It’s never fun to hit your returns long or into the net. Even some in-bounds returns feel like they set you up to lose the point.
What are the return-of-serve strategies that the pros use? How do they use their returns to set their opponents up for challenging third shots?
You’re about to learn everything you need to know to master your pickleball returns.
Let’s dive in.
1. Stand back in preparation for deep serves
It’s always good to stand behind the baseline in preparation for hitting your return. I typically stand at least a foot beyond the baseline. Standing back keeps you in front of deep serves. You always want to be in front of the ball when hitting the pickleball. It keeps you balanced and able to hit with the best swing mechanics.
Yes, standing back does make you vulnerable to well-placed short serves. But it’s better to have to run up for shallow serves than it is to back-peddle for deep ones.
Those shallow aces are also hard to serve. Oftentimes, you’ll be able to run up and reach a shallow serve and be well-positioned to hit a good return. You’ll have a better chance at those than you will back peddling and awkwardly hitting a deep serve that you weren’t set up to be in front of.
2. Hit your returns deep
Do this every time. You always want to keep your opponent back in pickleball, and your deep return sets your opponent up for a difficult third shot. Volleying the return isn’t allowed, so they’ll have to hit the ball wherever it lands.
Your opponent could attempt to hit a deep third-shot drive, but your team will have plenty of time to react and counter that drive. It’d have to be well-placed and very low to keep you from countering it.
The serving team’s best bet against your deep return will be to attempt a third-shot drop, which is one of the hardest shots to hit in pickleball, especially when it’s hit back at the baseline.
When returning deep, it’s a good idea to aim for the back-middle of the court. This forces your opponents to have to consider which one of them will hit the ball.
3. Add loft to your returns
You want to get to the kitchen line after hitting your return. If you hit a deep return that floats you and your partner time will have more time to get established at the kitchen/no-volley zone line.
You can hit a deep, lofting return either with a soft touch or by imparting spin. Hitting a soft lofty return has the benefit of being an easier shot. Spin-imparted slice returns add loft but are harder to hit. Slice returns are certainly worthwhile shot to develop, as the spin slows the ball down to give you time to move up with the added benefit of being much harder to hit against.
While this is a good strategy most of the time, sometimes a hard-driving return is the right move. I’ll drive my returns frequently against opponents that move up too quickly after their team has served.
A fast, deep drive forces them to backpedal into what will likely be an off-balanced third shot. Just be aware that you might not be able to make it to the kitchen line before the ball comes back to you after hitting a fast return.
4. Make your way to the kitchen immediately after hitting your return
Many newer players forgot to move with haste to the non-volley zone after hitting their return.
It might be tempting to stare at your return for a moment, but you have to remember that staying back on after your return puts you at a significant positioning disadvantage.
If you fail to get to the kitchen line after you hit a return, you’re giving your opponent a far easier third shot since they won’t need to drop it perfectly into the kitchen. In fact, they’ll have the option to hit an easy drive deep at your feet.
So get to that line after your return! Just remember that you don’t want to just sprint to the line every time. If your return was shallow, you likely won’t have enough time to get to the kitchen before your opponent hits it. You need to be prepared for them to hit a hard drive at you in transition, so stop and plant yourself wherever you are in preparation for a shot your way.
You’ll work your way up to the kitchen more slowly this way, but it’ll be safer.
5. Adapt your returns to each game and work at being unpredictable
You’ll want to aim deep middle with lofty shots on most returns. But it’s to test your opponent’s abilities throughout the game by hitting differently placed and paced returns. With this prodding you can discover which one of your opponents struggles the most to hit your returns effectively.
Depending on your skill at placing the ball, you can even try to target the weaker side of the weaker player with your returns. This will often be their backhand side.
You can also throw in some shallow returns if your opponent is standing way back and isn’t at all prepared for it. Just use sparingly to keep them honest.
If you’re mostly relying on slow lofty returns, toss in a fast hard-drive return every now for a change of pace that keeps your opponent off balance.
Bonus: what about short returns?
Short returns seem appealing to newer players. It seems like a great opportunity to catch your opponent off-guard and make them run to the return, possibly popping the ball up in the process.
But short returns work against your biggest advantage in pickleball – positioning. Deep returns keep your opponent back and allow you to move up to the non-volley zone line, while shallow returns invite your opponent to the net without giving you the time to make your way there.
This puts you at a huge disadvantage and is not worth the slim chance of sneaking one by your opponent. As the returning team, you always want to make the serving team earn their way to the net. Never give them a free pass.
With that said, the caveat is that an occasional short return keeps certain players that hang way far behind the baseline honest. After you’ve hit one shallow return, they’ll have to respect your short returns and won’t keep hanging back that far.
I hope this post has helped you learn the ins and outs of hitting returns in pickleball.
Remember the big takeaways – prioritize deep, lofty returns that provide you with time to get to the kitchen. From there, you can assume the offensive best position while forcing your opponent into a tough third shot.
Good luck out there, pickleballers.
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