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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Is the "Formality" Phase Dead?

I recently posted a series of articles about the various phases of a pickleball rally, including The Basic Overall Strategy of Doubles - Phase 1, with Phase 1 called the "Formality Phase". The essence of the post was that the first 2 shots of a rally, consisting of the serve and the return of serve, are not used as scoring opportunities but are used to set up the rally.

Mark Renneson has a new article that supports this view based his experience at the recent US Open. His article is below. I will add my commentary at the end.

It’s official: the return of serve has now become a key shot in pickleball. While some old-school coaches and players may still refer to it as the shot you have to play before the “real” game starts, watch any advanced players and you’ll quickly discover that this just simply isn’t so. Increasingly, the return of serve is used to gain an advantage against the serving team and to give the returners better opportunities at the net. Here are a few ways in which they do it:

  1. Return Deep. Pinning your opponent behind the baseline does a few things to make your life at the net easier. First, it means that they have the ball to you from a longer distance. Since the baseline to the net is 29 feet and you’re (presumably) seven feet beyond that at your own kitchen kitchen, that means they have to hit 36 feet -- at least! -- the get the ball back to you. That gives you a lot of time to get ready for their shot. Conversely, if you return short and let them move inside the baseline to hit the ball, you’ll have less time to get prepared.
  1. Aim for a Weakness. Don’t just hit anywhere but aim for a spot that will annoy your opponents. This could mean hitting to a particular person (see this video about picking on the weaker opponent) or it could be just aiming for a backhand. Is there more risk? Of course. But there is also great reward to be had.
  1. Use Spin. Whether it is topspin, sidespin or backspin, hitting your return with spin can cause your opponent to play a less-than-ideal shot. It gives them one more thing to worry about as you approach the net for the volley.
  1. Take Away Time. Whether it is because you are hitting the ball hard or hitting on the rise, give your opponents less time to prepare for the third shot. This will put them under pressure and can cause them to make bad decisions. Just make sure you give yourself sufficient time to get to the kitchen!

Of course, whenever you attempt to make a higher quality shot you risk a drop in consistency. But with a little deliberate practice and some patience, you can turn your return of serve into a shot that sets you up to win more points rather than being a meaningless shot that lets your opponents off easy.


My earlier post included these sections:
"The return of serve is also rarely a scoring shot. It is normally directed down the middle or toward the weaker opponent. A deep return is ideal but many players also hit it high. Either shot accomplishes the goal of pinning the service team deep. A short return, in contrast, allows the opponent to get to the net. The Return of Serve discussed this in more detail and was confirmed in Pickleball Statistical Analysis - Return of Serve."
"In conclusion, phase 1 (The Formality Phase) consists of only 2 shots - the serve and the return of serve. Points are rarely scored in this phase. They are only strategic in nature with the goal of gaining advantage in later phases."
Sounds just like Mark's experience, right? Well, close. I would de-emphasize his points 3 and 4 for anyone below the top levels of the game. Lower level players have many more parts of the game to develop than a spin shot that intermediate level players can handle. Also, a hard shot provides less time for you to get to the kitchen. A consistent, deep, and slow shot that exploits weaknesses remains the best choice in my opinion.

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