Monday, January 18, 2016

Continuing to Play

In This Post:

To reiterate, both players on the serving team start the game standing just behind the baseline. 

CJ serving the ball, Shary in ready position - Photo by LuAnn Oburn

After the ball is served both players should remain back at the baseline while the ball is returned by one of their opponents.  The reason is that the serving team must let the ball first bounce in their court before either of them can hit it back.  Once one of them returns the ball (for the third shot of the game) they should move up to the Kitchen line.  The reason for this is it puts them not only in the strongest offensive position but the strongest defensive position as well.  A common mistake made by those who are new to the game is to start to move forward right after the serve.  If either member of the serving team does they will find themselves in what is called "No Man's Land", the area of the court between the baseline and the Kitchen.  When this happens the ball will likely land at their feet or even behind them and will be much more difficult to return. 

Image by Jean Strother

If you are on the serving team then something to remember is that your opponents will try to keep you back and they will be very motivated to serve deep into your court.  So don't forget to stay back and let the ball bounce before hitting it.  

Dorothy returning the ball - Photo by Don Schultz

Where should you try to hit the ball?  For this third shot of the game the ideal shot is one that will give you and your partner enough time to run up to the Kitchen line.  The first thing to remember is that one of your opponents is already up in the best defensive position as they started the game at the Kitchen line.  The other should have moved up right after they returned the serve.  So if you hit a hard fast shot back to your opponent's court one of them can simply hit it hard and fast right back at you.  Unless you are very quick this would most likely catch you in "No Man's Land" where you will be too far back to take the shot on a volley (hit it before it bounces) and too far up to let it bounce first.  

Image by Jean Strother

Another shot you could try at this point in the game is a lob up over the heads of your opponents.  However, this can be difficult because, unless both of your opponents are very short, a shot hit high enough that they can't reach it with their paddles may very well go out of bounds.  And if they can reach it will be their intent will be to smash it back down.

So what do you do?  The classic shot to make for the third shot of a game is called a “drop shot”.  In fact you will often hear it referred to as the "Third Shot Drop”. This is where one of the members of the serving team hits the ball up just enough so it slowly clears the net and drops into their opponent’s Kitchen.  

This should allow enough time for both members of the serving team to get to the Kitchen line before their opponents can hit the ball back.  If you want to learn more about why it is so important to get to the Kitchen line then check out this blog post by Prem Carnot, "Top 3 Reasons You Must Play at the No - Volley Line".

Image by Jean Strother

The basic points to hitting an effective drop shot are to hit the ball below the apex of its arc, to scoop the ball up and to lift with your legs.  I suggest you watch these two short videos; The Third Shot by "Picklepong Deb” and "Improve your Drop Shot" from the Pickleball Channel.

Practicing Drop Shots

You can practice Drop Shots by yourself.  First simply stand at the baseline and pitch the ball underhanded so it goes over the net and drops into the Kitchen.

  Bud showing how to first practice drop shots by pitching the ball - Photo by Sam Scherf

Once you are comfortable with that you can move on to hitting the ball with your paddle.  First drop the ball from above waist height and then swing.  The swing is identical to pitching the ball.  Another way to practice is to have another player feed balls to you.  Have them hit the ball deep into your court.

 Bud showing how to return a third shot - Photo by Sam Scherf

Perhaps the most effective way to practice drop shots is to use our "Pickleball Tutor" ball machine.  This machine enables players to practice a variety of shots ...

... including drop shots.  If you are a visitor to the park we ask that you please have one of our experienced Pickleball players to be with you when you use it.  If you are a brand new player we suggest you have an experienced player work with you.  If there is no one at the courts you can call John Strother at 4511 from any park phone and we will do our best to accommodate you.  If you are one of our members and you have played some Pickleball at Jojoba then you are encouraged to give it a try.  Before you use it please read the Owner's Manual as well as the information on our Pickleball Tutor page. This is a serious and expensive piece of equipment and we don't want it damaged.  Most importantly we don't want YOU to get damaged!!!

While the goal of the Third Shot Drop is to allow you and your partner enough time to get to the net it is a fact of life that people in our age group are not as quick as we once were.  So even if you or your partner have hit a fine drop shot you may still find yourself in "No Man's Land" when the ball is coming back to you.  In that case you should stop (referred to as doing a "split step") and do your best to hit another drop shot.  Keep doing this until you make it all the way up to the Kitchen line.

Once all four of them are up at the Kitchen line what is conventionally done by skilled players is to now steer the game to become "softer" and "slower", relying more on finesse rather than power.  This is accomplished by the players now hitting what are known as "dinks".  A "dink" is a low underhand shot that goes just over the net and drops down into the Kitchen on the opposite side.

