Playing Tips by Bill Booth
Pre-Planned Poaching. Pre-planned poaching is usually done with a regular playing partner with whom you have had a chance to practice the technique. It may also be done in a pickup game by spending a few moments before the game to coordinate signals. Such impromptu signals usually work only with seasoned players that already understand the strategy.
A planned poach is usually executed by the receiving team after the return of serve. The receiver should try to return the serve deep and preferably cross court. Because of the two-bounce rule, the serving team must stay back near the baseline to play the return of serve. The serving-team player would then most likely return a cross court shot deep to the receiver. By planned agreement, the up player (closest to the net) on the receiving side would then cross over to the other side to cut that shot off and attempt a winner. The player in back would move to the other side. It is important for both players to not telegraph the poach. Wait for the hitter to commit to the shot. The normal strategy for the receiver in a non-poach situation is for the receiver to quickly follow his shot to establish position at the line. During a planned poach, the receiver may want to hang back to entice his opponent to try to hit a shot to him in the backcourt.
The planned poach is different than the opportunistic poach in that it is a full commitment to play the other side. There is no turning back. The poacher does not need to worry about a down-the-line shot on his original side of the court and does not need to worry about a lob over his head. He is counting on his partner to cover those shots.
Players on the receiving team plan the poach with verbal signals or hand signals. Generally-accepted hand signals are for the up player to hold a hand behind the back with an open hand or closed hand. An open hand signals a poach, a closed hand indicates that the player will stay. Flashing open and closed signals a fake. The receiver should always acknowledge the signal so that there is no confusion. Verbal signals are usually given when both players meet momentarily at the center line with their backs to the opponents. It is important to always present the same look to your opponents. If you only hold your hand behind your back or meet at the center line when you are planning a poach, your opponents will quickly pick up on that.
The fake is a motion or step toward the other side of the court. The timing is different because you want to give your opponent time to change the shot and make a mistake. The fake is nothing more than a positioning and re-positioning of the body on the court. It should not be accompanied by actions such as stamping of the feet, waving the arms, yelling or talking to your opponent. Such actions would be considered unsportsmanlike and subject to a technical foul during a tournament.
If the signal is for a "fake" or "stay", it is still possible to execute an opportunistic poach as described in the next playing tip. The difference is the depth of the commitment and an understanding of which side of the court for which each player is responsible.
Opportunistic Poaching. Poaching is the skill of moving on to your partner's side of the court to pick off a shot for a winner. It is generally done when you partner is still well in back of the no-volley line for some reason. When your opponent is at the baseline and sees you up at the no-volley line and your partner in the backcourt, your opponent will usually return to the person that is in the backcourt. That is the ideal time that you should poach, especially if your opponent's shot is a little higher and slower than a drive shot. It may not only result in an immediate winner but will keep your opponent guessing the next time. If you let high, slow shots pass just a few feet from you just because they are on your partner's side of the court, then you are doing your opponents a huge favor by letting them get comfortable in making easy shots to the backcourt.
Poaching is most effective when it is a surprise. If your opponent anticipates the poach, he may just hit behind you as you are moving across. Be unpredictable. Don't tip your hand too soon. Time your move to the moment that your opponent is committed to the shot. That is usually a time very close to when the paddle contacts the ball. Poaching is a bold move that involves some risk, so don't overdo it.
If you play with a regular partner, you can have a plan for when to switch sides and when to return to your own side. If you play with a variety of partners, it is good to have some general rules of thumb about when to switch. If the poacher only moves a step or so into his partner's side, then it is generally safe to assume that he will move back to his own side. A further encroachment to his partner's side would usually require a switch. To avoid confusion, the partner in back would say "switch" when it seemed desirable to switch. If possible, say "switch" immediately, before your partner has started to move back. Remember that the poacher can not see you when you are in back of him. If you switch without telling your partner, then you have created the possibility of both players trying to cover the same side of the court.
The Drop Shot. The drop shot is a soft shot from the baseline or mid-court area that is returned just far enough to clear the net but not far enough to give your opponent a chance at an offensive volley. It is similar to the dink because you want it to drop well within the no-volley zone to force your opponent to take it on the bounce or to reach for a weak volley. The purpose of the drop shot is to give you and your partner an opportunity to move to the no-volley line. It should only be used when both of your opponents are at the line and you don't have an opportunity for a strong offensive shot. If one of your opponents is deep, keep him in the back court by hitting a shot to the back court.
The drop shot is one of the most difficult shots to master because the ball has to be hit with just the right amount of touch to travel the required distance. But once mastered, it will be one of the most effective weapons in your arsenal. It is important to remember that a drop shot is an approach shot. In other words, it gives you and your partner an opportunity to approach the no-volley line. If you make an effective drop shot without following it to the line, then you have wasted an opportunity. However, before following the ball to the line, make sure that you have not hit the ball hard enough to give your opponent a slam. Hang back just momentarily until you are sure that the ball is not a setup. Then move to the line quickly when you see that the ball is on the right trajectory to be an effective drop shot.
