The choice of attacking shot angles is one of the most commonly misunderstood areas of doubles tactics.
As a general guide, smashes and drops shots should be straight or to the centre (cross-courts tend to be suicidal).
Smashing angles can be straight, to the middle, or cross-court. When you’re playing a smash to either side (straight or cross-court), you have the additional choice of whether to aim for the outside edge of the court, or aim directly at the defender.
Many players prefer cross-court drops and smashes, mainly because they think these shots are advanced. This shows a fundamental lack of positional understanding.
When you are smashing from a corner, these are normally your best choice, because they have the shortest distance to travel.
Remember: the shorter the distance, the less time your opponents have to react, and the faster the shuttlecock will be travelling when it reaches them (shuttlecocks slow down a lot over distance, due to air resistance).
Smashes to the middle
Smashing to the middle is a good variation, because it often causes uncertainty in the defenders about who should take the shot.
When you are smashing from the middle (as opposed to from a corner), aiming your smash towards the middle is especially effective; indeed, it’s such a good choice that it should be almost automatic. This is because:
1) It travels the shortest distance, so your opponents have the least time to react.
2) Your opponents may be unsure who should play the shot.
3) It offers the least effective angles of counter-attack for your opponents.
This last point is important: it’s hard for your opponents to play any counter-attaking shots, because both you and your partner are already positioned along the middle line. All possible replies are covered.
When you are smashing from a corner, the middle line of the court is not exactly where you should aim. Rather, aim between the players (this usually means aiming slightly off towards the straight side, since the cross-court defender will probably be closer to the middle than the straight defender is).
You should usually avoid playing these, because they have the longest flying distance. Because the shuttlecock travels farther across court, it takes longer to reach the same distance from the net; and it also slows down dramatically as it travels.
The result is that your cross-court smash will be slower than your straight smash, and the cross-court defender will have more time to react (it’s simple geometry).
To take advantage of this, a well-positioned cross-court defender will be standing closer to the net than his partner covering the straight angle. Because the cross-court defender is able to stand closer to the net, he can play much more effective counter-attacking shots.
Moreover, the angles for counter-attack are much better after you play a cross-court smash. The defenders will usually play a straight reply; even a lift can cause you problems, but a straight drive is absolutely lethal.
Of course, there are occasions when a cross-court smash is a good shot; but normally only when the opponents have been forced out of position. If they are covering the court well, you should probably avoid smashing cross-court.
Aiming at the defenders
Aiming at the defenders is a very effective tactic. The most vulnerable spot is around the defender’s racket-side hip, because it’s the point where backhand defence begins to become less effective, but forehand defence is still awkward.
If you aim for this point you may cause your opponent to be uncertain about whether to play a backhand or forehand, and you also make many of his shots more difficult because his racket swing is cramped.
Steep or flat?
Most of the time, you should make your smashes as steep as possible. Top players make athletic jumps for height, so that they can play the smash with an even steeper angle (a jump smash).
The advantage of a steep smash is that it is much harder to counter-attack, because the shuttlecock will be farther below net height when the defender hits it.
As an occasional variation, however, you can also play the smash flatter. This is effective if your opponents are slow to bring their rackets up from a low defensive position. If you play a flat smash, it’s normally best to aim directly at the opponent (hitting towards his head or chest). Some players, especially those with long arms, have difficulty coping with these shots.
Be careful with flat smashes. If you hit them too hard, they will go out the back of the court!
In most respects, drop shots follow the same principles as smashes.
Straight, cross-court, or to the middle?
As with smashes, your default choice should be straight. Drop shots to the middle (between the players) are also a very good choice.
Cross-court drops should usually be avoided, because they give the cross-court defender far too much time; as with smashes, they expose you to a deadly counter-attack: straight net shots, pushes, and drives are murderous.
Hitting at the defenders is pointless
Unlike smashes, there’s no advantage in aiming your drop shots at your opponents. When you play a straight or cross-court drop shot, aim for the side tramlines: it’s slightly farther for the defenders to move.
(When you play a drop shot to the middle, aim to place it between the opponents and cause maximum confusion.)
These are normally best played straight or to the centre, because afterwards your side will be well positioned to cover the next shot; with a cross-court net shot, however, your court is opened up somewhat to straight counter-attacking shots (net shots, pushes, or even shallow lifts).
Another important difference between straight and cross-court net shots is that straight net shots can be played with spin. Cross-court net shots can never use spin.
Despite this, cross-court net shots are extremely useful when used at the right time. If you are engaged in a net duel, then a cross-court net shot played away from your net opponent can often secure you the attack.
Pushes are usually played straight down the side tramlines, because a cross-court push will typically pass through the hitting area of the opponent who is challenging you for control of the net.
If the opponent is approaching the net from a straight defending position, however, and if his partner has already started to move around to a rear attacking position, then a cross-court push could be the shot of choice (playing the shuttle into the open space). For example:
1) Your partner plays a straight smash.
2) The defender plays a straight block to the net, and begins to move in; his partner starts to move behind him into a rearcourt attacking position
3) You play a cross-court push into the space just vacated by his partner.
Pushes to the centre are pretty much pointless in all situations. Remember: the push is a passing shot. If you play it towards the centre, then a forwards-moving player will easily intercept it.
If the kill is steep and sharp, it really doesn’t matter where you hit it — just make sure you hit it inside the court! The opponents have no real chance of returning this shot, regardless of the angle.
Not all kills are steep, however. When the kill is slightly flatter, it’s worth playing it straight because this gives your opponents less time (the straight route is shortest) and fewer opportunities to intercept it. Playing the kill straight also means you are well-positioned to cover a possible net reply.
When you are taking the kill at the absolute limit of your reach, however, you will have no choice but to play it cross-court.
Recall that attacking drives are usually most effective when played directly at the opponent. The effectiveness of drives as an attacking shot depends on how much pressure you can exert on a single opponent.
For this reason, it usually makes sense to aim the drive at the defender who just returned your partner’s smash. This works because you give him almost no time to recover from his last shot; he may be off-balance, and his racket may not have returned to a good defensive position.
If your attacking drive is successful, the defender will usually return the shuttlecock back in your direction (with a weak counter-drive). The basic idea now is to keep playing drives at this one defender; as his responses become weaker, you move farther forwards. It is extremely difficult for the defender to escape this cycle once it gets started.
Do not switch your attack to the other defender without a very good reason. It’s usually more effective to keep the pressure on a single player.
A particularly effective attacking combination is a straight smash, followed by a series of straight attacking drives. Use this attack when you get the chance, because it applies maximum pressure against one defender.