In the adjacent image the "backfire" looks a bit tricky. Perhaps a little. No matter, I'm betting that Houdini himself would have liked it since it's the best answer to retrieving a lob that's sailed over you and, at first glance, appears to be a complete impossibility.
In singles it comes in very handy since you're on your own. In doubles, where you're expecting a bit of help, it's especially useful when playing with spectating backcourt partners particularly those not so fleet-of-foot - who fail to cross and cover for you.
Once you've realized that you have no play with an overhead, and your partner's out to lunch, don't concede the point since the backfire offers a very viable option to make the opposition hit one more shot always the last resort goal.
Photo by Shaun Ondak
Jak Beardsworth demonstrates the backfire.
You can see that I have successfully caught up to, and already made a play on - note the ball in its upward trajectory - a perfect lob that had initially passed over me at the net, bounced, and began tailing away. I have made contact up high over my left shoulder with my back to the net. Pretty cool.
Striking the outside of the ball - carving around it at approximately the 8:00 locale - requires changing your grip to, minimally, a "continental," commonly related to by many as the traditional "handshake" grip, or even as much as an "eastern" topspin backhand grip to adjust the racket face (my visible grip of choice). You'll then have the best chance to generate enough power and spin to both elevate and bend the ball successfully back into the court with a save-the-day defensive lob of your own.
Hustling, well intentioned club players typically fail to make any grip change from their "eastern/western" forehand grips in their attempts. Big problem. Then, upon running the lob down, they position themselves squarely to the escaping ball - lining it up equidistant between their shoulders - resulting in a directly over the head attempt, often with two hands on the racket. This always strikes me as strangely reminiscent of an ancient Scottish field game's backwards small boulder toss over a football like goal post, with a result that veers way off outside of the court. Pretty ugly.
As always, "flight plan" visualization, along with court positioning awareness while in pursuit plays an important role in pulling the shot off - what you "see" is what you get. Picturing its intended curving, rainbow trajectory, and direction, pays particularly big dividends on the sparingly called on backfire.
Definitely one of the most fun shots in the game, you'll love using it once you get the hang of it. But you're going to have to practice it first. No problem since you can do it alone before your foursome arrives.
While standing on the service line with your back already to the net, toss a simulated lob - underhanded with your non-racket hand up high (approximately 20') that lands a few feet inside the baseline in the middle of the court. Take off after it, catch up to it, stay a bit to the right of its path, and give it a shot. Make that a few tries since beginner's luck is usually not applicable, and even Houdini worked out his escapes before performing them on his court.
Once unveiled, your playing partners will no doubt be wondering what tennis school you snuck off to over the weekend.
Jak Beardsworth, USPTA, author of "More Than Just the Strokes," is based at the Crowne Plaza-Lake Placid Club. For adult and junior lessons, email him at JB1tennis@comcast.net, call 941-626-0097 or visit www.JakBeardsworthTennis.com