Over the years I have had many opportunities to play competitive pickleball on many types of surfaces. In the ‘80s, most of the USAPA tournaments were played indoors in Washington state. The clubs at that time had indoor/outdoor carpet, so most of my early tournaments were played on this surface. I now live in Oregon, where most of our tournaments are indoors on gymnasium wooden floors. I have also played tournaments on tile floors, rubber floors, synthetic wood floors, concrete floors (just like a garage floor) and of course tennis court surfaces. Here’s what I have found...
All surfaces can play drastically different from each other and some surfaces will suit different players better—just like in tennis where some players do well on fast surfaces and others on slow surfaces like clay. Back in the ‘80s we had a great singles player (Earl Birdsall) who was almost unbeatable when playing on the carpet, but he could be beaten when playing on a faster wooden floor. Future hall of famer Billy Jacobsen also developed his amazing control game on this carpet surface.
The other big variable in this equation is the ball that is used on the particular surface. Technically all approved balls can be used indoors and outdoors on any surface, but it can be a huge mistake to choose the wrong ball for a particular surface. In the early days of pickleball, we used the Cosom Fun Ball exclusively for both indoor and outdoor play. Now we have many choices of balls and it is important to play with an “indoor ball” when playing indoors on a fast surface such as wood, tile or concrete that has no texture. I’m not going to talk about brand names to choose, but I do strongly suggest not using a hard ball when playing on these fast indoor surfaces— unless you want very short rallies with very little dinking. There are also a couple of indoor balls that are very hard and will also result in short rallies that don’t resemble traditional pickleball.
Adjustment To Make On Various Surfaces
Playing Indoors on an Outdoor Tennis Surface
If you are going to use an outdoor ball for this surface, most players will need very little adaptation to their game. An outdoor ball will probably be the choice for most top players on this surface. No sun, no wind, and if you are playing at a tennis club you will have great lighting with a background that allows you to see the ball really well. If you are a beginner, this surface can even be made easier to learn the game by using an indoor ball. The ball will be slowed down by the texture of the court surface and you will have long rallies. This might also be a good choice if you would like to get in a great workout with longer rallies.
Playing Indoors on a Fast Surface
Typically we are talking about gymnasium floors that are also used for basketball and volleyball, but this could also be a tile floor and untextured concrete. First off, I recommend that an indoor ball be used that can be depressed by pushing in on it with your fingers. By choosing a good indoor ball, you will actually be slowing down the surface to make it more like what you are used to when playing outdoors with an outdoor ball. If you choose a ball that does not compress, the ball will skip quite a bit. This will mean very short rallies with only expert players able to hit a 3rd shot dink. I know that Timothy Nelson (Puppet Master) would sometimes practice and even play with a hard ball on this type of surface. It would develop great reflexes, but very few players would have the talent to enjoy pickleball this way.
• Wear shoes that have not been worn much outdoors. You will need better traction. You might also want to keep a wet towel handy to occasionally wipe off the bottom of your shoes.
• You might also want to use a slightly lighter paddle indoors since you are also using a lighter ball. Many players who go back and forth between an indoor and outdoor ball will do this.
• Always be ready for a randomly skipping ball. These types of floors don’t always have the same bounce every time.
• You will probably be using a portable net in this situation. The portable nets tend to be forgiving, with more net cord shots falling over. Be ready.
• Most of the time when using an indoor ball on an indoor surface, the ball will not bounce very high. Have a dinking attitude and be patient.
Playing on an Outdoor Tennis Surface
For most players there will be minimal adjustment since the outdoor tennis court material, ball and conditions are the standard we are most accustomed to. However, for all players who originally learned the game indoors using an indoor ball, this is a big adjustment.
• You may want to use a slightly heavier paddle since outdoor balls are also heavier.
• The outdoor ball is less forgiving than an indoor ball, so develop great mechanics. Generally take smaller swings because the ball will be going faster off your paddle.
• Advanced players will probably want to work on adding more spin compared to the indoor ball. Spinning the ball is more effective with the outdoor ball because of the different hole pattern.
• If you have sun facing one side of the court, choose the side that will place the sun at your back on the last half of your match.
• If you are playing in wind as a single, you want to finish the match with the wind at your back. This is a big advantage. In doubles, since I primarily use a 3rd shot dink, I actually like a little bit of wind against me. I feel it allows me to land a higher percentage of 3rd shot dinks in the kitchen.
General Preparation for Various Surfaces
No indoor or outdoor surface is exactly the same. Wooden surfaces especially can have their own personality. A lot of this might depend on the type of wax and how clean the surface is, or if it is a floating floor. So, I strongly recommend getting to your match early to get used to the floor. Even outdoor tennis surfaces can have a slightly different response. Also rub the ball against the lines and test to see if the line is more slippery than the rest of the surface. Sometimes it is the same speed, but oftentimes the line paint is just latex without the sand added. This will make for a ball that will skip when hitting the line.