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The I-Formation | Everything You Need To Know

i-formation in tennis

Strategy & Tactics

The I-Formation | Everything You Need To Know

All doubles players need to know about the I-formation. The I-formation changes the look of the court and creates opportunities to dictate play by limiting the other team’s ability to take control of the point. I recommend this as a first serve, as second serves are usually with less pace and can be more easily attacked. However, if you’ve got a decent second serve, then go for it!

My partner and I love messing with our opponents, and if we’re feeling in a “messing-with-our-opponents” kind of mood, we’ll use the I-formation somewhere in our very first service game. We don’t always do it right off the bat like that, but sooner is better. It’s a great way to show opponents that we’ve got balls, and aren’t afraid to use ’em! (pun intended, lol!)

Are you and your partner ready to add some zing to your service games? Then bring on the I-formation!

What is the I-formation?

The server stands near the center point of the baseline to serve, while the server’s partner crouches low, right over the center of the service line. The crouching posture allows the server a clear view of the court and the best possible down-the-T serve. After the ball passes over the server’s partner, that player quickly gets up and cuts diagonally forward either to the ad or deuce side (which is communicated by both members of the serving team PRIOR to the serve), while the server covers the opposite side of the court. If you’ve watched the pros on TV, no doubt you’ve seen them communicate this movement with hand signals, but quickly (and quietly) talking to each other between serves works just fine, too.

Scenarios in which you should use the I-formation:

This is an aggressive tactic meant to intimidate the opponent into hitting a poor return.

Rattle a team that constantly kills your returns. It’s good to use the I-formation when your opponents are returning crosscourt really well. Psychologically, it’s a way to change up the look of the court, and create some indecision in their return game.

Do it just because you can.Throw in the I-formation every now and again, just to keep that little bit of indecision and doubt in the returner’s mind, because if they’re worried about you and what you may or may not do, they aren’t focusing on their own game.

Where to place your serve:

Because you are leaving so much of the court open, you are risking being passed with a winning shot. Therefore, it is important to be very aggressive with your serve, both in placement and pace.

Aim your serve at the T.Serve hard down the T because it takes away the angle of the return and makes it very difficult for the receiver to change the direction of the ball for a down the line return. Then your partner (at the net) will get up quickly and move to one side, and hopefully will be able to poach with a volley winner. If, however, the returner gets it past the net player, the server will (should) be ready.

Aim your serve at the body. If you your serve has good pace and you’re pretty accurate with your serve placement, aim for the body and jam your opponent. If they get it back, it will more than likely be a weak floater that your partner at net can put away. This works particularly well when serving on the ad side and your partner at net is a righty.

How to respond to the I-formation:

Now what if they use the I-formation on you? How do you respond? How can you take back control of the point?

Aim for the net man by going up the middle. The net man literally just vacated this spot after the serve, so as long as you get it over the net using your topspin (to keep the ball in) you should be good. If the net man somehow makes it back to his spot for the poach, it will be a weak shot that you should smack right back to them again. He/she will already be flustered from your first shot, and won’t have time to get ready for the next ball.

Go down the line (on the deuce side). Not everyone is consistent enough with their serve to nail it down the T when serving in the I-formation, and if you’re a righty and get that “accidental” serve to your forehand, punish the server with a solid forehand down the line. The opponent at net was counting on your return being more up the middle so they could poach, and won’t be as prepared to move to the left for a backhand volley. Now, the server will have to hustle to try and get the ball with their backhand, so their return will be weaker and more defensive. DON’T use this shot if you have difficulty changing the direction of the ball. Practice this shot with a ball machine until you are proficient, as it is a great weapon to have against the i-formation.

Throw up a lob. The offensive lob is a great shot that (usually) gets by the opponent at the net. Aim deep to the back corner of the server’s backhand, keeping it low and using tons of topspin. More than likely you will get a short lob return that you can move in and take with an overhead winner. WARNING: Hitting too short or low can make you sitting ducks for an overhead.

Receive serve with both players back. If the opponent at net is a poaching beast, then your partner at net should move back almost to no-man’s land. That way, if your shot is poached, your partner will have an additional second or two to respond, if needed. This response formation is more successful for the lower level teams, as well.

An I for an I:

When your opponents are serving in I-formation, they are changing up the court on you. You can either stay in the traditional one-up, one-back or both back positions, and pray your opponent doesn’t poach and get it past you, OR you can change up the court on them, too.

And for more advanced teams, my coach taught us a great way to turn the tables on them. He says that because they’ve done the I-formation many times before, they’ve also seen the return court layout many times before. So what do you do? You change it to something they may not have seen before – you mirror the serving team. Yep!

If they’re in the I formation on the deuce side, and the receiver’s forehand is out wide, then mirror the serving team by also getting into I-formation, only the player at the net stays standing (not crouching, and on her own side of the court but right at the center line). This will totally freak out your opponents! The server now has someone crowding the line and messing with her target (the T), and will more often than not, end up serving to the receiver’s forehand. And her partner at the net is flustered because there’s a person right in her face on the other side of the net.

In this instance, the receiver should rip the return down the line with lots of topspin, and then follow it in to the net. If you return is not a winner, the shot coming back will be weak (and probably sitting high), as the server has to move quickly to get it, most likely with their backhand. And if the opponent at net does manage to get a racket on it, then either you or your partner already at net should be able to pick it off for the winner or at least to stay in the point.

The I-formation is a great weapon to have in your arsenal. It changes the look of the court and creates indecision in your opponent’s return game. Make sure and communicate with your partner where you’re planning on serving so that they will know which way to move. And make sure the player at the net crouches low during the serve.

And should your opponents use this against you, simply surprise them with a different look of your own. Practice these techniques with your partner, and you will you will win your serve more often! ***One thing to note, however, is that this serve is not for the net players who have difficulty crouching low at the net (bad back or knees, etc.) In that case, perhaps the Australian formation would be a better choice.

Have you used the I-formation before, and if so, was it successful? Have you had it done to you, and if so, what worked (or didn’t)…we really wanna know, so tell us in the comments below!

4.5 USTA rated/open champion level tennis player, vegan, fitness freak, animal lover, and smart ass who firmly believes that champagne is anathema for all ills. Right now I'm either up to my eyeballs in paint swatches and fabric samples, or kicking some butt on a tennis court (hopefully the latter).

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