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The Service in Here is Terrible!
by: Brian Mantel
Dear Reader (I assume the singular and hope for the plural) I have completely re-written this article in the light of comments from my coaching muse, Roger Mills. Roger feels that there were too many 'negatives' in the original. The principle here is 'tell them what to do rather than what not to do.' I apologise for the negative in that sentence; that will be the last one. Henceforth I will not be so negative. Damn. I mean, 'henceforth I will be more positive'.
I also apologise to Roger for the fact that the postman got him out of bed, demanding money with menaces, because the copy of the article I sent him was overweight for the stamp. I promise to weigh all my post in future.
Question: What is the most important shot in doubles?
Answers: a) The smash (b) The clear (c) A large Scotch
(a) and (b) are definitely wrong, (c) depends on the circumstances.
The most important shot in doubles is the serve. Having a good serve is a major advantage; which poses the question, what is good serving?
In doubles, we want to be attacking, which means forcing the opponents to lift; so low serves are the order of the day. That is, serves skimming the net tape to land fairly close to the short service line.
Playing the shuttle from below 'net tape' (as we usually say in referring to the top of the net) the receiver will be forced to lift or play the shuttle back close to the net tape. (Better players will be able to play a 'push' from just below the net tape, past the server - unless the server can intercept).
The variation on low serves will be 'flick' serves, which should be hit over the receiver as s/he attacks the low serve. Flicking gives the attack away, but if the flick is deceptive (see below Flick Serves), the receiver should have to change direction quickly, making attack more difficult. Persistently high serving, with no attempt at disguise, is only likely to be effective against relative beginners or players who lack an effective smash. (Even then, it would be a bit predictable). The doubles long service line means the back tramlines are out for serve in doubles, so even the best doubles serves must be shorter than the deepest serves allowed in singles.
It is more common to see high serves in lower level ladies matches, the perception being that men smash harder than ladies. (Before you start sending me hate mail, obviously some women hit the shuttle harder than some men; but at any given level, League, County, International, etc., the men will generally be more powerful). However, good low serves are more effective if the receiver stands further back to receive, as many ladies (and beginners) do. In top-level ladies doubles low and flick serves are much more common.
Most people would settle for accurate and consistent low serves, close to the net tape; but there is more to it than that. Good serving involves knowing how and when to vary the placement of the serve - and when to persist with a serve that is effective. The most important thing is to force the receiver to try to return the serve. Many 'cheap' points are scored when receivers fail to return the serve into court. Equally, a lot of errors are made by the server trying to serve too close to the net tape or to the lines. You only need to do that if your opponents are returning aggressively and effectively. Only serves that you make the receiver play are going to earn you points.
A good server will observe how and where the opponents stand to receive, and which racquet face (if any) is preferred. Some receivers will stand too close to the centre line or too close to the sideline, leaving a large space to serve into. Others will stand a long way back from the service line, which means they will have difficulty attacking the low serve, but will deal with flick serves and high serves more easily.
Some players are so biased to backhand receiving that they are much less effective when forced to receive forehand. (Obviously, the same applies in reverse.) Some have difficulty with serves directly at them, which force a 'forehand or backhand?' decision
Servers should develop the ability to serve anywhere along the short service line. If this can be done with deception, great, but even if your opponent has an idea where the low serve will go, it is better to serve to the place they would least like. Variation of serve is also a good idea - low serves to different places along the line, and some flicks.
The time to leave out the variations is when you are struggling to get a good serve over. Then you should go back to your best serve - analogous to the bowler's stock delivery. If you find a serve which continues to cause a problem for the opponents, don't change it unless it ceases to be effective.
If the low serve is being dominated, the normal response is to flick. Flicks serves are serves which are disguised as low serves as long as possible, ideally until the moment of impact, then hit up high enough to be above the receiver's outstretched racquet, forcing the receiver to move back. A truly successful flick will have the receiver moving forward to take a low serve whilst the shuttle is sailing over his (or her) head. But a lot of flicks are unsuccessful…
Many players hit very flat flick serves or 'drive' serves, which the receiver can intercept without much backward movement, and which, if left, often go out at the back. Another common error is to try to flick too close to the centre line or the sidelines - far too many of these will go out too.
The flick should rely on deception, going over the incoming receiver, rather than on pace or placement too close to the lines. The moral is, if you flick, flick OVER (the opponent), flick IN (the court).
If you have a good flick serve, use it at the first opportunity, to put doubt in your opponents' minds as early as possible. There is, of course, very little point trying to deceive someone who stands a long way behind the front service line with a flick. However, a higher flick serve will still force them back (as far as the rules of doubles allow), where they may be very weak.
Mostly low serves in doubles
Warning: Although every effort has been made to make this a negative free article, with zero amounts of 'can't, won't, shouldn't, hasn't, and isn't', the article may contain traces of 'not', to which some particularly picky and pedantic readers may have a reaction, especially if they have got our of bed the wrong side having been woken up by the postman.