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Ten Trick Serves

In this video I demonstrate ten trick serves. Several of these are easy to learn. Some are silly, some are quite competitive.

1. Two flips of the paddle. This may be the most difficult serve to accomplish. Start by practicing these steps:

a. Flip the paddle with just one revolution and catch it by the handle. Work on keeping the paddle vertical when you flip it. Otherwise, the surface of the paddle will be affected by the air and wobble, making it difficult to catch. You’ll probably want to practice on a soft surface, so you don’t end up with something like this:

b. Once one spin becomes easy, learn to flip it for two revolutions.

c. With your non-dominant hand, throw a pickleball in the air at the exact same time you flip the paddle. At first, you probably won’t be able to catch the ball as you focus on flipping the paddle. To start, you can simply let the ball fall. The objective is to throw the ball at the exact same time as you throw the paddle.

d. Work on throwing the ball high enough that you can focus on catching the paddle before you catch the ball.

e. Hit the ball with the paddle.

f. Make a point of hitting the ball when the paddle is below your waist and below your wrist so it is a legal volley serve. In fact, I’m not sure the serve I’m showing in the video is actually legal.

2. Bounce the ball three (or more) times on the edge of the paddle before serving. The only hard part is bouncing the ball in a controlled manner. Once you master that, the rest is easy. Bouncing a ball on the edge of the paddle is good for eye-hand coordination in general, and will make you a better kitchen rally player. As in the previous serve, it is best to let the ball fall far enough that you can hit it below your waist and below your wrist to keep it legal. Notice that this may not be legal even if done ‘right.’ In competition, an opponent or referee could call it a distraction.

3. The next serve is totally legitimate. As you may know, with a bounce serve, you can use any kind of stroke you wish. In this case, I’m scrubbing the paddle up over the top of the ball at a 45 degree angle, to project forehand topspin. This is actually the same as an ordinary forehand topspin passing shot, but presented as a serve.

4. Notice the ridiculous bounce you can achieve with an extreme backspin serve such as demonstrated in the video. This is a little tricky to learn. The idea is to become very extreme. Notice my silly body position, and the degree to which I attempt to exaggerate the backspin. When totally successful, the ball bounces so weirdly that beginning and intermediate players can’t return it.

5. I don’t think there’s any point in a super-high lob serve, but they are fun. What’s even more fun is watching beginners get their timing wrong, often totally missing the ball as it bounces over their heads. There’s really no trick to practicing these. Just keep trying until you can bash them really high, yet they still land in the court.

6. Next we have a juggling serve. This is definitely the hardest one to master.

a. Learn three-ball juggling. You can find an easy way to learn right here: Three Ball Juggling.

b. Substitute the paddle for one of the balls. Notice that the paddle is thrown with a single spin from hand to hand. Work on keeping the paddle vertical so it doesn’t wobble in mid-air, making it hard to catch. If you haven’t already, you may want to practice this without the juggling at first. You may want to practice everything having to do with throwing a paddle over a soft surface. The single vertical spin is optional. You can throw it for two or more spins, you can throw it in a transverse plane, the sky is the limit.

c. Once you can juggle a paddle and two balls, throwing one ball high and serving it is not difficult. Again, to keep it legal, it is best to let the ball fall enough that it is below your wrist and below your waist.

Something else I did not demonstrate in this video is a variation where bouncing a ball off the edge of the paddle and juggling are combined, so for every toss of the paddle, a ball is bounced off the paddle’s edge before or during the next throw.

7. There’s no limit to what you can get away with in bounce serves. In the video, I’m serving with a forehand stroke while kneeling. It has no function other than goofiness.

78. Something totally legal that I didn’t remember to capture on the video is a double-bounce serve. The official USAPA pickleball rules specifically state that the ball can bounce as many times as you like. So, try dropping the ball, but letting it bounce twice before you hit it. This is surprisingly easy to accomplish.

8. Next you’ll see a volley serve in which I demonstrate rather extreme topspin. The paddle is scrubbing over the top of the ball with the face at a 45 degree angle. You can practice this serve until it is very fast. The ball clears the net by inches, and bounces deep toward the baseline in a way that’s difficult to achieve in any other kind of serve. Most beginning and many intermediate players cannot return this serve. Even top players can be put a little out of rhythm which will throw off their whole rally.

