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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Forehand Takes the Middle

A commonly heard phrase in pickleball is "forehand takes the middle". This is one of those axioms that irritate players who have relied on individual skills and have yet to understand the strategies of playing doubles. Even as a novice player, I thought I had a strong backhand that I brought from my tennis background. I could not understand why I would cede that middle shot to a weaker partner. This post will try to explain why I was wrong.

The primary reason this phrase applies is that most players have a stronger forehand shot than their backhand shot.  Competitive players usually have partners with comparable skills, so the forehand would provide the better chance to succeed. This is not always the case, though, and the tactics to be used during a match should be part of the pre-match discussion.

Even in the case where one player's backhand is stronger than his partner's forehand, there is a physical reason the phrase applies.  A forehand is a natural extension of the paddle arm that allows the body to remain in a position to more quickly prepare for the next shot.  In contrast, a backhand to cover the middle causes the player to reach across his body and the player is not in a position to quickly recover.

But this is true only to the point where the forehand player can get back into position on his court.  The "middle" for purposes of this tactic extends about 1-2 feet into the backhand player's court.  If the forehand player goes farther than that, he is unlikely to be able to defend his own court on the next shot.

"Forehand takes the middle" generally applies at the baseline, at the kitchen line, and in between.  But it becomes relatively less true as the players move forward - because the backhand volley from the kitchen line is relatively easier than a backhand groundstroke from the baseline. The forehand is still likely to be the stronger shot, however.

What becomes important to recognize is that the "middle" is not defined by the center line.  As players shift to the left or right away from the center line, the middle is always the 6-7 feet between them.  Of that distance, adherents to this tactic would allow the forehand to cover 4 feet and the backhand to cover 2 feet. Assuming 2 right-handed players, the areas covered by each might work as shown below.

A quick glance shows how this just looks right, especially when considering the 3 lanes available for opponents to hit.  Player B has minimal backhand coverage in the prime lane for opponents while Player A has that area covered with his forehand. While Player A's backhand area looks large, that area is the hardest lane for the opponent to hit.

The bottom line is that even a phrase as trite as "forehand takes the middle" can be right.  But communication is key, both before the match and during the match, in order to ensure the middle is covered with the least amount of confusion possible. As always, the best strategy is the one that works best for you as long as you are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the different options.

1 comment:

  1. What if there are two forehands in the middle and we get a high ball? One person is 6 feet 3 and the other is 5 feet 5. The taller person has the better overhead/high volley. Sounds obvious, right? But my 6 foot 3 partner thought it was mine. Where do we go from here?