Most of us probably played a variety of sports growing up, long before we discovered the game of pickleball. If you look back on those sports and the people who taught you the games, the one common denominator of any sport is to focus on the fundamentals. The fundamentals encompass a myriad of factors that contribute to the success or failure of the activity. Whether it’s body positioning, footwork, shot selection, or some physical techniques, learning and mastering the fundamentals is one of the first steps toward improved performance. Once the fundamental is explained and demonstrated, mastering the fundamental only happens when you repeat the action over and over until it is ingrained into your game. Two key fundamental shots in pickleball are the first two shots of every point – the serve and the return of serve. What’s so fundamental about these two shots is how they impact the chances for the respective team to gain an advantage. Let’s examine each shot.
Everyone knows the first fundamental rule about the serve – GET IT IN! You only score points when you are serving, so any serve that does not go in is a lost opportunity. So, yes, getting your serve in is absolutely critical. But, what many players, especially beginners, do not recognize is the importance of a deep serve. When your team is serving, you are essentially beginning the point on defense. By that I mean the other team is on offense as they already have one player up to the non-volley zone and the player who returns the serve will be running up to join him/her and establish the offensive position. The team that can control the net wins the vast majority of the points.
So, what can you do as the server to help your team’s chances? The fundamental answer is a deep serve, one that lands within two or three feet from the baseline. This can be a high-arching serve, or one that is flatter and faster, but the key is hitting it deep into the opponent’s court. If the serve is short, the opponent is already moving in to return the serve and with only a few more steps will be up to the non-volley zone with his/her partner. A deep serve, however, forces your opponent to step back, behind the baseline, to hit the return, making a longer distance to travel to get up to the non-volley zone. If the player hits a short return and fails to get up to the non-volley zone with his/her partner, it opens up more court space for the serving team to take advantage.
THE RETURN OF SERVE
As mentioned previously, the serving team is starting on defense while the returning team has the offensive position at the net. The goal of the team returning serve should be to keep the serving team on defense. The best way to do that is by making sure you and your partner are side by side at the non-volley zone BEFORE the serving team hits the third shot. The key fundamental shot, like the serve, is to hit a deep return. Not just a deep return but one that gives you plenty of time to join your partner at the non-volley zone.
For players without blinding speed (the vast majority of us), the best return of serve is a nice high-arching shot that lands within two or three feet from the baseline. Remember, THE SERVING TEAM HAS TO LET THE BALL BOUNCE! Give yourself as much time as you need to get to the non-volley zone. The higher the arch, the more time you have to get to the line. The flatter or harder you hit the return of serve, the quicker it reaches your opponent and the less time you have to get to the line. If your return is short, the serving team has the opportunity to drive it and you have lost your offensive advantage. By hitting a deep return of serve, you keep the serving team back and on the defense, forcing them to work harder to get to the non-volley zone. We all know about hitting the third shot drop shot. Well, it’s much harder for the serving team to hit an effective drop shot from the baseline than from mid-court. Keeping your opponent deep is a fundamental goal of the team receiving the serve.
PRACTICING THE FUNDAMENTALS
As previously stated, the only way to master the fundamentals is to practice them over and over. The beauty
of the fundamental serve and return of serve is they can be practiced together very easily with just two people. Take some painter’s tape and lay it down two to three feet inside the baseline on both sides of the court. We’ll call this area the “end zone.” One person will be the server, the other the returner. Make a little game out of it. Regardless of where the serve lands, the returner always hits a return shot. For every serve the server gets inside the “end zone,” it counts as a point for
the server, and for every return of serve inside the “end zone”
is a point for the returner. See who can get to 10 first, and then reverse roles. You’ll quickly see how much more difficult it is for the returner to win the game if the server is consistently hitting deep serves. Start out by just hitting high-arching serves, but
as you get better you can start varying the speed and trajectory of your serve and go for the corners of the service area. Remember, though, the first fundamental rule is to get your serve in. There aren’t many service aces in pickleball, so your primary focus should be on getting the serve in and deep.
When you hit the return of serve, simulate a game situation and run up to the non-volley zone. Notice where you are standing when the ball bounces on the other side of the court. If you can get to the non-volley zone before the ball bounces deep into the opponent’s court, you know you have hit an effective return of serve.
This drill transitions effectively into a third shot drill, but that’s a fundamental shot for another time. For now, focus on hitting a deep serve and a deep return of serve, two fundamental shots that can help your team win the point.
Jim & Yvonne Hackenberg have played pickleball at a highly competitive level since 2009. They enjoy giving clinics and lessons to help individuals improve their skills and winning strategies. Jim & Yvonne have garnered 22 USAPA Nationals gold medals since 2010. Yvonne is a former tennis teaching professional and accomplished racquet sports competitor. She has won national titles in paddleball, platform tennis and pickleball. She is a member of the National Platform Tennis Hall of Fame, and in 2010, along with partner Hilary Marold, won the National Pickleball Women’s Open Championship. Jim & Yvonne were named Pickleball Rocks Players of the Year for 2013.