What is the I Formation and how do you use it in doubles without messing your own play up? In this episode of Tennis Quick Tips, I talk to tennis pro Ian Westermann of Essential Tennis. Ian explains what the I Formation is, what the Australian Formation is, and just how you can put both of those formations to work in your doubles matches. He even gives some insider tips on hand signals. Guess what? They're not as hard to use as you might think! You can listen to this episode by clicking on the media player above or by listening in with your favorite podcast app. You can also subscribe in iTunes by clicking on this link: tennisfixation.com/itunes.
Transcript of Interview with Ian Westermann:
KIM: Well I am talking today to Ian Westermann of Essential Tennis. Ian is a tennis pro who I have followed for a long time because he has an incredible online website. He does fantastic video instruction that is available both for free on his website and on his YouTube channel. He does video courses and a lot of other online courses and he has an incredible podcast called Essential Tennis and that’s really where I first started getting interested in the podcast world was through the essential tennis podcast. So I’m really happy that Ian agreed to be interviewed today and Ian, can you give my Tennis Quick Tips listeners some background about yourself for those who might, although i find it hard to believe there might be people who don’t already know all about you?
IAN: Hey Kim. Sure. It’s very kind of you. I appreciate it and thanks for having me on your show. There are not enough people doing content like this online within the tennis community in general. So congratulations on your podcast. You just went over a hundred episodes didn’t you?
KIM: Yes I did. Which honestly, when I first started out I really was like, I don’t even know if I can do fifty episodes. What could I possibly have to say about tennis but yeah as you probably already have known for quite a while, there is a lot to say. You never run out of stuff.
IAN: Absolutely. Yeah so I started my website back in 2008 and it began with the Essential Tennis podcast, I started that before the website even launched and in 2011 I quit my full time job as a teaching professional to pursue the website full time and now I have two full time employees helping me out. We have the number one tennis podcast on iTunes, the number one tennis instruction YouTube channel, and we're just working hard to put out as much helpful tennis instructions as possible in whatever format and on whatever platform people are gravitating towards.
KIM: Well, you really have covered it all. I’ve got personally so much out of what you’ve put out just for free. The content you have that’s easily available online, but I don’t know if you remember I worked with you one time at the Tennis Congress. I remember i was very adamant about I don’t care what Ian Westermann is teaching, get me in so I can meet him and meet him in person and get to work with him. So I really enjoy that they let me work in your class. It was a serve class. Like almost every other tennis player, I always need help with my serve so it was a really fun class. Well what we are talking about today is something that I did ask you to talk about because it is something that I personally need help with. I haven’t used it a lot but I knew that someone with your level of experience would have some good tips, advice and insight on it and it’s the I Formation in doubles. And I personally play, I would say my doubles is kind of intermediate to high intermediate, but I have avoided the I Formation. The very few times that I’ve actually used it in matches I think it probably confused me more than it did my opponents. But I do know it’s a great tactic to use if done correctly and I would certainly like to try it out more this season so I thought you’d be a great person to help me and all the other tennis players like me out there who kind of know what it is but don’t really know what the heck we are doing. So maybe first, can you explain just what the I Formation is for all of us who may not be exactly sure what we are talking about?
IAN: Sure. Absolutely. The I Formation is called that simply because it’s a starting position in doubles where the serving player and the serving player’s partner are basically in a line with each other right down the middle of the court. So a server will be lined up right up next to the hash mark, typically he may be a little bit away from the hash mark, maybe right in the middle of the baseline and his or her partner will be typically crouching right over the center service line so the serving player and the serving player's partner are in line with each other, basically creating a perpendicular line with the net and the baseline. Hence the I Formation.
KIM: And the point is, I guess, you don’t know of those two players, the server and the server's partner who’s up at the net, you don’t know which way they are going to go, who is going to do what. In other words, it’s a tactic where to some extent, you’re trying to get in the returning teams head I guess is one way to say it.
