You have been invited to play doubles with friends, and the moment has arrived when your partner is about to serve and you must play net. Of course, there is no tennis law that insists you have to play net, but you should want to. Tennis, even at club level, has become a serve-and-volley game and, in doubles especially, the team that controls the net generally will win.
So there you are, up at the net. The first thing you should do is choose a grip. Take the throat of your racket in your left hand and with your right shake hands with the handle. This is the forehand grip. Move the hand an eighth of a turn to the left and you have the backhand grip. Most top players—Gonzalez, Kramer, Budge—use a backhand grip when they volley. A few others prefer the forehand. Either is perfectly correct, and you should settle on the one that feels most comfortable. The important thing is to use only one grip when you volley. Hit your forehand and backhand volleys with the same grip. At net you simply do not have time to switch from one grip to another, as you do when you are hitting from the backcourt. Too often players do try to switch grips, which explains why so many of their volleys go straight up, straight down—just about anywhere except over the net into the other court. It may feel a little awkward at first, hitting a forehand volley with a backhand grip, but you will get used to it and be better off doing it.
I shudder every time I see a player standing at the net, arms at his sides, racket pointing down. No wonder he is beaten so often by easy shots. You must be ready up there. You should hold the racket right out in front of you so that the tip of it is pointing straight ahead. Keep your left hand at the throat of the racket for balance. This way you will be able to move the racket as quickly as possible.
It is also important to keep mentally alert. The best way I know of doing this is to expect every shot to be yours. Think: "This shot is coming at me." If it does not, no harm done. If it does, you will be ready. There is no reason why you should not be alert at the net.
And so, alert, racket up, grip set, you await the start of the point. Your partner serves, and your opponent hits his return—right at you. Well, at least you were expecting it, so you are not surprised. Now, if you have never played net, or if you have played it only when ordered to, chances are you will stand aside and let your partner take it, if he can. This, of course, is a mistake. If you have always enjoyed playing net but usually have missed more shots than you have made, chances are you will take a healthy swing at the ball. This is also a mistake. Do not swing at the ball when you volley. Balls hit at you at the net generally have so much speed that all you need do is block them. If the opponent's shot is weak, you can add a little punch to your volley, like a boxer's jab. Keep your wrist locked and jab, but do not take a backswing. Oh, if your opponent should hit a real lollipop over the net, swing ahead and have fun. But if you insist on swinging at fast shots which are coming at you from close range your chances of hitting the ball where you want it to go are small. Most likely you will be late, like a batter swinging at a good fast ball. By blocking the ball your racket will have become, in effect, a tennis backboard, and backboards fail to return very few shots.
You may argue at this point, especially if you have never played net, that your reflexes are not nearly quick enough to make volleys, to block off a fast shot hit at point-blank range. It is true that some people have quicker reflexes than others, but just about everyone can react fast enough to play net. Have you ever seen a player duck out of the way of a shot hit, say, right at his chin? The shot, he thinks, came at him too fast to hit, and he considers himself lucky to have moved his head while he still had it. But if he had enough time to move his head he probably had enough time to volley the ball. Chances are he was not expecting the shot, and when it came he panicked and ducked.
Panic is not an unnatural feeling at the net. A good way to overcome it is to have someone toss balls at you, slowly at first, but with increasing speed. When it is no longer foreign to you to have a ball coming at you, you will feel more at ease.
Of course, not every shot will come directly at you. Suppose one of your opponents hits a shot wide of you, yet within range of your outstretched arm. Faced with this situation, too many players simply reach out like a first baseman stretching for a wide throw and volley the ball for better or worse. Usually worse. In tennis there is no bag to keep your foot on, and there is no need to act as though there is. You should step into the ball. If you can volley the ball at close range—say a foot or two from your body—you will have much better control in making the shot.
Along similar lines, if you have to volley a ball that has fallen below the level of the net, you must get down to it. Bend the knees, crouch. You cannot expect to make an effective volley of a low ball standing stiff-legged. Incidentally, you should always try to get to the ball while it is above the level of the net. You want to volley the ball down and make the opponents hit the ball up. That is what tennis is all about. It is a cardinal sin to let a ball drop when you might have hit it sooner.
The overhead is an essential part of the net game, for as soon as you have shown you can volley well, your opponents will stop trying to hit the ball past you and start trying to lob it over you. Unless you can return these lobs with overheads, your entire net game will suffer.
