The serve is the only shot in pickleball that you have total control over. Pickleball was designed to mitigate the serve, the thought being, deemphasize the serve by implementing the underhand service rules to limit speed and the two bounce rule to prohibit servers from volleying the third shot.
The game, at the recreational level, which these rules were first intended for, was more interested in getting players into good rallies and less concerned with who wins the point. But as this game has evolved into a real sport and players are competing at the highest levels, the serve has become the most overlooked shot in our toolbox.
Your serve is more important than your third. There, I said it!
And I believe this to be my truth because if I can keep my opponent off balance with a powerful, short, or spinny serve, place in optimal corners of the service box, then their return will most likely be suboptimal. If I were to simply ‘get my serve in,’ which I see a ton of players do (even at the highest levels) I am allowing my opponent to be the aggressor and have control of the point.
Because the second most important shot in pickleball, behind the serve, is the return of serve. Most people will tell you that the third shot is the most important shot in pickleball, and historically they have been right, but only because we were simply putting our serves into play and allowing the returner to hit a deep return, which kept the server on their heels and back by the baseline.
Having a serve that you can use as a weapon flips this script and turns third shot drops, a classically defensive shot that allows you to transition to the kitchen line, into third shot drives from well inside the baseline. These drives are hit strategically either to the middle of the court as the receiver transitions in or low and to the backhands of your opponents, causing them to pop the ball up for an easy fifth shot put away.
But I believe that an effective serve is a diverse serve. I was a pitcher in baseball, so mixing up speeds, disguising looks, and hitting locations is something I have incorporated into my pickleball game. Here is how I break down my serves, which I can pull from anytime I want during a game.
First I break down the service box into quadrants. Back left being the first quadrant then moving clockwise, the back right, short right, and then short left.
I have a number of different types of serves which I can pull from. There is a power serve which will hit one of the two back quadrants, depending where the returner is standing and if he is lefty or righty. I have a spin serve where I open the face of the paddle and cut the ball from right to left generating enough spin to kick away from the right handed returner in the ad side service box. I typically hit this shot on the ad side and keep it short, but I can hit the spin serve long as well. Then there is the lob serve, this is much like a change up, just to keep the receivers on their toes and break their rhythm. Then I have incorporated two different drop serves, one is a spinny serve that open the face of the paddle and slice what is essentially a forehand stroke. The other is a topspin forehand serve where the face of the paddle is above the wrist. This serve would be illegal if I were to use a volley serve, but as a drop serve it is perfectly legal and produces a great kick when the ball lands in the service box.
With these different types of serves and mixing up where I position them in the four quadrants, it is difficult for returners to anticipate what serve they are getting. This is a huge advantage for me and keeps the returners constantly guessing and unable to be aggressive.
As I mentioned, I believe the return is the second most important shot in pickleball because if the serve is simply put into play, the returner can anticipate where it is going and at what speed, allowing them to have a plan of what type of return they are going to hit and where they are going to put it. But if we keep the receiver off balance with a mix of different serves, it forces them to react and hopefully his short, weaker returns, giving us the opportunity on our thirds to be aggressive.
Having this many options to use on serve is great, but takes practice. I would suggest focusing on the four quadrants first. Being able to move the ball around is the first step. Once you have mastered that, introduce a new serve, whether it is power, spin, lob, or a drop and then work on placement for that serve. Now you will have enough service options to keep your opponents guessing, limiting the effectiveness of their returns, and putting you in a position to hit aggressive thirds.
Let me know what you think of this strategy. And good luck out on the court!
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