Returning the Lob. The best defense against an offensive lob is anticipation. It is nearly impossible to lob over your head if you are anticipating the lob and react quickly to the lob attempt. When your partner is involved in a dink exchange at the no-volley line, you should be guarding against the lob. If your partner is pulled to the net by a short dink, your opponent may be tempted to do a quick lob. That tactic will not work very well if you call your partner off the shot and cover the lob for him.
When playing the lob, the most important thing for power and accuracy is to get into position quickly. Take a few quick steps back to get under or slightly behind the ball. Then step into the ball with a full swing. That is where you get the power and control. Avoid the common mistake of drifting backward while reaching backward. It is difficult to get power or control while doing that. If you find yourself doing that often, concentrate on moving your feet quickly before reaching for the ball.
Always try to play the lob in the air if possible. When you let the ball bounce, you have lost the opportunity to hit the overhead smash. And you have given your opponents time to move up to the line because they know that you will not be hitting an overhead. There are times when you have to let a lob bounce such as when you lose it in the sun, or don't have time to get under it, or think that it may bounce out of bounds. Other than those times, keep the offensive advantage by hitting the overhead smash.
Using the Lob. The Offensive Lob. A lob is most effective when the other team is not expecting it. The ideal time to use an offensive lob is when both of the opponents are at the no-volley line anticipating a drive shot or a dink. Placement and timing of the lob are critical. Since it is only 15 feet from the no-volley line to the baseline, there is not a lot of margin for error. If it is too short, you have set your opponent up for an overhead smash; if it is too long, you lose the point. Timing is critical because it is the element of surprise that makes it work. Even a well-placed lob becomes less effective if your opponent has anticipated it. He just takes a couple of quick steps back and executes the overhead. If you attempt to lob too often, then you have lost the element of surprise. To maintain the element of surprise, it helps to conceal your intent. Try to use the same backstroke and foot position as normal. It is just that last-second flick of the wrist and follow through that turn a dink into an offensive lob.
The Defensive Lob. The defensive lob is used to buy time to move back into position. If one partner is pulled wide or deep to retrieve a shot, a lob will give that player time to get back into position. Ideally, that lob should be deep in the opponentís backcourt so that their overhead shot is more difficult and so they can not hit the smash at an extreme angle. When you and your partner are lobbing from the back court, you are playing defense and looking for an opportunity to assume the offense. That opportunity can come from a weak overhead that allows you to use an approach shot such as a drive or drop shot. That opportunity can also come when your opponent lets a lob bounce. As soon as you see that your opponent is going to let the ball bounce, immediately move to the no-volley line. Donít wait for the ball to bounce; move quickly when the bounce is anticipated. At that point, you have assumed the offense and put your opponent on the defense.
Move in sync with your partner. Imagine an invisible link that keeps you and your partner no more than about 10 ft. apart. When your partner moves to retrieve the ball, that link is like a powerful magnetic force that pulls you with him. If your partner is pulled to the sideline to play the ball, you are pulled with him to cover the middle. If that link is broken, you leave a big gap up the middle. It is very common to see players protecting their side of the court instead of moving with the ball and their partner.
In the same way that the link pulls you laterally, it should also pull you forward and back. When your partner moves up to the no-volley line, that link is pulling you along to establish a position of strength. When your partner is forced to the back court to retrieve a ball, it is much more likely that he will hit a return that can be slammed back at you. So the link should be pulling you back with him, at least part of the way, until you see what type of return that your partner is making. That link has some flexibility, but should never break completely.
Watch for those broken links on the other side of the net. That creates an opening for you to hit a winner.
Return of Serve. Very often, the best return of serve is a soft floating return that keeps your opponent in the back court. You will be taking advantage of the 2-bounce rule that prohibits the serving team from volleying the return of serve. The soft floater gives you and your partner plenty of time to establish your positions at the no-volley line. When you control the no-volley line, you have assumed the offense and put the serving team on defense. The other advantage of using this type of return is that it is one of the easiest returns to make and greatly cuts down on errors.
There are times when a hard driving return is appropriate. It can be especially effective if one of your opponents has a tendency to move up too quickly after the serve. If he has moved up too quickly, the hard drive forces him to backpedal quickly and forces an off-balance shot. But, keep in mind that your chances for error increase with that type of return. An attempt at a drive return means that it is much more likely that you will hit the net or hit the ball long. The other risk of the drive return is that it may be returned to you before you have had time to establish your position at the line.
Use the hard drive return every now and then for a change of pace and to keep your opponent off balance. But, most of the time, it would be wise to play the winning percentages and return a deep soft floater.
Court Position for Doubles. The strongest position in doubles is when both players are at the no-volley line. Try to position yourself so that your feet are just a foot or two behind the line. Give yourself just enough room to pivot and step into the ball as you hit it. You want to volley (hit before the bounce) as many balls as you can. That is where you get the most power and advantage over your opponent. You can only do that when you are at the line.
Many beginning and intermediate players say that they are more comfortable when playing midway between the no-volley line and the baseline. They insist that it gives them more time to see and react to the ball. That is true, but it also gives your opponent more time to react to your shot. And if your opponent is at the line and you are playing back, it gives him a much wider range of shots and angles to play. Most of the time, he will just hit it hard at your feet. Even the very best players have difficulty making an effective return of a hard shot at the feet. That is why that zone midway between the no-volley line and the baseline is called ďno manís landĒ. You donít want to be there if it is possible to get to the line.
