s much more difficult to hook the ball back down the line off a T serve than it is hitting down the line off a wide serve, the margin for error is much lower. These might seem like tiny details, but they add up to free points for the server in the end.
Of course, you don’t want to hit every ball to the T. You’re going to want to keep your opponents guessing by throwing in some serves to the body and the odd serve out wide, but mainly, you’re going to want to play on that T serve. A favorite tactic of mine is to double bluff my opponents by playing the I-formation and hitting out wide. While the returner expects a big serve down the T, I give them a big kicker out wide, and they have too much time, often resulting in a free point.
Make sure you keep varying which way the volleyer goes too. If the volleyer keeps going to the same side, then you may as well play a regular formation. The whole point of this formation is keeping your opponents on their toes, so without variety, it is useless.
When to Use the I-Formation
You can use I-Formation at any point in the match, whether it’s on a first or second serve. However, as you see when you watch the pros, it is unlikely you’re going to want to use it all the time. The I-Formation is most effective at putting a returner off their rhythm. If someone is all over your serve, it can sometimes be hard to find a way to put them off their game, and this is where the I-Formation comes in handy.
One caveat with this is when you’re playing a returner who is just a much better player than you are. If your serve is not big enough to trouble your opponent then the chances are, the I-Formation isn’t going to change that fact. It’s still worth a go though. If you’re not winning any points anyway, you might as well try whatever you can, but don’t be surprised if a winner goes sailing by you!
In my opinion, the I-formation is part of an arsenal of underused tools that will help you get through your doubles service games with great ease. When someone is schooling you on how to return, it’s easy to default to just trying to hit the ball harder and harder, but in most cases, this is the worst thing you can do.
When you’re serving in doubles, you must remember that the returner only gets to see your serve on every other point, one game out of every four games. It is really hard for the returner to build the kind of returning rhythm that you can get in singles unless you allow them too.
If you keep giving the returner the same serve at the same speed, with the same formation, then they might find themself in a good rhythm, but if you keep mixing things up, they will find it very difficult.
This is an extremely effective tactic that shouldn’t be limited to pro tennis. Yes, the pros have better serves and volleys, but they’re also facing better returners, so there’s no reason why it should be effective in the pro game but not for regular players.
If you can throw in the I-formation at the right times and use it smartly, then you will almost certainly see positive results. The returner might hit a clean winner off it, but even when you lose the point, it asks the returner a question that will put doubt in his mind the next time he comes to return.
It sounds like a tiny detail, but it can make a huge difference to your results. Never let the returner settle and you will find yourself easing through service games and ready to put the pressure back on your opponents when you come to return.
Review by: Will