I used to believe there was no serve a top player couldn’t return easily. Therefore you’ll see a lot of the best players serving high and floppy. That seems to as well as anything more aggressive, as long as the ball bounces close to the baseline. That’s what I believed until I came across a 5.0 player who was serving with these low fast hard topspin serves. It may or may not work for you, but is a worthy experiment. Keep in mind the response to a low aggressive serve may be a very fast return, which your partner may not be able to handle in doubles, or which may even trouble you in singles.

9. The windmill is another serve that doesn’t have any place in serious pickleball, but makes people laugh. Interestingly, it results in a backspin with a bounce that may flummox many players. The only suggestion I have for this serve is to make it big. Use a huge grand gesture, not some half-way small circles of the paddle. Since it’s a clown move, do it like a clown!

10. I’m hesitant to include the backward under the legs serve because it is rather disrespectful. I was once accused of making fun of my opponents when using this serve. Well, I guess I was 🙂 As you can see in the video I didn’t get it right. It’s not hard to learn. It’s just that I haven’t practiced it.

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The Pickleballs Everyone Hates

I bought a half-dozen two-tone outdoor pickleballs. These are advertised as being good for seeing the results of imparting spin. I just thought they’d be fun. These are the softer kind of plastic, much like the ONIX brand balls and some others. However, they bounce at almost the exact same height and have handling characteristics almost identical to Franklin X40s and other popular balls.

I played a couple of games with these, and really enjoyed them. The two-color effect was useful in watching spins. I then donated the half-dozen to our club, where we have a bin typically filled with twenty or thirty balls. Players can pick the balls they want to use for each game.

On the first day, most of the players tried the two-tone balls for a few minutes of warm up, then switched back to traditional one-color balls.

Everyone, and I mean everyone did not want to play with these.

Of course I asked why. The responses fell into two groups:

1. The two color balls were driving people crazy. They don’t like seeing the changing colors as the ball spins. One woman said the balls make her literally dizzy. Nearby players hearing that agreed.

2. Others just liked the Franklin X40 balls and did not want to deal with anything new.

So there you have it!

I should point out that the balls stayed in our group for a month or so. During that time they did end up getting a reasonable amount of use. They proved to be durable. None were cracked or deformed.

If you want to buy some anyway, they are currently $16 for six balls on Amazon:

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Silly Serves

You’ll find both of these serves are easy to learn. They are semi-legal in that the ball is hit below the wrist and below the waist. However, some may dispute whether the strokes are truly underhand. The reason these would not work in tournament play is that they’d be called distractions.

The first serve is normal in most ways, except the paddle is swung around in two big, slow circles before hitting the ball. Optionally, you can put a spin on the ball as I am doing in the video. A little practice, and you’ll probably master this serve.

The second serve is more difficult. First, learn to toss the paddle in the air and let it spin one revolution before catching it. Then learn to do it with two spins. To protect your paddle, practice this over something soft like a carpet or lawn.

Work on holding the paddle vertically so that it doesn’t wobble in the air. If it wobbles, it will catch air, and the position of the handle after the spinning will become unpredictable.

Once two spins are so easy you don’t have to look at the catch, learn to throw up the ball simultaneously with the paddle. The throw must be high enough to allow the two spins to be completed before you hit the ball.

There is a tendency to hit this second serve above your waist. The trick is to learn to wait until the ball falls further.

You’ll find this second serve difficult on windy days, since the slightest puff will move the paddle, and you may miss the handle when you try to grip it.

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Review: Optic Pink Franklin Pickleballs

One of the courts I frequently play on is partially covered with shade trees. For many players, seeing the pickleballs in the mottled shade and sun is difficult. This affects some players more than others. Colorblindness may be the issue. It is surprisingly common. (Try the fun little colorblindness test and exercise, and find out whether you are colorblind.)

So, I brought some ‘optic pink’ pickleballs to the courts, and sure enough, some players were able to see them better. However, other players felt they could see the yellow balls we had been using better.

In any case, the pink balls are fun because they are so different.

