The USAPA was certainly busy during 2020 with a revised rulebook for 2021!
You can check out the new rulebook here! Alternatively, you can check out the Alternate 2021 rulebook here (this one attempts to simplify all the rules for you!). Don’t want to plow through the entire rulebook and want everything summarized with explanations as to the changes? Then check this out! So here’s the deal – much of the changes are for referees and reffed games, so you can breathe a sigh of relief!
But there are two MAJOR changes that will certainly have an impact on your rec play – the elimination of the service let rule and the drop serve!
No More Service Lets
Apparently there are some cheaters out there in the pickleball world! And this is the reason there are no more service lets!
That’s why they made these changes – during a reffed game, a player could yell out a let (even though it wasn’t one!) and they would have to replay the point!
So here’s the situation – if the ball ticks the net and still winds up in the proper court (past the Kitchen line, of course!), the ball is LIVE and in play!
Yes, that means when a serve hits the net, it bounces very short in the court, and there’s no way that you can return it, the serving team is going to win that point!
The Drop Serve
First off, the drop serve is a provisional rule for 2021, which means it could go away in 2022! (The USAPA will be evaluating it throughout 2021.)
The concept of the drop serve has been around for quite a long time. Why the drop serve? Because the other service rules (upward forward motion, paddle head below the wrist, strike below the belly-button) which can be difficult to call correctly, don’t apply!
That’s right! You can hit the drop serve however you want!
Here’s how it works – you stand behind the baseline (the other rules for serving still apply) and you DROP the ball (onto the playing surface if you like, the ball doesn’t have to be dropped behind the baseline) and serve it from the bounce. You can strike the ball however you want – forehand, backhand – and with as much spin as you like!
The key word here is DROP, you can’t toss the ball in the air or throw it down to get a higher bounce!
Hence the name, the drop serve!
When I was living in France, I was fortunate to become friends with Bjorn Borg, one of the greatest tennis players of all time.
There’s’ no denying his greatness, but his style of play was, well, kind of boring.
I asked him about his style of play, and Bjorn replied that he was trying to get the ball over the net one more time than his opponent.
And pickleball is no different!
I always recommend that you take the high percentage shot, the shot that you are most likely to keep in play.
Which is why I recommend going to the middle.
But what is the middle?
The Middle You Are Looking For
Pickleball courts have that nice centerline that runs along the middle.
But that’s not the middle that I’m talking about here!
The middle I’m talking about is that oh-so-sweet spot between your opponents.
There’s confusion between your opponents, and it’s an extremely high percentage shot!
The Pros Know This, Too
If you’ve ever watched pro matches, you probably remember a good number of Ernes and around-the-post (ATP) shots.
But the vast number of winners are those shots that go in between the players.
Even though the pros have amazing touch and placement, they know the best option is to go to the middle.
And the Biggest Myth in Pickleball
“Forehand takes the middle” is probably the biggest myth in pickleball!
If you’re following my recommendation for how to cover the entire court, you know that you have to move side to side to cover most of the court, leaving one alley exposed.
When you and your partner shift to the left, there’s probably a backhand in the middle third of the court!
So should the forehand move over to the shot?
The person in the middle third of the court takes the shot!
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This may have been directed at you by your opponents, or even your partner, after you made a successful poach!
Poaching is certainly a big part of the game. Your opponents move to get into position and get set from a shot from your partner, but then you reach over quickly and strike the ball before your partner, surprising your opponents (and again, maybe your partner!).
But, especially in rec play, you may be irritating your partner with excessive poaching. I’ll discuss this more in detail, but first, the shot when you should always be looking to poach.
The Fourth Shot
Your partner is receiving the serve and you are already at the line (doesn’t matter if you are backhand or forehand!). Your partner returns the serve rushes to the line. Your opponent sends back the third shot.
This is where you should be actively looking to poach.
Why? Because your partner may not be fully set and ready to take the shot, especially if it’s a hard drive. Or worse, your partner may be short of the Non-Volley Zone line and still in motion (i.e., not set at all!). Plus, since you are already at the line, your opponent may very well be targeting your partner.
Try not to telegraph your poaching. What I mean by this is wait until the last possible moment to move for the poach. For example, you are at the line in the left side of the court (ad court). Your partner is receiving and advancing to the line on the right side of the court (the deuce court).