IAN: Yeah. Well here’s the way I view the I Formation and the Australian Formation and even the Double Back Formation as a returning team. Here’s, I guess, here's the crux of the matter. The crux of the matter is when you look at club tennis or amateur tennis, those of us that are just regular players, 99% of amateur level doubles points are played in exactly the same way. Both sides start one up one back and they predominately stay one up one back. And the little bit higher levels, the back person may get a little bit more confidence in closing into the net than having both players up at the net but for the most parts, doubles across the board is played in the same predictable manner and so anytime that we use the I Formation or Australian Formation or Double Back Formation. Basically the whole point is to break away from that predictable pattern and as you said Kim, yeah absolutely trying to get into the head of our opponents by giving them a different look and getting them out of their comfort zone and forcing them to do something different than what they have been doing up until this point both in this match and probably throughout their entire tennis career.
KIM: Right. So having said that, when do you use the I Formation? And that’s probably a pretty open question. A lot of times you could use it, probably can use it all the time, but when do you like recommend to players, and I’m just talking again about intermediate level players, to now it’s time to try the I Formation.
IAN: Sure. Yeah, there are two main reasons why you would want to use the I Formation or the Australian Formation. Reason number one would be when your opponents are really grooving on the return of serve and the reason why I Formation can be so effective is it puts a huge element of doubt in the mind of the returning player because he or she doesn’t know which side is going to be the open side. The returner's first and most important job is to avoid the serving player's partner, the person at the net on the other side, with his or her return. So if we can put that, you know a seed of doubt in their mind about which side of the court is going to be the open side where they can freely avoid the net player, that adds a huge element of extra difficulty and uncertainty and just makes it that much more challenging for them and again we are breaking up the routine and the rhythm and forcing them to do something different and the best time to do that, for me, this is the number one time, would be when the returning player is really getting amazing return after amazing return, really grooving, feeling good and just kind of dominating with the return.
KIM: And so it’s a way that you can sort of break up the momentum of that returner who’s doing a great job. And doing a great job just in general or doing a great job hitting a really good cross court return?
IAN: Well, it could be either one. In my experience, not a whole lot of amateur players use the approach very often or very effectively either. Maybe they’ll try it once and if it doesn’t work, they’ll be okay let’s just go back to regular double, quote regular doubles, and just play the standard you know straight up doubles points. So the I Formation is a way of really forcing the issue. We are letting that returner know before the service is even struck, listen, you can’t just rely on whatever old faithful has been for you throughout the course of this match. You now have a choice to make and you don’t know, you cannot take for granted, everything that you’ve been taking for granted up until this point in the match. It really throws a wrench in the middle of things.
KIM: Right. And part of the value of the I Formation is you don’t know if that net person and consequently you don’t know about the server either if they are going to, which direction they are going to break. In other words, they aren’t always going to break and cut off the cross court return, it could all go either way. That’s part of what you’re doing. So I guess where I personally get confused with this and my partner probably gets even more confused because they’re just like what do you want me to do here. You need to know, the serving team, you need to know who is going where, right?
IAN: Yeah. Communication is absolutely critical because if you and your partner are not on the same page then you’re absolutely right its almost just as much of a detriment to you as it is a detriment to the returning player so communication is key and I recommend talking before the points starts and also using signals as well. And this is kind of another one of my pet peeves is how infrequently amateur players use signals at all. At the very least you should be talking and setting it up before the points starts but I like confirming the plan with signals as well and that way you can use the I Formation for second serve as well. You don’t have to go through the trouble of trying to remember like six to eight different things for both serves. It’s just not very practical. So signals are huge and communication in general is huge.
KIM: Okay. So when you’re talking about communicating you should be getting straight between you the serve is going to go here and you are going to break to this side. This is between the serves, or whichever way it’s going to go. And on using hand signals can you give examples of just what kind of simple signals people could adopt that you know doesn’t really require a lot of brain power in the middle of the match to apply hand signals.
