Q. “I would like to know if there is a trick to deciding when to poach in doubles. What should I do before poaching? What should I look for from the opponent...?”
From Nancy G.:
When my partner is serving, I always wait to see where her serve is going. If it is deep to the backhand, I usually poach then. If they are serving, I wait to see what kind of return my partner hits, again deep to the backhand or into her body, and then I poach. Sometimes I poach for no reason, other than to keep the opposing team on its toes.
From John B., Bonners Ferry, ID:
You must have great communication with your teammate when you are going to poach at the net. It is best to use hand signals between you and your partner so your partner will know when you are poaching. I like to use three signals with my partners: One says that I am poaching; another says that I'm not poaching; and the last says that I am faking to poach. My partner has to know what I am planning to do at the net so that he or she knows what part of the court they must cover.
I like to poach when I know that my opponent consistently hits the ball cross-court and away from me. I also like to do this when my partner is serving his first serve, although I must make sure that I mix things up so I don't become predictable or I can get beat at the net.
I use the following signals placed behind my back so my partner can see when he is serving: An open hand means I am poaching; a fist means that I am not poaching; my index finger pointing behind my back means that I am faking to poach, and I will hold my position, expecting the person who is receiving the serve to try to beat me.
Try this out with your partner the next time you are playing doubles recreationally, and have fun with it!
From Chip R., Derby, KS:
The easiest and safest way to poach is to communicate to your partner before each point.
If your partner is serving, find out where they are going to serve on their first and second serve, and tell your partner whether you intend to poach on the first and/or second serve or not at all. The server then should be able to move in and cover the open court left by the net person.
The same thing can be done when receiving, especially if the returner stays back after the return of serve. The partners should talk before the point, the net person should indicate if they intend to poach after the return, so that the returner can begin moving to cover the open court.
The other way to poach is to be ready at the net at all times. If a slow-moving return is heading to the other side of the court, by all means jump on it, and put it away.
The more you poach, the better your doubles team will be. It will keep the other team off guard, and you will get some easy shots right to you to put away when you don't poach, but they think you are going to!
From Dan D., Point Set Indoor Racquet Club:
I think the answer is quite simple, like most things in tennis. The problem is that we tend to complicate them.
The great players are great because they do the basics very well most often. Remember, however, that on their best days, the best players miss a minimum of 20 percent of the balls. Not bad since you usually need only 51 percent to win.
All the modern great doubles teams have used signals, in which the net player tells the server whether or not he is going to poach. Quite obviously, he/she makes up his mind before the point starts as to whether or not he is going to poach. It would be physically impossible to consciously cause a muscular motion in the time between when the return is hit and you have to hit it back at the net.
This means you must trust your instincts. The greats do this very well, rarely second-guessing themselves and almost never doing so successfully. The priority is to be focused enough on the ball leaving the receiver's racquet so that the instinctive reflex happens sooner rather than later.
Because it is a reflex, by definition it cannot have a conscious component. No team (I believe in history) has done this as well as the Bryan brothers do it. Being twins probably increases the ability to trust one another.
The second component of good poaching is making sure you know where your partner is trying to serve the ball. If he serves down the "T," there is far less potential angle for him/her to return the ball to. There is also no way he can hit the return down your alley without the ball passing in front of you.
When your partner serves wide, your opponent has far greater access to hitting down your alley and forces you to cover it. Of course, this tremendously increases the percentage of the court that your partner will have to cover him/herself. Unless your partner has an extremely great wide service, it should be rarely used.
It is important to remember the 80/20 percent rule. You will not be right all the time, but even when you are wrong, you are keeping the receiver off balance and hopefully making him watch you, instead of the ball.
In essence, it becomes a completely mental game. Which of you is going to be more focused on the ball? The more reflexive your actions, the better off you are.
Remember what happens when you touch something very hot. Your hand will pull away before you are even conscious of the pain. This is nature's way of protecting us. If we had to think about the heat before we moved, we would be more severely burned.
It is important to note that babies are not born with this ability; they have to learn it, and, thankfully, they learn it very quickly. That should provide some solace in that it means that we can learn conditioned reflexes pretty quickly... provided we don't try to control by thinking. One of my favorite lines to my students is, "I am Pavlov, and you are the salivating dogs."
Good luck, and keep your eye on the ball.
Q. "I am 71 and playing 3.0 doubles and having a ball. Not doing badly. But I could do better by learning to poach better. Help!"
From Alvin C., Hartsville, SC: (head men's and women's tennis coach, Coker College)
There are two principles that I try to teach my players, and I stick to it, as well, when I play.
The first is to leave what I call the “half alley.” It simply means you write off the outside half of your doubles alley as a “good-shot” zone. If your opponents pass you down the line over there, say “good shot.” Now, if he beats you three times over there, you might want to stay put a little more. Otherwise, you are fine. You may try a drill by laying down a long line of masking tape down the middle of the alley and having your partner hit shots over there until you are comfortable knowing which shots are on the outside half and which shots are on the inside half.
The second is to watch your partner’s shot. Watching where your partner’s shot lands is just as important as hitting the poach itself. If your partner’s shot lands on the “outside,” your opponent’s forehand on the deuce court and backhand on the ad court for a right-handed player, you take a step towards your alley to cover. If your partner’s shot lands on the “inside,” your opponent’s backhand on the deuce court and forehand on the ad court for a right-handed player, you take a step towards the center line to be ready to poach for an excellent winner!
