Wow, here we are already in the month of April. I am smiling as I type this because to me this means we will soon be able to play the great game of Pickleball outside! I don’t know about you, but to me, there is no comparison between the indoor game and the outdoor game. I personally enjoy the outdoor game much more with all of its different challenges: wind, sun, less forgiving outdoor ball, court surface, etc. I am also looking forward to outside play this year because of our awesome six-court facility!
This month’s rules and strategy review was requested by Charlie McKnight. Charlie sent me the request to discuss the all important “Third Shot”.
Many of you might be asking: “What in the world is the third shot?” Here is the scenario: The serving team is at a disadvantage because the returning team will be at the net before the return of serve is touched by the receiving team. The serving team serves the ball with both players on the baseline (this would be the first shot), the receiving team already has half of their team at the net. Ideally the receiver hits a deep return of serve (the second shot) and moves quickly to the kitchen line–thus the receivers have “taken over the net.” The serving team is pinned on the baseline because they have to wait for the ball to bounce (double bounce rule). Once the ball bounces, this is the “third shot” and at this point the serving team has several options. Do they lob it, bang it hard and low, or hit a soft dink shot low over the net that drops in the kitchen? Let’s break down the three options and I will make my suggestion on what I believe the highest percentage shot is. Remember the goal of the “third shot” is to safely get your team up to the net and in an offensive position to win the point.
Hitting the Ball Hard
In my opinion this is the new player’s default shot. Intuitively players think they will just blast the ball so hard that the other team will not be able to handle it and that is how they will win the point. Remember, most points are won at the net, not on the baseline. In fact, when your team is on the baseline you are in a “defensive” position, not an “offensive” position. Hitting the ball hard from the baseline will work sometimes if you are playing against a fairly new or lower level player. If you hit a hard shot from the baseline against a higher level opponent you will give them all kinds of angles to hit a winning shot right back at you. In fact it will require very little effort on their part to just put their paddle up and block the ball at an angle or at your feet, which will be difficult for you and your partner to handle while you are trying to work your way to the net. Banging the ball from the baseline is the lowest percentage shot selection to get you and your partner to the net.
I will add one other statement here regarding the hard hit shot from the baseline: At the 5.0 level you will see a very hard hit shot with a load of topspin being hit. This is much different than just smacking the ball. The topspin keeps the ball low to the net and makes it a very effective shot for the higher level play, especially when it is hit in combination with the slower shot. This keeps the opposing team on their toes and will mix it up a bit. The key here is that it is a low shot and is dropping towards the floor, making it very difficult to return.
Hitting a Lob
The lob shot is a difficult shot to master and becomes even more difficult in outdoor play because you have to judge the wind. A lob hit from the baseline has to be hit so precisely for it to be effective that it is almost not worth trying. If your opponent has hit you a very difficult, deep return, you might throw up a lob as a sort of “hail Mary” play, but it’s rarely effective against good, physically quick players. If the lob is perfect–meaning it forces your opponents back to the baseline–you and your partner should race to the kitchen line and thus claim the offensive position on the court. If it is not a “well-hit” lob, you must ready yourself to play defense.
Obviously, different teams handle lobs more or less effectively depending on their physicality. Your opponents’ physical strength is a factor as the pace of their overheads will vary accordingly. If you do lob, you should be aiming for one of your opponents’ backhands–ensuring a weaker overhead return if you fall short.
The lob can be highly effective if executed correctly and especially successful if the opposing team doesn’t communicate and move well. Throwing up lobs can change the momentum of a game and can be used to tire out opponents. But the likelihood of executing the shot as accurately as it needs to be is low. Therefore, in my opinion, it is not the best choice for the third shot.
Soft Dink Shot
I believe that the soft dink shot is the best choice for your third shot. What exactly is the soft dink shot from the baseline? It is a looping, softly hit ball that just makes it over the net and lands midway in the kitchen (non-volley zone). This is one of the most difficult shots to master in the game and will take some practice to execute. One of the mistakes that people make when they are first trying to learn this shot is they hit a soft shot and then race to the kitchen. This is a mistake because when you are just learning to hit this shot, you most often will hit it too high and it will be a kill shot for the other team. Or, you will hit the soft shot into the net. This is a “good miss” because you are trying to hit the right shot. I would rather have a partner trying to hit a soft third shot into the net than blasting the third shot and we just eat it. So what to do when you hit it too high? If you watch some of the higher level players, you will notice that this third shot has very little back swing. It almost looks as if they push the ball over the net.
If it is too high the other team will put it away, however many times when players go to put the ball away they hit directly at you, so in this case get ready to block it back over. If you hit the soft shot and you can get a couple of steps closer to the net, take those steps and then split step [both feet parallel to each other in your volley ready position] and get ready to hit another soft approach shot over the net. It is better to stop in no man’s land balanced and ready to move in any direction than a little closer to the net and not balanced or ready. You will know that your third shot is successful when the only thing the other team can do is hit a soft dink back at you. This will allow you and your partner to get to the net and then get in a good dink game until a mistake is made. One other way you will know that you hit a great third shot is if the other team pops it up and it becomes a kill for your team. It is so much fun to set up your partner for the kill!
Practicing and mastering this third shot strategy will also improve your overall game because you will gain control in taking pace off the ball–successful Pickleball players need to reliably execute both soft and hard shots. At a higher level, pickleball becomes a game of placement to create opportunities to employ power (put away) shots.
So, when warming up, find a partner to feed you balls and you try to hit the ball into the kitchen at different distances from the net and then you feed your partner. The person on the baseline is practicing hitting a soft third shot, the person who remains at the kitchen line is working on hitting a low, deep, controlled shot to different spots on the baseline as accurately as possible.
See you on the court!