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Pickleball Return of Serve Strategies

In earlier blog post, Mastering the Best Pickleball Serves, I wrote extensively about serving strategies including a detailed explanation of various types of serves including the spin serve and the backhand serve. In future posts we’ll talk more about other types of serves, but right now I want to step over the net onto the other side of the court and discuss the strategy for the pickleball return of serve or what’s also known as the pickleball return serve. If the serve is the most important shot in the game, the return of serve is the second most important shot in the game. I’m going to explain why.

For purposes of our discussion let’s agree on terminology. We’ll use tennis terms to define the sides of the court. The deuce side of the court is the side right of the center hash mark, and the ad side is the side left of the center hash mark. So you’re receiving serve from either the deuce or ad side. This is important because your return of service will be different based on which side of the court you are on when returning your opponent’s serve.

So now let’s talk about why the return of serve is so important and what the best strategies are for this shot.

Why is the Pickleball Return of Serve so Important?

The return of service is the second shot of the game. I think it is the second most important shot in pickleball. As we discussed in the blog post Pickleball Strategy begins with a Winning Serve, the serve is the most important shot of the game because a strong server can win the serve point as much as 25% of the time before a rally even starts. If you’re returning a serve you want to be on the side with the 75% chance of winning the point. You want to return the serve so effectively that you gain control of the rally before the third shot, which many consider to be one of the most important shots in pickleball because the third shot in the rally is usually played at the net, where most points are won. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The pickleball return serve is important because if you hit a good shot you can take the advantage in a rally by getting to the net before your opponents. Why do you want to get to the net before your opponents? Because most points are won at the net. I should put the last sentence in caps. Let me say it again. Most points in pickleball are won at the net. If you’re not charging the net at every opportunity you are not going to win many points.

Mark Renneson from Third Shot Sports shows how the pros sprint to the kitchen after returning a serve.

You cannot win pickleball games by staying back at the baseline or coming up halfway and positioning yourself in what’s known as “no man’s land,” halfway between the kitchen and the baseline. You must hit an effective return of serve so you can get to the net before your opponents. Now what are the best return of serve shots?

Return the Serve Deep

Return the ball deep. This is surely the safest strategy for return of serve in pickleball. Because the serving team has to stay back after they serve in order to obey the rule that they can’t hit the ball on the fly on the first shot after they serve it means that if you can hit the ball deep it will keep them at the baseline while you’re returning the serve. While they’re at the baseline returning your deep return of serve you and your partner should have time to charge the net before they get off their next shot. Once at the baseline you have the advantage, as I’ve pointed out. Your opponents have two choices as to what to do: (1) try to hit a lob over your heads or (2) smash it at you in some fashion. Regardless of what they do, you have the advantage. That doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to win the point. A lot of things could happen. But if you can come to the net before your opponents the odds are in your favor.

One last consideration for returning the serve deep is whether to hit a hard shot or a lob. I like to lob deep because it gives my partner and me more time to get to the net. I’m not trying to hit a winner with return of service shot. I’m just trying to keep my opponents back so I can get to the net.

Rusty Howes from Pickleball Channel demonstrates the soft lob return of serve.

Others might feel differently. A strategically placed hard return of service can also be very effective. It not only keeps your opponent back but it also can force the server or his partner to hit a weak third shot, which can give you the advantage. Either way, hitting deep is a safe strategy.

Return the Serve Short

Return the ball short. Now why would you want to do that? You might want to hit the ball short on occasion to catch your opponents off guard. You know they are staying back after one of them serves so if you can dink it over the net or slice it short so the ball spins away from either the server or his or her partner you have hit a successful return of serve. It could be a stone-cold winner of a shot or, if not, it might force the server out of position, and you might come back with a shot right at one of them or place the ball between them.

When I’m returning a serve short I like to use a wicked forehand slice (which I also use in paddle tennis and tennis). Or if the serve is to my backhand I’ll use an undercut slice. Both shots are effective. I’ve seen other players return serve with wide dinks, which can force the server out of position. Either way, if you know what you’re doing a short return now and then can be a very effective return of serve.

Return the Serve to your Opponent’s Backhand

Return the ball to the backhand. This is pretty much a cardinal rule in any paddle sport. One’s forehand is stronger than one’s backhand. This is not always true, of course, but in most cases it is true. So if the server is serving from the deuce court you want to hit it down the middle but just to the left of the centerline so the server will take the return with his backhand. This doesn’t always work because there is a good chance his partner will return your shot with his forehand. So a better strategy would be to hit to the server’s partner’s backhand (I’m assuming both players are right-handed. You can reverse the strategy if one or both are left-handed.). You’re trying to drive the server’s partner back into the ad side corner out of position. So you’re hitting to his backhand, which theoretically is his weaker shot, and you’re driving him back into the corner. This is a perfect strategy for return of serve so that you can get to the net first and take control of the ensuing rally.

When I hit a return service deep to my opponent’s backhand I sometimes use a topspin shot because the spin propels the ball more quickly to my opponent and forces him or her back further towards the baseline. In the next video from Toui’’s Pickleball Tips, you can see the fundamentals of a forehand topspin service return.

Return the Serve to the Center of the Court

Another strategy for returning a serve is to hit down the middle. Every tennis player knows this. How does this work in pickleball? It’s very simple. You return the serve deep down the middle. If the server is serving from the deuce court and you return the serve deep down the middle the server is going to have to hit it with his or her backhand, which we know is his weaker shot, or the server’s partner is going to have to move to the center of the court to return your shot. In either case you have them out of position and off balance. Your next shot, which should be from the net, can easily be a winner if you hit right at one of them or hit into the corner that was left vacant by either the server or partner moving towards the center to handle your return of serve. Hitting down the center is a traditional strategy for return of service pickleball.

Deb Harrison, who has a number of excellent pickleball videos on YouTube, is an avid proponent of returning service to the middle of the court. Although she says that you should mix up your returns of serve, 80% of them should be hit down the middle. Her mantra, though, when it comes to return of service is to keep the ball deep so you can keep the serving team deep. Here is a video on return of service worth watching.

Wrapping Up

As I have tried to show in this article, there are several strategies you can use for return of service in pickleball in order to gain the advantage and win the point. Which strategy is best? It depends. You have to size up your opponents to see which one has the weaker backhand or is more prone to get out of position; which one is fast or slow and which one makes the most unforced errors. If you’re playing against a left-hander you have to reverse some of the strategies and adapt them for a left-hander. There might be other factors that come into play also such as wind conditions. In the end, similar to my philosophy about mixing up your serves, you should talk to your partner and discuss how the two of you are going to mix up your returns of service.

In this next video Pickleball 101: How to Return a Serve, sponsored by Dick’s Sporting Goods, the narrator offers the following three tips for a better return of serve is (1) keep the ball deep, (2) hit to the player who is less likely to hurt you, and (3) make sure you give yourself plenty of time to come to the net.

Pickleball is a fun game. To be good at it requires skill – that’s for sure – and if you know how to implement some simple strategies in your game you can become a better player.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and learned from it. I would appreciate hearing back from you by way of the Comment box below. Stay healthy and enjoy the game of pickleball. I’m 70 years old and play nearly every day. It’s a great sport for the young at heart.