After lots of hard play, none have cracked yet, a problem that used to frequently plague pickleballs until a few years ago. They do get scuffed. Man, do they get scuffed! As you can see in the picture above, one is brand new, the other has been used for less than ten games.

To my surprise, when you slice and otherwise try spin shots, it seems that the scuffed ones don’t perform any better than the brand new ones.

In all other ways than color, these are exactly like the regular Franklin outdoor pickleballs. They have the same weight, number and size of holes, bounciness, and so on.

The only source I have found for these pickleballs is Ebay.

Winter Update: We found that Franklin X40 pickleballs, no matter what color they are, and like most outdoor pickleballs fail miserably in cold weather. Here in the part of California where I play, the temperature in the mornings is often in the low forties (5 to 10 Celsius) in the early mornings. Pickleballs will crack! It’s not uncommon to crack three or four balls in an hour.

We have found that Selkirk Pro S1 pickleballs which are guaranteed not to crack for a year, have not cracked. A review of Selkirks is coming soon.

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Forehand Power Shot

When you are in a dink rally at the kitchen and the ball bounces high enough, you have an opportunity to use a forehand power shot with topspin.

The idea is that you sweep the paddle forward but also with an upward motion, while it is tilted forward. This scrubs against the ball and gives it topspin.

The topspin seems to lift the ball up over the net, and then it will drop quickly. Many top players expect this, and can return it handily, but with intermediate players, and in many cases even among top players, it will win the point. If sent long, as a passing shot, the top spin will keep it from passing the baseline. If sent to the players’ feet, it will drop so quickly that they can’t respond. It can even be used to hit an opposing player, although that’s certainly not a good tactic for sociable pickleball.

One of the nifty things about topspin is that if it hits the tape at the top of the net, it is more likely to roll over and fall into the opponent’s court than to bounce back to your side.

The one caveat when learning to use forehand topspin is that it is difficult to determine when a ball has bounced high enough. At first, you may have a lot of embarrassing blasts into the net.

In general, if the ball bounces higher than the top of the net, you can execute forehand topspin.

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Pickleball Slice

The slice is a little technique that’s easy to learn, and befuddles beginning, intermediate and even some advanced players. There is a risk that your game will suffer a bit while you learn this technique, but that is short-lived, and the advantages become clear almost immediately.

The classic and expected play in pickleball is to serve to the backcourt, return the serve with a long backcourt volley, and then the third shot is a dink from the back, to barely clear the net, and fall short, ideally within the non-volley zone.

The best place for a slice is a modification of that second shot – the return of serve. Slice the paddle under the ball so it spins backward. To make this work better, bend your knees and get low. Get close to the floor, so your paddle slides under the ball, giving, a longer time of contact, where the paddle imparts as much backspin as possible.

When you first see the slice in action, the result appears quite weird. The ball falls much closer to the non-volley line than the opponents expect. It seems to rapidly, illogically lose its forward momentum in mid-air. It might also curve quite noticeably to one side, typically toward your outside. So if you slice it with your right hand, it goes strongly and strangely to your opponents left.

What makes this slice so effective is that beginners and intermediate players almost always misjudge it, and their return fails into the net. To my surprise, when I started playing with this return-of-serve, almost everyone, even many advanced players, continually returned it into the net.

You would think that it is easy to notice a slice being hit, yet still, most players have to learn to respond to it properly. So, you can win many games until they learn. Even when they do learn, the defense is weaker than if they only had to return a flat shot or a topspin.

So how do you defend against the slice?

If you can hit the ball when it is higher than the top of the net, you can do anything you want, almost as if it had no spin. However, when you return a high slice, it will tend to go higher than expected, leaving you in a defensive position.

But if the slice was well-executed, in other words, low, then in most cases, you answer a slice with a slice. You will find that getting ‘under’ the ball to slice it, puts you in just the right position for its tendency to fall short. Returning a slice with a slice also keeps the ball low and close to the non-volley line.

