The Defense in Doubles
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Few things in badminton is as impressive as the sight of a doubles team thwarting a leaping, yelling smasher by calmly returning the hardest smashes high in the air, daring the smasher to hit through them. However good this looks, the defenders are at the mercy of the smasher. Since hitting downwards is the most likely way of winning the rally, doubles players should avoid using great defenders as role models and instead play doubles aggressively.
The first aim of the doubles rally is to force the opponents to lift the shuttle up in the air, even when you have to hit upwards yourself to get the shuttle over the net. Once the shuttle is lifted to your side, your aim is to maintain the attack until the rally is over. Every now and then, however, your side may be forced to lift the shuttle: you are now on the defense, and now your goal is to regain the attack. The successful defense is one that meets and reverses the opponents' attack in one shot.
Physical skills and quickness are necessary but not sufficient components to a great defense. The most important factor is the ability to recognize the weaknesses in the offense and adapt the defense to maximize the chances of regaining the attack. The point of defense is not really to develop a "brick wall," although this may demoralize or tire the opponent, but to regain the offense. Playing against an unidimensional defenseóone that strives only for consistent deep clears to the back, for exampleóis easier to attack because there is no threat; attacking shots only have to be varied and do not have to be well-executed to maintain the offense. Instead, you should incorporate a variety of shots in your defense and use them depending on the position of the offense. In order to make effective shots, however, there are a few fundamentals regarding positioning and stance that need discussion.
Once you lift the shuttle into the opponents' court high enough for one of them to smash, you and your partner must wait side-by-side and square to the direction the shuttle is coming from. Being square means that the cross-court defender is slightly closer to the net than the down-the-line defender, because the shuttle has to travel farther going cross-court.
Moving From an Up-and-Back Position to Side-by-Side Move straight back if you lift from the net, no matter where you hit the shuttle to
Your partner can see you choose the side, and since your partner is already deep, he or she is less vulnerable and so can take the time to move cross-court to defend.
Move back so that you will be cross-court from the shuttle if your partner clears from the back
This is safest. Moving back from the net into the teeth of a down-the-line smash is suicide.
If you are in the habit of clearing from the back while your partner is at net, you are not considerate of your partner's health and safety. Clearing cross-court from the back is even worse, because your partner's first reaction is to move back cross-court away from you (and be highly vulnerable to a face-high down-the-line smash).
Taking Court Position
The most important factor of defense positioning is that it is fluid - the defense moves around in the court depending on where the shuttle is on the other side of the net.
Stay close together, and protect the alley
Suppose the opponents are about to smash the shuttle from one of their corners. The down-the-line defender moves over toward the sideline, using it as part of the defense, and stands almost straight in front of the smasher. The cross-court defender should sidle over too, to right around the center line, so that the two defenders can graze each other's rackets when they take a normal smash return stroke. Suppose the smash return is directed cross-court to the attacker's opposite corner. Now the two defenders shuffle towards the other sideline as a unit, much like a zone defense does in basketball, maintaining their tight spacing.
Move forward and backwards together as well, depending on how deep or shallow the lift is
If the lift is right to the back line, the defenders could move to half way up the court, as close as possible to the net and still return the smash. This allows them to meet the smash as high as possible so that they don't have to lift the shuttle as much, and also allows them to return the smash as quickly as possible to give the opponents less time to recover. If the lift is mid-court, the defenders should move back, almost to the doubles long service line. Defend deeper (from the back third of the court) too if the opponents have an above-average smash. Defending deep is less preferable because it is harder to regain the attack. The defenders have to hit the shuttle farther, the net man has better chances of cutting the smash return off, and the defenders are more vulnerable to a varied attack where the offense mixes in drops and half-smashes.
Defending closer together seems to invite the smasher to hit wide cross-court, since it looks to be undefended (the "wide" means that the shuttle goes wide to the outside of the cross-court defender, away from the body). As the defender, you are hoping for the wide cross-court since it gives an opportunity for an outright winner. The shot has to travel farther, it takes the smasher's partner out of the rally, and exposes the smasher's down-the-line court. The only advantage such a shot has is that it is unexpected; the cross-court defender therefore has to "look for" the shot. Against a properly positioned defense, the attacker really has a limited range of where to hit the shuttle: from the outside shoulder of one defender to the outside shoulder of the other defender. Any other spot is risky for the smasher (attacking in doubles will be the subject of a future "Play Better Badminton" article).