If you are playing against a player that likes to stay back while his partner is up, always return the ball to the player that is staying back. You will be on the offense while your opponent is on the defense.
Is it OUT or IN? The ball can only touch the court at one point. As you can see in the first photo below, the center of the ball is touching the red. So, even though part of the profile of the ball is over the top of the line, the ball is out. The second photo shows a ball that is good because the center is touching the white line. Reference: section 6C of the official USAPA rules.
Note that this rule is different than the rule for tennis. A tennis ball can flatten out when it hits, so if any part of the tennis ball touches the line, it is called good.
Remember, all lines are good during the rally and the serve except for the no-volley line during the serve. A served ball that touches the no-volley line is a fault and results in loss of serve.
Help Your Partner With Line Calls. When your partner is trying to make a difficult shot, it is often hard for that player to concentrate on the line and the shot at the same time. Your partner is counting on you to make the out call if necessary. It is very common to see players looking straight ahead while their partner is playing the ball. You should always watch the ball so that you can help your partner with the call. Otherwise, you may be giving away points if your partner is unable to make the call.
If your partner calls the ball out and you see that it is clearly in, then you should declare the ball to be good. When you disagree with your partner about a line call, the benefit of the doubt always goes to the other side. Never play the point over.
Anticipate the Out Ball. The previous tip was about anticipating the shot for those quick exchanges at the no-volley line. As you are anticipating the speed and trajectory of the ball in order to get in position to hit it, it just as important to anticipate that the ball will go out so that you can get out of way. Watch how often the best players get free points by simply stepping aside or ducking to watch the ball sail out of bounds.
You can also anticipate human nature. If your opponent has blasted the ball at you as hard as he can hit it and you return it, it is likely that he will try to hit it even harder the next time. Anticipate that and be prepared to step aside and collect that free point as you watch the ball go beyond the baseline.
If you donít anticipate the out ball, then you will probably be hitting many balls that would have gone out.
Anticipation. Pickleball is a very quick game requiring fast reflexes for those quick exchanges at the no-volley line. The best players give themselves an edge of just a fraction of a second by anticipating the shot. If you wait for your eyes to pick up the flight of the ball after it is struck, it may be too late. It is important to take note of the visual clues that will tell you where the ball is most likely to go. Observe the speed and angle of the paddle as the ball is struck so that you can begin to react and shift your weight before the ball is actually hit. Also take note of the position of the feet for another visual clue of the general direction in which your opponent is aiming. You donít need to look directly at the feet. You can usually see the feet in your peripheral vision as you keep your eyes on the paddle and ball.
Watching the paddle will also help you anticipate any spin that is being placed on the ball. If the paddle is moving from high to low, then the ball will likely have backspin. That is especially true if it is hit with an open face (paddle tilted slightly upward). If the paddle is moving from low to high across the top of the ball with a closed face, it will have top spin. If the paddle is swept horizontally across the body, it will probably have some side spin.
Master the Dink. The dink is one of the most effective shots in pickleball. The main purpose of the dink is to keep your opponents from gaining or keeping an offensive advantage. The dink is a soft shot that is hit just hard enough to clear the net, but not so hard as to allow your opponent to aggressively volley the ball (volley means to hit the ball before it bounces).
If you donít have a chance at a strong offensive shot, then chances are good that the best shot selection is the dink. That is especially true if both of your opponents are at the net (at the no-volley line, which is the strongest position in pickleball). If one of your opponents is back at the baseline, donít use a dink in that situation unless you are pretty sure that he wonít be able to get to the ball. A dink in that situation will just bring your opponent up to the net, which is where he wants to be. If he is at the baseline, keep him on the defense with a deep shot hit with pace.
The keys to effective dink play are patience and precision. It takes patience to keep dinking and to resist the urge to try to create an offensive shot when none is available. Move your opponents around with a variety of shot placements including a cross-court shot at an angle. You want to maneuver the opponents enough to where they make the first mistake, either by hitting the net or hitting it high enough to give you an offensive shot. It takes precision on your part to not make that first mistake. That takes practice to hit the ball with just the right amount of touch. Practice the dink while you are warming up.
Master the dink. It is likely that your opponent has not.
Helping to Keep the Score Straight. Many times when there is confusion about the score, the score is off by one. If you knew whether the score should be odd or even, that would help you to know the correct score. There is a way to always know whether a teamís score should be odd or even.
At the start of each game, make a mental note of the player that served first for each side. If the rotation is done correctly, a teamís score will always be even when that player is on the right and odd when that player is on the left. As you call the score, use the player position as a double check on whether you have the correct score. If every player would use this technique, it would put an end to those long discussions about whether a teamís score should be 3 or 4.
As an aid to help everyone to keep the score straight, call the score before every serve, including the server number. It helps to call the score well before the serve to give everyone a chance to make a correction. It is very distracting to call the score while you are in your serving motion, especially if the score is wrong.