If you’re a doubles tennis player, you should improve your game at the net. Volleying from the net is a good source for winners, but it takes a lot of talent to execute correctly. You have to have the right blend of anticipation, technique, deception (to your opponent), speed, and execution to play well at the net. Learning how to poach well can add a dimension to your game. Poaching is typically executed by the player at the net in doubles tennis while his partner serves, but it can also be done in rallies and less frequently in singles games.
In a nutshell, poaching is when the net-player moves across the court to volley the ball out of the air. It’s easier to understand this when you actually see it. Watch from the 10 to 20-second mark in the below video to see a superb poach from Martina Hingis.
While it may look evident and straightforward, poaching is anything but. If you watch the above example, you can see Hingis attempt the move across the court once before the poach in question. She cannot execute the poach in that first attempt and has to retry in the second one. Poaches are ideal for certain situations depending on a few factors.
- Length & height of shot hit by your partner
- Speed and angle of return shot from the opponent
- Position of opponents
Assessing these factors in a matter of seconds takes a lot of practice and training. Below, I go over some tips on how (and when) to successfully poach in tennis. Note that I mostly focus on the doubles game, but you can generally extend the tips to the singles game as well with mild tweaks.
What to be aware of when poaching?
Poaching successfully can get you more points but can also give you a mental edge in the match. In particular, if you poach right after your partner’s serve, the opponent receiving the serves will now be impulsively forced to watch you instead of focusing on their return. This almost always works in your favor. That said, it takes the right mix of situation and skill to poach successfully. In general, you should be mindful of the following things when you poach:
- Length and Angle of Shot/Serve by your Partner
- Speed and Angle of return shot from the Opponent
- Position of Opponents
If you evaluate the above factors quickly and anticipate the situation reasonably, executing the poach becomes a lot easier.
When To Poach?
To break down the above factors, I provide tips on when to attempt a poach if you’re at the net in the doubles game.
When your Partner forces the Opponent wide
If your partner gets a right angle on a service or a groundstroke, forcing the opponent on the baseline to stretch or move wide, you can expect one of two returns in general:
- A cross-court back to your partner
- A stretched return in your direction
This presents an excellent opportunity to poach. Once you observe your partner’s stroke or service forcing the opponent wide, you should set yourself up to move across the court before your opponent’s swing. You can intercept the ball at the net with a poach in the case of a cross-court return. In the case of a stretched return in your direction, you can rely on your partner to move to receive the shot.
When your Partner serves onto the T
Good service on the T-line will typically result in a slower and higher cross-court return. This is because the opponent doesn’t have enough time to swing down the line. The ball’s slower speed and height present a good opportunity to come across quickly and poach the ball. If the service is excellent, the opponent may take some time to get back into position; if you poach at an acute angle, it can easily be a winner.
When your Partner strikes at your Opponent’s Feet
This is another scenario where you should be ready to poach. If your partner strikes a ball right at your opponent’s feet, they (your opponent) won’t have sufficient space to react and generate a lot of power. The result will be a slower and higher return (for many cases).
If you see the ball approaching your opponent’s feet, you can prepare to move across for a poach and trust that your partner will cover you for non-cross-court returns from the baseline.
When your Opponent is on its Heels
This is a more general scenario than the above. If you see that your opponent is striking the ball with his heels planted on the surface, you can expect the incoming strike to have lesser power. This allows you the time and height to come across the court and poach the ball.
You will generally be able to anticipate when your opponent will be on their heels by observing your partner’s shot and your opponent’s movement. If your opponent hits down the line as opposed to a cross-court, the slower shot will allow your partner enough time to get across and take the ball from the baseline.
When your Partner forces your Opponent Low
If your partner hits a stroke that forces your opponent to bend low (can happen from a drop or a well-executed slice), you can expect the return to be higher than normal groundstrokes. This is because the opponent will attempt to pop the ball over the net with an open-and-upward racket face.
The higher ball presents an excellent opportunity to poach. Observing your opponent is critical here, as you’ll likely have to move across right before they swing.
When your Opponent hits a Slow Slice
Slow return is a theme for opportunistic poachers! When your opponent slices a shot with a slower pace, this presents a good chance for the net player to pounce on it and volley the ball. In many of the above scenarios, the return is forced by your partner.
