Poor Poaching Partner

Playing mid-level doubles, when should your net partner poach on your serve if their backhand is over the middle?  This question comes from a frustrated  lefty reader…

Put It Away or Stay Home!

“Hi George,  I am enjoying your book  and the blog.  Thanks.  

“I have a doubles question for you and your readership- 

I am left handed and have an OK net and volley game & usually come into the service line and close to center court after I serve.  My question is, when I am serving  from the ad court, when –  if ever- is it a good idea for  my right handed partner playing at the net to attempt a backhand poach on a high crosscourt return down the middle?

“At the 3.5-4.0 level where I am now, I see partners who operate on the theory that if they can reach it, they should try it.  But these poaches usually end up either in the net or weak short shots that the other team can hit to the open deuce court because my partner and I are in I formation. Only rarely do I see a player who can hit a winner with this backhand poach.   I think this shot has to be a winner or we lose the point.

“I would prefer to defend the service return down the middle with my own backhand volley and my partner defend the deuce court.

What advice?

thanks, mike Kane (Wilderness)”

My Opinion

Mike, I usually play the ad court in doubles; and my worst fear is facing a lefty server who takes me out wide and their net partner is picking off every one of my returns over the middle.  So, I side with your aggressive net partners.

The role of the doubles player is not necessarily always put the ball away; but to put it in a spot that is difficult for your opponents to handle … which then might give you a put-away on the next shot.

When you are serving in the ad court and your righty partner poaches, the first thing YOU should do is change your direction coming in and go to his vacated deuce court.

And then, when your partner hits their backhand volley, they should primarily hit it in front of them at the opposing team’s net man, standing right in front of them in their deuce court (i.e. not behind them to the returner in the ad court, who would then have an easier shot into your deuce court).

And if they are not in a “full poach mode,” and just reaching over the middle, the key is the center line … if they cross it, they should keep going (and you change direction to cover the open court); but if they don’t, you both stay on your own sides of the court ready for the next shot.

In my opinion, “Offense wins” in doubles.  Other thoughts?

PS For better or worse, Tennis Channel is now showing live tennis… a current fast-four tournament going on with lesser known players (instead of the “classic tennis matches” shown in the guide).

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14 thoughts on “Poor Poaching Partner

  1. It’s always good to mention the intimidation factor as well. A good poacher can narrow the path available for return of serve, thus causing some unforced errors on the part of the returner.

    Rick, agree! The Bryans say, “Make them feel your presence!” thanks, george

  2. George, one thing you didn’t mention – hand signals.
    When you and I play doubles, we always use hand signals which makes the returning opponent have to think more about his return. Knowing that your serving partner will be there to cover the passing shots makes one more confident in poaching .

    Michael, for sure … and if the 3.5-4.0 players are not comfortable with formal signals, they can at least talk between points and tell the partner they plan on poaching if he gets the serve to their backhand. thanks, george

  3. My comment to such a partner is “Just because you can hit it doesn’t mean you should”

    Bill (haven’t heard from you in a while!), so you are saying, “Don’t reach over and hit that backhand volley”? Must be a lefty thing with you guys! thanks, george

  4. Good topic George and as always, it depends. I prefer for the backhand net poacher first choice to be to volley short, angle to the returner’s side rather than change angle of the ball and go at the net player. Four reasons: 1) not changing direction of the ball makes more consistency in volleys like in all shots (ask Borg) 2) easier to have more touch or power when not holding the racquet to change directions 3) Even a good shot at a Neal Newman, Mike Barnes, Jimmy Parker type net player is very likely to be reflexed into the open court out of reach. There are plenty of good reflexes, 4.0 players who also can hurt you when there is a medium inside out volley at them 4) If the “back towards the returner” volley is not short, angled enough as hoped, there is time to get in position for the next shot compared to the reflex volley of the net person opponent.
    A key element in either option is to be close to the net when striking the ball – poaching volley not close to the net is counter productive.
    Not on a court for 7 weeks now but hope springs eternal – weather here in Virginia Beach right now is energizing – hope to see lots of you 75 and 80+ plus players here in the fall for the national clay – fingers crossed.

    Winder, good arguments for the “other side”; but i have listened to the preachings of our common doubles partner, Dartmouth tennis coach Chuck Kinyon, who insists he wants me to hit that volley in front of me, not behind. Chuck? George

  5. Another great question, George. As a lefty server myself, I’m naturally sympathetic to Mike. So I’ll start off by invoking something rarely mentioned in these tactical discussions: The score. This is a very critical factor. If I’m serving in the ad court at 40-love, a poach from my righty partner might well be worth the effort. Go ahead, make a move, shake it up. Perhaps even prior to the point, the lefty server can say, “Hey, on this one I’m going into his forehand, so that might give you a more poachable ball.” Sure, why not at 40-love? This can also put doubt in your opponent’s head, which is always a good thing.

    But then there are those much more important ad court points: 0-15, 15-30, 30-40, 40-30, ad in, ad out. And while I absolutely believe in the value of the constant fake poach as a way to create clutter, a big message to my partner is this: Please, for god’s sake, do not try to make a heroic, off-balance poach. The vast majority of recreational players do not have enough quality technique to put away a backhand volley poach. So they poach, don’t put it away, and now, here is our team, somewhat off-balance (and you, the righty, have left our team vulnerable to a lob over the half of the court that is your responsibility — and, also, the lefty’s backhand).