IAN: Yeah. That’s key, simplicity is key because it just makes it that much easier and therefore that much more likely that you’re actually going to do it. We actually just published a video. If you go to YouTube and type in doubles hand signals, we have a video on our YouTube channel that shows this but I can describe it easily enough. Basically, the first signal is going to be the serve location and for this I always use my index finger to point in one direction so let’s just imagine with me for a second that Kim, you’re serving on the deuce side, I’m your partner at the net. For an outside serve I would point my index finger. I’m left handed so I would have my right hand behind my back so I would point my index finger out to your left to indicate a wide serve. I would use my pinky finger in the other direction to indicate right down the T and I would use my middle finger to indicate aiming for a body serve. So out to the left, out to the right and right down the middle are the three possibilities for the serve signal. And then after you have confirmed audibly with me either yes or no and we're set as a team as far we are going to aim your serve. Then I would either point to the right or to the left with again, either my index finger or my pinky finger and that would just simply signal I’m going to cover to the left, or I’m going to cover to the right. It’s a mistake to use poach or stay terminology in my opinion because it just really overcomplicates things. If you just signal to your serving partner behind you that you’re going to go left or right, in my opinion, that’s the simplest way to do it.
KIM: And the interesting thing is that what you just said is very simple but the person who is really making the decisions there is the net player not the server.
IAN: Well, the server, think of it this way, and I don’t know, pretty much everybody listening is going to know enough about baseball to know this analogy. It’s basically like a pitcher/catcher mentality where the catcher is giving the signals, the catcher is the net player but the pitcher is in the driver seat. The pitcher can nod off and say no, meaning shake his head left or right and say no I don’t want that, in which case the catcher will show another signal and the pitcher can either nod yes and accept that signal or again shake it off and say no I want a different signal. So it’s kind of the same relationship there, where the net player is providing an option but the serving player ultimately is the one that’s going to say yes or no after each signal that’s given. Does that make sense?
KIM: Yes, it does make sense. Yeah. So obviously you have to have a good relationship with your partner and communicate and you have to both fully be committed to doing this.
IAN: Just like any other successful partnership.
KIM: Yeah. It’s true. Well, tell me your thoughts on, okay, let’s say we get the I Formation down, we know the signals, we know what’s going to happen, should the server be coming in or are they sort of giving up the advantage of the I Formation if the server then stays back.
IAN: It definitely does not give up the advantage if the serving player stays back. The serving player definitely does not, it’s not required. The serving player does not have to serve and volley. For me personally, my style of doubles is just very smash mouth and aggressive so I’m going to serve and volley regardless but the main benefit here is that uncertainty for the returning player about which side of the court the serving player's partner is going to be covering. That’s the main thing here and so as long you and your partner are on the same page, you’re communicating well, you’re covering your respective sides of the court correctly, you’re still getting a huge value out of the I Formation even if there’s not serve and volley happening.
KIM: Okay. And that person, the net player, the server's partner who’s up at the net, the real value here is not only that they make the move but they have to be ready to go for it. Like, not just make the move but to actually do something, get the poach and so the net person can really determine how ultimately successful this can be by their willingness to be aggressive is what I’m thinking.
IAN: Yeah. And I think this is just an overarching foundational attitude that all of your listeners should have as doubles players. When you are in that net position, let me start with this, let me be very clear by saying that as the partner of the serving player, you have a huge responsibility as to the outcome of that game. In other words, whether or not your partner holds serve has a lot to do with whether or not you do your job at the net. I think there’s a lot of times and attitude that people think aww man, her serve is getting broken over and over again. Well a lot of that falls on your shoulders as the player at the net and the best attitude to have as that player is just simply to be looking every single time the ball is struck especially by a baseline player aka the returning player on the other side. Any time the ball is struck over on the other side, especially by a baseline player, you should be looking to get your racket on that ball whenever humanly possible because you are in the attacking position, you are in the offensive position and so if you are tentative and passive and letting a lot of balls go by and you’re not actively looking to get your racket on as many balls as possible then you’re just not supporting your serving partner the way that you should be.
KIM: Yeah. I love to hear that because I like to be aggressive when I’m up at the net and I like my partners to be aggressive. i think though there are a lot of players out there who worry about well if I’m aggressive and I miss it or I blow it, my partner is going to be mad at me. i try to tell my partners just go, you’re not ever going to make me mad by being aggressive but it’s a message that it’s hard to get it out there. I think a lot of people hold back because they are fearful of not being successful and somehow upsetting their partners but I say go for it. So especially if you’re going to be doing something like this I Formation. Well before we wrap up talking about this, early on you talked about also the Australian Formation, so just to be clear can you say the difference between the I Formation and the Australian Formation?