Whether it’s from a wide shot, a shot to your opponent’s feet, or a nice service, slow slices are not always forced. This means you may not recognize this opportunity until after your opponent has struck the ball. However, if the slice is slow, you’ll have enough time to go after the ball and volley it.
Tips for Execution
Now that we’ve gone over some scenarios that present opportunities for you to poach let’s go over some tips on executing poaches and covering yourself.
Communicate with your Partner
This is of utmost importance. Doubles tennis, like any team sport, requires coordination and communication with your partner. Communication before matches is essential. Talk to your partner about your approach to poaching. When training, demonstrate the movement that will signal to him/her that you’re about to poach.
Practice, practice, practice. This will allow your partner to get familiar with your thought and movement patterns. The goal is to be intuitive about each other’s games. If your partner can accurately anticipate your poach, he/she can move across on the baseline to cover a possible return.
Trust your Partner
Trusting your partner is intertwined with communication. For a net player trying to poach, the trust removes a layer of hesitancy when moving across the net. You need to be sure that your partner will cover you if the opponent returns the ball down the line rather than cross-court.
When this trust is lacking, the net player is less likely to take risks and attempt poaches. Both players need to trust each other to provide coverage according to their partner’s movements.
Delay your Movement
Remember that when your opponent is looking ahead, they can see your position and movement. If you move too early, they may have sufficient time to use that to their advantage. If you move across too quickly, they can play a drop shot in your original position that neither you nor your partner gets to.
Ideally, you want to move just before they swing (such that they have no time to change their mind) or while they swing. In either case, your goal is to avoid being seen too early.
Study your Opponents’ Positions
As you come across to poach, observe your opponents’ positions. For higher and slower strokes, you may have sufficient time to decide where to hit your poach. For more powerful strikes, you may only have milliseconds and not too much direct control over where to hit your poach.
However, if you’re aware of your opponents’ positions, you may be able to execute a winning poach just by placing your racket at an angle in the path of the ball. I know this easier said than done, as you are making these observations and decisions in split seconds.
Though, if you train yourself to observe the ball directly and your opponents peripherally, you can make these split-second decisions work to your advantage.
Make the Speed and Angle of the Incoming Ball Work for You
In some cases, you’ll need to poach the ball with a nice backswing. In other cases, all you have to do is tap the ball with your racket. If you can assess the incoming ball’s speed and angle well, you can use that to your advantage.
Sometimes players may hesitate to complete a poach on a powerful strike from the opponent. However, a powerful strike requires a few milliseconds more for your opponent to recover. If you can adjust your racket correctly, you may be able to execute a drop-poach to their side, making it difficult for them to come forward in time. All this to say, use the incoming shot’s momentum and direction to your advantage!
Don’t Be Afraid of “Failure”
This is more of a mental tip than an execution tip. However, it’s as essential. When preparing yourself for a game, accept that you’ll miscalculate certain shots from your opponent, leading either to a missed poach or an incorrectly executed one. Don’t sweat it. That’s part of the process. I’d even say that if you successfully executed all poaches in a match, you probably didn’t attempt enough of them!
The point of poaching is not just to win points (although that is a huge part of it); it also creates confusion for your opponent. Naturally, there will be instances where your attempts will backfire and not lead to a point for your team. As long as you follow the basics on recognizing the opportunities to poach and coordinate well with your partner, the minor failures can be covered up with some fantastic poaching action!
Look, there isn’t a strict science to poaching. Personally, I think great poachers create the opportunities themselves, rather than waiting for the perfect ball to strike. The frequent movement at the net can give your opponent pause and lead to a weaker shot, giving you a chance to pounce.
However, some situations indicate a good time to poach. Typically, these involve instances where your opponent is forced to hit a slower and higher return. However, as I said, great poachers create opportunities for themselves. Sometimes your movement itself can force your opponent to hit a weaker return.
Poaching well adds another level to your doubles game. If you communicate well with your partner and anticipate your opponents’ strokes and movements well, you’re halfway there to being a great poacher (without actually even poaching!). Good communication and anticipation allow you to identify the best opportunities to move across the net.
The rest is just standard volley execution. If you are hesitant to force poaching opportunities for yourself in matches, do it in practice! Trust me, the more comfortable you get with it, the easier and more natural it becomes. Here you go, now you know what is poaching in tennis and how to perform it correctly!