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Return of Serve Strategy in Pickleball: Slice or Die

by Guest Author on

Why do the “sexy” shots such as thirds and serves get all of the love? Sure, both are critical, and both demand consistency.

Third-shots can be the bed-rock of an advanced player’s success. Tutorials abound on how to drop or drive effectively.

However, both of these shots only pertain to HALF of every (standard scoring) game you play. What do the best players in the world do for the other half?

Thanks to the second-shot-bounce rule of pickleball, the returning team has the statistical offensive advantage during a given point. But how do top-players ensure they maintain that advantage?

The answer? A weaponized second-shot return.

So what does a better return of serve strategy look like?

For starters, pro players and coaches preach the fundamentals of returning “deep” to keep the serving players pinned back behind their baseline.

This is a simple enough concept that often maintains the “kitchen-line advantage” for the returning team.


Targeting? You have several options

While zoning in on one weaker player (pinching) might make it easier to force poor thirds, what do you do when the both players across the net can hang?

Generally, leaning on middle shots can cause slight slip ups for opponents deciding who will take the third shot. “Let them figure it out,” so-to-speak.

Yet, if there is one opponent that is exceptionally skilled or challenging at the kitchen line (perhaps they have a long reach, etc.), ensuring they are pinned back at the baseline may be your best bet to prevent them from a dangerous kitchen line arrival.

Check, check.

Now to weaponize. There is one final, albeit critical decision to make...

Topspin, Flat, or Slice on the return?

For many converting from tennis, hitting drive return shots either flat or with topspin seems “most natural.”

Despite this, there are some risks (assuming a deep initial serve):

  • At higher skill levels, your opponents are unlikely to be caught off guard
  • You have hit a faster shot, reducing your time to arrive at the kitchen for your fourth shot
  • Flat/Topspin drive returns are still likely to bounce rather high, allowing for opponents to get set for an aggressive third

However, as Tyler Loong can attest, the slice return is far more effective than a flat/tops in most players' return of serve strategy.

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There are several factors at play here.

A consistent “slice return” on the second shot...

  • Increases your arrival time to the kitchen
  • Can be applied comfortably from forehand or backhand side
  • When executed perfectly, a slice return might only bounce 1-5 inches (!) off the ground. That is a doozy for opponents to return!!

Furthermore, adapting your own slice return can be practiced and implemented almost instantly.

Drilling this with a buddy that can feed you constant serves will help build muscle memory and give you the feel for this advanced technique. The downside of not practicing this skill is the risk of feeding easy returns to your opponent.

Loong says he deploys the return slice a whopping 85-90% of the time.

Are you ready to weaponize your second shot?

-- Johnny Barth, @johnny5pointOH on IG/Twitter

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