Shake and Bake?

The recommended strategy for the serving side is the 3rd shot drop. The advantage is normally with the receiving side. The receiver’s partner is already up at the kitchen. The receiver returns the serve deep into their opponents’ court where they both have to be back behind the service line to allow for the second bounce. By now the service receiver has joined their partner at the kitchen and are all set to dominate the ensuing rally. To neutralise this the serving side will play a drop shot into the kitchen which cannot be attacked and so can move up the court to their kitchen. The rally is neutralised, all four are at the net and typically a dinking rally will begin. That’s the theory.

But, the 3rd shot drop is notoriously difficult to pull off safely for many, probably most, players. It’s either into the net or too high and can be attacked. An alternative to the 3rd shot drop is to drive it hard and flat and rush the net, the so-called shake and bake strategy. The serving side have to agree to do this. Whoever the ball is returned to, they will drive it back. As soon as one of the serving side sees that it is their partner who will be playing the return of serve, they rush the net to attack any weak pop up return.

Phil and I tried this a couple of weeks ago and it worked well (some of the time). It was rather satisfying! It works particularly against players who don’t have very fast hands or, having returned the serve, are slow getting to the kitchen. It’s an obvious tactic to try against relatively inexperienced players but is becoming increasingly popular at the expert and pro level.

One word of warning though. It doesn’t remove the necessity to be able to do long range drops. If the shake and bake doesn’t win the point immediately the serving side often has to play a 5th shot drop and a dinking rally may still start. However, the 5th shot drop is likely to be played from mid court, a lot easier than playing the 3rd shot drop from behind the service line. The other thing to be wary of is that the 3rd shot drive has a high risk of hitting the net or going out.

It’s worth a try and, in practice it’s what a lot of intermediate players do anyway because the 3rd shot drop is so difficult and easily punished if they get it wrong. If you do try shake and bake don’t forget it’s not just a matter of driving the 3rd shot. One of you has to rush the kitchen immediately the low hard return is played by their partner and the other must join them there as soon as the drive is completed. If you don’t both get to the kitchen the chances are you will continue to be pinned to the the back leaving spaces all over the court for you opponents to hit into.

But is it pickleball?

The standard of play has improved significantly at Heaton since we started playing 18 months ago. However, the question comes up occasionally, “but is it really pickleball”. The question is always prompted by the observation that we rarely, if ever, find ourselves playing dinking rallies. The answer to the question is, yes, we are playing pickleball. We know the pickleball rules, our serves are usually legal, we know the two bounce rule, we respect the non volley zone. We are playing pickleball.

However, an important part of the game is missing – dinking. The main problem is that we rarely have all 4 players at the kitchen line at the same time. The service receiving pair have the easiest job to get there. One of them is already at the kitchen and a good return of serve gets the service receiver up there to join their partner. The problem lies with the serving pair, pinned to their baseline by the second bounce rule. Assuming the receiving pair are reasonably good players, from their dominant position they can keep their opponents pinned at the back or hit the ball at their opponents feet. The pair at the net won’t win all the points but should win most of them.

The usual tactic for the serving team to get to the kitchen is to play a third shot drop. A good one cannot be attacked as it has to be played from below net height and it allows the serving pair to advance to the kitchen and thus neutralise the advantage of the receiving pair. That’s the idea anyway but it’s a hard shot to master, to be able to play a drop shot into the kitchen from deep in your court. It is not surprising that many players hit a drive for the 3rd shot. As it happens, it seems that the 3rd shot drive is gaining popularity with high level ex tennis pickleball players. They still get into dinking rallies but often with a 5th shot drop from further up the court.

The upshot of this is to underline the importance of drills to play drops shots from deep in the court and while moving into the the transition zone.

Position for receiving the serve

Observations from our matchplay session 20/03/24. If I would pick out one thing from today I would say it is issues around the serve and return of serve. Theoretically at least the serving side is at a disadvantage so a good serve is important to help neutralise the receiving pair’s advantage. From the receiving side’s point of view a good deep return of service is essential to maintain their positional advantage. The serve and return set the scene for the rest of the rally. I found I was having difficulty in returning heavy top spin serves today although I got a bit better as the session wore on. These are serves that kick up and are difficult to judge especially if they are deep and you haven’t given yourself enough space behind the baseline to react and adjust. Playing kickers from your ankles will never be easy! In addition some receivers were vulnerable to serves down the middle of the court. This is a high risk serve as it can easily land in the wrong service court but can be very effective. It will often pass fairly close to the receiver’s partner at the kitchen line and cause a degree of surprise. Both the vulnerabilities above are partly a matter of how the receiver is positioned to receive the serve.