What you want to avoid are shots that are too high or too deep or both.  This video, "Pickleball Strategy 201 - Dinking Strategy"  by Joe Baker is a good resource.  More information can be found in Prem Carnot's blog posts; "The Dink Shot - Part 1" and "The Dink Shot - Part 2".  

One important rule to remember, especially when dinking, is the one that prohibits players from stepping into the Kitchen and taking the ball on a volley (hitting the ball before it bounces) hence the name "Non - Volley Zone".  There are no exceptions.  It doesn't matter if your momentum carries you in (as in the photo below), if you only touch down briefly with your paddle or even if your hat falls in.  It will still be a "fault" and your opponents get the ball (and maybe the point). This short video illustrates this rule.  As we don't have line judges helping us to watch for Kitchen violations it is up to individual players to pay close attention to where their own feet (and articles of clothing) are when up at the Kitchen.  If you notice that you stepped into the Kitchen the right thing to do is to admit it.  Also remember that the Kitchen line belongs to the Kitchen so if your shoe touches it you are considered to be in the Kitchen. 

The only time a player can legally hit the ball when stepping into the Kitchen is after it bounces.  Once a player has hit the ball back they should then quickly return to their position just a few inches behind the Kitchen line.  This video by the Pickleball Channel, Dinking 101 – Five Steps to a Winning Dink!, provides good basic instruction on dinking.  This video, Rethinking the Dink, by "Picklepong Deb” is another good one to watch.

Source of Image

I have to admit I have not always respected dinking.  It initially seemed to be "Patty Cake" for grownups.  I wasn't any good at it and I had discovered I really enjoyed hitting the ball hard.  I wanted to be what is referred to as a "banger" (I have observed that I am not alone in this here at Jojoba Hills).

 Jim dinking the ball - Photo by Don Schultz

However, my view of dinking is changing and I am beginning to understand its purpose and the value of it.  And I have observed that when done well it is nothing like "Patty Cake".

Dorothy returning a cross court dink - Photo by Bud McRee

The thing that has caused me to change my mind the most is something that Prem Carnot wrote in his book, Smart Pickleball: The Pickleball Guru's Guide.  He describes a situation when he was teaching a clinic and one student said he thought dinking was "boring".  Prem proceeded to tell his students to think of a tiger when it is hunting.  It doesn't take off running after every animal it sees.  Instead, it patiently waits and intensely watches until it sights its target... and then it pounces!  So when you are dinking visualize yourself as that tiger patiently waiting and intensely watching for that opportunity to pounce.  What you are looking for is a situation where one of your opponents hits their dink up just a little too high which gives you an opportunity to smash it down at them.  You do need to be patient because if you try to smash a ball that is too low you will either hit it into the net or it will angle up giving your opponent an opportunity to smash it back at you.

If the ball is just a little too high you can try to smash it back straight across the net.  But this is less than ideal because if your opponents have good hand/eye coordination they will simply whack it back over at you (especially if they are a "banger").  This "whack, whack, whack" type of rally can go on for a bit and can be exciting and fun.  However, it doesn't help either team to be in a better offensive position.  To learn more about this type of play watch Joe Baker's video "Pickleball Strategy 301 - Six Rules of the Fast Game".  Another strategy to deal with a hard fast shot hit at you is to not hit it hard right back at them but to gently "push" the ball just over the net which slows the game down and leads to more dinking.

Terry and Dana at the Kitchen line - Photo by LuAnn Oburn

But there is much more to dinking than just keeping the ball going and waiting for one of your opponents to make a mistake that you can capitalize on.  You can position your dinks in parts of your opponent's side of the court that will draw them out of position.  One way is to do a cross-court shot into the Kitchen diagonally opposite you.  This video by the Pickleball Channel, "Improve your dink shot", illustrates the value of a cross-court dink. 

Sometimes these cross-court shots bounce in the outside corner of the Kitchen and sail out of bounds.  These shots may seem to be impossible to return but it is worth knowing that it is perfectly legal to hit the ball around the net. It doesn't happen often but it really looks cool when it happens.

A good way to practice dinking is to line up one, two or three other people who are also interested in practicing dinking.  If you are by yourself you can also practice by using the "Rebounder".  This video shows how to use the Rebounder to practice dinking as well as other shots.

