The Entirely Expected Evolution of Pickleball Strategy

Pickleball Strategy continues to evolve. Let’s take one little piece, the third (or approach) shot, as an example. What was traditional thinking ten years ago was “Bang it from the baseline!” This slowly evolved into “Lob ’em!” and morphed again a couple of years later into “Drop shot in the middle!”

What the future will bring is speculation, but here’s a question; why did we say strategy should be evolving? Why should fundamentals change? Aren’t they….well…fundamental?

Easy enough question to answer – pickleball strategy is still very young, still growing up. True, we have a few decades of history, but the 51 years since our birth on Bainbridge Island doesn’t hold a tiny birthday candle to the invention of what would later be called Tennis, in the 12th Century in the monastic cloisters of Northern France. And that difference of many hundreds of years is key. Even if you do not aspire to hit a tennis backhand like Nadal, Djokovic, Murray or Federer, you do understand that after 900 years the mechanical side of things is written down and since a young age these great stars studied it to a froth, and you could, too. There is lots of documentation on how to do it right.

As compared to that well-codified sport of tennis, in pickleball we are still bringing together elements from every racket sport; tennis, badminton, table-tennis, squash, platform tennis, racquetball – you name it – and all of those skills from all of these games can have value in pickleball. In pickleball we’re still learning what “right” looks like.

So, short-term, what changes can we predict? We’re just comparative hackers and not Open players, and your guess is undoubtedly as good as ours, but let’s look together at who “owns” the sport today and what they are doing different than (to stay with the approach) “Third Shot = Drop Shot!” At one time, not that many years ago folks over 60 won all the tournaments, even the few open-age groups. Now these still-wonderful players are approaching 70 (like us! – we can’t get away from them!) and the new hot-dogs are ladies and gentlemen barely in their 20s and 30s, if not younger. And the strategies these younger people are using are different (the evolution thing), reinforced by (physically) their doing things more in keeping with their youth and fitness.

For instance:

While a prime objective of the approach shot on the third (approach) shot, after return of serve, remains the same, to get safely to the net, the tactics used to accomplish this now vary. More often, we see better players taking a medium-depth serve and top-spinning a low, flat shot just clearing the net as their third shot. Of course the third-shot hitter expects that ball will be returned, (at their level almost everything is returned), but they also don’t expect a return shot they can’t handle. They do expect one of the following, however.

  1. If the opponent executes a killer cut-volley and dumps the shot over the net, these youngsters with their springy legs expect to get to it…and they’re at the net, mission accomplished.
  2. Or, if the opponent top-spins the shot back, they expect to short-hop it into a fifth-shot drop-shot and move to the net.
  3. Or, more rarely, (like Enrique Ruiz, say), the opponent takes the shot and volley-lobs it, well, that usually becomes that opponent’s mistake ‘cuz most of these guys won’t miss that shot unless it’s perfectly executed or they slip on their own drool when they see the ball up in their wheel-house.

Oh, sure, if someone hits a very, very good, very, very deep Return of Serve, the “kids” will hit a drop shot, but with a difference. As opposed to the rest of us concentrating on making a perfect drop, they don’t worry overly much about it being perfect at all. Over the net is plenty good enough ‘cuz they are often back-spinning the heck out of that third shot drop anyway, and it therefore stays low on the bounce and doesn’t present their opponents’ with an chance to kill their return….and, again, they could probably return anything the opponents sent back their way anyway.

In terms of their technique, btw, the apex of their drop shot, the highest point before the shot begins to drop, is very much on their side of the net, maybe around their own kitchen line, maybe as much as five or even six feet high, and therefore the ball steeply angles over the net into the front half of the opponents’ kitchen. So they go high, apex around the kitchen line, often back-spinning the ball to control the height of its bounce. And, if their shot looks ok, they might only take a couple of steps forward and wait again.

So in this case, they create a series of approach shots, a sequence. It could take a third-shot-drop, plus a fifth-shot-drop, and maybe even a seventh-shot-drop before they are at the line. Unthinkable not long ago, when a “dink” if used in sports at all, referenced only volleyball or tennis, and soft shots were for sissies. Now, the approach shot sequence taught as the next step in the approach shot’s evolution – see Matt and Brian Staub’s video on our drills page.

While we might soon be able to share other thoughts from the real experts on what future strategies will bring, our predicting what’s on the horizon, strategy-wise, is above our pay grade. But in this one example, you see our point. The evolution of strategy in our sport is both unstoppable and quite rapid, and we better learn to love it. Heck, maybe we should love it. Maybe keeping up is what’s keeping us young.


  • Ernie O (Ortiz)
    April 13, 2017

    Having only played PB since December of 2016, but tennis and racquetball for over 30 plus years, I was reluctant to only use the 3rd shot drop as a way to get to the NVZ line. Yes, there are times when such a shot is warranted, but a top spin rip from zone 2 is just as effective and catches most people off guard. I’m glad to see that this kind of shot is becoming part of the game. It won’t be long before we see a mass of tennis players coming over to PB and using a lot of their strokes to change the game.

    • Us
      April 13, 2017

      Well, yes, but we’d rather see you have all the shots, including the third-shot drop. We’re decent players and, at the line, can handle pretty much any drive return, top spin on otherwise. Good players can eat that up, especially if they hit it all the time, to your pint about when you catch people off-guard. With you third shot drop, focus on dropping it to folks’ backhands and don’t worry as much about whether it’s a “perfect” drop or not, just get it over the net. Experiment with using a little backspin on that shot sometime to keep the drop from bouncing too high and maybe even spinning it back to the net a bit. It’s making a good approach, not hitting winners necessarily. Lob once in awhile as well, most especially when you sense your opponents cheating up to the line.

  • Sylvia
    November 27, 2015

    If you are referring to the top male tennis players, then you mean Murray not Murry.

    • Us
      November 27, 2015

      Right you are. Thanks!

  • September 13, 2015

    And let’s not forget strategy changes with the equipment. I’ve played with a ball that pretty much removes the dink as a strategy due to it’s higher bounce.

    Look at golf today. With drives going 350+ yards many of the courses are no longer a challenge to the better golfers.

  • Bill Robinson
    August 15, 2015

    I’m delighted to hear that hitting a low shot with varying degrees of pace and topspin is evolving to become an accepted third-shot work-your-way-in-to-the-net option for the serving team. This is primarily because I can hit this sort of a shot, whereas I don’t own no stinkin’ third-shot dink/drop shot, as most of the pickleball brain-trust have traditionally recommended.

    Keep up the good work, folks — love your combination of humor and good, solid tips and information!

    ~Bill Robinson
    Pickleball by the Sea Pickleball Club
    Neptune Beach, Florida

  • Mario Najera
    May 4, 2015

    Great strategy information. Very appreciated!

    Thank you.

    • Us
      May 4, 2015

      That means a lot coming from you, Mario. Thanks.

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