As I’m sure you’re aware, Pickleball is most often played as a doubles game. Like any other team, each team member must work with his/her partner to be effective. There are simple issues you should consider, such as which hand your partner and your opponents play with and how you’re going to cover the middle of the court. Specifically, are you going to use the center line to determine who takes a middle shot or should the person with his/her forehand down the middle take shots a foot or two past the center line? These questions can be addressed quickly at the beginning of a game.
A little more complex is the idea that from the serve to the completion of a point, you need to (1) be aware of where your partner is on the court, and (2) have an idea of what he/she will likely do with the ball when it is hit to him/her. Obviously, number two is a trickier proposition considering we’re not mind-readers, and we play with a wide variety of people who have different styles. Following are two strategies you can use to increase your compatibility with any player you find yourself teamed with.
Let’s Stay Together
Whether times are good or bad, you’re happy or sad, you and your partner should play like you are “joined at the hip.” This doesn’t mean that you play close to one another, rather that you move in tandem. For example, when you are on the baseline as the serving team and you hit your third shot, you and your partner should then move toward the net in step with one another. Check out this photo of Al and his partner Martha demonstrating this principle perfectly. This is important because if one person rushes the net and one remains at the baseline, a huge gap is created that allows the opposing team to hit an easy winner down the middle. If you stay parallel to one another, you become more of an impenetrable “wall.”
When a team is at the kitchen line, this same idea of moving together to close up holes should be employed. Say the opposing team hits a dink to the sideline forcing your partner to move to that line. You should step with your partner to close the hole that is being created in the middle of the court. When your partner returns the dink and moves back into his/her optimal position on the court, you do the same. Think of it as a dance–you take a step and your partner mirrors it. Your purpose is to cover the court and close up the holes your opponents are constantly seeking.
Is Your Team in an Offensive, Neutral, or Defensive Position?
Recognizing when your team is in an offensive, neutral, or defensive position is an important mental skill to develop in doubles play. If you and your partner identify which of these positions you’re in every time you hit the ball, you will be able to not only select the “highest-percentage” shot, but also accurately predict the shot your partner will attempt.
You are in a defensive position when your team is not at the net, or has been moved at the net to the point that you are no longer “in sync.” An offensive position is when your team is in sync and moving together at the net and your opponents are not in their optimal position. A neutral position is when both teams are at the net, but neither has a clear advantage over the other.
For example, say as the serving team you or your partner hit a stellar soft third shot that allows you to get to the net and a neutral position. [Remember, when your team achieves the neutral position, the opposing team is automatically reduced from the offensive to neutral.] The opposing team returns your third shot safely, then you hit a well-placed dink that pulls the opposing team hard to the receiver’s backhand sideline. Now you taken an offensive position and they are on defense because you forced them out of their optimal position at the net. The opposing team pops the ball up and it’s an easy put away. But let’s say the opposing team hits a low, soft shot to the center of the court. They move back into their optimal position and both teams are “back in neutral.”
This is the fun part of the “dink” game–working together with your partner to gain an offensive position as a team. Most players are most excited about the game when long points occur. Long points are the result of both teams moving successfully among/through offensive, defensive, and neutral positions.
The key points to remember are (1) recognizing which position your team is in and then making a high-percentage shot, and (2) understanding that when your team is in a defensive position, hitting a softer shot will help get your team back to neutral. If you blast the ball when you’re in the defensive position, the ball will come back even faster at you or to the holes on the court while you’re scrambling for the neutral position.
Below are a few examples of shots that fall into the individual categories.
Offensive: (1) a hard, angled shot to either sideline, (2) a soft shot that lands at the feet of your opponent or that lands right between your opponents, (3) a body shot aimed at your opponent’s forehand hip or a middle drive shot between your opponents, (4) a short lob over your opponents’ backhand side–very difficult to achieve successfully.
Neutral: (1) a soft shot fairly low over the net that lands in the kitchen and doesn’t bounce up too high.
Defensive: (1) soft shot hit a little higher over the net for safety and preferably cross-court to give you time to return to neutral, (2) high, defensive lob to cross-court corner–once again, a low-percentage shot and you should consider your opponents’ skills.
Be Nice to Your Partner
Let’s remember that we are all out to get some exercise and have some fun. Of course the most fun you will have is when you play against players of equal skill level. My next post will address skill levels and help you identify your current level of play.
I hope you find these strategies helpful as you work towards becoming a great doubles partner.
See you on the court!