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Friday, November 20, 2015

Service Strategies

Service strategies start with a single principle – never, ever, ever lose your serve on a service fault. The serve is the easiest shot in pickleball and should never be missed. Beyond its simplicity, the serve is important because points can only be scored by the serving team. Giving away your serve gives away your opportunity to score that point as well as the potential for an unknown number of additional points. Giving away your serve also gives your opponents an opportunity to score points with their serve.

At all levels of play, getting the serve in-bounds is critical to success. An in-bounds serve is not normally the shot that wins or loses a point. It is generally considered simply as the shot that starts the rally. Even the top players in the game rarely do anything special other than exhibit basic strategies that can help set up a winning rally.

The most common strategy is to land the serve deep (within 5 feet of the baseline) in the opponent’s service court. There are 2 reasons to serve deep.  First, a deep serve does not allow the returner to build forward momentum.  It might even cause the returner move back.  By contrast, a short serve is an open invitation for the returner to move toward the kitchen line. The team that controls the kitchen line generally wins the rally.  A deep serve helps to beat those odds.  Second, a deep serve gives the returner fewer options to hit an aggressive shot. A deep shot of any kind, including the serve, takes away a returner’s angles. A video from Mark Renesson called No Short Serves! discussing the deep serve strategy is below.

A variation of the deep serve is to add direction by targeting the returner’s backhand. It is a rare player who has a stronger backhand than forehand. Forcing a returner to hit a backhand likely means a weaker return that works to your advantage. Do not try to be too fine with directional serves at first. Remember that getting the serve in-bounds is of primary importance. Instead of targeting the backhand corner at first, aim for the backhand half of the service court until you have sufficiently consistent accuracy to aim for more specific targets. A video called Gaining an easy advantage with the serve, also from Mark Renneson, discussing the directional serve strategy is below.

After depth and direction, one last variable remains – speed. Accuracy is enabled with an arcing slower serve. Adding speed brings the net into play because the arc is necessarily lower to prevent the serve from reaching the baseline. But a hard and low serve provides an advantage in that it reduces the returner’s time to assess his options. The serve isn’t really much more difficult to return but the options for the returner are reduced.

Combining all of the elements provides a variety that keeps the returner guessing. Changing depth, speed, and direction prevents the returner from settling into a groove where he hits the same serve over and over. Of course, if you discover a weakness, keep hitting it to that spot until the returner shows he can adjust. A video called Three Serves and Why You Need Them from Pickleball 411 discussing the 3 different serves to use is below.

There are several other serves that should be part of your practice routine just for the rare occasion they might be used.

1. The lob serve is exactly as it sounds. The serve is hit very high and deep. It bounces high with little forward movement. The returner is forced to add pace meaning it is more likely for an unforced error to result.

2. A side slice serve spins such that it bounces sideways. Its occasional use can surprise an unprepared returner. This serve requires imparting side spin on the ball by slicing across it in the opposite direction you want the ball to bounce. It will require lots of practice to ensure you can hit it firmly enough to reach the target and have the desired effect.

3. A sharp angle serve is a high risk / high reward short. It is a hard low serve to the front part of the court angled toward the sideline. The returner will struggle to reach the serve and will have a weak return even if reached. This serve should only be used if all else fails and you are desperate for a point. The odds of getting it in are low and violate the main principle.

A video from Deb Harrison called Add Variety to Your Serves discussing variations of these serves is below.

In a later post, I will discuss the importance of keeping the ball in play. Most points are not won by hitting winners. Most points are won by the other team hitting unforced errors. The same is true of serving. Points are not won with the serve but can be immediately lost with the unforced error of hitting it out of bounds. That’s why principle # 1 is to get the serve in-bounds. When you watch top players serve, it looks effortless. That’s because they know it is most important to just get the serve deep in the service court. Some of the esoteric serves described above may work against intermediate or lower players, but they generally are not worth the risk.

There is one other issue that I want to include in the service strategy section although it is more related to player positioning. I will include it here as well because it is a simple concept that can be as costly as a service fault. The issue is the positioning of the server’s partner. Some players can temporarily forget that they should be positioned at the baseline in order to allow the return to bounce as per the rules. These lapses cause the player to position himself at the kitchen line. It is always a good idea for the server to check his partner’s position and move him back before the return is hit at him on the fly.

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