Friday, August 17, 2012

Doubles Rock, Paper, Scissors

We all know that Rock beats Scissors, Paper beats Rock, and Scissors beats Paper, but did you know that a similar relationship holds true for doubles formations?

There are three basic doubles formations: Both-At-Net, 1-Up-1-Back, and Both-Back. We'll call any formation where a player is in no-man's-land a transition, because you don't want either player to stay there because deep volleys and half-volleys are low percentage shots. Here's what-beats-what:
  • Both-At-Net beats 1-Up-1-Back
  • Both-Back has a chance against Both-At-Net
  • 1-Up-1-Back beats Both-Back.
Simple, eh? If you can remember these simple rules, it makes decision making easy in doubles. Notice that Both-At-Net never completely loses, and that's why conventional wisdom says to try to get to that position. However, there is a transition cost every time a player has to move through no-man's-land. Also, 1-Up-1-Back is better than Both-At-Net against the Both-Back formation.

Both-At-Net beats 1-Up-1-Back because the guy at net in 1-Up-1-Back is useless. He can't react quickly enough to volleys from the other side to be anything other than a target. The guy at the baseline has to cover the entire court and hope his partner doesn't get hit outright.

Both-Back has a chance against Both-At-Net because both players on the baseline can react to volleys and overheads and split the court. How much of a chance depends on how good the baseline players are at lobs and how good the net players are at overheads. To a lesser extent it is also a matchup between the baseline players ability to hit passing shots and the net players ability to volley against pace.

1-Up-1-Back beats Both-Back because the net man can selectively pick off any weak shots and short lobs that come his way and protect half of the court. The net man can let hard hit shots toward the middle go (something that is not an option in Both-At-Net) because his partner can still get to it. And his partner on the baseline can deal with even well hit lobs aggressively. Every time the Both-Back side hits the ball, they have a good chance of messing up and giving the net man a sitter. Because of that major disadvantage, they lose.

Once you have those simple rules in mind, the rest of the strategy in doubles is about minimizing the affect of your transitions and taking advantage of your opponents' transitions. For example, serving and volleying is a transition from 1-Up-1-Back to Both-At-Net and therefore has some disadvantage to it. It comes down to a matchup between the net rusher's volleying/half-volleying and the returner's ability to hit with pace and keep it low. Also is it a test of the returner's ability to lob the net man. If you can't find serves that force weak enough returns to allow you to hit the transition volleys consistently, then you should stay back and see if your groundstrokes can match up better with the returner's. By the same token, if you can't prevent the returner from lobbing the net man (by serve choice or by moving the net man back a little), you should probably stay back.

Let's say you are staying back on the serve, though. If the returner can hit a return and transition to the net, now you are in a losing position (1-Up-1-Back vs Both-At-Net). You have to find ways to prevent the returner from doing that by looking for serves that make it harder for him to do it or having the net man do more poaching if the return is more of a chip.

Keep in mind that transitions are about having the time to cross no-man's land before you have to hit a shot. You can successfully accomplish a transition by being closer to your target (e.g. standing closer to service line if you are the returner so you have less distance to get to the net position) or by hitting a shot that takes longer to arrive at its destination (e.g. a high lob that lands deep giving you lots of time to rush to the net or for your partner to retreat to the baseline). You can also manage your transitions better if you recognize the need to make one quicker. If you keep the simple rules of what-beats-what in mind and think about how you want to transition, it is the basis for very high percentage doubles.

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