Tennis For Seniors
Tennis Home
1 - The Basic Stroke
2 - Proper Court Position
3 - Defensive Strategy
4 - Offensive Strategy
5 - Serve and Return
6 - Situation Tennis
Racquets and Stringing

Tennis for Seniors
Author- Richard M. Berger
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Proper Court Positioning

The vast majority of seniors play doubles. The feeling is that doubles is a less strenuous game than singles, and is more suited to seniors who may not have the cardiovascular endurance needed for the individual game. While all this may be true, Doubles is, nonetheless, a very fast paced game requiring much quicker reflexes than the singles, baseline game. True, there are now two players on the court, but that is balanced out by the fact that there are two opponents. In addition they also must cover a court which is 9 feet wider. The additional 4 1/2 feet on each side seems trivial until you consider the fact that now, instead of each side being a long, narrow area, it has become nearly square. That means that in doubles, angles become much more important. In singles, you could hit a ball baseline to baseline at any angle up to 11 degrees either side of center, and it would go in, but in doubles, that angle can be almost 50% more because of the sidelines.

Getting closer to the net becomes much more important in doubles than in singles, because the player near the net can hit angles which would be impossible for someone at the baseline to run down. You and your partner must also realize the advantage it is to hit angle shots, as opposed to shots which are deep and straight down the court.

With that in mind, let's begin to talk about court positioning. We've all heard about offensive and defensive positions. Generally, we consider the team closer to the net to be in an offensive position, while the team further from the net is on defense. If you think about it, though, your position has little to do with whether or not you are on offense or defense. Look at the players in the diagram to the right. The team at the baseline may not be in a great offensive position, but compared to the pair at the net, they are also not in a great defensive position either, because the other team has more options to hit winners.

I prefer to talk about offense and defense like this. When your team is the hitting team, you are on offense. when your team is receiving the ball, you are on defense. Think about it. Regardless of court position, any time your opponent hits the ball, you must defend your side of the court. Likewise, when it is your team's turn to strike the ball, your opponents must defend their side of the court. Failure to defend your court gives your opponents greater opportunity to win the point.

So rather than thinking of offensive and defensive positions, let's strive to attain the best controlling position. Of the two sides in our diagram, which team do you think is in the best position to control the point. Consider first the team that is behind the baseline. If they are about to hit the ball, what are their choices? They can drive the ball between the two players, into the alley on either side, or lob over their heads. If, however their opponents at the net are about to hit the ball, what choices has the deep team allowed? Their opponents can hit an angle shot short to either alley, a drive down the middle, or a soft shot that doesn't carry too deep into the court. Their opponents have many choices of shots which will give them trouble, while they have few choices which the opponents cannot cover with relative ease. A perfect lob is their best choice, because it makes the net team retreat, and thus limits their possible angles. Any drive that they try must have good pace to cause their opponents to have some difficulty handling it. When two people are side-by-side inside the service line, they form two defensive curtains with perhaps a tiny gap between the two, and a little opening at either side.

So the position about two steps inside the service line gives that team better control of the point, mainly because from where they are on court, there is minimum gap between their defensive curtains. They have the best chance of keeping their opponents from hitting a winning shot. They can cover a lob over either of their heads, because they are far enough back that, unless the lob is perfect, they can take it as an overhead with only about four steps back. A drop shot would be useless against them because they would have time to move forward and take the ball very near the net on the first bounce, giving them openings for sharp angles to either side, or a very easy drop shot. A hard drive down the center might hurt them, but only if it were extremely low with topspin to bring it down at their feet. They are also far enough back that they have room to move forward toward the net when they volley, giving them a bit of extra punch to their shots.

So far we have compared what seems to be the ideal court position with one that is slightly less than ideal. But we haven't examined the most common team position.... one up, and one back. We can be pretty sure that this formation is not as controlling as the both forward formation, but is it better than having both players back?

Now we're getting into territory that forces us to say, "Well, it depends." If you are back, and your partner is up, and your opponents are both at the net, then you cannot hit the ball down the line. If you do, your opponent at the net can easily volley your shot cross-court between you and your partner for a winner. Likewise, if you lob down the line, and it's not perfect, that same player has a wide open shot for an overhead between you and your partner. Your only safe shot is a lob. (unless you want to try forcing a shot down the alley within 6 inches or so of the doubles sideline.) Even a cross-court drive gives your opponent the opportunity to volley the ball right at your partner's feet.

What if both your opponents are back, and you are at the baseline, and your partner is at the net. Now you can hit a deep to deep shot anywhere on the court, but still, if you hit down the line, your opponent has a larger area to hit into between you and your partner. Also, your down-the-line shot must be very deep, because if it isn't, the opponent can move closer to the net, giving him an even wider gap to hit into. On the other hand, when your opponents, who are both back, are hitting the ball, they must keep the ball away from your partner at the net, as he is in position to angle the ball off for a winner on either side. They could, however, lob the ball over your partner, making both you and your partner run, you to retrieve the lob, and your partner to cover the side of the court that you vacated. All in all, the one-up, one-back formation is only slightly better than the two-back, and definitely a poor choice against a team with both players at the net. You should always consider this a transitional formation while striving for the ideal controlling position.

Getting to the Ideal Controlling Position

In doubles,at the beginning of each point, both teams are forced to have at least one player back, so the most usual starting position is.... you guessed it.... one up, and one back. Often you will see professional doubles players line up with both players back when they are receiving serve, but even then, most often the partner of the receiver is inside the baseline, rather than two steps behind it. Regardless, your team doesn't have to remain in the starting formation. You will generally want to get to the controlling position and try to maintain it. There are several ways to get there. Some are safer than others, but for senior players, much will depend on your quickness.

In my younger days, If I was the server, I always tried to serve and volley so that I could get to the net before the receiver had an opportunity to do so. As I lost my quickness, I found I was better off serving and remaining about one step inside the baseline, and hoping for a short return which I could take as a ground stroke and move forward. This got me through "no-man's-land" much quicker, and most often, I didn't need to half-volley a ball on the way to the net. For senior players, it's important to be a little more patient in getting up to that ideal controlling position. Unless you still have the footspeed of a 20-year-old, or you have mastered the half-volley, you may be better off to wait for your opponent to hit a ball that your partner can volley, or you receive a short ball that you can take while moviing forward. Either of these two situations offers you the opportunity to move into your ideal position without the risk of having a shot placed at your shoestrings. When you are back, always be alert for that opportunity to advance to that ideal position. And for heaven's sake, don't move inside the service line, strike the ball, and then retreat back to the baseline. Take advantage of that opportunity, and get in there!

When you are receiving serve, you also have opportunities to advance to the net. One of these opportunities is when you receive a second serve, and it does not land deep in the service box. Martina Navratalova took advantage of this situation every opportunity she had, both in singles and doubles. She would take the short serve on the rise and chip it deep to her opponent's court, and continue moving forward until her opponent struck the ball, when she would split-step and be ready for anything her opponent could hit.

There are two other opportunities during normal play when a deep person has an opportunity to move to the ideal controlling position. The first is anytime your partner at the net plays the ball. While your partner is setting up to hit the ball, you should be hustling into position to most effectively cover the part of the court that she cannot cover. The second opportunity to move closer to the net, for both you and your partner, is when either of you puts up a deep lob. You should always follow a good lob to the net. We're not talking about a short lob, but one that the opponents must hustle back and play from near the baseline. Take your cue from your opponents actions. If they are scrambling, you should move in.

Next: 3 - Defensive Strategy