When the server’s partner at the net moves across the court to cut off a crosscourt service return with a volley, it’s called poaching. Poaching is a very effective maneuver for winning points, intimidating the receiver, and keeping the other team off balance. But it is a skill that takes time to perfect in terms of movement, technique, timing, and communication. Poaching has to be used to interject an element of surprise; it should not be something so obvious that the opponents can anticipate what is about to happen.
The movement to poach has to be quick, deliberate, and at an angle in the direction of the net (for power), not parallel to it or in a line away from it. The technique for the volley used to poach is no different from any other volley. Use a short backswing, make contact with the ball as early as possible, and go for a winner. If you don’t go for a winner, you will put your team in a difficult court position to play out the point. If you are not a strong volleyer, don’t poach very often--just enough to pose a threat.
Timing is crucial. Make your move at exactly the moment when the receiver has committed to making a crosscourt return. Move too early, and you give away the surprise element. Do it too late, and you can’t catch up to the ball.
Communication between partners is the element that requires time to develop. Inexperienced doubles players and those not accustomed to each other should poach rarely--only when they can afford to lose the point. Some teams use behind-the-back hand signals to indicate an upcoming poach. A closed fist means no poach; an open hand indicates a poach on the next serve. Teams that have played together for a long time don’t necessarily need signals. They have a feel for each other, what needs to happen, and when it should happen. If you’re not sure about whether a poach is the right thing to do in a critical situation, talk to your partner about it. But don’t go for a poach on every point.
This is an excerpt from Tennis: Steps to Success.