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The Backhand Roll

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The backhand roll (some call it the flick) is my favorite shot in pickleball. Much of my game plan at the kitchen line is focused on hitting the roll at just the right time so I can either win the point right then or set up the put-away shot. So, what is this shot exactly?

The backhand roll is a quick, surprising power shot with topspin. The roll makes it difficult for your opponent to hit an offensive shot and, if he/she lets it go, the topspin brings it down into the court. The topspin also allows you to attack the ball from below the net.

I know many instructors tell you to never attack the ball unless it’s above the level of the net. Generally I agree with that, but with a sufficient level of skill, you can use the roll to catch your opponents off-guard because you can attack from below the level of the net effectively.

1. THE SETUP
When I use the backhand roll, all four players are at the kitchen line in a dinking rally. Although the backhand roll is useful on both sides, I primarily use it on the ad side, with my backhand toward the edge of the court and my forehand in the middle. The setup is crucial to an effective roll—if you don’t have the setup, nothing else is going to work out well for you.

For the optimal setup, it’s best to be dinking crosscourt. A slice on your backhand dink is useful, as it can force a slight pop-up from your opponent. The other method to get a good setup is to volley the ball out of the air on a dink. This has a few advantageous effects: it takes away your opponents’ time, making it more difficult for them to hit quality dinks; it keeps you low and leaning forward into the kitchen, which is the ideal position from which to hit the backhand roll; and it also disguises your backhand roll because your opponents see you volleying dinks and don’t expect a roll right at them.

2. THE EXECUTION
Once you’ve set up the shot, you just need to execute the roll itself. The most important part of this shot, as you’ll hear me say about almost every shot, is stay low! It can be tempting to pull up or stand lazily straight-legged, but if you want to hit this shot, you must stay low to the ground. The objective on the backhand roll is to both brush up on the ball for topspin and attack the ball with power.

To do this, you need to start the paddle from below your anticipated contact point and swing upward. The swing path from your starting swing point to contact point should be approximately a 40-degree angle, but some variation is OK. Your paddle face should not be tilted upward. It should be close to 90 degrees, or even a slight downward tilt is OK. Your swing path should be what gets the ball up and over the net, not an upward tilt of the paddle. The combination of an upward swing path with an even paddle face generates topspin.

However, that alone is not going to generate enough power for the shot. To generate power, start your swing with the portion of your arm from elbow to wrist tucked in so that it forms a 90-degree angle with the portion of your arm from elbow to shoulder. As you’re swinging, you should extend your arm until it reaches full extension right as you make contact with the ball. This motion creates that recognizable “snap” that makes the ball shoot off the paddle.

Many people ask about the placement of this shot. My favorite spot is at the right hip of the person down the line from me. There are a few reasons for this: the opponent down the line from me has a difficult time reading that I’m going to hit.

SOME DO-NOTSOF THIS MOTION
Don’t pull up! Finish your swing and follow through before coming up from your low position at all. A related do-not is when you’re getting low, make sure you’re bending your knees and not just bending at the hips. Lastly, don’t flick your wrist during the swing. A lot of people have the misconception that you generate power from snapping your wrist on this shot, but it will only make you lose control over the ball. Keep that wrist firmly locked in place!

down the line off a crosscourt ball; he/she has much less reaction time than the opponent crosscourt does; and aiming at the right hip jams righties—it’s difficult to hit a forehand or backhand in that spot, let alone with any authority. Of course, for lefties, I’ll aim for the left hip.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tutorial on the backhand roll. Now get to it!

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