Here is the most recent article by Joe Marshall. You can see all of them by typing his name into the search box above and to the right. His doubles tennis strategies are really worth applying to your game.
Hopefully you understand the idea of poaching at the net when your partner serves. Poaching off the return is a lesser used, but equally important, tactic. To poach off the return, start by taking the normal defensive, one up, one back position.
When you, as the short man (the one closer to the net), take your position around the service line, the first thing you are looking to do is to defend, if the opponent’s net man poaches or volleys a ball hit to him. It’s not easy from the mid-court position, but if you take a split step and move in a little as your partner returns, you have a chance. Block the ball into the open part of the court toward the server, keeping it low, or lob-volley (another advanced shot) over the short man’s head.
Most of the time, your partner’s returns will not be successfully intercepted by the net man (if they are being intercepted too often, go back to the baseline and play two back), and will return to the server. Once the ball passes the opponent’s net man, quickly move straight ahead and take a split step as the ball bounces, then slant across court and in toward poaching position, with racquet raised and wrist slightly cocked, anticipating a high volley that you can hit at the short man’s feet. If the server has stayed back, a deep return by your opponent is the best to poach on. If the server has moved in toward the net, a low return at his feet by your partner will be the easiest one to poach on. Treat your return poach just like you did the poach off the serve, hitting it at your opponent’s short man’s feet.
This summer, in the round robin tournament my partner and I won, there was a key point. We managed to get into the finals by one game (it was a tournament where the finalists were chosen by most games won during the round robin format). I was serving, and coming in behind my serve. I served a good serve from the deuce court, and came in behind it. The returner hit a controlled low return that I was able to take in front of the service line. I tried to volley it deep cross court, for what I thought would be a safe shot. Suddenly, the net man, an athletic 20 year old, was putting the ball away. I thought I had volleyed the ball too close to the middle of the court, and reminded myself to get a better angle the next time.
The next time I served to the deuce court, the same thing happened. I hit a good serve, came in behind it, took a volley at knee height, and volleyed it deep (this time at a slightly better angle), and once again, the ball was by me by the time I stood up (It takes me a lot longer to stand up than it used to).
I realized what was happening. My young opponent had mastered the art of poaching aggressively off the return…What to do?! After losing the next point, we were down 15-40, and I had to serve again….to a team of guys whose combined age was less than mine, from the same side of the court that they had just had me for Breakfast AND Lunch. The athletic 20 year old looked like a tiger ready to pounce, his 30 year old partner had inched in, looking calm and confident….neither could wait for the point to begin…..A lot of options ran through my head…..Which one should I choose?
Now Grasshoppers, think about this one….what are my options? I’m nervous, they’re on their toes. My partner is probably confused…….How can I steal a quick point and change the momentum? I could go boldly into the breach, and try to hit even a BETTER serve, hope for a worse return, and hit even a BETTER volley. I could hit a decent serve, go in and try to volley right at the net man, hoping he was aggressively poaching, and I fool him. I could stay back behind my serve and try to win the point with hard ground strokes (except I don’t have any). Or….I could think like the monks, and use my opponents’ aggressiveness to fool them.
The first thing I did was TAKE MY TIME, allowing their intensity to wain just a smidge…then I hit a soft serve and stayed back. The returner hit a good deep drive to my forehand and took a step in. The net man closed in, watching me to see where I would hit my ground stroke. My partner closed his eyes and said a prayer to whatever deity he thought might help him that particular day. And what did the monk do?
I hit my favorite shot. The down the line forehand chip lob….with some side spin. The young net man, locked into aggressive gear stopped moving in, and went tearing back to cover the shot. The returner moved over from his side of the court to hit a backhand. The two almost collided, and the ball never made it back over the net.
They knew they had screwed up. The momentum had shifted.
On the next point I got confident (and lucky) and hit the sideline with a serve that ran away off the plastic (remember, we were playing on Har-Tru). Now I was back in the deuce court, but now the score was DEUCE.
This time I hit a medium paced serve. I watched their short man to see if he would give himself away…charge the net or anticipate lob? He hesitated, but charged…..I lobbed again. Again he ran back to cover it, but this time he was able to lob it back, but my partner and I had come in toward the net behind my lob, and were able to put away an easy overhead because they were out of position again.
On our game point, we kept it simple. I hit a serve, the returner hit a decent return, I blocked it back deep (I knew the net man would not be poaching on his backhand side….he would be playing conservatively after blowing two points), and the returner tried to wail a forehand passed us that wound up in the net. Once again the path of least resistance was the path to clarity……
To summarize…Poach off the return like you would poach off a serve, by moving in, performing a split step, and angling in, anticipating a ball you can hit at their feet.
Also, use your opponents’ aggressiveness against them, by taking your time, changing the pattern, and giving them the ball (in this case a lob) that they had not anticipated.
Now get out there and Fool the pants off them!