Once the defenders are in the correct side-by-side position, both have to get ready for the smash by getting the racket out in front of the body and moving your hips back out of the way. Jut your shoulder forward, get the elbow in front of you, and cock your wrist. The point here is to give the racket head room to swing so that you can meet the shuttle in front of you. The impact is both a snap or a flick at the shuttle with your wrist, as well as a push outward with your whole arm. Some people turn the racket head over (pronating or supinating the forearm) at impact; others use their thumb and fingers, snapping them against the grip to move the racket head.
Many players choose either a backhand or forehand stance when they wait for the smash. If you do choose a side, the backhand defense is much stronger than the forehand, which is like an open stance of a baseball hitter. If the pitch is thrown at the batter, or slightly behind him, there is nothing much the batter can do except try to get out of the way. So it is with badminton player smashing at a defender waiting on his forehand. The attacker can smash from the defender's outstretched elbow to anywhere on his body to anywhere near the backhand. At least with the backhand defense, the defender can protect his body.
A doubles team can play a strong defense if both coordinate their waiting stance and assign responsibilities. The aim is to both protect the body and the middle of the court, leaving the wide cross-court smash relatively undefended. The following set of diagrams assume both defenders are right-handed.
Double backhand defense stance
The down-the-line defender doesn't bother with smashes to his forehand, his partner will get them.
Cross-court defender uses forehand defense stance
The two rackets should barely meet each other. In this scenario the cross-court defender is reasonably anticipating that the smash will not go too wide cross-court, and wishes to defend the more vulnerable middle.
Waiting for the smash on a specific side, however, exposes your weaknesses to the attacker. You are inviting the smasher to hit at your strength, like the batter who anticipates the ball going somewhere near the plate. You may wait in a neutral stance, like a tennis player receiving serve, and change your grip as you start your stroke, but getting the racket on the smash takes longer. Against a hard smasher you may be forced to wait on your backhand as well as stand deeper in the court.
For the smash return, I believe the grip is a matter of preference. I like to hold the racket loosely. Many players choke up on the handle, which increases maneuverability and racket head quickness. The return of smash is mostly done with the fingers and wrist. For the backhand, I like to snap my thumb against the back bevel. For the forehand, I hold the racket using a flatter grip, and snap the wrist while quickly squeezing the grip with my fingers.
The purpose of the smash return is to return the shuttle is such a way so that the offense cannot smash effectively a second time. There are several shots the defense can do:
straight or cross-court block - Useful if the smasher's partner stands back from the net. If this shot is effective, the defender who executed it follows the shuttle to the net, trying to force the net man to not play the net and lift.
straight half court - The shuttle should travel behind the net man, but land in front of the smasher. Again, if this shot is successful, the defender who hit the shuttle follows it to the net, forcing the other side to lift.
straight drive - The aim here is to flatten the smash out, and to attack the smasher before he recovers from his smash. It is risky going cross-court because the shot has to pass through the net man.
cross-court lift over the net man's head - Sometimes this shot is effective when the smasher is near a sideline or is off-balance. Also, if the smasher does reach it, the shuttle may be too low to smash.
Which shot you do depends a lot on the positioning of the smasher's partner. Traditionally, the net man puts away weak returns of the smash and protects the smasher against net returns, so he stands near the short service line. Against this type of partner any half court or shot to the back court is effective. Other partners, usually the singles players, the tall ones, or the better smashers, play several feet behind the short service line, hoping to protect the smasher by cutting off drives and cross-court lifts. Against this type of team the drop block is effective.
Cross-court returns are fine only when the net man shows signs of anticipating the straight return. In general, players should establish their down-the-line shots first, and use the cross-court shot as a surprise. The cross-court is not ideal since it surprises and puts pressure on your partner, as well as leaving your side open to a wider angle of attack. There is no point in abandoning an effective down-the-line shot while it is still effective. If you are winning rallies returning the smash half court by the net man, eventually, the net man will adjust and back away from the net and anticipate the return. The next time, block the smash short and cross-court.
The Ideal Defense
If your side has lifted, take the next shot seriously and be prepared for anythingóa clear, a flat smash at your face, a slow drop, the shuttle ticking the net. Get to your court position as quickly as you can, staying close to and moving with your partner to eliminate gaps and force the smasher to hit where you are strongest. Stand still when the opponent is about to hit, squatting slightly with your hips back and your racket in front of you away from your body. If the opponent has met the shuttle late and can only hit a drive, get your racket head up. If you prefer a particular defensive stance, don't commit early since sometimes smashers take a quick peek at the defense before hitting their next shot. Be prepared to moveóforward, backward, or to the side to get your body out of the way Study the net partner and take advantage of his positioning to return the smash so that the opponents do not have a second chance at smashing. You want to reverse the attack. Remember, if you lift, you lose.