Down the middle – a happy hunting ground

Observation from this week’s PB sessions. The centre of the court is still proving a happy hunting ground for easy points. Generally, the centre would be the responsibility of the player with their forehand in the middle. So, assuming 2 righthanders, the player on the left of the court would have the main responsibility of covering the centre. However, if the left-hand court player is pulled wide the righthand court player should move across to cover the middle with their backhand. This is the basic principle of following the ball and moving laterally as a unit. It’s only a guideline but it is normal in tournament play for the stronger (and in our case possibly the more mobile) player to take the left-hand court as, with their forehand in the centre, they cover about 60% of the court. Dragging that player wide is a good strategy as the centre is then covered by their partner’s backhand.

You could think about dinking battles as an illustration. Dinks to the middle would normally be dealt with by the player with their forehand in the middle. Dinking wide to their backhand will mean the middle has to be covered by their partner who has to deal with a dink to the centre with their back hand. Advantage us! Most players’ backhands are less reliable that their forehand and more likely to dink into the net or pop the ball up to attack. Often, certainly at our level, they don’t get across to cover the middle anyway and leave the centre open for an easy point. And if nothing else we’ve got them moving, playing on their backhands and outside their comfort zone. Who knew dinking could be such fun!

PS. If a pair have a right-hander and a left-hander they would normally play both forehands down the middle. So if you are playing against them, all wide and down the line shots would go to their backhands. Worth remembering but wide and down the line shots have a higher risk of going out. The centre can still be profitable if they are not good at communication!

PPS.  A pair with two left handers  would normally play the same as two righthanders as described above. The stronger/more mobile player with their forehand down the middle but in the right-hand court.

Top spin serve

Try this the next time you play. A deep heavy topspin lob serve. The top spin helps to bring the ball down into the court. It looks like a slow serve but can catch the receiver out as it kicks up on bouncing. This can jam them up, put them back on their heels. It can produce a weak half court return and inhibit their progress to the kitchen line. Worth a try.

If you want to practice this or any other serve you could agree with your partner and opposing pair to allow 2 serves for a game so you can go for it on the first serve but have a second serve if necessary.

Prepare to drop, look to drive

This is a continuation of the last post about getting to the kitchen and is more-or-less a summary. The third shot of any rally is when the serving side plays their second shot after serving, the one where they must stay back and allow the ball to bounce before playing it. Assuming the return of serve is deep to the baseline, normally this third shot will be a drop, a fairly soft shot lifted so it apexes before the net and drops down into the opponent’s kitchen. This enables the serving pair to makes some progress to their kitchen.

So the serving side should assume the return of serve will be deep and they will be playing a drop shot. However, sometimes the return of serve falls short of the baseline  and may fall half or three quarter court. When this happens the serving side has to move forward to the ball and has the option of a) playing a drop as planned (although easier as they are nearer the net) or driving the ball low over the net at pace. Either way the shorter return of serve means the serving side have been given the momentum to move up.

Driving at the pair at the net from mid court gives then little time to react and control their next shot and may produce a pop up to attack. The reason it is not advisable to  drive the third shot from the back of the court is that a good pair at the net with soft hands could just block the ball back into your kitchen. Starting from the back of the court, this will be a difficult shot to get to and control.

In summary, the serving side should be prepared to play their second shot with a drop  but look for a short return of serve which they may be able to attack. In any game situation the shot you will play will depend on the merits of the ball you are receiving and your perception of the skill level of your opponents.


Get to the kitchen line?

We are constantly told by coaches to get to the kitchen line as soon as possible. This is generally good advice. The dominant court position is up at the NVZ line and depending on the skill levels of the competing pairs, the majority of rallies are won from that position. The problem is that the advice can be translated into ‘get to the kitchen line at all costs’. This leads to players running like lemmings to the cliff edge, often with similar consequences. The advice is probably so frequently drilled into players because many beginners and lower intermediates seem very reluctant to go anywhere near the kitchen and often give away easy points by hanging back and leaving large gaps for short and cross court winners.

It is important to recognise that you can’t always get to the kitchen line in one go. This advice is aimed particularly at the serving pair. Normally you would expect the receiving pair to be at their kitchen line already. The receiver’s partner is there from the start and the service receiver will generally play a return deep to the opposing baseline to pin the serving pair at the back of the court and have sufficient time to join their partner at the kitchen.

