What’s the deal with retreating? You know what I mean — when you and your partner have worked your way up to the kitchen line, and one of you has popped up the ball a little too high. You have a good idea that your opponent is going to attack the ball. Your instinct is to retreat a little to give yourself a little more time to see and react to the ball that is going to be driven at you. Yet, some very good players have told you not to retreat, saying, “Once you have gotten to the kitchen line, hold your ground.” So what do the top players say?
We all know that the strongest position is for you and your partner to be side by side at the kitchen line. From here you are in a position to cover any dink, and also you are in position to capitalize on any mistake that your opponents make. From here you can most easily hit down on the ball toward your opponents’ feet. You are also closer to your opponents so when you drive the ball at them, they have less time to react. In a recent PBX Club interview, Dave Weinbach said that once you get to the kitchen line, you should never retreat except to run down a lob that has gotten over your head. He says that whenever you retreat, bad things happen. Dave practices what he preaches. At the last US Open, in the championship match, Dave did not retreat even once while winning it with Kyle Yates.
Now, contrast this philosophy with instructional videos put out by Sarah Ansboury (Link 1) and Brian Staub (Link 2). They show how to retreat a few feet when you or your partner have popped the ball up, and you realistically expect the ball to be driven at you. They both emphasize that after retreating a couple of steps, you should be in your ready position at the moment that your opponent strikes the ball. Your weight should be forward with your nose over your toes with your paddle up and ready. They also both emphasize that the objective is to reset the point and get back to the kitchen line. The reason for the retreat is to give yourself a little more time and to make it a little easier to reset the point.
Consider a couple of scenarios.
Situation 1: You are on the serving team, and you are hitting the third shot. Your partner has charged up to the kitchen as you hit your third shot. Let’s say that your third shot is so-so. Not high enough to smash, but high enough for your opponent to hit a semi-drive. Where is your opponent going to hit the ball? Most likely he/she will drive it deep to keep you back. Smart play. Now let’s say that your third ball is just lousy. The opponent will most likely smash it at your partner who has little time to react.
Situation 2: Both teams are at the kitchen in a dink rally. Your partner dinks cross-court to your opponent in front of you. The dink is too high and is attackable. Where is the most likely place for your opponent to hit the ball? Well, at you. Why? Because you are closer to him/her than your partner, and you have less time to react to the shot.
Link 3 has 11 amazing points from the recent Men’s 19+ US Nationals final at Palm Creek, AZ. In those points, Gabrielsen/ Yates retreated four times after having attained position at the kitchen line while Moore/Staub retreated twice. Now, those six retreats in 11 points might not be representative of the match as a whole, but still, it is clearly different than what Dave Weinbach did at the US Open.
So what is the right way to play? The proponents of holding your ground seem to be very boisterous in their opinions while other top players who occasionally retreat don’t seem to say much about the subject. It is clear that all top players try to maintain their spot at the kitchen when realistically possible and they feel that they are at a disadvantage when the position is lost.
Maybe it’s like boxing. Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson almost never retreated; whereas, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard retreated as much as they attacked. They are four of the top boxers of all time with very different styles. Pickleball is a young sport that continues to evolve, and retreating vs. holding your ground will remain an individual decision.