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.
Practice Practice Practice
Opinion by Wayne Kerr
Another season of pickleball is here. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned player, practice will help improve your game. There are tons of drills that you and a partner(s) can do. They can be found in books, magazines and online. Occasionally we have some spare time on our hands, but our friends may not be available. What can you do if you don’t have a partner readily available? Sure, you could sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Enjoyable? Probably, but that won’t help your dinking or put-away volley become more reliable. There is another option, you can practice alone.
Find a wall to hit against. A driveway or parking stall has plenty of space. A sturdy piece of plywood leaned against a sawhorse makes a good practice wall. I have found that a wall tilted back 15 degrees give or take a little provides a realistic return. Vertical walls work great, too. Many basements have a wall or a space that can be used.
Where-ever you find the flat surface to practice on, a wall is a great place to work on technique and accuracy (especially if you are able to add a target to the wall). Draw or tape a 36” net-height line (this is the height of the net at its highest points) on the wall. (NOTE: If you are a junior, get permission before putting any marks on the wall.) You can add a 12” X 24” (30 X 60 cm) box just above the center to aim at. Most walls will have at least enough space to practice dinking and volleying. For dinking practice try and see how many balls you can keep in the box. As you get better add underspin or topspin to the ball. For extra challenge, shrink the size of the box down to 10” or even 8”.
Walls work really well for volley practice as well. Start with basic block volleys, keeping your paddle well in front of your body. Aiming at the top line of the box will give you plenty of clearance above the net. Vary the pace of the volleys as you improve. Adding topspin to your volleys will improve your forehand and backhand ‘roll’ volleys. If you have enough space you can even practice forehand and backhand drives and serving.
Should you find yourself alone on an empty pickleball court there are many aspects of the game you can work on. I try to keep at least half a dozen balls in my bag just for these occasions. Practicing your serve is easy and one of the most important components of the game. Once you can consistently get the serve in play it is time to improve placement, depth and pace. A water bottle or backpack make good targets. This is a perfect time to try out new serves you may eventually add to your arsenal.
Whenever I get to the court early I like to hit some third shot drops from the baseline from both ends of the court. This gives me a good sense of the wind conditions and helps me find my touch game. I usually hit both straight ahead drops and cross-court ones. This is the perfect time to practice good technique. There are no distractions and you can drop-bounce the ball right where you want it. Since we often have to move and improvise shots during matches you can also toss the ball away from yourself to make the shot more difficult to execute.
An empty court also provides an opportunity to work on the accuracy of your drives. Since driving the ball up the middle is an important shot in doubles, start by trying to hit the center line from various positions along the baseline. The two most basic fundamentals to this exercise are avoiding hitting the ball into the net or sending it beyond the baseline. Adding topspin to your drives will give you extra margin of error, since you can clear the net by a few more inches while landing the ball inside the baseline. Be sure to practice ¾ speed or even slower drives. ‘Placement over power’ is a good mantra when practicing drives and serves. A ball that crosses the net and dips downward can be very difficult for opponents to handle. For those who don’t want to pick up balls or only have a ball or two with them, you could pick out a target on the back fence to aim at.
As your accuracy improves it is time to start aiming for the corners of the court. This is especially important if you play singles, but will also pay dividends for your doubles game. Hit balls from both the forehand and backhand corners of your side of the court trying to get balls to land in either corner across the net. Set objects 2-3’ (60-90 cms) from the side and baseline to be your targets. You will quickly discover whether your forehand or backhand is the more accurate of your strokes. For many people it is their forehand. Keep practicing your backhand, it will improve. In the meantime lots of players, if they are mobile enough, avoid hitting backhands – especially when playing doubles. If this is you it is doubly important that you can place your forehand where you want or need to. Practice hitting forehands from the left corner of the court. Remember that the center line is still the best target from there. In a match be prepared to cover balls that are returned to the center of the court. You will likely have to move much further than if you’d used your backhand.
