Pickleball may seem like a goofy copy of tennis or badminton. But let us assure you, it is a completely different sport that needs entirely new strategies. Pickleball is indeed similar to tennis or ping pong, but subtle differences in their rules make this sport a completely new deal.
Strategy in pickleball can be really deep, and we won’t be able to cover all its aspects in the scope of this 2500-word material. However, what we can do is acquaint you with some crucial basics.
Like racquet sports, pickleball can be played in singles and doubles. And both types have their own completely different approaches to strategy.
But before beginning, make sure to get acquainted with pickleball rules. Otherwise, the strategies may not make sense to you.
If you do know the rules, let’s get started.
Best Pickleball Strategy – Singles
The playing strategy in singles vastly differs from that in doubles.
The main difference between singles and doubles is that singles are much more about speed and power rather than control over the court. Singles are won by brute speed and force much more often than by smart strategy.
Now, experience and smart play certainly have a big role, but their importance is slightly less in singles.
In singles, you will have to guard the entire width of your court on your own. Due to this, the demands for your physical shape are much higher. You need to be quick to rapidly change positions and react to your opponent’s shots, strong to be able to strike the ball firmly, and have good endurance to be able to continue playing during longer games.
Now that we have established what singles are, let’s examine a couple of general strategies employed in singles.
In singles, you need to serve hard and deep, unlike doubles where your goal is to just pass the net without a fault. Ideally, you should hit your opponent’s weak side, which usually is the backhand. You may vary the direction of your serve, but make sure to keep the ball in bounds.
Serving firm and deep is exceptionally important in singles. If you perform a weak serve, you’ll allow your opponent to do a strong return and put you on the defensive.
In terms of positioning, you should serve from near the center line. From this position, it is rather easy to react to the opponent’s returns.
After serving the ball, don’t rush towards the net as you would do in doubles. Instead, stay closer to the center of the court and get ready for the returning shot.
Returning the ball, your goal is again to hit hard and deep. Preferably, aim at the corners of the court. This is done to keep the opponent on the move and to prevent them from taking the strong position at the net. And again, try to force your opponent to use the weaker backhand.
In doubles, the third shot is commonly the drop shot. The rather slow third drop shot is performed by the serving team to win time and allow them to get to the non-volley zone line as close as possible.
In singles, getting closer to the net isn’t always advantageous. Instead of a drop shot, you may use a hard passing drive on the third shot to send the ball past the opponent. This can help you win an easy point.
In singles, your goal is to stay between the center and the back third of the court. You may sometimes make aggressive plays towards the net, which we’ll describe it a bit later. Most of the time, you will be staying in the middle of the court.
The middle is advantageous for you because it allows you to quickly access the ball regardless of where it has been directed. You can rather easily run back to return a deep shot or run forward towards the net.
At the same time, you need to stay mobile on a left-to-right plane in order to anticipate or respond to the moves of your opponent. To ensure mobility, stay on the balls of your feet. If you go flat-footed, you may be unable to change your position quickly enough to respond to your opponent’s move.
Performing varying shots is an important aspect of pickleball strategy. There are two goals in keeping your shots varied.
First of all, you want to keep your opponent on the move at all times and put him in a defending position. On one hand, your opponent won’t be able to approach the line, and on the other, you will be directing their game as an attacker.
The second goal is to make your play unpredictable. If your playing style is predictable, an experienced opponent can quickly take advantage of it and force you to make a mistake.
If you mix hard shots with slow-paced ones occasionally, you will keep your opponent on the toes and guessing what you will be doing next. The less predictable you are, the less likely it is that the opponent is going to outwit you.
Approaching the net
The net opens a variety of opportunities for you to get an upper hand, but you don’t want to go to it at the wrong time. If you say perform a weak return and rush to the net, your opponent will have time to react to the slow ball and do a hard pass right past you.
In addition, taller players have an edge at the net over shorter players. If you are short, there will be less room for mistakes for you due to your limited reach.
Of course, all this is applicable to your opponent as well. If they make a mistake and approach the net at a bad time, you can take advantage of that. If your opponent is at the net, you have 3 options:
- Hit a hard passing shot to win the rally.
- Hit a dipping shot directed towards the ground near the opponent’s feet.
- Hit a lob to lead your opponent away from the net towards the backline. Keep in mind that the lob is used rather rarely because experienced players usually easily send the ball back.
Best Pickleball Strategy – Doubles
The fundamentals of the strategy in doubles are completely different. Here, it relies on communication and coordination between teammates, as well as on a slow-paced controlled game. Power and speed still play a role in doubles, but they play a secondary role.
There are two of you in the team, so you will need to be in sync to stay in the game. Likewise, you have to play against two players, which puts a whole bunch of new requirements on your strategy.
The pickleball strategy can truly get very deep in doubles. But, since you are likely a not so experienced player, we won’t dive too deep and will cover just its general basics.
Overall, the goal of a doubles strategy is to occupy the advantageous positions at the non-volley line while preventing the opponent from doing the same for as long as possible. And once both teams are the non-volley line, both teams seek to play slow and controlled in order not to allow the opposing team to make a smashing, difficult-to-return shot. You need to play perfectly, at the same time trying to force the opposing team to make a mistake.
Now, let’s examine the key stages of a doubles rally. Not only learn to implement them but also expect them to be used against you.
In doubles, both the positioning and the way of the service differ from those in singles.
