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The Science of Spin

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Spin can be a powerful weapon. It can complicate your opponent’s decision-making, occasionally causing confusion and even earning you some extra free points.

If a sport is played using a ball, there’s spin; baseball pitchers throw curve balls, football quarterbacks spin passes, and table tennis players put spin on nearly every shot.

Spinning pickleballs can curve in the air, skid on the ground, and fly off the opponent’s paddle in unexpected directions, yet most recreational players never intentionally add this element to their game. Pickleball instructors tend to avoid talking about spin entirely, treating it as a distraction from the important fundamentals of the game. But spin can be a powerful weapon, especially in serves and returns. It can complicate your opponent’s decision-making, occasionally causing confusion and even earning you some extra free points.

What is spin, exactly? Most people think of it as something simple—either a ball has spin or it doesn’t. But there are three different types of spin, and each affects the behavior of the ball differently:

1.Topspin and backspin – when the ball rotates forward (topspin) or backward (backspin). The most common topspin shots in pickleball are the serve and the roll shot at the NVZ line. To add topspin, brush the paddle upward against the ball. It will sink more quickly than a no-spin ball. When it hits the ground, it will skid forward. And when the opponent hits it, the ball will go high and deep. To add backspin, turn your body sideways, chop diagonally downward, and hit the ball “on the chin,” striking it just below the centerline. Give it enough backspin and your opponent might return it into the net. Be careful though. Backspin balls tend to float, so if you hit one too hard, it will keep going right past the baseline and out of bounds!

2.Sidespin – where the ball rotates around a vertical axis running from the top of the ball to the bottom. Drag the paddle across the ball from right to left, and it will rotate clockwise and curve right. Drag the paddle the other way and the ball will curve left. Although sidespin affects the ball’s flight and how it comes off the opponent’s paddle, it has no effect whatsoever on how the ball bounces, because the ball is spinning like a top and there is no rotation at the point where it contacts the ground. If you’re receiving a sidespin shot, watch which direction your opponent’s paddle moves, because that’s the direction that the ball will tend to go if you ignore the spin. To compensate, either aim in the opposite direction (easy), or put your own counter-spin on the ball (tricky!).

3.Cork spin (or rifling) – Rare and often overlooked, the axis of rotation for this spin runs directly from you to your opponent. Think of a football quarterback throwing a nice spiraling pass. In football it doesn’t matter much which direction the ball spins, but it matters a lot in pickleball because even though cork spin doesn’t affect the flight of the ball or its behavior coming off the opponent’s paddle, it has a huge effect if the ball hits the ground. The bottom surface of the ball is spinning rapidly to the right or left, so the ball will skid hard to the side. It’s impossible to hit a ball with pure cork spin because you must impart some forward speed to the ball. So, cork spin can only be used in combination with other spin, typically with sidespin.

To combine cork spin and sidespin in a serve return, wait for when a serve is hit wide to your forehand (right-handed player). Step into the ball, extend your right arm out, then draw the paddle back down at a 45-degree angle to the net, striking the ball low and on the right side. (If the ball were a human head, you’d be hitting it on the jawbone on your right side.) The ball will curve to your right, and then when it hits the ground the cork spin will cause it to skid even farther to the right, making for a difficult adjustment for the server. The same shot can be hit on the backhand side by striking the left “jawbone” of the ball.

Remember, be careful with spin. It can give you an advantage, especially over a naive opponent, but it also adds risk. If you want to use spin in a competitive situation, make sure you are in a position of strength, and only use spin shots that you have practiced and that you can use with confidence. •