You can practice most things by yourself, even dinking and return of serve. Be creative. Of course it is of paramount importance that we practice good technique. If you don’t have access to a certified coach or a higher level friend who is willing to help there are many good YouTube and Facebook videos to get advice from. Try making a video of yourself to see if your technique is proper.
While practicing alone may not be as much fun as a game or training with a friend(s) it can help you improve. For those, like myself, who love to practice, acquiring a ball caddy might be a good investment. Have a great season and remember pickleball is the most fun you can have on any court.
Party on, my pickleball friends!
Good Behavior on the Pickleball Court
Opinion by Wayne Kerr
Pickleball can be unpredictable. Sometimes we make amazing gets and put-a-ways; sometimes we mess up the easiest shots. It is rare when each player on the court doesn’t make at least one great shot and conversely miss an easy one. That’s a big part of the beauty of this wacky sport. The laughter and smile quotient at every level is high.
The game of pickleball can be as simple as getting the ball back over the net or as complex as a chess match. It can be either recreational or competitive or both. In all cases there is a lot of enjoyment to be had.
The sport of pickleball has a lot of unusual rules. No volleying from inside the kitchen and the two bounce rule, to name just a couple. However, listed below are a few of the unwritten rules regarding behavior and etiquette on the pickleball court that can help make our playing experience even better.
- Line calls – It is easy to get caught up in a rousing game or rally. Occasionally, your opponent will call a ball out that you are pretty certain landed on or even inside the line. These things happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is an honest mistake. I have questioned calls and had calls I’ve made questioned. That is okay as long as once the call is confirmed, the subject is dropped. Don’t argue about a call, forget it as quickly as possible and get on with the game. *Remember if you are not certain the ball was out, then call it in.
- Serving – Wait until everyone is ready before you begin a point. Call out the score loudly before you serve the ball. If the score was called incorrectly the returner should stop play and have the server restart the point. It is proper etiquette to completely finish calling the score before serving.
- Lobbing – When playing a tournament or other highly competitive match lobbing is a strategic option. However, during recreational play consider that lobbing the ball may in fact be a dangerous play against players with decreased mobility. Every year there are many injuries across the nation by people who fall while backpedaling. During a friendly match intentionally lobbing into the sun is a cheap way to cause an error. Remember we’re out there to have fun.
- Free lessons – Avoid giving instruction during play, unless it has been asked for by the other player. Discussing strategy and court coverage with your partner is a good thing, but technique advice is better given after the game and only if solicited.
- Interruptions – Don’t walk across the back or along the side of a court while a point is being played. Even if the ball does not come anywhere near, you may distract the players. Do interrupt play if a ball from your court flies onto another, for safety sake. Loudly call “Ball” one or more times to prevent an ankle injury or a more serious accident.
- Fun and improvement – When playing in a tournament it can be a good strategy to keep the ball away from the stronger player on the other side of the net. In recreational play, however, the point is to have fun and improve. Winning each and every point of a recreational game is not of paramount importance. Those who constantly hit almost every ball at the weaker player are robbing themselves of the challenge and opportunity to practice against better competition. If you want better players to continue playing with you, keep them involved in the game.
- Be a good sport – Paddle throwing, swearing and angrily stomping around the court is unattractive and only serves to erode the enjoyment of everyone involved. Everyone misses easy shots. Congratulate others when they hit a great shot or win a game. We all hit the occasional amazing shot either through skill, luck or both. This is part of the magic of this fantastic sport. Celebrate all of them. We’re all a little disappointed when we lose a game or highly contested point. Shake it off and be happy for your friend(s). Your turn will come. Besides, losing makes winning even sweeter. When your partner makes an error, or is perhaps a weaker player, words of encouragement can go a long way toward making them more comfortable. No one tries to miss or intends to pop the ball up.
Enjoy our great and quirky sport. Even though it may only be a game, without a doubt pickleball is the most fun you can have on a court!
Party on, my pickleball friends!
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.