The overhead swing should be short and lethal; I like to compare it to hammering a nail in a wall just over your head. You do not wind up and clout the nail, because chances are good you will miss. And you will miss the ball if you try to hit it the same way. The shorter the swing, the less room there is for error. But don't forget to hit the ball and hit it hard, arm fully extended at the point of contact.
Nor should your feet leave the ground when you hit an overhead, except when absolutely necessary. If you learn to get back quickly, it should not be necessary to jump often.
Lastly, do not be overly concerned where you hit your overhead. More overheads are missed because the player was trying to check the last-second movements of the opponents. Forget that sort of thing and simply hit the ball.
I have not discussed where you should stand at the net because so much depends on how effective your volleying and overhead are. I recently played tennis against a good player who was not very tall but who insisted on crowding the net. Now, it is a distinct advantage to play close to the net, because you can get more of a downward angle on your volleys, but this only applies if you are tall enough, or quick enough, to handle the lob. This fellow I was playing against was not. His partner would serve and charge the net, and it was the easiest thing in the world to lob over them. They would have to run back and we would be at the net. If he had been my partner I would have said: "Look, move back a couple of steps. You just don't have the overhead to play that close."
In general, I would say the proper place to play when your partner is serving or when your partner is receiving serve is about two yards inside the service line and a couple of feet inside the doubles alley. But position must remain a flexible thing, depending on your ability, the ability of your opponents and how the match is going.
When you have learned how to volley, you should practice it often in matches. A good volleyer can dominate an otherwise even game, but only if he is aggressive. If you allow a steady stream of service returns to float back across the middle of the net, many of which lead to points for the opponents, you have yourself to blame. You should be cutting off those shots at the net—if not all of them, at least some. This is called poaching, and not enough players practice it.
Poaching requires good timing. If you start moving across the court too soon, your opponent will hit the ball behind you down the alley. If you leave too late—well, you are too late. You must wait until the moment that your opponent commits himself to his shot. It is very much like the steal in baseball. As a matter of fact, I have played a lot of tennis with Jackie Robinson and, as you can imagine, Jackie is an excellent poacher.
Always keep alert to the tide of battle during a point. If, for instance, your partner has laced a return at the feet of your opponent, be prepared to poach. That opponent must hit the ball up to clear the net, a weak shot, a shot you should try to put away. But if your opponent is about to volley a ball from the height of his shoulders, better hold your ground, for he will be hitting the ball down, an attacking shot.
Poaching accomplishes two things. If successful, it wins points, abruptly. Secondly, it rattles the opponent. Knowing that the net man likes to poach puts the opponent under pressure. Is he going to cross this time? Should I try to hit it down his alley? Thoughts like these can make an inexperienced player hit shots everywhere but in the court. It can even bother experienced players.
When I was captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1953, it was pretty clear that a crucial match would be the doubles. I had Tony Trabert and Vic Seixas. The Australians were going to use Lew Hoad and Rex Hartwig, and they were, on the record, a better team than our boys. I felt we had to do something to upset them, so I tried an old system Gardnar Mulloy and I had often used. Just before one of our players was to serve, the other would turn his back to Hoad and Hartwig and signal whether or not he was about to poach. That way the server would know and could cover up for his partner, that is, rush the net on the side of the court his poaching partner had just vacated. But the real value of this signal system is that it created a psychological barrier for Hoad and Hartwig. It gave them something to worry about. Trabert and Seixas won in straight sets.
Equally disconcerting to opponents is the fake poach. To lean on baseball again, the fake poach is similar to Maury Wills taking a long lead from first base, breaking toward second with the pitch and stopping after three steps. The last thing the pitcher sees as he turns his head toward the plate is Wills streaking toward second, and this cannot help his pitching. Faking a poach is equally distracting to a man returning a serve. Seeing you break early, he may try to hit the ball behind you, in which case you will be right there waiting for it. Even if he hits the ball cross-court, chances are it will not be a good shot.
Let me stress that there is nothing unethical or unsportsmanlike about poaching or faking a poach. You should use all the little tricks you can. Above all, if the opponents are having success with a certain pattern of play, you should employ any legitimate tactic to disrupt that pattern. You may continue to lose, but at least you will not be losing the same way.
There are, however, questions of taste in tennis. In a friendly game you can poach too much and spoil everyone's game. It isn't any fun playing with someone who poaches on every shot, or who is always trying complicated shots. I agree that it's great to try a crazy shot—a difficult lob volley or an impossibly sharp angle—but not on every shot. It's nice to win, and a strong net game will help you win, but the main point is for all players to have fun.