This is why, for the servings side, there is a great deal of emphasis on the third shot drop. The first shot is the serve, the second shot is the (usually deep) return of serve, the third shot is played by the serving side (usually from the back of the court). By now their opponents will be at their NVZ. The point of the the serving side playing a drop shot at this point is that the ball should land in the kitchen or at least be below net height before it can be volleyed.

What happens next will depend on how good a drop shot it was. It may allow the serving team to get right up to their kitchen, neutralising the advantageous position of the receiving side and initiating a dinking rally. It may be a poor drop and can be attacked with a volley above net  height. If so, staying back to defend is likely to be the best option. Or it may be legally volleyed back firmly from at or just below net height and you may have made some progress into the mid court transition zone. One response to this may be to play another drop shot (which is likely to be easier to play since you are closer to the net) and resume your advance to the kitchen line.

The message here is that it is good to be able to play drops shots (sometimes referred to as resets) from anywhere on the court. And this may often mean playing awkward shots from around your feet. The only way to improve your short game is practice, doing drills or doing conditioned games that focus on these shots. You can of course practice these shots in recreational and social play. Just tell your partner what you are doing and why.

Finally, you don’t have to play a third shot drop all the time. A drive down the middle can win a rally or get a weak return against a pair who are not well organised and tend to leave a yawning gap down the middle of the court. Or a drive at the body of your opponent whose reactions are a bit suspect or are holding their paddle too low. Straight at their backhand shoulder can be particularly effective!. If the service receiver is a bit slow coming to the net, hitting the ball back to their feet while they are on the move can reap dividends. And you can’t beat a good lob used sparingly enough to be a surprise.

Observations from a matchplay session

At a Heaton matchplay session on December the 20th I saw a number of recurring errors worth mentioning that we all make from time to time when serving or receiving serve.  When your partner is serving, as we know, you need to stay back in the court to allow the second bounce. Too often we stand a couple of feet inside the court. This invites the returner of the serve to drive the ball back to your feet. You either have to play a half volley around your ankles or, even more difficult, play it while back pedaling.  Either way, the returner of the serve has the opportunity to advance to the kitchen in anticipation of a week shot from you. So stand back on or behind the service line when you partner is serving. If you have to move forward to get to a short return of serve (easier than back pedalling to play a shot) you are moving in the right direction for your momentum to take you towards your kitchen line. In particular, you have an opportunity to attack the incoming service returner.

Some of the players were trying to return serves with a heavily spun or fast low drive. Nothing wrong with the idea but risky if not executed well. Trying to spin excessively (i.e. lots of wrist, exaggerated arm movement) risks losing both power and direction. It can be particularly difficult is the serve is fast, low and sliced. Your return can quite easily go into the net or drift out. It will often land three-quarter court so brings your opponent forward when ideally a return of serve should generally be deep to the baseline to keep them back while you advance to the kitchen. The depth of the return of serve is generally more advantageous than speed or spin. In fact a medium paced or even slow return that lands close to the server’s baseline can be the most effective return of serve as it gives you plenty of time to move up the court and join your partner at the kitchen where, of course, he should already be!

Don’t play in no man’s land

The zone of transition is often referred to as no man’s land for a reason. It can be very dangerous! It’s an area of the court you pass through on your way to the kitchen line or the baseline. While you are in no man’s land you are vulnerable to attack by the opposition. You need to get out as soon as possible. However, inevitably there will be times when you will have to play shots from there, particularly drop shots, passing shots down the middle or down the line, and occasionally lobs. But these often have to be played round your feet or as a reaction shot, both of which can be difficult to control.  Play it as best you can and, depending on what shot it is, move either to the NVZ line or back to the baseline. If it is a good drop shot (the usual shot to play when trying to move up the transition area), or a good lob, move up. If it’s a high shot that can be attacked, more often than not you are better off dropping back keeping your paddle low  anticipating a shot around your feet. If the ball comes rocketing at you at chest height, it’s going out so get out of the way! Be sure you and your partner advance or drop back together (see playing doubles as a unit) or you are giving your opponents some inviting targets to hit into.

Quite often you won’t be able to get from the back of the court to the NVZ line in one move and have to play 2 or more shots to advance to the kitchen. While moving in the transition zone, just before your opponent hits the ball, stop moving, stabilize in the ready position. Have your feet shoulder width apart with one foot slightly forward of the other to help push off forwards or backwards as necessary, and raise a little on to your toes. Hold your paddle in the ready position and you are giving yourself the best chance to deal with anything that comes your way. If you play a good drop from there you can continue forward to the NVZ line.