But let's say while dinking one of your opponents hits the ball up high enough so you have an opportunity to smash it down.  It may be tempting to try to "put it away" by hitting this ball "down the line" (the sideline).  However, this is a "low probability shot".  It looks impressive when it works but it often goes into the net or it sails out of bounds.  A shot that has a higher probability is one hit toward the middle between your opponents.  This can create confusion if they aren't clear on who has the middle at that point in the game.  Given that the best defensive position is up at the Kitchen line then it is also worthy goal to hit shots that push your opponents back away from it.  You can do this by hitting the ball low to their feet.  If they try to hit it on a volley they will hit it when it is close to the ground and their only option is to hit it up.  If they hit it up too high then you will have an opportunity to smash it. Their other option is to try to take it after it bounces but that would require them to step back helping you to achieve your goal. You can also work at moving them back by hitting a lob, a high shot that goes well over your opponent's head.  Unless they are very tall they will have to step back in order to return it.

 Margee and LuAnn - Photo by Don Schultz

If you are on the receiving end of a lob and are tempted to step backwards then be exceedingly careful.  And definitely don't be tempted to run backwards.  It is simply not worth the risk of injury.  Something to keep in mind is that, unless you are short, if you have to reach up very far to hit the ball then there is a good chance the ball is going out.  Another thing to realize is that if the lob is coming toward your partner then you may have a better chance of getting it because you can follow it more easily and safely as you can begin to turn sooner and run forwards toward the back of the court.  However, if you do this you are leaving your half of the court undefended.  So, what you should do in this situation is yell "switch" to your partner.  This lets them know they need to temporarily move to the other side of the court.  Once the rally ends you and your partner should return to the proper side of the court.

Another way you and your partner can help each other out is when it appears a lob may go out of bounds.  You can call out "let it bounce" or "watch it" and that lets them know to wait and let the ball bounce before hitting it back.  Sometimes you or your partner believes the ball is definitely going out and says "out" before it hits the ground.  But you should both remain prepared to hit the ball in case you misjudged it.  I know from personal experience how foolish it feels to be near the baseline watching a ball that I was sure was going to land out of bounds and it drops down right in the corner or on the line.  You can go ahead and try to hit a ball like that after it bounces because if it does in fact land out of bounds and you didn't have enough time to stop yourself from hitting it you can still call it out.

If you haven't already done so this would be a good time to watch all of Joe Baker's video, "Pickleball Strategy 101 - How to Play Smart Pickleball, Ten Tips".  He does a great job explaining and illustrating good basic play and it is well worth watching.  I especially like his clear explanation and illustration of players positions in the court during play. A bad habit that is easy to fall into when learning to play Pickleball is to think of the center line as a firm dividing line between your side and your partner's side of the court.  It is important to understand that there is no "This is my side, that is your side" in this game. Instead players should work together to insure that most of the court is covered at all times by moving in tandem with each other as if there was an invisible tether connecting them.
A common area of confusion is when a ball is hit down the middle between you and your partner because it is not clear whose shot it is to take.  Both you and your partner may go after it and may end up hitting each others paddle.  Or you both may back off assuming your partner is going to get it.  Few situations are as embarrassing as when both teammates assume the other will take it and they end up just standing there and watching in disbelief as the ball sails by between them. So how do you know if the ball coming down the middle is yours or your partner's?  There is no simple answer.  Oftentimes the thinking is that the person on the left hand side of the court, presuming they are right handed, takes the middle because their forehand is probably stronger than their partner's backhand. However, in this blog post, "Pickleball Strategy - Cover the Line or the Middle", Prem Carnot says that when the ball is being hit by the player opposite you then you should cover your sideline and that your partner should cover the middle.  And when the ball is being hit by the player opposite your partner that you should cover the middle and your partner should cover their sideline.  Regardless, the key to effective management of the middle of the court is good communication between you and your partner.  If you intend to take the ball then you should call out "mine".  If you intend to let your partner take the ball you should call out "yours". 

There is one last thing I want to cover in this post - "poaching".  This is where your partner leans far into your half of the court and takes a shot that you thought was clearly yours.  You may have even called it as "mine" but your partner thought they had a better shot at it.  More experienced players tend to do this when playing with a less skilled partner especially if their team is well behind in the score.  In more competitive games opponents will tend to hit more often to the weaker player on a team and it can be frustrating for their partner to see their side lose point after point.  So they may poach more often or more aggressively or both.  People react differently when their partner poaches a shot.  Some are accepting especially if their partner scores a point on the poach but some are annoyed.  You and your partner just need to work this out.

My attitude toward poaching changed a bit after watching some videos of high level mixed doubles teams competing in tournaments.  I was surprised by the frequency and the intensity of the poaching that goes on.  The male player is often all over his female partner's side of the court taking shots that one would think are obviously hers.  One thing to notice in the photo below is the player who is doing the aggressive poaching has left a large portion of the court undefended.  However, he is young and was fast enough to get back in position quickly so he could effectively cover his side of the court.  But players in our age group are generally not as quick so we don't see such aggressive poaching at Jojoba even in our tournaments.

Now that you know the basics of the game you may want to check out "Where to Learn More". 

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