Your opponents know that your partner is slow to the line, you know that your opponents know that your partner is slow to the line, and your opponents know that you know that you are looking to poach.
If you shift over to make the poach too early, you may be giving your opponents the opportunity to place the ball in a now empty alley to your left, and because you shifted over, not only are you out of position, but your body weight may be tilted to the right, making it even more difficult for you to make a good play on the ball when it comes to your left.
Instead, wait until your opponent is set and almost ready to strike the ball. Once you see where your opponent is going to place the ball (noting his or her leading shoulder) right before the strike, then shift over to make the poach.
Are You the Stronger, More Dominant Player?
In some instances, it is understood that one player will try to poach at every opportunity, particularly when players are partnered together often and they understand each other’s game, where one player acts to set up the ball for the put away for his or her partner.
For example, one player has much less of a power game than his or her partner, so the player works to set up the rally to provide poaching opportunities for his or her partner.
And the best way to do this? Let’s assume that you are the less dominant player (I hate using the term weaker) and you are the one your opponents are targeting. My recommendation to keep your partner involved is to keep your dinks to the middle of court, whether it be a dink towards your partner or a crosscourt dink (which goes over the middle of the net, by the way). This enables your partner to have a greater opportunity for the poach, especially when your opponents are expecting you to take the ball.
Communicate in Advance
Many players have the mistaken notion that the court is divided into two halves, and that “this is my half of the court and that is your half.” If you plan working on your poaching (or just like to poach a lot!), it’s a good idea to communicate this with your partner.
For example, “I want to work on my poaching for this game – is that okay?” This lets your partner know in advance that you’ll be actively looking to poach.
That being said, you certainly don’t want to be known as the local ball hog. In other words, if you are the best player on the court, you don’t have to go out and take over every point and every game with your poaching prowess.
And if you’re not the best player on the court and have a tendency to poach, there’s that unwritten rule that says, “if you’re going to poach, you better make it.”
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Courts are opening back up throughout the nation, so if you’re going out to get in some games, please be safe!
And when you get out on the courts, what I would like you to try goes against conventional wisdom that you’ve no doubt heard many times.
No, I’m not encouraging you to let the backhand take the middle on those juicy pop-ups!
I’m encouraging you to try to get your dinks shallow into the Kitchen!
The Conventional Wisdom
You’ve probably heard that your dinks should be deep in the Kitchen to your opponent’s backhand foot; however, if you’re getting your dink deep enough, your opponent can take the ball in the air.
Which gives you less time to reset yourself!
If your dink is too deep, you may also be giving your opponent the chance to drive the ball at you!
Why the Shallow Dink Is More Effective
Let’s go back to the Seven Principles of Smart Pickleball, specifically number 6, never hit up. Conversely, you want your opponents to hit up.
Because your dink is shallow, your opponent will have to step into the Kitchen and hit up on the ball.
If your opponent doesn’t hit up on the ball and strikes the ball normally, it’s probably going into the net.
If your opponent winds up with a big backswing, you know it’s either going into the net or probably out of bounds. (This is a bonus of the shallow dink! It neutralizes your friendly neighborhood banger!)
By forcing your opponent to step into the Kitchen AND hit up on the ball, you are effectively taking away his or her options for how to return the dink! You are more in control of the point!
A Brief Rules Clarification
Many players believe that you cannot go into the Kitchen until the ball bounces!
As long as you don’t strike the ball in the air, you can hang out in the Kitchen as long as you want (and maybe even check emails or make a sandwich).
When you know the ball is going to bounce in the Kitchen, you can step in, wait for the bounce and then strike the ball.
So Just How Shallow?
The Kitchen is seven feet long, and I recommend getting your dinks in the first half of the Kitchen, which is the space three-and-a-half feet from the net.
At bootcamp, before we begin the Shark at the Net session, I’ll mark off the middle of the Kitchen with some painter’s tape. I then ask participants to get 30 dinks in a row in the first half of the Kitchen – if the ball bounces past the line, even if it’s still in the Kitchen, they have to start over! (And if they get really good, I raise that number to 50!)
To get your dink into the shallow part of the Kitchen, the apex of the ball should be above the net as it’s on its downward arc. As an added bonus, you don’t have to just clear the net – you can go as high as 12 to 18 inches!
So try it out, and if someone remarks how shallow you are on the courts, take it as a compliment!
And If You Want to Make Those Shallow Dinks Perfect…
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