IAN: Yeah. Sure. The I Formation can be really intimidating and the Australian Formation, it doesn’t quite throw a wrench in the middle of things like the I Formation does but it does force the returning player to do something different and so it can be very useful and very effective without being quite as difficult to pull off as the I Formation. So the Australian Formation, the serving player again starts right next to the hash mark right close to the middle of the baseline as opposed to a traditional serving position which is out near the alley and instead of the server's partner lining up in the diagonal box from them. In other words, if your partner is serving on the deuce side, you would be on the outside box. You’re going to line up on the same side of the court. So if your partner is serving on the deuce side on the baseline and just a little bit to the right of the hash mark, then you as the partner are going to be lined up in the deuce side service box tight in front of them. Basically we want to be as close to the middle of the court as possible right up next to the center service line as far as we can without blocking the server's view of the service box that they are aiming for. So this has a couple of advantages over I Formation in that it is much simpler. There is no pressure by the serving player about having to hit directly over the head of his or her partner so that kind of takes away a little bit of anxiety. There is also not the physical challenge in the I Formation, its necessary as the server's partner to get down nice and low so your head is below the height of the net to make a clean path for your partner to serve potentially right over you. And in the Aussie Formation, we don’t have to worry about either of those two things but we're still totally changing the look for the returning player and totally forcing them to do something different which is again the main benefit of the I Formation as well.
KIM: So you’re just a little bit more over towards the side that your partner is on, that service box, as opposed to like you said being in the opposite side of the court. Now you’re making it clear you’re covering that side and its forcing the returner to either go down the line or hit a lob return or just something different.
IAN: Something different. Exactly.
KIM: Y, okay well this has been very helpful for me and Ian, I am not even going to tell you how many of my partners are not going to be happy with me in the next few weeks because I’m going to force people to do this with me just because I do agree, I mean as I said at the beginning, I myself when I do the I Formation, I start getting confused, I think I have it straight now but I am sure when I’m playing against someone who does this, the first thing I start going is, oh my gosh, what’s happening, why have they done that, what’s wrong with my return, was I doing something good, you know and immediately as the returner makes you start questioning everything you’ve done and for no other reason, whether they’re hitting these incredible returns or not, it’s worth it just to throw them off a little bit.
IAN: Yeah absolutely.
KIM: Thank you.
IAN: I would encourage you Kim, to start with the Aussie because it’s much simpler, the communication is very simplified. You cannot go back to a poacher plan as opposed to with the I Formation, there is always something going on, there’s kind of crossing from side to side. Aussie is much more straight forward and kind of a lot simpler to wrap your head around.
KIM: Okay yeah. Maybe people won’t desert being my partner if I start them out with that simple one. Well thank you so much Ian, before we go, can you tell my Tennis Quick Tips listeners where they can find more of your tennis instructions and where they can get in touch with you.
IAN: Yeah sure. The hub or the main place for everything is at our main website which is essentialtennis.com. We post our audio podcasts there, we posts our instructional videos there but also depending on where people like to get their content from you can subscribe to us on YouTube or on iTunes or we are now doing several Periscopes per day as well. Kim, I know you’re jumping on Periscope as well which is a lot of fun.
KIM: I love it, I’ve loved your's because the ability to ask questions as it's happening and make comments. I didn’t think I was going to be that into it but I love it.
IAN: Cool. So yeah we basically try to be everywhere, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and we try to publish as much as we possibly can to be helpful to your average amateur tennis player which is who we are targeting with pretty much everything that we make.
KIM: Well, thanks very much. As I said I have benefited so much and I know everybody out there who is listening to this podcast could get a lot from all of your information so thanks so much for putting it all out there and doing all that work and thank you for talking to me today. I really appreciate it.
IAN: Yeah you bet. Anytime Kim, thanks for having me on. It’s been a lot of fun and keep up the good work with your show.
KIM: Thank you
RESOURCES AND LINKS FROM THIS EPISODE:
You can click on these links to the resources mentioned in this episode:
- Essential Tennis website
- Essential Tennis podcast on iTunes
- Essential Tennis YouTube video on Using Hand Signals in Doubles
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