SI Vault
William F. Talbert
June 30, 1958
The four-time national mixed doubles champion and his wife Nancy give some pointers on how to enjoy a fine summer pastime
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June 30, 1958

The Human Science Of Mixed Doubles

The four-time national mixed doubles champion and his wife Nancy give some pointers on how to enjoy a fine summer pastime

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The offensive lob to regain the net
Here you will see that our opponents have control of the net and are crowding it closely in hopes of ending the rally with a sharp volley off one of our returns. Nancy and I, although in the backcourt, are in good position and hence able to assume the attack whenever a useful opportunity presents itself. This is an excellent strategic moment for the offensive lob that will drive our opponents back and permit Nancy and me to grab the net position. The offensive lob, as distinguished from the defensive, is played low—low but very deep. Sure disaster lies in running to the net after a low lob that is too short. The opponents will just slam it at your feet while you are in no man's land (shaded area in diagram at right), and there is nothing you can do about that. Whenever possible, it is best to place the offensive lob on the backhand side of either of your opponents. Few tennis players have the ability to hit a forceful overhead from the backhand. I often purposely lob low to the backhand of a player at net, forcing him back slightly into his own vulnerable no man's land; since we can then almost surely bank on a weak return, Nancy and I follow the shot to net knowing we will catch our opponents in a bad position.

When in doubt: play the middle
Although the net is the position from which you will win the most points, it is by no means impregnable, as our opponents have demonstrated against Nancy and me in the drawing on the left. Our net position is proper, and a passing shot to the outside of us, where the net is six inches higher, would be extremely risky (see shaded areas in drawing at right). Eschewing the lob, they have chosen to play the safe percentage shot down the middle, keeping it low. There is no need to hit this shot hard; use only as much speed as you can control. Since the shot has been played low it will be impossible for me to volley it offensively for a winner, so all I can hope to do is return it deep enough to keep the opponents back and not lose the net for our side. Since I can cover the middle with my forehand, the down-the-middle shot is definitely my responsibility, but it would be Nancy's if our positions had been reversed and she were in the left-hand court.

Protecting a weak backhand
I am a great believer in the axiom: if losing, change tactics. In the drawing below, where Nancy is serving from the left-hand court, I have moved over to the same side to protect her backhand. Our opponent in the left-hand court had been making beautiful cross-court returns of Nancy's serve, and she was having trouble with the low backhand volleys and half volleys she had to make in following her serve to net. Nancy now will run up to the net position on her stronger, forehand side.

The poacher can be both good and bad
The poach is a vital play in doubles, but not unless done with the full cooperation and consent of your partner. When I'm going to poach, I alert Nancy either by placing my racket behind my back or saying, "You're playing like a dream, darling." This is her cue to cover me from behind in case the maneuver backfires. The worst menace on the court is the "bully" poacher who dashes back and forth at net leaving his partner bewildered. But there is a cure for him: hit it right at his middle (arrow line), down the alley he has just vacated, or over his head (dotted line). He'll get the message, and there will be more fun for all.

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