The slice has another very nice effect: It is the ideal drop shot. Just like a flat return or a topspin, it can just barely clear the net. But unlike those other strokes, it drops shorter than expected. So, it is also a good response for the third shot. Where you’d normally do a flat drop shot, you can instead use a backspin drop shot. The only danger is that if you don’t get it right, the ball will be too high over the net, and will be immediately smashed by the opponent.
Advanced players have no problem with smashing a short backspin. Therefore, when playing with experts, for returning a serve, you’ll want to make sure your slice is a long shot to the backcourt, and you probably won’t want to use it after the return-of-serve at all.

Another situation in which the slice will not help you is in a neighborhood where everyone has already experienced the slice. It is inevitable that when a group of people play pickleball long enough, someone will start to experiment with the slice. Seeing this early success, everyone who plays pickleball in the same place will learn to slice also. More importantly, they will learn how to respond to the slice. For instance, in Southern Oregon, where I was the first to experiment with the slice, I had great fun confusing everyone. When I came to the Oregon coast, my slices had no effect at all. Everyone on this part of the coast has been quite familiar with the slice for years.

When you first start slicing, you’ll have variable results, of course. Some of your balls will go way too high. Some won’t slice, resulting in a much-too-powerful shot that goes out of bounds. So, you don’t want to use it in a championship if you are inexperienced. You might play with it in non-competitive situations, or when you are up many points in a game.

I have found out from personal experience that other players will react in various ways.

Some will start copying you. It won’t take them long to learn how it’s done.

Some will get quite upset. The first two or three times they surprisingly hit what should have been a good return into the net, they’ll just be a bit confused. But then they can start to get frustrated, or even angry. One player proclaimed arrogantly, “You shouldn’t practice that shot.”

When I asked why, he replied, “You probably couldn’t ever perfect it!” Interestingly, I had already perfected it to where it was working 90% of the time – better than standard flat and topspin shots. Actually, several have told me it is a low-probability shot. It is not. You may be told it is illegal. (None of the people where I play have accused me of any sort of illegality, but I can imagine it could happen.) I suppose the response would be something like, “Oh? In what way is it illegal?”

According to the official USAPA rules, there is nothing illegal about spins. The only thing you can’t do is modify your paddle to enhance spins. You can’t sand it, drill holes in it, coat it with rubber, or anything like that.

As a serve, the slice is difficult to perform legally. As you know in pickleball, you need to serve with an underhand stroke with the paddle below your waist and below your wrist. I have managed to serve a slice (legally) a few times, but haven’t really had the response I expected. I’m not sure whether it’s because the backspin just isn’t strong enough, or because there is some other dynamic in play when returning a serve that makes it easier to respond to the backspin.

I haven’t completed my experiments within the non-volley zone. So far, I have not found any use for a slice in the softer shots. The ball doesn’t seem to spin enough to have an effect, or I cannot control the ball sufficiently to impart a backspin while keeping it low and gentle. And, as you know, when the ball is high enough for a powerful hit, but not high enough for a smash, you’ll definitely want a topspin.

If you’re playing with beginning or intermediate players, they will struggle with your slice for a while, but in time they’ll learn to respond. However, you can stay one step ahead of them. As you continue to hit slices, learn to impart more and more spin. Those players who have returned your earlier slices will have to struggle all over again with ones that have a more severe spin.

One final point about the slice: You can do it with a backhand, and you can do it with your non-dominant hand. With a little patience, these variations are as easy to learn as the basics.

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Legal Spin Serves

Legal Pickleball Spin Serves

Note, the accompanying video was created before the new bounce-serve rule was created. That rule was provisional in 2021. In 2022 it became permanent. I hope to have a new version adding variations of the drop serve soon.

Now, in addition to serving a ball dropped from your hand, you can bounce a ball, and then hit it as a serve. As it turns out, these techniques work just as well with bounce serves. In fact, the bounce serves eliminate the need for making sure that you serve with the paddle below your waist and below your wrist, so using the following techniques with bounce serves works out very nicely.

There are few serving techniques that are legal and yet yield useful results. Therefore, you might notice that the most advanced players seldom try to win a point on a serve. Instead, the advanced player will focus on putting the ball as close to the baseline as possible, even if it is a high, gentle serve. This prevents the advanced opponent from approaching the kitchen for a fast diagonal return.