From Jerry D., Hinckley, OH:
First, John, I would recommend some long-distance walking, like five miles or whatever you can handle. I do this a day or two before a match, and when I play, my legs feel much stronger, and I seem to get a faster jump on the ball. The same principle is used by pitchers in baseball with long catches in the outfield. It strengthens the arm.
My second tip is also baseball oriented. Someone attempting to steal second base has to study the pitcher's foot placement, leg kick, arm position, etc., to find a tell-tale sign, indicating if he is throwing to first or home. Likewise, if you are at the net, study the receiver's footwork and shoulder position on his forehand and backhand, and you may see an indicator that will help you to stay or poach.
From John M., Ocean Pines, MD:
I am a 66-year-old, 3.5 doubles player. I have found successful poaching is more of a collaboration between server and net man than strictly the net man's play. I suggest that you:
Let the server know when you are going to poach. (The server should try to place the ball to the opponent’s weakest side.)
Make your move to the center with a forward 45-degree angle step when the returner is in his backswing position. (You might be leaving a little early if your opponents are successfully going down the line on you.)
Keep your racquet up and ready to meet the ball with a solid "blocking" motion with little or no backswing.
From Rajiv, Australia:
Poaching is all about movement. You said that you are 71, so definitely movement would be restricted to an extent. Also, it would really matter who your opponents are. However, here is my advice.
Do not be obvious all the time. You want to move immediately, as the receiver is hitting the return. Sometimes just pretend that you are moving across, and at the last moment, stay and protect the aisle. The idea is to remain unpredictable.
Hope this helps, and congratulations for playing at the age that you are. I hope that my health will keep up when I turn that age.
From Jim C.:
It's quite possible you are standing too close to the net and are reacting, rather than acting, on shots hit by your opponents.
Try this: Stand about five to six feet away from the net and about two feet inside the singles sideline. Experiment with this concept.
Keep in mind that you can allow opponents to try to hit down the alley. Give them a perfect shot, but the fact is that few can hit a perfect passing shot. You should be able to get to most of them and get winners from out balls, also.
From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:
John, the fact that you can move without any problem is a huge advantage at the net. But when do you move? Your opponent has all the answers for you. Since you are playing the hitter, the moment the hitter’s racquet goes back, you need to be stopped and tennis ready to spring to action.
The temptation to move before the hitter commits to the swing is huge; however, wait until the hitter’s eyes are down, focused on the ball, and has committed to the swing, then make your move. If you read the swing and he goes down the line, simply cover the shot. However, when you read cross court, the hitter’s action tells you to poach. If you are passed down the line, then your opponent is extremely skilled in disguise. Say “good shot,” and play the next point.
Also, remember, poaching can be done at any time during a point. For some reason, many folks think that if you don’t cut off the return of serve, oh well, try again next time. If your partner is not coming in, be prepared to end the point with a poach at the earliest opportunity. This is true in doubles on every ball in play.
In closing, learn to read the hitter when you are playing the hitter, and learn how to play the non-hitter even more.
For more doubles info, click here.
From Eric R.:
First of all, you have a great attitude, and you say you can move well at 71. That is a winning combo. Congrats on both.
Second, you have the confidence and energy to want to poach and play aggressive doubles. Congrats again.
Study your opponent’s ability and habitual shots, and plan your poach accordingly. Example No. 1, on returning first serves that are deep to the backhand on the deuce court – cheat over immediately if they chip or block that backhand return. This is a "middle poach.” It gives you the prime real estate and does not presume sprinter speed. It is not as risky as the full-speed-ahead, "damn the torpedoes" dash across to your partner’s side. For that, you need to have coordination ahead of time with your partner, or leave a wide-open court if you guess wrong.
No. 2 is what the pros do and what experienced club teams will try to emulate. Talk between points and ask him/her to serve to the backhand on the deuce side. At the 3.0 level, there are not too many big inside-out backhand blasters playing the deuce or forehand court.
Lots of blocks and chips to poach either FULL SWITCH like the pros, or (HALF WAY) "control the middle," if speed is not your biggest asset.
Remind your partner that “all poaches are off” if the serve goes to a strong forehand returner. If they hit a big shot, they could make your poach try a big loser. Also you risk alienating your partner by poaching in a low-percentage situation.
In sum, do not be a suicide poacher. Instead, talk about it with your partner, who must be willing to run and cover if it goes to the vacant side.
Also, always be sure of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. The cross-court floating chip shot should be your bread and butter, if you time your poach with the first step, beginning just as the opponent’s racquet starts forward.
The deuce-court poach is easier for most 3.0 righties, since it allows a forehand volley to finish the point. As you improve, add the backhand poach, if you can finish the point with that shot.
Above all, you may enjoy your game more if poaching is an exciting part of your strategy. And enjoyment is what it’s all about.
From Kenny S., Los Angeles, CA:
I like two back on the first serve, then one at the net on the second-serve return. You have to cover the net, the alley, and be very aware in the process.
On the return, stay in ready position, keep focused, and be ready to cross over if the ball comes back down the middle. When your partner serves, plan poaches with him, use the Aussie formation – you in the middle – and plan where you are moving. Don't just jump across, hoping for a sitter.
Be smart, be ready, and watch the other player’s return before he hits it, and when he makes contact, this will help make your move.