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Monday, October 2, 2017

Targeting: Where and Why - The Third Shot

Be sure to positively identify your target before hitting the ball...

This will be the third week of the skills and drills sessions on targeting. The first, Targeting: Where and Why - The Serve - focused on the serve targeting strategies. The second, Targeting: Where and Why - The Return of Serve, focused on the return. The natural progression for this week is the third shot, i.e., the return of the return of serve.

The usual reminder before starting: there is a set of premises that guide us in through the decision-making process. These were covered in the article Targeting: Where and Why. The primary goal of the third shot is to neutralize the net advantage of your opponents and allow your team to also gain the net.

The third shot is the first where opponent positioning strongly influences the targeting decision. With the serve, the returning opponent is locked into one spot. With the return of serve, the opponents' requirement to allow a bounce also lock them into fixed positions. This lack of variability makes the choice of targets relatively simple. With the third shot, opponents are free to move anywhere and hit any ball. Their freedom provides more target options.

A second factor is your position on the court. An opponent's short return of serve expands the options available compared to a deep return of serve.

Third Shot Targets

Scenario 1: Deep Return of Serve and both Opponents at the NVZ line

Scenario 1 assumes that the opponents followed our advice for the return of serve. They hit it deep and that gave them time to gain the NVZ line. This is the worst-case scenario for you. They have control of the net and you are at the back of the court. 

This scenario limits your targets to the opponents' backhands. The first choice should be a drop shot into the NVZ at these targets (those shown are based on right-handed opponents). First, a drop shot immediately puts the opponents into a defensive mode. The ball should bounce below the level of the net and force the opponent to hit it up to get over the net. A player cannot make an offensive shot while hitting least not without high risk. Second, it gives your team an opportunity take away their net advantage by gaining the the NVZ line yourself.

But a drop shot is not the only option. A low drive to the backhand side can be effective as well, especially if it can be hit with topspin to cause it to dip below the net. While the drop shot is the best option, a drive can be used as a change of pace to keep the opponents honest when they have shown a tendency to poach or drift from their position. 

A couple of conditions can change the preference for a drop or a drive. Windy conditions can make a drop shot very difficult to control while a drive better cuts through the wind. The other condition that might prevail is as simple as having a bad day. If you cannot hit an effective drop shot, change to the drive on the third shot. Then, move toward the net and make a drop shot on the fifth shot.

Scenario 2: Deep Return of Serve and one Opponent fails to gain the NVZ line

Scenario 2 assumes that the opponents followed our advice for the return of serve. They hit it deep and kept your team at the baseline. In contrast to Scenario 1, one of the opponents - Player Blue B - did not advance to the NVZ.

This scenario limits your targets to one - the feet of the opponent who is off the NVZ line. The objective is to gain the advantage of controlling the net by keeping the opponent back while making him hit an awkward shot. A drop shot should not be hit because it either draws him to the net or allows him time to gain the NVZ line.

As always, the preference would be to hit to the opponent's backhand. But this can be a dangerous target if the shot is too close to Blue Player A to allow a poach and volley. It is good enough to gain the net advantage without going for the perfect shot.

Scenario 3: Short Return of Serve

Scenario 3 assumes that the opponents did not follow our advice for the return of serve. They hit it short and allowed your team to advance toward the net. The is the best-case scenario as the target options grow to include driving a ball directly at the opponents at the NVZ line. The drop shot remains an option and is much easier to hit because you are closer to the net. But it should become less of a priority because gaining the net is likely anyhow. Hitting a ball to the feet of a player who stays off the line also remains a strong option. 

But a drive toward the closest player at the net creates an opportunity to end the rally with an outright winner or a weak opponent return. The key is to hit the ball hard enough and to target the right area around the opponent in order to defeat his reaction time. The next photo shows good targets.

One target not seen in this discussion is the one behind your opponent - the target created by hitting a lob. Percentage pickleball dictates that a lob from the baseline or no-man's land should never be used unless a player is particularly skilled at hitting it. Otherwise, it has a very low probability of success. It is difficult to hit over an opponent and keep it in-bounds from that distance. Also, the distance gives the opponent plenty of time to get positioned for an overhead smash. 

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