    So instead of trying to be heroic poacher, think for a bit about the server. I am a lefty, serving comfortably in the ad court. My racquet is moving across my body, left to right, which puts me in a nice, balanced position to move forward. A great many lefties have pretty good volleys. Go ahead, do your fake poach, but please, on this big point, let me hit my first volley and let’s efficiently form a tidy, balanced wall. George, you have played me enough to visualize precisely what I’m talking about.

    Very different gestalt in the deuce court with the forehand volley.

    Again — Keep the score in mind and please, please, please: no heroic, off-balance, non-conclusive poaches.

    Joel, great logic. I guess the message is: if you can do it, do it. If is iffy, don’t risk it. PS You had some good pieces in this month’s “Tennis Magazine”! George

  6. It’s difficult to dispute Winder. If you are close to the net and have the touch to hit the short angle in the direction of the receiver it will win the point. Need to be careful not to hit the shot to deep because there will be a bid open court. I do think it easier not to change the direction in this situation. It is also very important to to be ready for the quick stab return to play the next ball.

    Chuck, you covered both sides well. Very politic of you! Thanks. George

  7. A little bit different take: the questioner writes “high” crosscourt return. The word “high” indicates to me that the poacher should not poach…..one tactic I like to use against a poacher when I’m returning from the ad court is to return high crosscourt…..that backhand poach is one of the hardest in all of tennis to pull off, and, if you hit it back weakly, you’re toast.

    John, i think you hit on a key factor … the questioner feels that it is a difficult volley to make — and should not be attempted; but left for the incoming server. thanks, george

  8. Hi George,
    Glad to hear your facilities are open near you.
    On this scenario, I have to agree with George.
    First, as with any formation, it is critical that you and your partner coordinate your movements prior to the start of the point. After serving wide, the return is hit back high to the middle. The server has now moved to the vacated deuce side. The server’s partner is moving to the ad side, sees the high return and should be able to effectively hit down on the ball in the “short to short” direction, which would be low at the feet of the receiver’s netman. Even by chance, if the ball came back, a put away by the observant serving team would win the point.

    Glenn, thanks. George

  9. The key info is 3.5/4.0 player. I think that good players, 4.5+, have a better backhand volleys because the racquet/shoulder is in front of the body when shoulders are turned (as opposed to a forehand volley where the racquet/shoulder is behind the body when shoulders are turned). Most 3.5/4.0 players don’t understand this and their backhand volleys are bad because of grip/technique/contact point. So ultimately, if a 3.5/4.0 has backhand volley problems…Don’t Cross!

    Jeff, right on target. Coincidentally, the questioner came to watch me play dubs for the first time today and observed exactly that about my high backhand volley (which i learned from Newk). thanks, george

  10. Another option to consider in this situation would be either Aussie formation or I formation. But I think the I formation would probably be a better move under the circumstances.

    In the Aussie formation the lefty server who is serving to the ad side would have to move quickly into the open court — i.e., to his right, into the deuce court — which is not an easy move unless he hits a good serve because the move is now exposing the lefty server’s OWN backhand to the next shot. Ideally, that serve would be a slider wide out to the backhand of the (presumably righty) receiver, thus forcing a difficult backhand shot from the receiver to hit, or (my personal favorite) it could be an up the middle jam serve also with some slice that starts out on the right hip of the receiving player and then cuts across his body. Often, this leads to a completely flubbed return. Meanwhile, positioning the right handed net man for the serving team in the ad court Aussie style puts the net man’s forehand volley right up the middle for what should ideally be a much easier volley for him than a backhand volley would be.

    The I formation presents all of the same assets described above, but it has the added advantage of making the opponents guess as to exactly what the net man is going to do. He can fake movement one way or another but stay put. He can move to his right, back to where he would have been for an ad court serve in a traditional position, or he can move to his left and take the Aussie spot. But the key is, in order to do that, the server and net man need to fully communicate before the ball is even served to make sure each player knows what the plan is, who moves where, who will poach or not, etc. And therein lies the chief disadvantage of the I formation: It is complex, it requires a high degree of coordination between the partners, and it has a lot of moving parts that can break down.

    Marty, i thought about suggesting something like that, but thought might to too complex at that level. thanks, george

  11. Also, one thing I forgot to mention. The Bryan Brothers have done a lot of clinics — both in person and on line — about the net man being always active and moving forward and diagonally “pinching the middle” when his team is in the offensive phase of a point. That would qualify for when the server is starting a point, but it could also be a few shots back and forth later in the same point as well.

    Under this approach, the net man will typically move back to a more neutral position a bit back from the net and more toward the middle of the service box when the opposing team is striking the ball, only for the net man to move forward and “pinch the middle” again when his team regains the offense. In short, the net man is not supposed to stay static, with his feet proverbially glued to the court. Instead, he is supposed to be constantly moving, but doing so in a manner that not only distracts the opposing players, but also positions his team in a way for either him or his partner to hit a winner.

    If you follow what the Bryans are saying, it may not be necessary for the net player actually even to hit a backhand volley in most such cases. What is more important than hitting the volley itself is moving into a location that discourages the opponents from hitting to that same location and that forces them to hit a more difficult shot to another location on the court. So, even without actually exposing his weakness and attempting a backhand volley that the net man may not be able to hit well, just using this “pinch the middle” technique could also be useful in this situation.

    Marty, i totally agree with the aggressive net play solution. thanks, george

  12. And, why aren’t lefties limited to playing with their own kind??

    Kevin, i think those are the exact words players use when they come off the court with YOU! 🙂 george

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