Maybe you’ve learned the value of the dink, or you’re beginning to consider it at least…
If you’re like one woman who wrote to me this past month, maybe you have a group of people with whom you regularly play the dink game, and you’ve gotten pretty good at it…
But then you go to another venue, or you play at a different time, and you’re facing off against the “less enlightened” players who are still just smacking the heck out of every shot…
You know that you should be able to beat them (in theory at least) but every time you try to return one of their shots, the ball whizzes up and off your paddle, landing way out of bounds – or down in the net – or up and into their wheelhouse – and it ain’t pretty.
My Top 5 Strategies to Play Against Bangers
So how DO you return those hard shots–let alone even take back control of the point and force them to play YOUR game?
Most of the tips and strategies I’ll offer in this post are covered in one place or another in my book, Smart Pickleball: The Pickleball Guru’s Guide, but in this post I’ll compile them all in one place for you and offer a little bit more perspective…
#1 – Keep Your Paddle Up
You have no chance of returning those fast balls if your paddle is below the net, or, worse, down by your knees. Bring your paddle up (at least as high as your sternum) after EVERY shot you hit.
#2 – Learn to Anticipate the Slam
Watch for when your opponent pulls their paddle way back behind them for the wind-up before the slam. This is your cue that they are gonna hit the ball hard, which can give you those extra milliseconds to get yourself ready and in position.
#3 – Modify Your Ready Position
In general, I am not an advocate for one ready position being the “right” way. I always like to say that if you take 10 of the top players in the country, you’ll see a number of different ready positions based on their sporting background. My stance is usually, “Do what works for you.”
But, when it comes to playing against slammers, one way does seem to work better for most people, so if what you’re doing DOESN’T seem to work for you, then try holding your paddle parallel to the net in the backhand position, aimed slightly downward.
(Remember, no matter what position you prefer in general, as soon as you see the person winding up to hit their shot, you can switch to this modified ready position.)
If you are holding your paddle perpendicular to the net, like the tennis ready position, when the ball comes, chances are you’re rotating your elbow out to hit a forehand but you’ll hit the ball while your paddle face is still pointing about 45 degrees from the net, which is what causes the ball to go out of bounds.
#4 – Loosen Your Grip
Loosen your grip on your paddle. This is my first tip for how to absorb the momentum of the ball, but it is one that may seem counter-intuitive. Often, the second you know you’re playing against a slammer your body tightens up, you white knuckle your paddle a little bit, and put yourself on guard. But all THAT does is mess up your shot and give your opponent a rock-hard backboard to take aim at. When you loosen your grip you are, firstly, reminding yourself to relax and loosen up in general. Even more importantly, you can “aikido” or “judo” the shot (apologies to any black-belts reading this). When the ball hits your paddle, the vibration and momentum will be deadened upon impact, so you can absorb most of the energy of your opponent’s shot, then use what’s left to direct the ball where you want it to go.
#5 – Retract Your Paddle Slightly at the Moment of Impact
Back when I used to play cricket (and I imagine it’s similar in baseball), we were always taught not to catch the ball out at arm’s length but to reach all the way out and then bring the ball in toward our body as we caught it. This is the same principle.
It’s subtle, and maybe suited only for the more advanced players, but if you can manage to pull your paddle toward you an inch or two at the moment of impact, you’ll go a long way toward deadening the ball.
If you watch any of the videos from the national level tournaments, you’ll be able to see how many of the top players use these strategies when they play against slammers, and it’s what allows them to return every smash shot with a dink (when they want to, of course).
So please, post in the comments below what new insights this article has given you and keep me posted as to how it changes your game next time you go out to play against those slammers.