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Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Basic Overall Strategy of Doubles - Wrap-up

A video, Doubles Pickleball - The Basic Overall Strategy, served as the theme this week. The goal of the video was to help newcomers and spectators understand the "whats and whys" about play in a typical high-level game. While it is a great video that meets its goal, it is probably a little hard for a newcomer - or even an intermediate level player - to relate to all the concepts. We will attempt to bridge that gap by going through the overall strategy and phases of a rally as described in the video and compare them to our real life play as closer-to-average players.

The video first states the overriding strategy of early play in a rally is related to the singular goal of controlling the net. This means that players use tactics to get to the net while simultaneously preventing their opponents from doing so. Experience and statistics show that this is the single most important action to win a rally. The team that controls the net will win 7 out of 10 points. This is true of all levels of play. Therefore, the tactics used in early phases apply equally to newcomers and professionals. The good news is that some of these are easy. The bad news is that some are the hardest shots in the game.

Phase 1 is "The Formality Phase". It represents the first 2 hits in a rally - the serve and the return of serve. As suggested by the name, the tactics are not driven by any fancy shots. The serve simply starts the rally. The tactical strategy is to get the serve in and as deep as possible. The strategy behind a deep serve is to make the returner's shot more difficult and to create a greater challenge for his getting to the net. 

The return of serve is similar. It should be deep and targeted toward the center line or the weaker player. The serving team must allow the return of serve to bounce. Therefore, they must stay back near the baseline. A deep return of serve keeps the serving team pinned back while allowing the returner more time to get to the net. A high looping return of serve gives the returner even more time. 

The return of serve ends phase 1. The situation at this point should be similar for most levels of play. The serving team will be back - near the baseline - and the returning team will be up - at the no-volley line.

Phase 2 consists of one or more shots. The number is irrelevant as the actions of the serving team are the driver. This phase is "The Service Team Struggle to the Net". The player positions at the end of phase 1 have the service team at a deep disadvantage. They must figure out a way to hit a return that will allow them to move forward without setting up their opponents for an offensive return. The shot that works for the top players is a drop shot where the ball is returned softly just over and past the net. It lands in the no-volley zone where the opponents must wait for a bounce to make a return. Ideally, the ball will bounce low and force the player to hit the ball up from below the net. This shot may occur on the third hit of the game or, trending more recently, the fifth hit or later. Players have started to hit topspin drives to allow a couple of steps forward movement in order to improve the odds of a good drop shot.

Even for advanced players, a drop shot from the baseline is inconsistent, if not outright difficult. For intermediate players, a baseline drop shot is a real gamble that could end the rally early with a hit into the net or a hard smash by the opponents. But the options are not good for success with other shots either. For example, a lob from the baseline is equally difficult. A hard driving shot will likely be returned just as hard as it was hit since both opponents are at the net. This is where an intermediate player must know his strengths and use them. The choice of a hard driving shot may be OK if the service players can advance even a little. The key in this phase is perseverance and continuing to return the ball while moving forward as quickly as possible. There is a reason the area between the baseline and the no-volley line is called no-man's land. It is where players lose rallies. It is best to move through no-man's land as quickly as possible.

That is a pretty good description of the reason for the phase name. It is a real struggle to get back to tactical equality with all 4 players at the net. The struggle does get easier with a drop shot, though. Therefore, it is important to practice it until mastered. Regardless of how long the struggle lasts, phase 2 ends when all 4 players have reached the net. Many intermediate and below rallies never reach this point.

Phase 3 starts with both teams on equal footing with everyone positioned at the net. At this point, all players are very close to one another and a hard offensive shot could quickly end the rally. Also. players standing at the no-volley zone can create more offensive shots by more easily hitting a ball downward. But a downward shot obviously requires a high ball. Top players recognize the situation and try to avoid the high ball by using a soft, short, low shot similar to the drop shot but from a much more forward position. This is called "Dinking" and is the name for phase 3.

A dink is not a difficult shot but it takes a lot of practice to develop the touch needed to effectively dink using forehand, backhand, and other strokes from various body positions and angles. Top players have mastered the art and can dink for a seemingly endless number of shots. For intermediate level players, the mastery is not there yet. A dinking game at that level typically ends after only a couple of dinks. The end is usually a short shot into the net or a pop-up that is smashed for a winner. While the dinking phase may encompass the most shots in a high-level game, it is very short-lived at the intermediate level. Dinking is virtually non-existent at lower levels, probably because the players are simply more comfortable trying to outhit opponents. Dinking absolutely requires the confidence that you can successfully hit more consecutive dinks than your opponent.

Eventually, phase 3 ends with a bad dink, i.e., a dink that is hit too high or deep. A bad dink like this means the opponent can make a hard offensive return. When this happens, Phase 4 begins and is called "Fast Play". This phase consists of a limited number of shots, often just one, where the ball is smashed and volleyed back and forth. It most often ends the rally with an outright winner or a forced error.

At all levels of play, this phase may not end the rally. Sometimes a player can reset the rally by converting fast play back to an earlier phase. For example a lob could reset the rally back to phase 2 by forcing opponents to retreat to the baseline. Another example would be a drop or block volley that resets the rally to the dinking phase. Players should reset the rally when the fast play phase is creating a disadvantage.

The fast play phase comes later in a rally at top level play than it does at intermediate or lower level play. This is partially due to the differentiated skill levels that determine the ability for extended rallies in general, but also for the reasons mentioned above - like inconsistent dinking or inability to get to the net.

This was a long post and I sure hope that you remained awake through it. I hope it met its goal of relating some of the concepts of high-level tactics and strategies to your level of play, whatever that may be.

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