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Pickleball is Evolving

Opinion by Wayne Kerr

As stronger, faster athletes enter the sport of pickleball the game is evolving. Great footwork is becoming more and more important. The traditional idea of planting yourself at the Non-Volley-Zone (NVZ) line is being challenged at the upper levels of the game. In fact, some of today’s top players have backed a few feet (30-120 cm) off the NVZ line much of the time. Of course, when their opponents are back or have popped up a ball, these innovators are eagerly up at the NVZ line ready to hit a put-away shot. However, when all four are at the net many modern players take a step back giving themselves extra time to defend or counter an attacked ball.

Another benefit to being back a few feet is that this allows a player to strike the ball from below the top of the net and have a better chance of it rising above the tape. Using topspin, these balls can be hit with considerable force, clear the net, and stay in bounds. Teenager, Anna Leigh Waters of the USA and Catherine Parenteau of Canada are two of the best players in the world at employing this technique.

A good example of this style of court positioning can be seen in the Pro Women’s Doubles Gold Medal final at the 2019 US National Championships at Indian Wells featuring: Leigh Waters/Anna Leigh Waters vs. Jessie Irvine/Catherine Parenteau.

As evidenced in the above photo, all four of these amazing players utilize this strategy and these techniques. It is difficult to argue with their results and success.

If you watch the video (available on YouTube), you may notice that their feet are constantly moving as they adjust up and back, side to side in response to every ball.

Too often at the amateur level we get planted in place, especially if our partner is hitting the ball, and then end up reaching for a ball that comes toward us rather than taking one or two quick steps which will allow proper technique. Also, when settled onto our heals we are in a heavy or slower position verses being up on our toes allowing quick easy movement.

This modern court positioning strategy works as follows: the receiving team returns the serve and gets right up to the NVZ line, where they await either a drive or drop shot from the serving team. In either case they will try to keep their opponents back with a deeply hit ball, thus keeping control of the net. The serving team will attempt while hitting the third, fifth or seventh (etc.) shot to get a ball to drop at or in front of the feet of the receivers so that they can move forward to the net. If and when both teams are forward, the players will position themselves 2-4 feet (60-120cm) behind the NVZ, where they will dink with the purpose of forcing their opponent to hit a ball high enough to attack or to get the opposition to attack a questionable or marginally high ball, while prepared to counter-attack. All these players are ready to pounce forward and put-away any ball that floats too high. Both teams also move forward to the NVZ line whenever their opponents are pushed back.

Because all these players are prepared to move quickly, being back a few feet is not a detriment while dinking. In fact, it often makes it easier to handle a deep or aggressive dink shot and provides extra time to get into position to counter a well-placed cross-court dink. Also, it is much easier to control the ball while moving forward than when you are being forced backward.

I hope this article gives you a few ideas that may help improve your game. Play safely my friends.

Wayne Kerr, born in Biggar, Saskatchewan, now lives in the beautiful Okanagan and usually spends winters in Arizona. Wayne is a former tennis coach, a thirty-plus-year tournament veteran and a recent convert to the sport of pickleball. He is a contributor to Pickleball Canada and anxiously awaits the opportunity to compete in pickleball tournaments across our great nation.