Poaching in Tennis – Part I (When to Poach)

Despite that fact that many high school players don’t like to poach because they believe they don’t have good enough volleys or have enough range to make it from one side of the court to the other, successful net play is more about when you poach, rather than how you poach.

If your players are not active at the net during their doubles matches, they are missing a great opportunity to win more games and more matches.

The Value of Poaching
In addition to using poaching to win points outright, poaching throughout a match will cause opponent’s to make more unforced errors and hit weaker shots.

For example, let’s say a net player poaches only six times during a set (or, an average of twice per game during a set where his partner serves three games). The player may put two poaches back in play, which are not winners, and the opponents put the ball back in play and play out the point. The player may miss a poach completely and lose the point. The player may hit two clean winners. And finally, the player may hit a poach back in play, which the opponents hit back for a winner.

This player has poached six times, and won only two points directly off the poach. The player has outright lost two points on poaches, and two more poaches had no effect on the outcome of the point.

Should the player continue to poach?

Absolutely! By poaching six times during the set, this player has caused his opponent’s to be thinking about him EVERY time they return serve. This will produce both forced and unforced errors, as well as weak returns which the server can attack, as well as returns right to the net player as the receivers try to be too fine and begin hitting the ball late.

As long as the poacher is not being reckless and losing point after point, he should continue trying to poach to keep the returning team on their heels.

When to Poach
Poaches are either pre-determined (a net player decides to pick off the receiver’s return) or anticipated (a player either determines that his opponent is about to hit a weak shot, or knows where the opponent is about to hit the ball, and moves to pick it off).

When playing both of these types of poaches, the player does not randomly decide to poach. Players who poach effectively know when to poach.

Poaching off the Serve
Players who poach off the serve often signal their partner prior to the serve to let them know they are poaching. This lets the server know that she must serve down the middle of the court (to take away the down-the-line and sharp, crosscourt returns) and should cover her partner once the poacher makes her move crosscourt.

Once a player has decided to poach, she must continue across the court, because her partner will have switched to the other side of the court to cover her.

Players who use signals generally use either one or two fingers, or an open hand and closed fist to signify poaching or staying. Players signal each point, on both first and second serves. The server may “shake off” the net player, if he doesn’t like the signal, similar to a pitcher shaking off a pitch sign from a catcher.

Poaching During a Point
Many high school players will find themselves in a one-up/one-back situation, where two players rally from the baseline, while the two net players watch on. In these situations, it is the responsibility of baseline player A to use depth, direction, spins and pace to force the baseline player B to: a) make an error; b) hit a short ball which allows player A to attack the net; or c) hit a weak ball which the opposing net player can pick off.

It is the responsibility of the net player to watch for signs that the opponent at the baseline is in trouble and will be hitting a weak ball. This could include the baseliner rapidly backing up to play a deep ball, getting jammed by a ball, or rapidly running forward to hit a very short ball, which he must pop up.

If the net player watches for the opposing net player to get into a defensive situation, the net player can then get ready to poach a weak ball. This means the poacher can begin to make his move just as the baseline player hits the ball. This allows the net player to proactively poach, rather than simply reacting to weak balls and trying to poach after the ball has been hit. Poaching proactively gives your player the extra jump on the ball that can give her several more steps to reach the ball.

Another situation in which a player might poach is during a volley situation where both players are at the net, or one is at the service line while the other is at the net. During a volley exchange, it is best to hit the ball down the middle of the court to take angles away from opponents. If, however, a player can create a severe angle on his or her volley by moving into the ball, crosscourt, this is a good time to poach.

This type of poaching is generally intended to end a point, because the poacher’s partner may not have time to react and cover by the time the ball is returned, if the poacher’s ball is not put away.

Effective poaching boils down to poaching at the right time. Poaching off serves down the middle; poaching when an opponent is obviously in trouble; and poaching to create a rally-ending angle are all examples of why poaching is more about “when-to” rather than “how-to.”

This month’s skill-building drill is a drill which will teach your players how to poach during a one-up/one-back rally.

Part II of this article discusses in detail the “how-to” of poaching.

Remember, many of your matches are decided by scores of either 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 or 7-6. That’s one break of serve. Many games are lost after players couldn’t hold on to a game point they had, and many sets are lost by one break of serve.

Add poaching to your players’ repertoires, and start picking up one or two more points per game, and one or two more games per set.

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