But, there is at least two serves that can win points, sometimes even with advanced players.

One serving technique that I’ve been playing with is a rather drastic spin. When enough spin and speed is applied, many players have trouble returning this serve well. The beginners can’t return it at all. Most don’t even manage to contact the ball with their paddle. The advanced players can return it, but they may have moved so far out of position that you can reply with a solid diagonal ground stroke or a diagonal kitchen dink that they’ll then miss.

OK, so what I’m talking about is generally an underhand serve. As you know, unless you use a bounce serve, you have to contact the ball below your waist or belly button, and below your wrist. In order for a bounce serve to be legal, you can’t toss the ball up, or throw it down. It must be a drop, and therefore, the best way to hit it is with a mostly underhand stroke. Some people will hit it like a forehand with a stroke parallel to the ground, but that won’t help for these spin serves.

The first variation involves swinging the paddle rapidly from the middle of your body to the outside as you drop the ball to the paddle or as it bounces up from a serve. This should also be hit low, and with a lot of speed. At the end of the serve, your arm and paddle will probably be high over your head. That’s just fine, as long as you hit the ball after it has dropped to a point below your waist in the case of a non-bounce serve. This works best from the right-hand side of the court if you are a right-hander. The ideal serve will skid off the ground toward the outside front corner of the court, just behind the kitchen line. Even though you are serving to a right-hander 89% of the time, and that’s a shot to your recipient’s forehand, they generally don’t cover that part of the court well. Furthermore, the spin will cause the ball to bounce off the recipient’s paddle erratically.

Of course left-handers will have even more trouble with long serves to the right corner of the court.

This is not an easy serve to master, but well worth the effort. Once mastered, it can become a very fast and low serve, throwing even advanced opponents off balance at the beginning of the rally.

Slightly more difficult to master is the reverse spin serve, as shown in the second part of the video. This one breaks to the recipient’s left. The general idea is to scrub the paddle against the ball in an outside to inside motion as you hit it.

You might also experiment with high spin serves. You’d think they are easier to return, but go ahead and try some high spin serves and see what happens!

Also see Abusing Opponents with Spin Serves.

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How To Execute Forehand Topspin

To execute a forehand topspin, scrub the paddle upward against the ball, while the face of the paddle is tilted slightly forward. In the video, the motion is exaggerated.

This is a maneuver that should executed when you feel you have a strong advantage in a kitchen rally. If you try this too soon, without enough advantage, it will most likely come back to you even faster, beyond a speed at which you can react.

You may have gently bounced the ball back and forth a number of times with your opponents. You patiently waited until they were out of position, or gave you the ball a little too high. That’s when you use your forehand topspin. One of the best places to put this is directly between the two opponents.

This has several advantages over a flat shot. First, it is fast, and goes low to the players’ feet. It will also clear the net when a flat shot won’t, because the ball is slightly lifted and spun as it is hit, giving it an arc over the net. Finally, if it hits the tape at the top of the net, it will have forward spin traction and is more likely to roll across to the opponents’ side, than to fall on your side. And, once it hits the tape, it will pop strangely, being nearly impossible to hit back with any accuracy.

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Junk Your Fancy Spins

pickleball10Some of the techniques discussed on this website will carry you only so far. Spin serves, slices, hard passing shots, overhand smashes will bring you to perhaps 4.0 status, but if you try to use those very same techniques at higher levels of play, you’ll lose every game.

Why? Because many people go through this stage, and the advanced players have learned to respond to all your flamboyant moves.

If you watch a typical 5.0-level game, you’ll see that the players mostly use conventional moves. They serve deep, but not necessarily fast and low. They return deep, again, not necessarily fast or low.

They drop the third shot into the kitchen, and most often into the middle, not angled to one side. Then they have a soft rally until a genuine opportunity comes along. The intermediate pickleballer tends to end soft kitchen rallies too soon by taking a shot that might be a winner, instead of waiting for one that will be a winner. You’ll often see the best pickleball players wait out a kitchen rally for a very long time, until that decisive moment comes along. And, it might not even require an offensive move. Your opponent may make a mistake, hitting the ball into the net, or may try an offensive move, that you can easily slam back even harder.