Part One:

As a junior, I came to doubles late, in high school, where varsity players were expected to double-up and play both singles and doubles in a match.  I didn't know the terms, and when my coach asked me to practice poaching, I got confused.  On the sly, I'd just read Lady Chatterly's Lover, and the groundskeeper in the book, among other things, guarded against game poachers.  Of course, he also got a bit involved with the lady of the house, so I was nervous about what Coach meant.  I was relieved when he said that when I was at net, he wanted me to cross over to my partner's side of the court to pick off weak shots and returns so I could slam them at the feet of the opposing net man.  For a teenage boy, it was a toss-up as to which was more fun, reading well-written, racy novels or creaming the ball at my opponents.  For our purposes, let's just focus on the latter. 

Simply put, if you're not poaching, you're not playing the game.

How Do I Become a Bold, Intrepid Poacher?

Don't go on vacation.  The first step is mental, not taking a time-out when you're the server's or receiver's partner, simply because you know you won't be involved the first two strokes of the point.  During the point, there aren't any time outs--ever.  All players should be alert, moving their feet, by posture and by attitude wanting engagement with the ball.  Nothing is more reassuring to a receiver, for example, than to see the player straight ahead of him at net with his heels on the court, bent over, butt out, static as a lamp post.  That player isn't in ready position.  He's taking a nap.  Be on your toes. Move!

Move where?  Good question!  Let me answer with some questions of my own.  Have you ever been at net and watched balls shoot by you?  Have you thought, Damn, I could've hit that?  Ooh, I could have had that one, too!  If your feet are stuck, your reactions are slow.  If, rather, you move in advance of contact, you'll find yourself so much quicker. 

I coach the server's partner to stand at least one step back of the full forward position at net.  When he hears his partner hit the serve, I want the up player to take a jump forward into a split step, toward the receiver.  This move intends two things.  I want the receiver to see this early move; I want the server's partner to get into the receiver's head, to threaten the poach.  If the server's partner starts back a yard or so, this jump doesn't obligate the poach; it's forward.  And it doesn't find the server's partner, after this jump to a split-step, overly-close to net and vulnerable to the lob.  He's just landed where he's supposed to be.  But, and this is the second objective, he's moved and arrived on his toes before the receiver has hit the return.  This man is now more than ready to go if the opportunity is there.

If you're the receiver's partner in this scenario, you need to move, too.  Your first obligation is to move laterally with your partner, if necessary.  If she's pulled wide, you're pulled wide, and yes, it's okay to cross the center service line to fulfill this responsibility.  The court police will not come blowing their whistles and arrest you.  And if your partner replies with a sharp cross-court, you need to move back again, always toward the ball.  As well, you need to decide whether you're going to close from the service line or not, depending on whether the server has come in or stayed back.  At every stage of your movement, you need to make a split-step just before your opponents are hitting the ball.  You need to want to be involved in a poach, to see the opportunities, and to be enough on your toes to get to the ball.

See what?  Another great question.  If you're the server's partner, the first thing you need to see is where he places the serve.  Facing a right-handed deuce court receiver, if your partner slices the ball out wide, you have to move with it to cover your alley.  Chances are pretty slim that you'll be able to pick off a ball in the middle of the court.  But not impossible!  Because you also have to read the returner's relationship to the ball.  Is he stretched, barely able to reach the serve?  Maybe shuffle back a few steps and look for a defensive lob. But get set in that split-step just before she hits.  It might be a cripple that lets you run over and grab a poach.  If, rather, the serve is placed to the T, ooh baby.  That middle placement minimizes the angle of the return, and hitting behind you toward your alley is a pretty low-percentage play.  Think about moving to grab a poach.  Facing the ad-court receiver is the same:  a placement toward the T might very well encourage the poach.  But don't ignore placements to the sideline.  Ad-court receivers have a hard time hitting down the alley off their backhands.  If you note that she can only hit cross-court, think about picking one off.

If you're the receivers's partner, assuming your partner's return hasn't been poached and you're not calling for a surgeon to remove the ball from your ear, your eyes are on the server.  If she has come in, see if your partner's return is at her feet.  If so, that's a great time to move.  She's going to tend to hit up and, instinctively, she'll look for the middle, lowest part of the net.  Go forward and grab the ball!  If she's stayed back, at the baseline, does the server like to lob or drive?  Has your partner hit short or deep?   If the server has stayed back and she's Libby Lobber, don't help her out and close to net, especially when your partner has hit deep and forced her to lob.  If, however, you're facing Big Betty From the Baseline, and your partner hits short, move in, threaten the poach.

