Good players seem to move in sync with one another. They do a tango of sorts at the NVZ line while managing to stay out of each other’s way and still have one person having a clear shot. Lesser players collide. They smack paddles. They hesitate. They apologize.
What is it about moving along the NVZ line that propels good teams to success? Are the positions the same for women’s doubles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles? Where do you start if you want to move
better at the NVZ line?
First, you need to think about the geometry involved. The shot you
hit enables your opponents to have multiple shots or fewer shots. For example, a crosscourt return gives your opponent the opportunity to hit a deep crosscourt back or a sharp angle crosscourt, as well as a down-the-line shot or a lob. Your partner has to cover at least four options.
Whereas, if you had returned down the middle of the court, your opponent most likely will hit a shot that passes over the center of the net or close to it. Your partner can poach? Think “give an angle, get an angle.” If your angle is weak, your partner will pay the price. So, your chance of moving knowledgeably at the NVZ is much less than if you had eliminated the angles available. You must know and use your geometry.
Next, you need to develop shots that cut down the opponents’ choices. Learn to serve deep down the middle and return deep down the middle. Learn to hit your overheads with good footwork so you can angle the ball away. If the opportunity is there, be able to keep the ball deep and wait for a shorter lob. When you practice, practice shots that have
Now you’re ready to get to the NVZ line and move in tandem with your partner. Let’s begin with women’s doubles and assume that the ability level of each partner is similar. I spoke with Marne Smith, certified IPTPA and PPR pickleball instructor in Franklin, Tennessee, about her body position at the line. She said to “always keep your back straight and your knees bent as this helps you keep the opponent in your line of sight.”
Your primary objective at the NVZ line is to make sure that there is no opening, no easy shot available to your opponents. That means the middle must be covered. You also want to win, so that means there needs to be some poaching going on. But the poach can’t leave half the court open. Most women have decent groundstrokes and can pass you when given an opening. The poach in women’s doubles must be a good one. I view the poach as an aggressive, take-charge shot. Marne added,
“I poach when I know my partner has been pulled out of court or is in trouble getting to the NVZ line.”
Communicate. Tell your partner where you’re going to return the ball. You can also signal with hand motions behind the net woman’s back whether or not she is going to poach and/or cross. Hand signals give you a jump on the play. Sometimes they also unnerve the opponents because they know you’re up to something.
You don’t want your partner to be surprised so the more she knows the better, so you can move in tandem. You must return effectively, and she must move.
Marne always says “Yours” or “Mine” when she is covering the
return of serve, “as it’s usually in the middle and that takes all doubt out of that next shot,” she explained. She also says “Yours” or “Mine” when it’s in the middle of the NVZ. Since she usually plays with her identical twin sister, she does not use hand signals since they have that “wonderful osmosis thing going on.”
Rule #1 is the player closer to the net has priority. The player farther back can see the partner in front. The person returning the ball can see the partner at net. The player closer to the ball has priority. No need to get way out of position in women’s doubles. Consistent volleys win women’s doubles. Deep volleys and good court position at the NVZ are the objective.
If the ball is returned down the middle and no poach takes place, both players on the receiving side should move to the middle of their respective NVZ lines. If the opponents hit the next ball down the middle, the partner on the left side has an easier reach to take the ball on her forehand. Most right-handed players move better to the right even though their backhands might be their better shot. So, you let the player move to her right to cover the center. Both players shift to the side where the ball is hit.
In other words, players form a cone to cover the logical shot. The player closer to the ball can play toes to the NVZ line. The farther player can drop back a couple of feet unless the ball is short, and a short angle is possible. Women’s doubles mean court coverage with lateral movement always bisecting the angle of the ball.
Mixed doubles are more complicated because power is an added factor and the woman is the target. Poaching is essential. The man is positioned toward the center of the court. He has priority on all balls. Priority does not mean he takes them all, it just means priority. The woman is the backup. She must shift along the line to cover the center when he is out of position.
Intimidation is a major factor so the male player must be ready to take chances. Lobbing the woman
can keep him back off the net. Then they must reestablish position at the NVZ. The woman
must make the other man work. A good lob can keep him off that center mark at the NVZ line. Her goal is to volley deep to keep the ball in play and to give her partner time
to poach. And, she must move to allow him full access to overheads. Then she must reestablish her position at the NVZ line.
As long as the man can cover the lobs, the woman
can play close to the NVZ line. If she is getting lobbed to death, she needs to drop back off the line and take the lob away from the opponent. Movement along the NVZ line in mixed requires adjustment in order to keep the man dominant.
Men’s doubles requires speed to the NVZ line and depth of shots when you get there. It’s very important
that the first player to the ball has priority; men’s doubles requires control of the flow of play. Trust is an important element. Because men tend to be taller and have better reach at the net, men’s doubles requires a lot of shot making. They can reach the ball and have the power to hit it hard, but are they in position to cover the next shot? Movement along the NVZ is critical to stay out of
the partner’s way.
A good game to practice lateral movement is playing a game using only the NVZ itself. Serve inside the NVZ and move the ball around like a regular match. Practice covering the center when your partner is moved wide. Shift to maintain coverage of the center. Determine who will hit the center ball so that both players are not leaving the angle shots open. Give an angle, get an angle. Sometimes hitting straight on at the person is more effective because it offers fewer options to them.
Learn to move in tandem so that once you get to the line in a real match, you’re comfortable with the flow of angles, misdirections, and body shots. A second drill for lateral movement is to practice serving, returning down the middle, and require a poach. Or serve, return down the line, and close in a cone shape centered on the ball. Set up patterns that require correct movement to the NVZ line. Players should come in following the line of ball. They should play a full game requiring specific shots. You need to learn your strengths and the consequences of your weaknesses.
Moving laterally should be fluid. It helps some players to point their paddles at the ball as they move into the net, sort of like sighting a rifle. The paddle carries you forward. Once you have arrived at the NVZ line you still need to keep your eyes forward on the ball while you position your body to stay balanced for the stroke or volley.
Good dinkers often look like crabs. They keep low and don’t get their feet crossed. Just because the area to be covered is not large does not mean that you can hesitate.
Know your geometry, communicate, and trust.