Both members of the serving team should be positioned behind the backline. The service receiver from the opposing team should be positioned behind the backline as well, while his partner should be fully up to the non-volley zone line.
The server needs to make a diagonal shot towards the receiving player. The shot needs to stay within the bounds of the court while not hitting the non-volley zone.
In singles, the serving shot needs to be as deep as possible. In doubles, your primary goal is to just make a good shot into the court. If you are skilled enough, you can serve the ball so that the receiver has to return it with their backhand.
Otherwise, your best bet would be to just aim at the center of the correct receiving court. Remember, your goal is to make a good serving shot, and it is more likely to perform if you aim at the middle.
Next, the receiver needs to return the serving shot.
The best way of doing so is to send the ball towards the center of the opponent’s court. The center is very advantageous due to the following reasons:
- The middle of the net is the lowest, so it is less likely that the ball will hit it.
- Right-hand players are forced to do a backhand shot.
- Center shots may confuse opponents since they will have to quickly decide who makes the third shot.
The return shot needs to be deep in order to prevent the opponents from quickly approaching the non-volley zone line. While delaying the opponents’ approach, the service receiver needs to charge at the non-volley zone line to join his partner. Making it to the net is crucial because:
- The receiver is closer to their partner, allowing the latter to see them.
- The net shields the receiver team from dangerous low third shots.
- The net makes the third shot harder for the opponent.
- It is easy to smash a high-coming ball from this position.
The third shot is performed by the serving team in response to the returning shot. The purpose of the third shot is to allow the serving team to approach the non-volley zone line. Usually, the serving team isn’t at the line yet by the time the service shot is returned.
Since the return shot is very often made towards the middle, it often causes confusion as to who needs to make the third shot. The members of the serving team should signal “mine” or “yours” to avoid such confusion.
If both members of the receiving team are already at the non-volley zone line, then the third shot most commonly is the slow drop shot into the non-volley zone. The drop shot needs to land into the non-volley zone because the opponents will have to wait until it bounces once before sending it back. This will win time for the serving team and will allow them to approach the non-volley zone line.
The drop shot is a difficult shot, and you need to have the skill for it. If you aren’t good enough at this shot, you should avoid it and instead make a slow low shot. This shot may not land in the non-volley zone, but by moving slowly, it will provide you with time to advance.
If one or both of the opponents haven’t made it to the non-volley zone line, there is no need to perform the difficult drop shot. Instead, the ball needs to be sent low towards the backhand of whichever opponent is behind the furthest. This will keep the opposing team away from the non-volley zone line while allowing your team to advance towards it.
By the fourth shot, both teams are usually at the non-volley zone line. If this is the case, then the right shot would be a low dink into the volley zone. Again, opponents would need to wait for the ball to bounce once before sending it back. The purpose of the dink is to keep the pace of the game slow.
In addition, by keeping the ball low, you won’t allow your opponent to make a smashable shot that is difficult to return.
If one or both opponents aren’t at the line, then you’d need to make a low shot towards the backhand of the player behind to stop the opponents’ team progress towards the net.
Fifth shot and onward
By the fifth shot, both teams should already be at the non-volley zone net. From the fifth shot and thereafter, the dink game usually begins. As we’ve explained above, the low dink is used to keep the rally’s pace slow and prevent smashing shots.
You and your partner don’t really need to do anything apart from dinking. At this point, your goal is to make good shots and force the opponent to make a mistake. If possible, aim at their backhand or feet. At the same time, avoid the temptation to make a high or even a horizontal shot since it will most likely result in a smash. Aim down at the opponents’ feet.
In singles, protecting your side of the court is the responsibility of a single player. In doubles, things become more difficult because now, there are two players who need to communicate and coordinate with one another.
Beginning pickleball players will often divide the court in “mine” and “your” halves. This unsynchronized approach is erroneous since the players may accidentally leave a big gap between each other, which could allow the opponent to get an easy point.
Instead, team members should move with each other, at the same time responding to the opponents’ moves. Imagine that the teammates are tied to each other with a rope: by moving to one side, one player drags their partner towards the same side.
This is the coordinated approach that needs to be applied in doubles.
Generally, the distance between the team members needs to be 8 feet at most. This would allow the team to leave as little gaps as possible for passing shots.
If you are back, make slow shots
If your team didn’t make its way towards the non-volley zone line by the fourth shot, don’t give up since the rally isn’t over. We’ve said it multiple times: when you need to approach the kitchen line, you have to make slow shots, preferably into the non-volley zone to buy you time.
No matter how slowly you are approaching the line, don’t lose patience and continue to make slow shots. Doubles are very often won on the opponents’ mistakes, so don’t make one.
If the opponents are back, keep them back
Conversely, if it is the opponents’ team that isn’t at the line yet, your goal is to keep them back as long as possible. We’ve already described what kind of shots you could do to achieve this: mainly, aim low at the backhand of the opponent who is the furthest from the line.
Bonus tip: identify your opponents’ weaknesses
This tip can be endlessly useful in both singles and doubles.
There are plenty of things you could do to identify your opponent’s weaknesses. The warmup is the best time to do this. Pay attention to how and what shots they make. If they very rarely do backhand shots, then guess what, you would need to hit their backhand.
During the game, you can also get some crucial information. Your opponent may hit the same location on the court time and again. The obvious move here would to cover that position.
Also, don’t forget that your opponent would also want to identify your weaknesses and find a pattern in your game. Well, the right thing for you to do would be to be unpredictable and to work on your mistakes in the long run.
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