Note:  As the server's partner, there are technical aspects to moving toward the middle to threaten the poach.  First, make no move until you see the receiver's eyes go down for her contact.  It's right to jump forward to a split-step at the sound of your partner's contact, but you can't shade toward the middle until she can't see you.  Second, if your partner has served the ball at the T, don't turn your shoulders and run toward the middle.  Rather, side-step toward the middle until you actually see that the ball is poachable.  This keeps your shoulders square to net and allows you to move back toward your alley if the receiver has seen your movement or guessed that you're poaching and made a return behind you.   

Where Do I Place The Poach?

To intimidate, attack the opposing net player.  The first play I want to make is to soften the middle of my opponent's court.  Every time I move or threaten to move, I want the receiver's partner on his heels, moving backward, abandoning ship.  As well, I'd like the receiver to feel like the physical well-being of his partner is a function of the risk he's willing to take on the return.  If just wants to block the ball back, I'm all over it, and I hit the ball hard at his partner.  If I hit him with the ball, I immediately apologize and hold my racquet up.  But that doesn't mean I won't do it again.  If he gets angry with me, I suggest that he doesn't have to stand at the T; he can move elsewhere.  My female students, because they are typically more evolved than men, sometimes have a hard time with this tactic.  They want to win, but they don't want to hurt anybody.  I counter that you should be hitting low at your opponent, to her feet.  And that this is part of the game, especially in advanced play.  You've got to be willing to attack your opponent's body.

To break hearts, hit wide of the opposing net player.  The receiver's partner typically begins the point cheating toward the T.  This is to help him guard against your poach; if he stands closer to his sideline, the whole middle of the court is open to you.  On the poach, the other placement to make, then, is wide of the returner's partner, toward his alley.  This puts the ball away with a clean winner, and any time you can deprive your opponents of the possibility of playing the ball, you take a little piece of their hearts.  (Note:  Given that players worry about not knowing what they can reach when they poach, often poaches get over-run.  To make the placement wide of the receiver's partner don't crowd the ball.  Let the return beat you wide, the later the better.)

The only place not to put the poach is back toward the opposing baseliner.  Please.  All that gumption, all that hard work wasted.  You're not going to hurt that guy camped at the baseline.  Don't hit there.

How Do I Trust Myself To Move?

Practice.  Duh!  Poaching is not an every point maneuver, so we're never going to get enough chances in match play to learn what we can reach and what we can't.  And it's harder to get up the nerve in match play.  So, for the physical component, learning how quick you can be and how far you can reach, have someone feed you balls in practice. 

Here's a drill we do in my lessons.  I stand as the receiver; the student is up at net, as the server's partner.  I bounce the ball before I feed it, signaling the sound of the serve behind the student.  She jumps forward into her split-step, and starts to side-step toward the middle when she sees my head look down.  Sometimes I feed cross-court, sometimes down the alley; sometimes hard, sometimes softer.  We do it from both the deuce and ad court.  Do it as much as you can!  You can't practice poaching enough. 

Note:  Poaching, because it's so exciting and aggressive, and because players don't do it all that often, often causes players to take their eyes off the ball.  You guessed it:  offensive anxiety.  As you practice poaching, remember this.  Dedicate one extra second to watching the contact point after you've hit the ball even though you can't wait to look up and see the glory that's about to be yours.

 In match play, how do I muster my courage?  Pick the right time to poach; do it by score.  If I'm serving, down Love-30, and you poach and hit it into the net, I'm not happy with you as a partner.  But if I'm serving, up 30-Love, baby, you've got the green light.  If you blow the poach, I'm still in a great position to hold serve, and you've established something even if we've lost the point:  you're willing to move; you're a threat.  Over the course of the match, I know you'll get into the receivers' heads with your pressure.  I'm willing to lose the point if it won't cost me the game and, in the long run, we're going to get unforced errors off the returns because of your movement.  And keep in mind that you don't have to actually poach.  If you're constantly moving your feet, never static, feinting toward the middle constitutes a fake poach.  Do this early so the receiver can see it.  Keep the foot nearest the alley anchored, but move with the other.  See if you can bait the receiver to try and pass you down the alley and hit the ball to you.  Every time you're at net, you should be moving!

The other helpful strategy is to plan the poach with your partner.  Ask the server if she wants you to poach.  If the answer is yes, she'll serve to the T to set you up and be prepared to cover behind you.  As well, and this is the point, if you blow the poach and lose the point, it's been a team effort; the blame won't fall exclusively on you.  When you start planning team poaches, remember, however, that the server is always in charge of the decision.  Team poaching pressures the server far more than her partner; the server has to make the right placement.  If the server is missing a lot of first serves and doesn't want added pressure, he's got the right to shake off the decision for a team poach.  If he does, however, that doesn't mean you can't make a fake poach or that you shouldn't be ready to poach if the ball's hit to you.  Stay on your toes!

In my next tip, I'll discuss planned poaches in detail, especially to stop the lob.

c Keith Shein

Next Tip:
Doubles Clinic
Part Two:
Team Poaching To Stop the !#%&)@ Lob