By Greg Moran
posted March 7, 2018
When a high level doubles team takes the court, they do so with one thought in mind: Get to the net! These players know that the team that controls the net controls the point. In fact, ten-time Grand Slam doubles champion Anne Smith, estimates that “the team that controls the net in doubles wins the point 85% of the time”.
So yes, the net is the place to be but for many players, venturing forward can be as frightening as a midnight stroll down a dark alley. It’s the fear of the unknown and it’s perfectly natural.
As you move towards the net, you don’t know if your opponent is going to try to pass you to the left or to the right. Maybe they’ll drill the ball right at you or, God forbid, they throw up a lob.
Fear of the lob is the straw that breaks many a net rushing player’s back. “Whenever I come to the net, my opponent lobs me, so I’m not coming in anymore,” is the familiar cry from recreational players. If you’re one of those suffering from chronic lob-itis, have no fear: with a few simple steps you can turn your opponent’s lob into a weapon for your team!
The key to effectively handling lobs is to first recognize when they’re coming and I firmly believe this can be done 90% of the time. When I watch recreational players charge the net, I always look into their eyes. Sometimes I see determination as they sprint forward like a bull in a china shop. Frequently I see fear because they really don’t want to be going to the net and are only doing so because their pro told them to. Seldom, however, do I detect a look of thought or analysis.
I tell my players that when they take the net, their top priority is to answer one question: are their opponents going to hit a lob or drive? If they get that right, they’re well on their way to winning the point.
How to tell what they’re going to do
Common tennis wisdom tells us to watch our opponent’s racquet to get a feel for where they’re going to hit their shot. Sound advice for sure but I feel that the anticipation process starts long before your opponent even begins their racquet preparation.
After you strike your approach shot, pay attention to how your opponents react. Watch their body. If they’re moving forward as they approach the ball, think drive. It takes a very skilled player to execute a lob while running forward and most players innately want to drive the ball. Moving forward encourages them to do so.
Next, look at their racquet face. If it’s flat or slightly closed (strings pointing down to the court), they’re virtually committed to the drive so you should immediately take two quick steps forward and prepare to volley. Raise your hands, take a strong split step just before they strike the ball and then attack the volley with quick feet and a short motion.
If your approach shot has your opponent scrambling backwards or to the side, the lob alert should go off in your head. Smart players lob when they’re in trouble. If you then notice them leaning back and their racquet face is open (strings pointing toward the sky), a lob is not far behind so position yourself accordingly. I like to place myself around the service line when expecting a lob.
Once the lob goes up, the first task is to determine which member of the team is going to deal with it? We’ve all the heard the old joke: “What’s the most common word in the game of doubles?” The punch line, of course is “Yours!”
Though there are several schools of thought regarding which player should cover the lobs, I tell my players that the majority of the time I want them covering their own lobs. Strong, confident players want the ball and you should develop this mentality. When that lobs goes up, immediately push your left foot into the court and swing your right leg back (if you’re right-handed). Turn your shoulders and hips in the same direction and, at the same time, bring your racquet straight up past your right ear and place it into the “backscratch” position.
As your right arm moves behind your head, place your left index finger up and point at the oncoming ball. This will help you track the ball and position yourself accordingly. If your index finger is falling in front of you, it means that the lob is short. Move in towards the net, hit a strong overhead, and end the point. If you notice that your non-racquet arm is moving back over your head and you are forced to move backwards, you now have another decision to make.
Blast or Bunt?
Your ultimate goal with every lob is to hit the ball before it bounces. If you let the ball bounce behind you, more often than not you’ll put your team on the defensive as your opponents move in and take control of the net and the point.
Note: an exception would be if you’re playing outside and your opponent hits a high, defensive lob into the stratosphere. The higher the lob, the faster it falls and the more difficult it is for you to time. The “moonball” lob will still bounce up high enough for you to hit an aggressive overhead. Also, if you’re looking into the sun, you may want to let the ball bounce to give you a little more time to prepare. Be sure to use you left hand to shield your eyes from the sun.
As you move into position, you must make an important decision: blast or bunt. If you can get back quickly and balance yourself behind the ball, go for the blast—a strong overhead smash. If you’re struggling to hit a balanced overhead, simply turn the shot into a high volley. Take the ball out of the air and use a short motion as if you were giving your opponent a “high five.” Bunt the ball back deep, maintain control of the net and begin to anticipate the next shot.
Worst case scenario
While the goal is to hit your opponent’s shot before it bounces, there will be times when a lob is just too good for you to take out of the air. In this case, run back as quickly as you can and try to get behind the ball. Don’t run directly at the ball but rather, circle around it.
As you’re moving back, briefly move your eyes from the ball and take a quick look at your opponents. If they stay in the backcourt there’s no real pressure on you. Simply lob the ball back, move into position for a baseline rally and try to get back to the net as quickly as possible.
Much more likely, you’ll be faced with two players charging the net, eager to move in for the kill. Now you have to come up with something good. More often than not, this should be another lob.
It amazes me how often I see players, trapped off balance six feet behind the baseline, with the ball on top of them, try to rip a winning passing shot. Perhaps this is a good play if your name is Federer, Serena or your dad is Wayne Bryan but for most of us, it’s a recipe for disaster.
If you can get back in time to set up behind the ball, you can consider driving a low return but, if you feel off balance in any way, throw up a lob, keep it deep and make your opponents deal with the physically demanding overhead. Remember, you always want to make your opponents hit the extra shot and give them the chance to hand you the point with an error.
Learn to Ask the Question
Every time you advance to the net, ask yourself that key question as your opponents prepare to strike the ball: lob or drive? Remember, if your opponent is moving forward they’re probably going to hit a drive. If they’re backing up, look for a lob. If you’re not sure, guess lob. If you anticipate a lob, move back and you’re wrong, you’ll still get a swing at your opponent’s drive as it moves at or past you.
The next time you and your favorite doubles partner take the court, make a vow to control the net and remember, a lob from your opponent should not be feared. As you learn to open your mind, and read the signs, you and your partner will ultimately come to view the once dreaded lob as a point ending gift. ~