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Respected tennis writer Joel Drucker answers your questions about the thrills and spills of the recreational player. Got a hole in your game or a question for Joel? Drop him an email at and you may find yourself in a future column.
Q: Can you write on when to use the Australian formation, the "I" and both players back. Why would you use these in a match?
Doreen Westford, MA

A: Dear Doreen: Each of these tactics has value, but first, in a bigger sense, the use of different formations is important most of all because it forces opponents to see the court differently - and that's something you should experiment with throughout the entire match. A companion piece, for example, is to alter where you stand to serve and return. Even pros get into a returning groove, and recreational players are even more technically shackled - for reasons related to technique and practice, some people simply can't hit a forehand down the line with anywhere near as much pace as a crosscourt drive. For that reason alone, it's good to use any of these formations. What they do most of all is plant doubt in your opponent's head. The purpose of any tactic is to raise consciousness - that is, to disrupt the other team and at the same time keep your own duo from falling into a predictable rut.

The "Aussie" or "tandem" formation is the one where the net partner is stationed more or less in line with the server. One major goal of this is to nullify an opponent's crosscourt return, in effect eliminating the sharp, low angle of, say, a powerful forehand drive. When the opponent is forced to hit down the line he's less likely to hit the ball away from the incoming netrusher. And because the ball no longer is moving at the angle of a crosscourt drive, it's a lot harder for the receiver's net man to cut off your incoming shot. Another good reason to use the "Aussie" is if you're trying to get a return to come back to a side you particularly favor. When my friend Dan serves into the ad court in a conventional format he'll sometimes have to take a return off his shoelaces and play a low backhand volley. But when we play "Aussie" he's able to let the ball bounce and strike his powerful forehand.

At the recreational level I'm not a big fan of the "I." That's the formation you see where pros crouch right along the center stripe and then move one way or another. As Pam Shriver once told me, "It's not so easy to get out of a crouch to hit a volley." And so you know, when facing this formation, it's best to aim your return right down the middle - the croucher is moving one way or another, so just drive it straight ahead.

"Two back" - both receiving partners hanging back near the baseline -- is good when one partner is returning poorly and you're just getting devoured by the net man. It's one thing to volley weak returns at someone's feet. But again, the court looks far different when you have to volley into wide open spaces. "Two back" is also wise when you and your partner decide it's best to throw up repeated lobs - returns, second shots and so on. Don't feel that in any way you are engaging in underhanded tactics when you do this. The lob is the most underrated shot in tennis - and at the recreational level, overheads are guilty until proven innocent. Many times it's productive to go with two back on the first serve and then move back in for the second. Another incremental tactic is "3/4 back," wherein the net man is in no-man's land - but ready to dart forward if the return is good.

I also recommend experimenting with the "Aussie" early in the match, even giving it a go at 40-love just to see how the opponent react to it. It's good to try this stuff early so that later in the match if necessary you're comfortable with it. Hold the "two back" in your pocket and use it only when your returns are really starting to suffer.

Q: My son is 14 and starting to get more into tennis. He wants to improve, so how do I help get him matches with better players?

A: Glad to hear of your son's hunger. But your question is built on a false assumption. You don't get better playing better players. When I was 15 I used to hang out at the UCLA courts watching its championship varsity team practice. A guy named Jeff who was 19 always had his nose up these guys' butts. We suspected he wasn't nearly as good as them, but there he was, laughing, hitting, but hardly getting points. Whenever we asked Jeff to hit some, he treated us like dirt. But one day Jeff agreed to play with a friend of mine I'll call Harvey. And sure enough, Harvey split sets with Jeff. All Jeff had learned was how to look good while losing. Jeff had never faced the true pressure that accompanies expectation: the pressure of beating the people you're supposed to beat. Lynne Rolley, currently tennis director at the Berkeley Tennis Club (OK, it's the club where I play) was a USTA coach for 15 years and strongly recommends that any player look to build a win-loss ratio of 2:1. With that in mind, I'd recommend your son play 40 percent of his matches versus worse players (who he should beat 90 percent of the time), 40 percent against roughly the same (strive to win 60-70 percent) and 20 percent against better (less for winning and more for the experience of facing a tougher range of skills). As for arranging these matches, as an adult I will gladly take a phone call from a parent who wants me to play with his child. But after the first match, it's up to the child to show initiative and make that call. As far as scheduling matches with other kids goes, this should be peer-to-peer. Tennis is a game that teaches self-reliance, so let the lessons start even when arranging matches.

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Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."

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